The hoo-ha this week over the Pulitzer Prize for Music — should it remain a composition award? should it embrace other genres? does anyone care? — dramatizes the major issue hanging over the entire "classical" world: Where do we belong in the culture at large? Will we build bridges to the outside, or will we remain in proud isolation? I’ve been reading a new book by Michael Broyles, Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music (Yale UP), which, in its final chapter, takes on the big question with a hard-hitting forthrightness that I haven’t seen elsewhere in print. One significant passage addresses the question of style. Debates over style in American composition have long been premised on the idea that one group of composers wished to reach the public while another group stood aloof. Broyles says this debate long ago became absurd, because each side was blaming the other for problems that were endemic:
They [the style wars] were fought on specious premises from the first, for in the end style made little difference. Whether a piece was serial, freely atonal, or tonal, was moot. No matter how complex a composer’s music was, or conversely how hard he tried to make it accessible, he was fighting a losing battle. The neo-romantics garnered a much larger audience than the serialists ever did, and so-called postmodernists punched up their music with an eclectic blend of past and present, classical and popular, but in the past fifty years no composer of essentially abstract art music has had a major impact on American culture. The reasons: Americans were just not listening. The very premise on which such a composer worked, the creation of a purely aural artwork, a “unified, closed totality,” has fundamentally eroded.
Cue the trombones of doom. It’s all over, right? Not so, Broyles says. Composer-performers such as Harry Partch, John Cage, and Meredith Monk show the way to a musical future in which the composer acquires an unforeseen cultural power. At the end of the book, he says this:
The work of Monk, Partch, Cage, and other artists points to a revolution in music as profound as any that has happened in the past four hundred years, one that goes beyond style to the very purpose and nature of music. No longer is music seen as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity to be considered purely in terms of its own internal relations. No longer is it a spur to visual conjuring of a magical world whose populating is left to the listener’s imagination. Music is now perceived as part of a broader art, one that fuses the aural and the visual and sometimes the verbal so completely that we can no longer speak of each in isolation. Music: the term itself needs to be revisited. The internal actions and workings of the aural remain relevant, but to speak of art, high and low, to consider the significance and meaning of a piece — that is, to ask artistic and aesthetic questions — a new perspective is needed, one that goes beyond the aural, and I suspect that with it must come a new vocabulary.
Many people will reject Broyles' conclusions. To my ears, he is speaking the unvarnished truth. Composers, musicians, administrators, and critics have the choice either of fighting reality or of living in it.