Scott Johnson Composer

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This 2007 essay was part of a chain of responses (posted on the American Music Center’s New Music Box) that were prompted by a controversial New York Times piece by critic Bernard Holland.  There are always far more of these skirmishes available than there is time to participate in them, if you want to get any music written (although I do try to put my two cents in every few years at the Times: see “Letters to the Editor”).  But in this case, I thought that the furor which Holland’s advocacy of audience power provoked within contemporary music circles revealed much about the beliefs and mores of avant-gard artists.  This is, after all, my own tribe, and like the rest of the species we have our own taboos, mythologies, and loyalty oaths –- and our beliefs have consequences for our future.  I think that this particular dust-up goes to the core of why classical music’s influence has shrunk drastically in the last century, so it seemed like a good opportunity for one of my periodic forays into auto-anthropology.


Every human group maintains its self-congratulatory tales.  A community benefits from the sense of shared purpose transmitted by their mythology, and of course each member is ready for his or her close-up as an exemplary incarnation of shared values.  But when these communal narratives begin to depart too extravagantly from reality, whole traditions can veer towards a loss of cultural influence, or even extinction.  In the central mythology of High Modernism, a brave but besieged band of gifted esthetes defend the bastion of high culture against an alliance of reactionaries and know-nothings.  This was supposed to lead to eventual reward, as the natural course of history converted the children of the philistine hordes to the tastes of the prescient few.

The popularity of this story has been sorely tested by the continued failure of its predictions.  Many bets have been placed on the “Sacre Effect,” in which delighted throngs soon replace the jeering conservatives of the premiere audience.  But the canonical “Rite of Spring” itself still holds the most notable jackpot.  This disappointing outcome left High Modernism looking for a culprit, and the composite abstraction we call “the audience” was always available -- despite the fact that most of the audiences that most composers actually encounter are roughly as intelligent as we are; perhaps incompletely informed about our trends, but generally open and curious. 

The modernist presumption that audiences exert a negative and coercive effect on our artistic options is often an inversion of the truth.  Younger composers in particular spend less time battling the Visigoths in the audience than the internalized Praetorian Guards of inherited compositional ideologies.  Today’s audiences, often comprised of people quite similar to those we grew up with, are a self-selecting bunch who came on their own, and do not need to be shamed into submission.  They are generally xenophiles, not xenophobes, and most are honestly hungry for unfamiliar stimuli. 

But our tribal stories still say otherwise.  In his strenuous objection to Bernard Holland's New York Times essay “The Audience as the Arbiter,” William Kraft delivers an anthropologically accurate snapshot of the fears and loyalties that most composers grew up with.  Even when its relationship to cultural reality is at best wishful, much is revealed about ourselves, and our communal assumptions.

By the end of Mr. Kraft’s first paragraph, where Mr. Holland’s title has morphed into “the audience must always be the ultimate arbiter,” we can see what’s coming.  The change subtly casts the audience as a vaguely authoritarian straw man, ready to be set up and knocked down.  Soon we encounter Stalinism (in the second paragraph), and the dangers of inciting populist pleasures have morphed into a straw Frankenstein.  In Kraft’s account, Holland risks a re-animated Soviet Union, where a committee made up of “the people’s representatives” could “dictate what a composer should write,” and those who refuse could be in danger of “disappearance.”  Oh my.  Time to tuck our memoirs into the mattress?  No, because this alarmist version of audience arbitration is not really on the table, and I suspect that Mr. Holland has not “forgotten that it was already tried in the Soviet Union.”  More likely, such a labored comparison between a totalitarian Russia and our complex multi-lateral culture never even occurred to him. 

Having already managed to change the subject to Stalinism, it’s a considerably lesser stretch for Mr. Kraft to change the subject to popular music, where another straw man lurks.  In this case, it’s our old friend “the masses,” to whom we should not cater.  As is usual in these stern discussions, the following idea does not appear: as artists who have grown up in the same society as the masses on the other side of the footlights, we may each have our own little personal mass cupped shyly within us -- and might thus legitimately claim to be catering to ourselves, even when indulging our less intellectually upscale or heroically modernizing instincts.

"In the commercial arena, of course, it is easy to determine the taste of the public…"

Although this is a preposterously inaccurate statement (if it were true, every band and songwriter would be rich!), the nearly inevitable evocation of this indistinctly imagined bogeyman from across the tracks still has significance. 

Music has many uses, and various genres occupy their niches within the culture like species in an ecosystem.  Even an enemy’s national anthem can move us, because that’s what national anthems are good at.  Dance beats and crooning bedroom songs are two distinct genres, designed to perform different functions at different points in the evening.  From serene hymns to bugle calls, most music is targeted, and concert music’s goal of encompassing and evoking these disparate experiences is a fascinating and valuable exception, not the rule.  But sadly, we have a reflexive habit of picking on simpler or more tightly focused uses of music as a means of advertising the nobility of our intentions, and elevating our status.  This isn’t Mr. Kraft’s fault.  It’s a time-honored tradition in our tradition.

