The latest issue of the New Yorker has brought us a taste of Alex Ross's upcoming history of modern music, via an article on Sibelius. One of the threads running through the article is the question of conservative-or-radical that dogged Sibelius throughout his career. To me, this question is one of the slimiest remnants of modernism that the (classical) music world can't seem to shake itself from. The people must know: is the music "new"?
This question deals strictly with language. Who cares if you're saying something simple-minded with your music; all that matters is that you find a shiny package to put it in. Yes, there are situations where the package does say something notable. The expressionism of early Schoenberg (for example) projects a unique worldview which is stimulating to parse. My beef is with people who write off composers based on their sound without considering any other aspects of the music.
Alex's take on Sibelius ends with the suggestion there are other composers out there with unrecognized radical streaks. There's something weird about this whole game. The whole, is Sibelius a conservative symphonist or a forefather of spectralism? Do Schoenberg's 12-tone compositions point the way to a new conception of music or are they an idiosyncratic rehash of Baroque counterpoint? Peter Garland came up with the term "radical consonance" to describe his own music. And we composers claim we're so misunderstood...
One of my favorite music history books is the Allan Atlas book on the Renaissance from Norton. Atlas didn't try to force the music into an all-encompassing narrative. His book basically had the feel of "this thing happened, then this thing, and then this random thing that no one saw coming..." Kyle Gann got close to this approach in his American music book, but he stuck mostly to what he felt was the aesthetic cutting-edge of each generation.
This issue is not limited to the classical world either. When I took a class in the analysis of rock music, my professor claimed that the novelty of New Wave was superficial and that the real innovations of the time were going on in so-called corporate rock.
My question: what would conversations about music be like if people weren't so obsessed with the macho oneupsmanship of "innovation," if instead of separating composers based on stylistic traits, we talked about the commonalities of their humanistic pursuits? What does it say that we're so hung up on these particular notions?