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Classical Currents: An Interview with Jonathan D. Kramer

A discussion of the state of classical music in America and contemporary composition.

by Mark D. Johnson
January 9, 2004

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About Jonathan D. Kramer:

Jonathan D. Kramer received his B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. His teachers included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Roger Sessions, Leon Kirchner, Seymour Shifrin, and Andrew Imbrie. Professor at Columbia University since 1988, he previously taught at Oberlin, Yale, and the University of Cincinnati. He served four years as Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and has been Annotator of the Cincinnati Symphony since 1980. He has also written program notes for the Pittsburgh Symphony. Schirmer Books published a collection of his program notes, 'Listen to the Music'. He was the Cincinnati Symphony's Composer-in-Residence from 1984 to 1992, and has been Composer-in-Residence and Artistic Advisor of the Moebius Ensemble since 1997.

Honors include a Koussevitzky Foundation Commission, a recording grant from the Aaron Copland Fund, a Barlow Endowment Commission, the Ohio Governor's Award for Individual Artists, three Composer Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Independent Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Alienor Harpsichord Composition Award, and three Individual Artist Fellowship Grants from the Ohio Arts Council, plus numerous other awards and grants.

Kramer's music has been played in 30 countries by such ensembles as the London Philharmonic, Warsaw Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, Seattle Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, Memphis Symphony, Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, Sacramento Symphony, National Orchestra of El Salvador, Saint Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and members of the Saint Louis Symphony.

He has delivered invited papers at national and international conferences, and appeared over a hundred times as guest lecturer in 20 countries. He has written 'The Time of Music' and edited 'Time in Contemporary Musical Thought'. He is currently completing a book on music and postmodernism.


This interview with The Partial Observer was conducted via e-mail.


PO: A casual observer of classical music in America might easily conclude that it is in serious trouble. Many orchestras have ongoing budget problems, some of them forced to disband; audiences appear to be shrinking and getting older; public radio stations are devoting fewer hours to classical music. The situation seems to be going from bad to worse. Is this a fair assessment? How much optimism does the classical music community have for its future?

Kramer: Indeed, the problems you list are widespread and serious. The root causes are essentially two: education and money. The audiences for concerts are diminishing in size in large part because people now in their 30s, who ought to be replacing the dying older audiences, often did not have rich musical experiences during their formative years. As funding for arts education was gradually withdrawn from the public schools a generation or two ago, young people were deprived of the experiences of learning instruments, playing in amateur ensembles, singing in choral groups, etc. Music appreciation instruction also diminished, but I think that had less impact. There was a time when a substantial percentage of school children learned music appreciation by making music themselves. There is no substitute for this. In many European countries, music remains an integral part of the education of young people, and as a result they do not have nearly the widespread indifference to classical music among young adults that we have.

Money is a problem as well. Because of the not unreasonable demands of musicians’ unions, the costs of mounting concerts are very high and show no sign of abating. Thus orchestras and other performing organizations and presenters must raise huge amounts of funding, which gets particularly difficult to do when they present themselves as wanting to continue a grand tradition. Funders tend to favor innovation, not preservation.

As a result of the high costs of music making, rehearsal schedules are invariably too short, and programming is often dictated in part—though conductors and others rarely admit this—by considerations of how quickly a program can be learned, or how well the musicians already know some of the pieces. Thus the same music gets played over and over again. This is often blamed on audience tastes, but I think it has an unfortunate economic side as well. As a result, most performances I hear are under rehearsed and frankly not very good. Even when they are proficiently played, they usually lack any spark of excitement or any new insight into the music, both of which take TIME in rehearsal to develop. Rehearsal time is rarely devoted to creating a new, original, sensitive, or exciting interpretation. All too often, what little time there is is spent on getting the notes, rhythms, and balances correct.

This brings us back to education—not of the audience this time, but of the musicians. They are trained to be macho—to be able to “learn” their music in a minimum amount of time. Conductors are just as bad. I know many conductors who are reluctant to look at a score unless it comes with a recording—of someone else’s performance. They may have the ability to hear a score internally— though some of them surprisingly do not—but they do not have the time to do so. It is so much easier to just pop the CD into the Walkman while on a long-distance flight. As a result, learning a piece becomes a context for reproducing someone else’s interpretation. Listen to several recent recordings of, say, a Beethoven symphony, and you will notice how generic they all sound. Listen to several recordings of the same Beethoven symphony made in the 1920s or 1930s, and you will hear very different ideas about how the piece might be understood. With variety and vitality disappearing from live performances today, is it any surprise that it is difficult to excite audiences, or to attract new ones?

