Playing the Dozens

Playing the Dozens

If we were miraculously transported back to April 1912, we would have a very different view of the previous century than we do now. Imagine it. Just barely twelve years into the 20th century, Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen would have been three years old; John Cage would not yet have been born.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

The flurry of comments in response to Rob Deemer’s latest NewMusicBox post, “Found: Three Examples of 21st Century Music,” reveals how fraught with controversy it has become to establish anything that even faintly resembles a canon at this point in our history. While that is not what Rob was attempting to do (and I’m not trying to suggest that he was), his motives are extraneous to the passions that an assumption of such an effort provokes. Yet curiously, in a recent blog post over at Sequenza21 (cited in “Alex Shapiro’s response to Rob’s essay and written, ironically, in response to another NewMusicBox post by Deemer in which he provided a list of 202 women composers and offered anyone reading to add more names), composer Judith Lang Zaimont suggests that we should be narrowing our field:

What good is it to have so large a field? According to a telling anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, we withdraw when there are more than c. six choices at hand. Two hundred is 194 too many. Why are people – good people, sensitive, knowledgeable people – reluctant to express their opinion? Why run scared of standing behind your principles, your choices?

With all respect to Judith Lang Zaimont, whose music I have admired for decades and whose writings about music are insightful, I would hate to limit myself to three or six or even two hundred and, if there’s any generalization we can make about our current music culture, we no longer need to. I probably discover at least a dozen new composers every week (both contemporary and from the past), and for that I am grateful. I hope it never ends.

So I would be extremely uncomfortable with the assignment that Rob was given; I’m glad no one asked me to do it. Last year I devoted a lion’s share of my free time to updating and revising the articles about American orchestra music and American chamber music for the forthcoming new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music; in both cases, I went way past double my word limit in an effort to cite as many composers and works as I could cram in and I still feel heartbroken about all the works I couldn’t squeeze in. I don’t feel the need to defend Rob or his specific choices for three examples of 21st century music, especially since Alex Shapiro has already so articulately done so in the comments, despite ““Anonymous Matt”’s rebuttal that she was “exhibiting a Fox News mentality.” (Who is that guy?) But I would like to engage in Daniel Wolf’s thought experiment because I think it could lead us into a new and equally interesting area for discussion:

[C]onsider, as a thought experiment, trying to sum up the first decade of the 20th century in only three works. So I choose something of Debussy, Strauss and Ives. A nice group with some great pieces in the decade, but hardly representative or even suggestive as I’ve certainly missed very important and very different works by i.a. Ravel, Mahler, Puccini, Skryabin, Satie, Schoenberg.

If we were miraculously transported back to April 1912, we would have a very different view of the 20th century than we do now. Imagine being just barely twelve years into the 20th century: the first performance of Pierrot lunaire would not take place until October 16 and the riots during the premiere The Rite of Spring would not occur until the following year. Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen would have been three years old, and not yet aware of any of this. John Cage would not yet have been born. There would be no radio or television and live performance either in concert halls or in people’s homes (played from published sheet music) would have been the way music was mostly consumed; commercially released recordings were still a novelty that most people didn’t take very seriously. (Remember that merely twelve years before the start of the new century novelist Edward Bellamy, not being able to comprehend the possibility of recorded sound, imagined an alternative late 20th century where everyone had music in their homes as a result of using a telephone to call dedicated music rooms that operated 24/7.)

As for Wolf’s choices of Debussy, Strauss, and Ives as the three representatives of 20th-century music based on only being around for the first 12 years of it, I’m reminded of the cliché of hindsight being 20/20. Ives would certainly not have made anyone’s cut. At that point in history he was an unknown “amateur” composer and therefore would have been outside the purview of all of us. (The way music was disseminated in the year 1912 is difficult to fathom in our own time where being able to access the music of just about everybody is taken for granted; perhaps the greatest testimony to that sea change is our ability to easily find the music of our own era’s “amateur” composers about whom Dennis Bathory-Kitsz wrote so eloquently.) Also, an American would never have made the grade, especially not in the United States where our sense of cultural inferiority was artistically stifling for many at the time. (Also women, sadly, would never have been considered for such an honor despite the extraordinary music being written at that time by Amy Beach and Lili Boulanger, among others; nor would people of color despite the publication of the vocal score of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha only a year earlier, in 1911.) More than likely the list would have been filled with composers like Max Reger, whom we hardly think of as a 20th century composer (since he died in 1916) if we think of him at all. This is in no way to disparage Reger, whose music I find endlessly fascinating. In fact, if anything, history’s weeding out of composers from earlier times can be far more unjust than singling out people in our own (at a time when there is also a platform for healthy debate about it).

But let’s take the exercise even further back in time to April 1812, a time that many establishment classical music purveyors continue to fixate on. Indeed, Beethoven was all the rage. He had already composed 26 of his 32 piano sonatas, as well as six of his nine symphonies, and the 7th and 8th would be completed later in the year. Many of the most influential arbiters of taste hailed him as the world’s greatest composer; for better or worse, they frequently still do. But almost as highly regarded at the time were Muzio Clementi and Jan Ladislav Dussek (who tragically died a mere month earlier on March 20). History has not been terribly kind to either of these composers. The Dussek entry in the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians posits that history might have overlooked Dussek because so many passages in his music sound like the music of other composers, albeit composers whose sound-alike works postdate his. History’s selectivity can be capricious and extremely unfair, which is why the more of us who can write history the better off we all are in the long run. In our own era of plentitude, a few adventurous record labels have issued recordings of music by Clementi and Dussek; I’ve recently been listening to them and have loved everything I’ve heard. So rather than worrying about how history will determine who the “great” ones are, I would argue that it’s more important for us to be as open and generous to everything as we can possibly be and do everything we can to ensure that all of it thrives. And, if it all does in fact thrive as a result, when folks in 2112 start picking fights about the music of our time, they might actually have a leg to stand on.