Why do we continue to carp about popular music, given that their audiences generally don’t come to our concerts, and certainly don’t bombard us with demands that we change our music?  I think there are two reasons.  First, there is simple competitive envy.  Those of us who enjoy and pay attention to popular genres know that with every generation, they grow their own avant-gardes, for the same reasons that the classical tradition does.  From Joni Mitchell to Radiohead, these offshoots have increasingly captured the attention of adventurous non-practitioner audiences -- attention that classical avant-gardes traditionally depended upon, but began to lose as High Modernism swerved towards a strictly internal dialogue.  The existence of a “penumbra” audience of newcomers and non-specialists surrounding our core is a survival issue.

But a second reason is a bit more subtle: by pointing a finger at popular genres, where it’s easy to find truly inept or cynical attempts at audience pandering, we are able to forget that an audience of our peers is still an audience, and we do still want them to clap.  Everyone acknowledges that the complex musical styles popular in academia have failed to spread through the culture the way their Classical ancestors did, but I suspect that the flinty and uncompromising individuality of modernist practitioners isn’t the primary reason.  On the contrary, perhaps the failure can be traced to an over-eagerness to impress an audience of their peers, in a social environment where abstaining from simple pleasures is a conventional badge of seriousness.  We don’t dwell on this.  Popular music’s pandering certainly makes a large slow target, but there’s always something a little distasteful about displaying an inordinate interest in other people’s sins.

Kraft to Holland: “You want to cater to the masses. We have that in pop concerts everywhere, but does that advance the cause of art? Of course, that is not their concern, but should it not be yours?”

Mr. Kraft gets two things very wrong here.  We just mentioned the first: many “alternative” popular musicians most certainly see themselves as laboring in the cause of art.  Whether Mr. Kraft judges them successful or not has nothing at all to do with their concerns, and a low opinion of their genres is no reason to impugn their motives.  And secondly: right or wrong, polite or not, Mr. Holland clearly and explicitly intended to advance the cause of art when he suggested that composers are strengthened by testing themselves in the Darwinian marketplace of non-academic concert halls, rather than depending upon what he calls “the cushions of independent means and professorial tenure.”

Mr. Holland says: “Giving composers the luxury of being important and disliked debilitates music.” Agree or disagree, but at least recognize his intent: a bit of tough love for a troubled tradition.  Beethoven’s death created a traffic jam; there will be nothing of the sort for even the best of us.  This is not because we are worse composers than those of previous centuries.  It’s because our subculture gradually came to accept higher and higher levels of contempt for non-specialists as a badge of belonging, skill, and sincerity.  We are left as the isolated inheritors of a profoundly shrunken cultural tradition.

“What makes the music of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky, etc., so great? Certainly not writing for the people.”

And certainly not the careful exclusion of every recognizable reference to the living musical vernaculars of their time (or at least those that might be immediately identifiable by “the people”).  Mr. Kraft’s honor roll spans Western art music’s period of widest acceptance, the very measure of how far we have slid in cultural importance.  One shared characteristic is immediately apparent in all of these composers, and conspicuously absent in High Modernism.  All delivered transformed but undisguised versions of material from their surrounding culture, woven inextricably into the texture of their music -- because that’s what comes naturally, unless ideology intervenes.  They did not discriminate against inspiration on the basis of its origin.

Will there be bad music written as populism again becomes respectable?  Well, of course, when isn’t there bad music written?  As has been proven again and again, a high-minded taboo against evoking annoying pop music is no protection against annoying concert music.  We’re just going to have to buck up and take our medicine from time to time, and keep our eyes on the benefits of a concert music tradition that leaves a record of the actual civilization it comes from.

In Mr. Kraft’s defense, I must admit to a little jaw clenching of my own when Mr. Holland began to compare composers to waiters and servants.  But by the end, after he’s suggested that composers wear a uniform and tend bar at intermission, it’s clear that he’s been having a little fun with us. 

Perhaps Mr. Kraft’s reaction is best understood as a cri de coeur against the gradual foundering of a cause that was embarked upon with sincere idealism and high hopes, nearly a century ago.  High Modernism’s paradigm of artist as researcher, destined for eventual triumph, was based on a primal insight that’s perfectly sound: successful cultural mutations really can appear strange at first glance, and stubbornly gifted individuals really are the source of these mutations.  But even a core insight can be transformed into a self-defeating ideology.  Just ask Marx.