There are solutions to these problems, but they take a huge, long- term, expensive effort. The education of audiences and musicians can be made more creative, more involved, but this takes a large- scale rethinking as well as a huge funding initiative. If corporations and government funding sources could be made to understand that music (and the other arts) is not only a cultural heritage but also a big business, perhaps funding would become available to turn education around. If we consider all music—pop, show, classical, jazz, movie, TV, etc.—we find a major economic force. The boundaries between these different types of music are breaking down, and the commodity value of music is already well recognized in the pop domain—not that this is a wholly good thing, of course, but it is the kind of thing that can and should attract funding to music education across styles.

New audiences can be built up, but that takes time—more time than managers seem willing to expend, because of their concern for the bottom line each year. Some courageous managers of musical organizations may come along, willing to experience a few lean years if the final payoff is new, young, vital audiences. This can be done by programming plus education. I have seen excited young audiences for certain kinds of “classical” music, and thus I know it is possible to cultivate them, even if doing so means losing some of the blue-haired set that currently makes up most of the audiences for classical concerts. I have witnessed large, involved, excited audiences for new operas, for crossover music, for minimalism, etc. To keep building these audiences, marketing has to change (which is no great challenge—marketing and advertising people surely have the expertise to reach the appropriate demographic groups—marketers know how to sell anything to anyone), programming has to change, education has to change, and concerts need to become less ritualized, less stylized, less formal. All of this can happen, but it takes courage to try, because the payoff may not come for a few seasons.


PO: A glance at almost any orchestra's season schedule will reveal very little attention given to contemporary composers. Given the abundance of beloved classics in the orchestral repertoire, is this unfortunate or appropriate in your view? Is such programming primarily a business decision for an orchestra - giving the audience what it wants - or is there more to it?

Kramer: We often hear about “giving an audience what it wants.” I do not really think audiences have as strong pre-conceptions as they are said to have. Surely there are people who have attended concerts of well-known classics for forty years and simply want to continue, but I think there is a large potential audience out there ready to be excited by new, unimagined experiences.

Now, I am not so naïve to think that playing more contemporary music by itself will bring in audiences. I think we need to be very careful about what new music we program. A lot of new music is not very audience friendly. In fact, a lot of it is simply not very good at all! But there are composers of imagination, craft, and vision producing music capable of reaching audiences, if given the chance. And that chance does not happen when new music is represented by one ten-minute piece placed at the beginning of a concert, which is over before the audience has had much of a chance to settle into it. Furthermore, many of these ten-minute openers are trivial. They often represent pandering, since they are the only way many orchestral composers can get their works heard.

But I have seen audiences go wild hearing more extended, more substantial works by such composers as Lou Harrison, Louis Andriessen, Aaron Kernis, Steve Reich, and several others.

It can be a mistake to mix new works with old works, since the audience for Mozart and the audiences for Reich are not the same.
An orchestra that is committed to several concerts a season might well create different series within each concert season, so that some concerts can appeal to the traditionalists and some can try to reach out to new audiences.

And so, I repeat that I think new music can help save classical music, but only if given the chance and the time and only if working hand-in-hand with educational programs. And those educational programs must be oriented not only toward audiences and performers but also toward the composers! This may sound heretic, but I believe one of the big problems with new music in the United States is the poor training of most composers. I hear a lot of music by student composers, and I find a depressing amount of it incompetent. The training of composers in the U.S. starts about ten years too late. In Europe it begins on time, and as a result, most new music is well made. It may not always be imaginative or beautiful or interesting, but it is usually well crafted. In our country, that is all too rarely the case. Again and again I meet young people who want to be composers, but they are already in college and yet have very little understanding of harmony, counterpoint, form, orchestration, etc. For them it is all but too late. (Lest you think that this is a plea for conservative compositional practices, I would point out that even the great avant-gardist John Cage sought disciplined tutoring from Arnold Schoenberg and insisted that his own student, Christian Wolff, master sixteenth-century counterpoint!) And, as a result, a lot of the new American music that gets performed is not very well made.
In some cases, there may be imagination, since the lack of rigorous training does tend to give young composers a sense of freedom. But all too often, poor craft dooms such pieces to being forgettable.

