There's a mini-symposium in the New York Times among conductor James Levine and composers Charles Wuorinen and John Harbison, all of whom figure in a Boston Symphony concert on Monday at Carnegie Hall. The discussion is moderated by Daniel J. Wakin, the Times' classical-music reporter, who's been doing a fantastic job on his beat. Here Wakin asks some sharp questions, with interesting results:
WAKIN: ...you wrote [in 1979] that the tonal system could be found only in backward-looking serious composers, is no longer used by serious mainstream composers, has been replaced and succeeded by the 12-tone system.
WUORINEN: Well, that's a categorical statement which cannot be — of course, it had more to it then, although to some extent it is obsolete now. But it depends on what you mean by the tonal system.
LEVINE: That is spoken by a man who is tired of how difficult it is to make anything understood, in any of these distinctions.
So that's all cleared up. I like what John Harbison has to say about the future of contemporary music: "I'm very optimistic. Somewhere along the way I became the opposite of worried. And I think it's because I began to understand the carrying power of the intensity, as against the rule of numbers. And intensity wins every time." Yes! Intensity is what composers have to offer. They have the opportunity to work on big canvases, in forms and languages entirely of their choosing, and whether they write pure diatonic tonality, pure atonality, twelve-tone, microtonal, spectral, computer-electronic, neo-medieval, or, perhaps, all of the above, they will find their audience if they write with intensity of feeling and clarity of purpose. Those who teach should ask not whether their students are writing in the "correct style" but whether they are achieving what they're aiming at. I think composition teachers have learned from the mistakes of previous generations, and now understand this. I think.