Coincidentally, the very day I posted the blog about Milton Babbitt’s pessimism, the composer John Corigliano visited our campus and offered a very different view. Corigliano, who is in town because the Greeley Philharmonic is performing his Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan tonight, is an engaging guy who speaks well to a mixed group (he did explain that he would have done something very different for a group of composers), talking about the piece, the Dylan poetry, and answering questions for over an hour. One of the things that most interested me was that his view of the composer’s opportunity at the present time seems to be very optimistic: composers can publish their own stuff with software, distribute scores and recordings through their own websites, sell scores, rent parts—no dependence, as in his youth, on publishers. True, he was not talking about supporting oneself with composition (never, historically, an easy thing), but that is actually a somewhat separate issue from simply writing and disseminating.
One thing that made me smile was his own very personal aestehtic view: he traced the Babbitt aesthetic directly from Wagner—Wagner, Schoenberg, Webern, Babbitt—the idea that the composer, in his own mind, assumes an almost God-like status, which implies a kind of all-encompassing artistic ego and incomprehensibility of utterance. For a long time, he suggested, composers felt they were lowering themselves if their music was understandable, and that their artistic vision was sufficiently elevated that their music shouldn’t be. There were some good pieces written during that century-long period, he said, but “a lot of toxic philosophy.”
Obviously, Corigliano’s music is in a very different aesthetic universe from that of Webern or Babbitt; he likes the interplay of tonality and atonality, of pretty and gritty. And, again, I don’t think anyone was dismissing anyone else’s music out of hand; it was more an acknowledgment of the multiplicity of possibilities, catholicity rather than a single path. That, to me, is precisely what a large roomful of university students ought to be hearing.