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Friday, July 31, 2015

The Final Frontier

Earlier this week I spent a day in the comfortable surroundings of the Library of Congress Music Division reading room pouring over dozens of letters written between composers that I either know personally or have known in the past.  The sample of hand-written and carbon-copied typed communications I accessed were revealing, sometimes technical, occasionally touching, and quite often profound.  From a perspective of an eagle's eye looking down, the totality of the LOC collection certainly sheds light upon the far-reaching scope of the inter-connectedness of working composers, the intricate network of their professional and personal associations, and a consistent theme of mutual support seemingly directed towards achieving an elusive yet shared collective objective.
I still have flashbacks of my four decades of living in Boston, and the dynamic network of established composers and their aspiring students who resided there.  But, as we know all too well, the passage of time degrades and erodes the institutional memory of the collective consciousness. The totality of these connections has shifted and evolved, especially when we consider that the subject at hand is "new" music.  Today it is a different cultural and musical space than it once was given how many composers have regrettably left the stage.
I recently compiled a list of Boston-area composers that I knew personally or professionally who have passed away.  The list of names totaled 33.  Sadly, and for the most part, their music is rarely performed today - if at all.  As Milton Babbitt once quipped (I paraphrase), "...the worst thing you can be is a dead American composer."

It is my hope that in the future when alien cultural anthropologists travel to earth and study our civilization, that the little green musicologists among them will decipher the LOC Music Division special collections and find a glimmer of hope in the vast body of hard and soft information about American composers so meticulously housed and cared for by that noble institution. They will learn that human composers (particularly from Boston) were not merely obsessed eccentrics working in relative isolation composing music that few of their species could or would understand. These highly intelligent alien researchers will follow the myriad pathways of learning, compassionate sharing of ideas, and the new and radical models of musical hearing that extended out well beyond the printed score and audio recordings of the work they left behind.  They will realize (and perhaps comprehend better than us) that beneath the paper trail of a small and elite group of deceased Boston-area composers from the late 20th and early 21st centuries are tangible indications that they did their best to advance and extend the definition of concert music far beyond the status quo of their time.

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