Am I the only newspaper reader who expects an opinion column to develop a coherent thread of argumentation, as distinct from a series of provocative comments stuck together precariously with specious howevers and therefores? The editors who approve these pieces evidently think that a reader who can pay attention from the introduction through to the conclusion must be a person with too much time time on his hands, and hence not worth taking seriously.
Yesterday was a day for bizarre essays in the Sydney Morning Herald, as much as in The Age. First there was Miranda Devine’s piece on World Youth Day. Miranda knows only two ways to write about event X. If event X was bad, Miranda can show it was caused by The Cultural Left. If it was good, she will show how The Cultural Left did everything to prevent it, but that common sense and traditional moral standards prevailed. Yesterday’s was in the second category. The Cultural Left, since the 1960s, has done everything in its power to derail traditional morality, and enshrine moral relativism, drugs, sexual indulgence, and family breakdown in its place. But World Youth Day shows that the newest generation is determined to escape from this cesspit, and return to ‘orthodox religious faith’.
Catholic or not, most people want love and goodness in their lives and the contrast between the radiant faces of the pilgrims and the strained masks of their most strident condom-waving detractors was striking.
So there you have it. If (Catholic or not) you have any disagreement with the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception, homosexuality, divorce, or the role of women, and — worse still — might be inclined to voice these heresies in public, that makes you a strident, condom-waving, moral relativist libertine.
But, as a case study of the garbled polemic genre, Devine’s piece pales beside Joe Queenan’s critique of ‘new classical music’. At first glance it’s just a formulaic condemnation of atonal classical composers — Berg, Schoenberg and Joe’s special unfavorite, Stockhausen. Pretentious frauds, their ghastly compositions kept alive by cynical musical directors and their shallow and snobbish audiences. And Queenan is the guy who’s prepared to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Well, it’s not an especially original contention, and not especially courageous, since about ninety-nine percent of the population subscribes to it already. But at least you know where he’s coming from, and where he’s heading. Next he’s going to stand up and defend the fans of popular classics, and the people who like Nigel Kennedy and Andrea Bocelli, against those elitist snobs who are always ridiculing them and deploring their vulgar tastes.
Wait a minute, no he isn’t. That’s what Miranda would do, but not Joe. In fact, his contempt for the pseuds who purport to admire the new classics seems to be matched by an equal contempt for fans of the standard classical repertoire. It’s not quite clear why — it has something to do with their not knowing as much as jazz fans, and being content to have a few items of trivia about composers’ personal lives, as a substitute for real understanding of the music. He knows this because he’s ‘been eavesdropping on their conversations for 40 years’. This doesn’t mean that he dislikes the canonical classics himself: at least, he likes Bach. In fact, we have his own testimony that he really is a very cultured fellow indeed. ‘I am’, he informs us,
no lover of Renaissance Muzak and own tonnes of records by Berg, Varese, Webern, Rihm, Schnittke, Ades, Wuorinen, Crumb, Carter, and Babbitt: I consider myself to be the kind of listener contemporary composers would need to reach if they had any hope of achieving a breakthrough.
So, in case you might have thought to question Queenan’s knowledge or taste, you might as well know that this avenue is unavailable to you. Unlike that of the fools he eavesdrops on at concerts, his appreciation of the canon stems from a profound understanding.
But since Joe is obviously no shallow, sentimental traditionalist, there must be some modern classical music that he approves of. It’s not all atonal stuff after all. There is a vast amount of Twentieth Century music that is neither derivative nor atonal. As Tom Service puts it,
There is another story in all this, one that Queenan doesn’t even mention. The music of the 20th century now dominates most orchestral concerts you will ever hear. Shostakovich, Britten, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – especially the early ballets – Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Copland, Bernstein, Bartok: these are the staples of any orchestra’s repertoire now in a way that simply wasn’t the case 50 years ago. The reason Kurtag or Lachenmann aren’t in the repertoire in the same way is that they haven’t composed much for conventional orchestras and, yes, their music requires more time and engagement from its performers than the economics of running an orchestra or large ensemble usually allows; John Adams and Thomas Adès, however, do write for orchestras, and their music is now part of the expanding horizons of Philharmonic orchestras from Los Angeles to Berlin.
So what kind of music does Queenan like? Unfortunately, he is willing to reveal only what he doesn’t like. He approves of abstract painting, but abstract music is no good. At least, not in the concert hall, although he’s inclined to agree with ‘the public’ that it’s OK in films. But then he gives the game away by naming the Jaws theme as the kind of abstract music that doesn’t work in concerts. In fact Jaws, along with half a dozen John Williams film scores, is standard prom concert fare; and it’s about as abstract as, say, Wagner. So if he thinks that’s abstract, where do the rest of the relatively accessible, non-abstract post-war composers fit in?
It turns out, and it shouldn’t be any great surprise by now, that he is contemptuous of all of them. Certainly no great composer has come along recently, so we are stuck with ‘anachronisms (Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Part), infantilists (Glass), eclectics (Corigliano) and atmospheric neo-Brucknerites (John Adams).’
So what is Queenan’s conclusion?
It is hardly surprising that so many composers simply throw in the towel and compose music that will be ignored in their own lifetimes, hoping it will find an audience with posterity.
This makes no sense, even on the 1500th reading, and doesn’t follow from any of his earlier assertions. But since he had no coherent argument in the first place, just a series of lazy shots pandering to a range of prejudices without declaring his own tastes (except for Bach — how safe is that?), he had to produce something resembling a conclusion, at least in the eye of the average inattentive reader.
Miranda, for all her faults, at least stands for something more than her own superiority.