Thou Shalt Not Flirt?

by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Composer News (Texas Composers Forum), Summer 1989

A new work by one of America's leading composers, reads a recent review in Ovation magazine,

"bristles with a 12-tone hostility unusual even for members
of the `who cares if you listen?' (as long as your tax
dollars go on paying for it) school of composers."

This critic appears to be taking a shot at the composer not because of any lack of quality in his work, but simply because of the allegedly limited audience appeal of his style, one the review characterizes as having few "nuggets of sensitivity in the abrasive sounds."

Perhaps the composer deserves the shot, anyway. As Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof might have said, "it’s no shame to be elitist, but it's no honor either." Or perhaps the reviewer should have left the question of style alone. If someone chooses to write one way, then, so long as it is of good quality, then whose place is it to take him or her to task for not choosing another way? Why not meet the music on its own terms?

But the critic doesn't stop there. He takes one more shot, amazingly, in the opposite direction, at composers who seem to be doing exactly what he has just faulted our "who cares if you listen" composer for not doing. Two lines later this same composer is praised because he has nevertheless, “preserved his integrity," in the face of other, presumably even more reprehensible,

"academically inclined composers who lately are courting
a larger audience by flirting with 12-tone foxtrots."

So it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. This critic appears to be equally disdainful of music that people do like and music they don't. Granted, there may be some bad 12-tone foxtrots out there (as there is plenty of good and bad everything else), but it does not follow that composers' recent attempts to reach out more to their audience, in 12-tone or any other style, should automatically be put down as a lack of integrity. Integrity in art is always a question not of idiom but of execution. As jazz musician Cy Oliver put it,

"It ain't `hat cha, it's the way `hat cha do it."

If, when we write our music, we "do it" well, then why should "courting a larger audience" at the same time be such a bad idea? Is The Art of the Fugue better or worse than Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring? Regardless of style, is it wrong for a composer to want not just for his music to be respected, but, beyond that, to dare to hope that it could be loved?