So, when an orchestra does program a ten-minute triviality, it is hardly surprising that it makes little impact, and often meets with indifference (not even with hostility any longer, so innocuous have these pieces become). This kind of tokenism does little other than appease critics and help bring in grants. But orchestras willing to seek out substantial, well crafted, attractive, new works that can have a deep impact on audiences will eventually—if such pieces are programmed regularly--gain what most orchestras claim they dearly want: new, engaged, young audiences.


PO: I can think of very few works from the past 50 years that might be considered 'important enough' to be included in today's orchestral repertoire. Presumably there are multiple reasons for this, including the programming issues you mentioned, but in this postmodern era, are composers 'running out of ideas'? Was it as difficult in past eras to envision the future of music as it is today?

Kramer: Who determines whether music is "important enough" to enter the standard repertoire? It is true that few recent pieces have entered the standard repertoire, but the reason is certainly not any lack of important new music. The main reason few pieces have done so in the last half century is that the many worthwhile pieces have not been performed widely enough to become well known and loved. I believe that there are lots of pieces out there that could easily enter the standard repertoire if given the chance. I am thinking of pieces that use the orchestra beautifully and imaginatively, that meet the audience halfway in providing attractive surfaces but also listening challenges that can lead to deeply meaningful listening experiences, and that conductors and players can relate to in a profound way.

Just off the top of my head, I can list the following recent pieces as fully deserving of entering the standard orchestral repertoire; there are many more I or others could mention as well. (I am listing only some pieces I think are good candidates for repeated hearings, not necessarily my own personal favorites.)
Tippett, Third and Fourth Symphonies
Kernis, Second Symphony
Reich, Four Movements
Rands, Body and Shadow
Harbison, Second Symphony
Corigliano, First Symphony
Harrison, Third Symphony
Sessions, Third Symphony and Concerto for Orchestra
Andriessen, Spektakel and other works
Szymanski, Quasi una Sinfonietta
Krauze, Second Piano Concerto
Penderecki, Second Cello Concerto and Threnody
Husa, Music for Prague
Barber, Piano and Violin Concertos
Bernstein, Age of Anxiety
Piston, Symphony 6
Boulez, Rituel
Berio, Sinfonia
Takemitsu, Asterism and
     From Me Flows What You Call Time
Lutoslawski, Symphonies 3 and 4 and Cello Concerto
Ligeti, San Francisco Polyphony and Piano Concerto
Smalley, Piano Concerto
Messiaen, Chronocromie
Adams, Century Rolls
Schnittke, various symphonies and (K)ein
     Sommernachtstraum Lerdahl Waves
Chen Yi, Piano Concerto
Crumb, Echoes of Time and the River
Sebastian Currier, Microsymph
Maxwell Davies, various symphonies
Del Tredici, Final Alice
Garcia Sombras, Iluminadas
Golijov, Last Round
Hovhaness, Prelude and Quadruple Fugue
Tower, Sequoia and Silver Ladders
Jolas, Rencontres
Kancheli, various symphonies
Part, Cantus and Tabula Rasa
Gorecki, Third Symphony
Lancino, Divertimento
Lieberson, Drala
Mellnas, Ikaros
Lindberg, Kraft
C. Rouse, Trombone Concerto
Ruders, First Symphony
Sheng, Hun
Torke, Bright Blue Music and Ecstatic Orange
Tavener, The Protecting Veil
Tuur, Searching for Roots
Don Walker, Fourth Symphony
Wuorinen, Golden Dance
Shostakovich, Symphony 15
Zwilich, Celebration
Joel Hoffmann, Millennium Dances
Rochberg, Fifth Symphony and Imago Mundi
I could go on and on, but I think I've made my point. I also, incidentally, know works that I deeply admire and love but that I realize are unlikely to enter the standard repertory, because of their formidable challenges to audiences. Composers of such works include, among others, Carter, Babbitt, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, Stockhausen, Sciarrino, Scelsi, Cage, Xenakis, and Nono.

So, no, I certainly do not think composers are running out of ideas. This list above contains some wonderfully imaginative works, and they are quite varied. These composers are overflowing with ideas, perhaps more now than at any time in the past.

I am not too acquainted with past attempts to predict the future of music, but I imagine it was just as difficult then as it is now. Could anyone have foreseen the baroque during the late renaissance? Could anyone have predicted the revolutions of Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Could anyone have forecast Beethoven, or Wagner, or Mahler, or Ives, or Webern? Not too likely!


