Scott Johnson Composer
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Every few years, a perfect little storm forms when my occasional urge to shout at a nice quiet Sunday newspaper merges with the urge to procrastinate on whatever work I should be doing at the moment.  My local paper has acted as an enabler by printing the results (I’ve noted their edits, where I can remember them).

I suppose that these letters provide some sort of barometer of what gets under my skin, or at least captures my attention.  Two defend against attempts to claim artistic and even moral high ground for late 20th century modernist styles.  Another makes the point that the preservation of the classical tradition is not enough, just as an insular, specialists-only new music scene is not enough: renewal must reach beyond the ivory ghetto and engage with the living culture.

But one isn’t in response to a music article at all.  Rather, it’s a defense of philosopher Daniel Dennett against the sort of resistance to science and Darwinian thought that continues to flourish in the US, alone among the other highly educated and technologically advanced countries in the world.  Maybe someday we’ll outgrow the misconception that humanity’s artistic, esthetic and transcendental experiences require an invisible parallel world of gods and spirits -- and that the glories of nature, made all the more precious by our temporary presence, are not impressive enough on their own.

New York Times
Sunday Arts And Leisure
To the Editor:

The discussion between Charles Wourinen, John Harbison, and James Levine (March 27) reveals a common and fundamental misconception, one that continues to damage the present and future prospects of art music.  Ironically, those who sincerely wish to be conservators of a great tradition seem to be quite nervous about the return of a strategy once central to that tradition: the freedom to infuse art music with recognizable references to the unpedigreed entertainment of a composer’s particular time and place.

Mr. Wourinen is correct in saying that there are differences between art and entertainment.  But he is completely off the mark in suggesting that they are mutually exclusive categories, separable by any “simple distinction” of the sort he makes: they are merely two poles of a continuum, with a long history of mutual borrowing.  Art and entertainment aren’t “essences”, they are clusters of many characteristics, and most examples of one will contain some elements of the other.  Although these categories provide a useful shorthand, they are basically inadequate for detailed thought.  The many generations of composers who created the Western tradition were comfortable with ambiguity between these poles, but contemporary art music has badly damaged itself by looking for protective partitions, rather than just omnivorously roaring through the culture as its ancestors did.

It’s perhaps natural that serious artists who believe in this on/off switch between art and entertainment might attempt to cleanse their work of references to the general culture, where entertainment rules.  But this attitude, however idealistic, is based on a poor analysis, and an exaggerated fear of dumbed-down homogenization.  Mozart was not intent on tearing down the edifice of art music when he engaged in entertainment, and neither is contemporary post-modernism.  It simply renews the strategies of the majority of the great composers, who saw fit to accept influences from the non-specialist world that surrounded and supported their unique musical insights.

Scott Johnson
April, 2005

note: the printed edit concluded this letter with Mozart, removing the reference to post-modernism, and the final sentence.

 

New York Times
Sunday Book Review
To the Editor:

In his review of Daniel C. Dennett’s “Breaking The Spell”, Leon Wieseltier joins the ranks of religious apologists whose most stinging criticism of scientific rationalism seems to be that it resembles religion.  For Wieseltier, evolutionary psychology consists of “orthodoxies”, and scientists believe in “contemporary superstitions”.  Perhaps we should leave Mr. Wieseltier’s implied feelings about the intellectual adequacy of supernatural beliefs as a private matter between himself and his spiritual advisor.  But we can still take note of one difference between natural and supernatural explanations: an enormous asymmetry of likelihood.   If evolutionary psychology “always discovers the same thing,” perhaps there is a real thing out there.  Every year produces new support for scientific explanations of the origins of intellect and emotion.  No year, ever, has produced evidence for any of the stories about the creation of humanity put forth by the various religions.  Which type of “extravagant speculation” seems less extravagant?

