Everyone should read this post by Kyle Gann. My jaw was on the floor a couple of times. I want to say I agree with him, but that would not be putting it correctly. The correct thing to say is that I always wanted to say what he said but that I never knew enough to do so with confidence. If I had tried to express those ideas in writing, it would count as pure conjecture; coming from him however, it means something.
This wasn't even the first time this week that I felt simultaneously validated and beaten to the punch. For Christmas, I received a copy of Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation and Other Essays." I've just begun to scratch the surface, but I am already both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised with the contents of this book; pleasantly because I agree with so much of it, but unpleasantly because some of her ideas bear a striking (and in one notable case, even literal) resemblance to what I though were my own original insights. If you were to read some of my more extended writings on music with an awareness of Sontag, you'd probably see me as anything from an leech to a plagiarist, particularly the part about descriptive versus prescriptive approaches.
The adage about those who don't know history is somewhat appropriate here, but for the moment, I'm not nearly as concerned about my own ignorance in reproducing these ideas as about the fact that I was led in this direction simply by observing and reacting to the world around me. If someone else leveled these same criticisms 40 years ago, and if this work is now hailed as "a modern classic" (according to the back cover), why have things remained so much the same that someone living now could independently observe the same phenomena and take issue with them for the same reasons? Kyle quoted a 150 year-old document in his post that was so relevant to modern day composition training, it could have been written last week. Are we to conclude that composers haven�t learned a thing in 150 years?
Before anyone beats me to it, here's my next big conjecture: rational thought and civilized dialogue have taken us quite a long way, so far in fact that I think we're starting to identify some wholly irreconcilable differences among musicians that will persist until the end of time. It's hard not to see the musical landscape as a collection of us-versus-them propositions: academic composers versus intuitive composers, scale-mongering jazz musicians versus purely melodic players, Greg Sandow and his cultural contexts versus me and my abstract musical structures. I even think that the conflict over absolute and program music has remained and will remain unresolved in some important ways.
Once such a conflict has spanned several generations and enveloped participants who are wholly ignorant of its long history, I�d say we have reached an impasse. Besides actually caring about these things, I enjoy the debate for its own sake, yet I often wonder if the latter isn't the only thing keeping the debate going at all at this point. If people the likes of Sontag and Gann say these things and nothing changes, perhaps there isn't much of anything left for the rest us to do about it than to put our ideas into practice and let the results speak for themselves. Greg Sandow jokes in his �book� that since he�s a composer, maybe he should write a piece to show where he thinks classical music needs to go. After some of the things I�ve read on his blog, I�d say this is nothing less than an obligation!
Instead of debating the justification (or lack thereof) for requiring undergraduate music students to interpret pure instrumental pieces programmatically as part of their course of study, how about we let the musicologists go on beating their meat and instead debate the merits of B-flat tubas versus C tubas? Finale software versus Sibelius software? Coke versus Pepsi? That ought to get us somewhere.