PO: Can you describe some of the new ideas being introduced in contemporary composition? I guess I'm wondering if there are some elements more novice listeners can identify in attempting to distinguish good new music from bad? Or is the complexity such that only trained ears can decipher it?

Kramer: There are potentially two sorts of new compositional ideas: new sounds (or musical materials), and new ways of manipulating (or combining) sounds, whether new or old. In this postmodern era, the idea of progress toward newness is suspect. As a result, many composers are less interested in finding new musical sounds than their counterparts were a half century ago. Indeed, some musical observers suggest that there no longer are any new sounds to be found or made.

But this opinion is exaggerated. Despite the less intense search for novel sounds, there are certain areas of music where new sonorities are indeed being created. I can cite three such areas: spectral music, computer music, and microtonal music. Spectral music, which began a quarter century ago in France and has gradually spread to other parts of the world, considers tone color (or timbre) as the main element of music, far more important and often actually supplanting such traditional aspects as melody, counterpoint, and rhythm. Tone color and harmony are understood to be essentially the same thing. Sonorities are based on the natural overtones and generalizations from such structures, so that they come out sounding particularly rich and beautiful. The leading spectral composers are/were Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, but there are many others.

Computers have been available to musicians for a long time, but nowadays we finally have a wide variety of very efficient software and affordable and portable hardware, so that virtually any interested composer has access to sophisticated technology. The uses are myriad. They include the construction of new (real or virtual) digital musical instruments, new ways for performers to interact with each other and with technology, new ways to structure the concert environment, new compositional procedures, and new sonorities constructed uniquely for each new piece.

Composers have long thought about using scales other than the ubiquitous twelve-tone equal temperament that is represented on, for example, a piano. Isolated experiments go back a century. But today, with new instruments readily available and with performers mastering new ways to play old instruments, more and more composers are able to write music with more than twelve tones to the octave. There are many different ways to approach microtonal music, including both equal temperament with various numbers of tones per octave and various ratio-based systems with unequal distances between adjacent notes in the scales. The resulting music is widely varied, ranging from the bizarre to the spiritual, from the unsettling to the comforting.

In addition to these three areas in which composers are actively creating new sounds, many other composers are seeking originality by combining already known sounds in startlingly new ways. Thus we have all sorts of crossover music. We have pieces that combine the new with the old, high art with popular art, the simple with the complex, music of diverse cultures, the high-tech with the low-tech, the dissonant with the consonant, the original with the recycled, the static with the kinetic, the banal with the profound, etc., etc.

But what does all of this have to do with good vs. bad music? Not much, in truth. All these different attempts at being fresh and original do not guarantee musical quality. Both good and bad music of all the types I've outlined can be produced, and is being composed all the time. And even music which is quite conservative, backward-looking, and not particularly novel can be very good.

I am a bit perplexed by your statement: "I'm wondering if there are some elements more novice listeners can identify in attempting to distinguish good new music from bad." First of all, novice listeners are probably in no position to identify some of the new devices and sounds I've described, nor should they even try. The overall effect and affect of the music are what counts for the novice listener, not how the composer made the piece or its sounds.

Furthermore, I do not think a novice listener is in a position to distinguish good from bad music. Leave that determination to the experts. Novice listeners should certainly listen deeply, and decide what they like and what they do not like, and strive to learn to like some of what does not at first seem to make sense. But there is a considerable difference between what people like and what is good music. It is certainly common for listeners, novice or otherwise, to have a genuine affection for a piece of music that is demonstrably not very good. Such a piece might be a sentimental ballad with awkward harmonies that just happens to have a special place in someone's life. Conversely, just because a piece is good, you are not obliged to like it. For example, I quite dislike Brahms's First Piano Concerto and would go out of my way to avoid hearing it, but I readily acknowledge that it is well constructed, solid, and powerful. It IS a good piece, but that fact does not make me want to hear it.

Why must we be so wrapped up in value judgements? Why can we not just enjoy, or not enjoy, music, without having to pass judgement on it? I think our obsession with what is good vs. what is bad gets in the way of our deep enjoyment, of our ability to immerse ourselves in music. Value judgements, particularly simple ones like "it is good," can trivialize the music and the musical experience. All a listener really needs to know is whether a piece of music is worth his/her time for him/her.


