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Positive Music in Our Concert Halls

Since I returned to music composition in 1986 and started following classical music reviews, I have noted a definite bias on the reviewer's part towards atonal or experimental music and away from tonally based contemporary new works. In my own case, I can point to several reviews of my own compositions which have been issued for various recordings. I compose in a melodic, somewhat romantic idiom using traditional forms but with a decidedly contemporary slant which would easily identify me as a contemporary composer. Audiences have consistently loved my works. Some of the reviews of my recorded works have not just been negative, but in one particular case, actually vicious, personal, and out to eliminate my career. There are certain buzz words that these reviewers use: schlock, derivative, movie music, elevator music. They seem particularly offended by seamless melody. 
     If I were the only tonal composer treated in this manner I wouldn't be writing this, but I have noted similar treatment of my colleagues who compose tonal music. I give here two examples:
    A well known opera/vocal composer had a world premiere of a new opera in the San Francisco Bay area where I live. He writes beautiful, melodic music, which is perfect for opera. There were two reviews in two different newspapers. One waxed almost poetically about how beautiful the music was, how the singers obviously loved the music etc etc. The other was a total condemnation of his work using at least three of the buzz words I mentioned above: derivative, schlock and movie music. The latter reviewer was slanted by his bias against new tonal compositions and unable to find anything good about this opera at all. One could not believe that these two reviewers were writing about the same opera.
     In 1991 I participated in a music festival of new music. Almost all the offerings at the festival were of electronic or extremely dissonant, experimental, jagged works. There was only one concert that consisted of works by tonal composers, myself included. The reviewer, David Cleary, gave almost all of the festival good marks except this one tonal concert which he literally tore to shreds. Again the same buzz words: derivative, schlock, elevator music etc. Again, the audience was wildly appreciative, which also probably made the reviewer even more suspicious.  
     I have noted a composer who changed his idiom from atonal to tonal receiving bad reviews for the latter, even though he received good reviews for the former. I read the New York Times reviews and the bay area papers and what I have written above appears to be the case almost all the time in reviews of music. In the heartland or middle of the country as well as outside of the big cities, however, reviewers appear to be more tolerant of new tonal music, and in some case I have received glowing reviews from newspapers located in these more rural locations.
     Finally I would say that there definitely is a gap between what audiences want to hear and what critics think they ought to hear. I don't think audiences should need to "study" in order to appreciate a new work. it should be readily apparent in the first few minutes of performance if the music is going to speak or not. I feel, in a sense that music critics have been partially responsible for the lack of programming of much contemporary music and lack of audience enthusiasm thereof. By criticizing accessible new music they have discouraged many large big city conductors from programming new music that would actually appeal to their audiences, and in its stead they have had a diet of mostly intractable, unappealing works, thus giving a bad name to all contemporary music.
    
The discrimination against tonal composers in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s (and partly into the 90s) was accentuated by composition professors at the universities who insisted that young composition students adhere to the party line, which was serialism, atoniality, and the abandonment of traditional harmonic, formal and melodic concepts. The music critics' aping of the composition department's value judgments only made the climate even more hostile to any tonally oriented composer. It really amounted to an atonal dictatorship and the price for not adhering to it was being blacklisted in the field or in the case of some composers I know that returned to tonal writing, losing their grants and being dismissed from graduate schools. Many of us simply retreated for many years, but thankfully are now reemerging, as a more favorable climate has been returning.
 

Nancy Bloomer Deussen
Composer
www.NancyBloomerDeussen.com

 


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