June 2006

He Felt Like Shooting Himself--A Postscript

Louis Torres

In "He Felt Like Shooting Himself" (August 2005), I sharply criticized the avant-garde composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle and his fellow composer Bruce Adolphe for their arrogant insensitivity in response to an audience member who had been profoundly disturbed by Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows. (Adolphe, who moderated the post-performance discussion, is the Education Director and Music Administrator of Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society, which performed the piece.) Readers who actually like such stuff may feel that I was too quick to condemn Birtwistle and Adolphe. (I was even more critical of Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times music critic who had callously reported the incident.) I'm biased, they might argue.

Imagine my immense gratification, therefore, when I happened upon another account of the incident by an avant-gardist who affirmed my judgment. The writer was David Salvage, a Ph.D candidate in music at the City University of New York who is now an adjunct lecturer in theory and composition at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. He is also the Managing Editor of Sequenza21: The Contemporary Classical Music Portal, where his comments on the incident were posted ("Taking the Pulse: Birtwistle's 'Pulse Shadows' at Alice Tully" [scroll down to January 4, 2005]). Salvage there reports that of the many concerts he had attended that year, the Lincoln Center premiere of Pulse Shadows was the most memorable. It had lingered in his mind, not simply because he found it a "luminous performance" of "a major premiere [of a work] by a major international composer" but because it "was bracketed by events that got [him] to thinking about Big Issues, like Audience and Music Appreciation."

Noting that about forty members of a shockingly sparse audience left within the first twenty minutes of the piece's performance, Salvage notes that the "audience's discontent" became further manifest during the discussion period. He recalls, in particular, "[o]ne indignant gentleman [who] asked what exactly Birtwistle wanted the crowd to take away from the music, other than a desire to go home and 'blow [their] brains out.'" More likely, the questioner's actual words were closer to those quoted by Tommasini, an experienced critic: "'[Pulse Shadows] left me feeling like I should just go home and shoot myself. Was that your intention?'" Never mind. What is noteworthy here is that in reflecting upon the "Big Issues" related to the exchange he has witnessed, Salvage (unlike Tommasini) defends the hapless questioner. Observing that Birtwistle "tried to engage the man in a conversation about tragic themes in art and [about] why we might want to see paintings like Picasso's [Guernica] or plays like Hamlet," Salvage objects:

But he didn't make the connection with his own work clear enough and his remarks devolved into evasive poetic bluster. Bruce Adolphe [the moderator] tried to say something about the "life affirming" qualities of beautiful art, but he seemed more anxious to change the subject than anything else.

Frankly "disappointed" with his hero, Salvage admonishes:

Whether we like it or not, whether it "makes sense" or not, composers have to be articulate advocates for their music. Why? Because this is not a culture in which the mysterious is celebrated. The simple and clear presentation of emotions and ideas is prized. With a few clear words about his text setting and a little less recourse to his "artist's intuition," Birtwistle could have made a difference in how this indignant gentleman (who had, after all, stayed the duration) received his music. Maybe this man wouldn't have ended up "liking" the music, but at least Birtwistle would not have come across as aloof and arrogant, which, to me, he had.

I tip my hat to Salvage. He and I may belong to opposite camps in the cultural battles over the avant-garde, but we are staunch allies in a far more important regard.