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Conference on Contemporary Music

A Conference on Contemporary Music was held at the historic 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City last January. We wonder whether it may not have backfired. The Y has a tradition of serving music in general and contemporary music in particular. In its publicity material for the conference, the Y inserted a line about "its continuing concern for the arts and their history." Assuming that the organizers were staging the affair with the best of intentions, they must have been surprised to find themselves the first target of criticism by the participants, being repeatedly accused of self-serving tactics, hypocrisy, and foolishness in the very belief that such a meeting could be of benefit or significance.

The Y may have been the first, but it wasn't the last, object of attack. The two-day gathering turned out to be a free-swinging melee of musically committed persons who read ponderous papers on the state of the art and then magisterially ducked while their colleagues took verbal potshots at them. Composers who participated included George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, Morton Subotnick, Hugo Weisgall, Joan Tower, and Steve Reich. There were performers, critics, orchestra managers, administrators, executives from corporate foundations and government arts councils. Reading accounts of the proceedings by John Rockwell in The New York Times and Alan Rich in New York Magazine, one could not help detecting the pessimism, cynicism, and seeming hopelessness of that segment of the musical community which attended, equally reflected by that (larger) segment of the community which failed to attend for a wide variety of reasons.

It was as if a roomful of adults has psyched themselves into a passionate involvement with model railroads and couldn't reconcile themselves to why it was taking so long for their Lionel engines to get cross-country. The scale seemed all screwed up, one moment being "0" gauge fixed to a plywood board, and the next being true-to-life, 2998 miles from New York to San Francisco. Isaac Stern kept trying to get people back on the right track. He talked about music "in the ears of the kids," a thread in "the educational fabric." He said that the performer had always had an "intuitive affection" for the composer. His cherubic face darkened as he said pointedly, "Just because you are a composer does not mean that you have the right to be performed. You have to earn it." It was as if he had never spoken. A few "oh well's," perhaps, but mainly silence.

Is it possible that we must look again at our point of departure? That our professional locomotives are starting up from a false premise — the inevitability and correctness of our cultural perceptions? What composers have said about music throughout the ages has always been fascinating. Who would not wish to know what Beethoven thought about any aspect of his art? Or Bach? Or Bartok? But, in the final analysis, the pronouncements of even these giants are, at best, an extramusical illumination of them as individuals, of their tastes, values, and attitudes. Certainly no composer's thoughts or sayings about music have ever changed the course of music's role in the culture which spawned it.

And there's the rub with conferences on contemporary music. Sure it's pleasant for the parochial practitioner to be given a platform every now and then to sound off and present his viewpoints. But don't mistake that for a cultural assessment. Culture is a lay concept which involves great numbers of people who choose — for better or worse — to do something. Do we want them to choose to make music, and maybe even the kind of music we happen to consider "good"? The only way to do that is to develop in very many of them an "intuitive affection" for composers, and the only place to begin is "in the ears of the kids."

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