Mr. Wieseltier couldn’t resist the reflexive accusation that building a world view on a scientific base is “reductive”, and as is often the case, he trotted out the existence of art to capture our sympathies.  As a composer, I am weary of being commandeered as evidence of supernatural forces.  Unlike Mr. Wieseltier, I have no problem at all to “envisage the biological utilities” of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”; it merely requires a chain with more than one link.  Art, particularly religious and nationalistic art, has powerful social effects.  Human beings have achieved their stunning success by becoming master co-operators, and emotions that drive us toward shared experience are prominent among the inspirations and outcomes of everything from grand public art to intimate love songs.  Our emotion-filled social lives are the direct result of biologically endowed capacities for communication, from language to the delicate network of expressive muscles in our faces, and even our private imaginations bear the imprint.  Awareness that I’m participating in this chain of capabilities in no way deprives music of its wonder; it enhances it.

Scott Johnson
February 2006

note: only the second paragraph was printed.

 

New York Times
Sunday Arts And Leisure
To the Editor,                                                              

Buried within Matthias Kriesberg’s defense of musical High Modernism are two assumptions which remain unexamined, probably because they hold a nearly totemic status in the artistic traditions of the last century.  First, Kriesberg assumes that the broader cultural environment is the opponent of a composer’s private voice.  But did he spontaneously hum dodecaphonic permutations on the way to Boy Scout meetings, or is his private voice somewhat dependent on public forces and exterior training?  Is that voice really more authentic if those environmental influences originated in a bygone Vienna instead of a contemporary America?  Rather than consider the possibility that some composers include popular materials to satisfy their internal ear, Kriesberg hunts for whiffs of opportunism and pandering.  It is a shame to see the once visionary modernist position looking like an attempt to corner the market on integrity. 

Heroic mythologies aside, High Modernism never ignored the effects of audience: it merely addressed a smaller one, counting on a future payoff as its tastes spread through the culture.  Nor did it ignore the pocketbook, and Kriesberg perpetuates another time-honored blind spot by applying his economic analysis only to his opponents.  Does he honestly think that post-war American universities and conservatories, where the music he defends found a home and a job market, have exerted no market effects on the music taught and composed under their financial umbrella?  There are real jobs at stake, granted by an audience of peers in an environment dedicated to erudition and specialization, which fuels a natural desire to impress that particular audience.  In this intellectual ecosystem, success is furthered if music effectively advertises its resemblances to the sciences and analytic disciplines for which academia so rightly exists.

When classical music was a vigorous and healthy tradition, it conversed with its surroundings and provided a wide range of musical uses, from lofty symphonies to middle class parlor piano.  Kriesberg correctly notes that “nowadays, a composer practically has to be world-famous just to pay the rent”, but it apparently has not occurred to him that this situation is an unwanted outcome of the attitude he espouses.

Scott Johnson
July, 1998

 

New York Times
Sunday Arts And Leisure
To the Editor,

James Oestreich correctly observes that classical music “thrived for centuries as a minority interest”, but that limited though conspicuous success cannot be explained or reproduced by concentrating on the relative celebrity of performers.  During most of this long history large concert halls were not filled night after night with the products of previous centuries, and there was no prevailing sense that the preservation appropriate to museums and academies should constitute the bulk of a culture’s artistic life.  On the contrary, there was a constant infusion of new works.  The 20th century’s apparent preference for the art music of a bygone culture is a fascinating historical and sociological event, but it bears no resemblance to the state of affairs which prevailed when the core classical repertoire was being written.

Downsizing and abandoning “the mandate to reach the masses with great music” will indeed help with historical preservation, but it will not recreate the circumstances which gave rise to that great music, or reinstate the relationship that it had to its own culture.  Since classical music always contained elements which had been abstracted from popular sources, the “masses” had already spoken in the composer’s life, and could hear themselves transmuted in the work.  One key to the success of pre-modern music is that less special effort was made to mask this natural process.

At the end of a schismatic century we have much to learn from that cultural contract, but the hard truth is that time moves in one direction only.  A real parallel to the vanished musical ecology of pre-modern Europe will only occur when we begin to behave in a parallel fashion and incorporate our own musical vernacular into our art music, just as they once did.  The growing number of young composers who have turned their attention to this problem offers us our best chance for a solid and lasting revival of the classical tradition.

Scott Johnson
May, 1997

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