A very accomplished German composer confessed to me that he had never been able to enjoy the Berg Violin Concerto; he said it “lacked a strong theoretical consistency” and found it “lazy in its references to the past.” This exchange really hit home how strong some of the fundamental differences between American and European composers remain today.
I knew I couldn’t possibly be in the States when I opened up the Berlin Phil’s subscription guide for the first time—and without having to read much of it, either. As I flipped through the rather hefty volume, it dawned on me that what I had initially taken for the entire season’s listings was actually just the orchestra’s listings for September. And this from a city that sustains no less than seven major orchestras and three opera houses!
Now, with a few months at the Academy under my belt, I’m thoroughly enjoying music of all kinds at venues large and small. In the meantime I’ve also settled into a more or less steady work routine during the day, with the Academy’s typically comprehensive dinners providing the opportunity for relaxation and socializing in the evening.
At one of these dinners, I had the good fortune of being seated next to a very accomplished German composer, and the conversation turned to a recent performance of the Berg violin concerto. My colleague confessed to me that he had never been able to enjoy the work, making sure to add that he found the work “lazy in its references to the past.” When pressed he clarified that the piece “lacked a strong theoretical consistency.”
Perhaps more than any other incident so far, this exchange really hit home how strong some of the fundamental differences between American and European composers remain today. To begin with, I found it interesting that my colleague’s reaction to the Berg concerto was so conditional—he didn’t like it, but he came equipped with a handy explanation that made it completely clear what he did endorse: “strong theoretical consistency”. My likes and dislikes are usually much more visceral, and very rarely expressed against some kind of abstract yardstick—whatever I think of the Berg concerto, I would be reluctant to attribute its effect on something as specific as theoretical consistency; instead I would probably cite many features of the composition which interact to create the ultimate impression, theory having an important (if perhaps indirect) effect on these features.
Of course this is the typical “American perspective”, I am told, from that wishy-washy world where everyone sits around smoking hash and letting waves of sentimental pabulum fill their uncritical ears. Of course it’s no use that this version of America simply doesn’t exist and never has. And as a successful composer with an international reputation, my distinguished dinner-guest couldn’t possibly believe that there was one “American perspective,” much less a perspective that includes, say, Reich, Lanksy, and Crumb but willfully ignores American composers writing in the past and today who work a more complex idiom.
Still, there may some truth to these caricatures—of the American composer as kind of a tree-hugging uber-Ives with a live-and-let-live attitude, and of the European who views musical composition as an obstacle on the way to doing more theory. But to what extent?
I’d love to hear everyone else’s take: Do American and European composers really inhabit such different worlds?