PO: One could argue that the average American hears more orchestral music in the movies than anywhere else, and that the most successful living composer is John Williams, best known for his film scores. Obviously, this music plays a supporting role, yet the same could be said of ballet music. I would expect concert music composers to be generally dismissive of film music, but do film composers deserve a little more credit from their concert hall counterparts? After all, Aaron Copland was not above composing for film.

Kramer: I do not find concert composers to be dismissive of film composers. Not at all! In my experience, concert composers listen carefully to film music and know what deserves respect and praise and what does not. There are many fine film composers today, in addition to John Williams. And many concert composers of the past and present, in addition to Copland, wrote for films: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Takemitsu, Corigliano, and Chihara are among the several.

Yes, film music is often most effective when it is used as background, and not every composer is good at placing his/her music in the background. This is a special skill.

So, I believe film composers deserve – and get - a lot of credit from their concert-music colleagues. Such composers as Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, Andre Previn, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, and Leonard Rosenman come immediately to mind as deserving of - and generally receiving - respect. Of course there are many mediocre film composers also.

Sometimes a film director knows music well enough to choose great soundtracks from existing classical music. One of the best in this regard was Stanley Kubrick. His use of an early Ligeti piano piece in Eyes Wide Shut, or of Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Blue Danube and music of Ligeti in 2001, or of Beethoven's Ninth in Clockwork Orange, were brilliant.


PO: Do you have any general advice for young musicians contemplating a career in classical music?

Kramer: Indeed I do. Foremost is to truly love the art, because it will take over your life, week after week, year after year, often with only modest financial rewards. It has to be more than a job, or you will end up frustrated, as indeed many professional musicians are.

Also, to be a well-rounded musician, it is important to study music of all periods, from the earliest to the present, and to learn to respect and enjoy all sorts of music. I am not encouraging you to be anything less than discriminating, but it is important to learn to love or hate individual pieces, not entire genres or styles.

It is also important to study other manifestations of human culture.
Read, attend plays, go to museums, read more, see films, see dance, read. All too many musicians are boring people, because they have spent six hours a day of their lives alone in a room practicing or composing. This does not allow much time to develop as a human being, but you must make the effort.

Master your technique, whether you are a violinist or a composer, to the extent that you stop thinking much about it and can concentrate on the humanistic and creative sides of music making.

Be deeply interested in other musicians and how they approach their art, but strive to develop your own voice.

Do not be petty or professionally jealous. You do not need to disparage your colleagues in order to promote yourself. Leave that kind of behavior to politicians. Musicians who bad-mouth other musicians lose some respect and some humanity and some dignity in the process. Keep your negative opinions to yourself.

Take chances. Write or play music in a crazy way sometimes. Be eccentric in your art, but only if you can do so from a base of discipline. Do not be afraid of failure, because only by risking failure can you succeed.

Do not wall yourself off from other kinds of music than that with which you are professionally involved. Listen to pop, jazz, folk, film music, ethnic music from many parts of the world, etc. Learn to differentiate the good from the bad in each of these genres.

One final piece of advice: we live in a technological society. That is not going to change any time soon. It is foolish to ignore all the applications of technology to music. Not every musician needs to become proficient at computer technology, of course, but at the least you should become sufficiently conversant so that you can communicate with the people who will be editing your recordings, printing your scores, equalizing your concerts, etc. 


Editor's Note: Jonathan D. Kramer passed away on June 3, 2004 of leukemia. He was 61. A biography, list of his compositions, and more can be found at Columbia University's online tribute. The Partial Observer is grateful for the time and effort he devoted to this interview.

Comments (1)


Post a Comment

telemann from Fairfax VA writes:
January 25, 2004
I was most interested in the candid and detailed article by Prof. J. Kramer on a key topic - the status of classical music. I'm appreciative of this well-presented online forum, which I have just discovered. It's interesting that on the same forum there is an earlier essay by Carol Weissberg that is critical of the professional music establishment in the 20th Century.

Professor Kramer seems to be a highly knowledgeable, kind, and committed musician, quite rare among professionals in being willing to interact with a larger public on this sensitive subject. His list of recommendations of 20th Century compositions worth music lovers' attention was also interesting.

As a knowledgeable, nonprofessional classical music activist (an increasing rarity, as Prof. Kramer documents) who identifies with the audience perspective, I think there's much more to be said about the decline of classical music and what's needed to reverse it. I look forward to returning for more detailed discussion in the future.



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