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The Growing Debate Over Minimalism : Four composers' views on minimal music--where it's been, where it's going and what's the brouhaha?

June 18, 1989|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Ever since minimalism appeared on the music scene 25 years ago, academic composers have decried the trashing of their complex music language and the acceptance, in its place, of a highly simplified--some say simplistic--one. Their charge: a sellout to commercialism.

The minimalists say the scholars adhere to an "old-boy network" whose in-bred, practically impenetrable scores alienate everyone except each other.

With growing alarm and resentment, the old guard watched while these upstarts basked in the spotlight and took the prizes: audiences, publicity, career opportunities. They festered. They stewed. For every article on standard-bearer George Perle, for instance, there are 500 profiles of the ever-popular Philip Glass. For every $10,000 commission given Charles Wuorinen, a $1-million one turns up for Steve Reich.

A whole generation has grown up listening to mimimalism's repetitive, bare-bones thumping--in the movies ("The Thin Blue Line"), in dance and opera ("In the Upper Room" and "Nixon in China"), even in the sanctified museum of the concert hall ("Harmonium").

Critics and commentators have debated the issues but composers tend to be closed-mouthed about their peers. Not so Perle and Wuorinen, Pulitzer Prize winners, recipients of MacArthur Fellowships and articulate debunkers of minimalism.

In fairness, minimalist John Adams and neo-romantic David del Tredici were given opportunities to defend their striking successes. That said, here they are in full cry.

Charles Wuorinen: Thanks to Short-Sighted Critics, the 'Quick Fix' Winds Up as Most Popular

Charles Wuorinen treads the same path of rigorously difficult composition as an Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez and talks about his "passion" for music as High Art. At 51, he is a fierce polemicist, waging verbal wars against what he sees as the rising tide of Philistinism.

Unhappy with the status quo, he does not equivocate in laying blame; his finger points first to music journalists.

"It's the fault of the critical press," he says, "that people lose sight of the difference between the real nature of a thing and how it is promoted." Citing an example, Wuorinen quotes Harold Schonberg, former music critic of the New York Times, who remarked 10 years ago: "I am going to protect the public from new music."

"That statement outraged me," Wuorinen says, explaining how such a prejudice fuels public intolerance "to anything but the familiar. Critics are not supposed to be indistinguishable from audiences. They're supposed to know more, to stretch the limits of listeners' experience. Instead they try to gauge only the immediate appeal of a piece," he charges.

What the New York composer is complaining about is the same thing political pundits decried in the last presidential campaign: that after televised debates between the candidates, TV anchors waited to see the polls before declaring winners or losers, thereby relinquishing their own critical evaluation. Yet it would seem that arts critics bow less to popular opinion than television's news entertainers.

"Pandering to the least worthy effort just because of its easy appeal serves neither the public nor the cause of music," Wuorinen continues.

"Familiarity breeds love, but if audiences never get a chance to become familiar with something new, it cannot have an impact. Look at Brahms and Tchaikovsky, for instance. It's only because some critics defended their music that it is now a concert hall staple."

So have orchestra managements been less than valiant, according to the academic proselytizer. He mentions a San Francisco Symphony study, designed to explain subscriber dropouts. One woman who let her subscription expire protested being duped, he recalls:

"She saw a brochure flagging Isaac Stern and Tchaikovsky and she came expecting him to play that composer. As it turned out he performed a new concerto, its name buried in fine print, and the orchestra played a Tchaikovsky symphony. Why set up that kind of disappointment? Why treat patrons as though they were merely customers you're trying to sell toothpaste to? Why not be forthright and honorable?"

With this in mind, Wuorinen doffs his hat to Ernest Fleischmann and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for championing Boulez, the stellar composer/conductor, himself a stern tribune of all that's cerebral in music:

"Is he charismatic? No. Is his music anything but complex? No. There is nothing half-hearted or apologetic in the way the Philharmonic presents him. And the public responds to the endorsement, the year-in, year-out commitment to what Boulez offers."

Apart from such a rarely seen attitude, Wuorinen says, "people have stopped trying to be civilized. At one time there was a striving for prestige. Compositions had stature because they invoked higher values.

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