A surprising admission

A few months ago Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times revealed the 10 composers he considers to be the 10 greatest.  I have to agree with many of his choices (particularly No 1), but he avoided including any contemporary composers.  He gives this reason for their omission:

We are too close to living composers to have perspective. Besides, assessing greatness is the last thing on your mind when you are listening to an involving, exciting or baffling new piece.

Umm…what?  One of the insults regularly hurled by devotees of the avant-garde at those with more traditional tastes is that “they only like music by old dead guys.”  Yet Tommasini seems to be endorsing the use of the criterion “old and dead” in the process of evaluating a composer.

And that second sentence makes no sense to me.  Of course I’m assessing the greatness of a piece of music as I listen to it.  How could I not be?!  Does it hold my attention?  Do I find the turns it takes compelling?  Does it stimulate my arrectores pilorum?  These things aren’t necessarily things I consciously think about while listening, but whether or not they are answered affirmatively is my (or my “id’s”) first pass at assessment.

But here’s the really big problem: isn’t he basically admitting that he’s unable to identify great music when he hears it?  That seems an unfortunate malady to have when you’re a professional music critic.  I’m sure he wouldn’t see his statement in this light, however.  He’d likely claim that, in fact, it’s not possible for anyone to separate the modern wheat from the modern chaff.  This is one of those disheartening manifestations of postmodernism.  It seems to Tommasini (and unfortunately to many, many of his musically literate and professionally active readers) that this is simply the most reasonable stance to take.  Well, if it’s so reasonable to say we just can’t determine greatness immediately, that it’s not even an enterprise of which we are capable, that only time will tell, then what’s the point of going to music school?  Did I sit through all those theory and musicology courses for nothing?  That knowledge isn’t up to the task of critiquing modern music?  Or what would be the point of going  to hear new music?  *applause, applause* “Wasn’t that fantastic?”  “I don’t know.  Ask me again in 100 years when perhaps a consensus will have slowly and cautiously accrued and I won’t have to do any thinking myself or risk making a poor judgment.”  “Oh.”

Of course, there is another implication Tommasini inadvertently reveals with that statement.  Perhaps he finds it difficult to pronounce definitively on much of modern music because much of it lacks meaning.  Content with semiotic value can’t be invented and imposed all at once.  But this will be the topic of another post.


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