It is certainly heartbreaking that gifted composers receive less recognition simply because, like the ancient Easter Islanders, they happened to belong to a tribe hell-bent on dismantling its own environment.  But that isn’t the audience’s fault.  It’s the fault of an ideology that became embarrassed by, and censorious of, the simple pleasures that rub elbows with more complex pleasures in most musical traditions.  Perhaps modernism’s battle with the audience was not a tale of stalwart artists pursuing the unbroken course of Western tradition and being abandoned.  Perhaps it was about an attempted unilateral rewrite of a social contract; one that had served Mr. Kraft’s honor roll of great composers quite well.

Our audiences are not yahoos, and they’re sincerely interested in what we’re up to -- provided that what we’re up to isn’t a determined scrubbing away of all points of contact between ourselves and our living culture.  Pretending otherwise is a self-aggrandizing strategy masked as a moral mission.  Perhaps Mr. Holland could have been more politic by avoiding the word “arbiter”, with its connotations of force, but just get over it.  It’s high time that we calm our fears and remember that music is about pleasure.  That includes both intellectual and emotional pleasures, and no one is a better judge of pleasure than the person experiencing it.  Our audience is full of colleagues and other smart people, and the bad guys probably didn’t come this evening, because they’re off having fun at the bad guy show.

What is our best course in dealing with these Arbiters Of Doom that we seem to be so apprehensive about, warming those seats out there in the Hall Of Battle And Status?  My suggestion is that we’ve met this enemy many times, and to an incomplete but surprising degree, they are us -- or else they wouldn’t have stopped by to listen.  Lower shields, Captain Kraft, and divert power to the Universal Translator.  I think they want to negotiate.  Scotty out.

Scott Johnson, December 2007

“The Arbiters Of Doom” was posted along with another article, whose analysis of (and solutions to) the isolation of contemporary classical music were focused on public relations campaigns, better education, getting more patronage, opposing commerciality, and discouraging the press from describing classical music as elitist. In other words, on the behavior of other people: their failure to contribute their time, attention, and money to us. Over the next several days a long line of postings began, and almost without exception, readers addressed these familiar issues. None addressed the main point of my article: a self-critical look at our own communal beliefs and behavior, and the outcomes that flow from them. Our diminished presence in the broader culture is inextricably entwined with the internal rules of our subculture, which in the recent past has tended to provide individual rewards for attitudes that diminish our external stature. This is structural -- not just a public relations problem.Here is my response, midway through the online debate.


I’ve enjoyed reading some of these thoughtful and unexpected observations today, despite a few sad chuckles over the utterly predictable, indeed, nearly automated community loyalty oaths (check for appearances of the word “superiority”).  But until the happy appearance of William Osborne’s post “value follows function”, it was most discouraging to see continued comparison of “pop” and “classical” with barely a glimmer of understanding that the two exist in an ecological relationship – or at least they did while the classical tradition was busy building the platform upon which today’s crowbar-wielding purists are so precariously perched. 

The insight that different musics evolve to serve different cultural functions should be a starting point for any rational and realistic discussion about the nature of classical music.  Of course popular songs rarely solve the 5-minute problem, and of course dance music is primarily intended as the soundtrack for human mating rituals -- and of course we are all reading this because we like more discursive forms of music which are free to play with any or all of the above.  It’s a bit bizarre to see so much ritual invocation of communal solidarity and superiority on such a basic point –- rather like a group of coyotes who never tire of pointing out that squirrels make lousy coyotes.

It’s just as obvious that any extended listening to classical music from any period except the late 20th century will be shot full of musical material gleaned from that period’s versions of vernacular forms.  As I said in my article, “most music is targeted, and concert music’s goal of encompassing and evoking these disparate experiences is a fascinating and valuable exception, not the rule.”  It’s a wonderful goal, and pursuing it does not require that we monopolize the landscape.  I do wish we could do as well as our classical ancestors, who were a successful minority in their cultures, but that won’t happen until we rid ourselves of taboos against the vernacular. 

Every cell in our bodies is a eukaryotic hybrid, its energy supplied by mitochondria: the engulfed descendants of small critters which once found a place within a larger critter, just as today’s lichens are algae living permanently within fungi.  Similarly, the complexity of the concert music tradition grew directly from the gradual assimilation of elements from the often unsophisticated musical life of the various cultures it passed through.  This allowed composers to situate themselves in their own time and place, and allowed audiences to see themselves refracted and reflected in the concert hall.

Imagine if Bach had grown up knowing that he would accumulate professional and social status by sneering and making fun of the stupid gavottes and gigues and courantes that all the drunk people were dancing to on Saturday night.  We might have missed out on a few things.

Scott Johnson
Posted On New Music Box, Dec. 29, 2007

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