About ten years ago, composer Joshua Fineberg considered the reasons why anyone would write music that might be called “difficult” in an essay called “Classical music: Why bother?” for Salon (he later extended these arguments in a book of the same name). Despite the misleading subtitle on the essay, and the deliberately provocative title, his real topic was the kind of high modernist music that is often considered — by composers, funding institutions, critics, and audiences alike — inaccessible or challenging. He does not have in mind certain musical mayflies of the hour, “one or another newly arrived ‘revolutionary’ composer, whose revolution usually consists of using the classical instrumentarium to produce works that sound like pale imitations of popular music, or like something a particularly hopeless student of Brahms might have come up with. (Pandering is considered both positive and progressive in this context. It’s like lauding as revolutionary a sex therapist who advocates ‘rediscovering the missionary position.’)” In music, this modernism runs in a line from Debussy and Schoenberg to composers like Fineberg; in English-language drama, the tradition extends from Beckett and Pinter to current modernists like Martin Crimp. 
Many of Fineberg’s diagnoses are applicable too to the kind of modernist theatre and drama that I appreciate and attempt to write. Ultimately the question of the composition and dissemination of this so-called difficult work comes down to a question of aesthetics — what art is for and how it is made. As he says of music, “We can’t address either the reasons that composers are drawn to writing this type of music or the reasons that audiences reject contemporary works (or are totally indifferent to them) without confronting the A-word head-on. … By focusing on the blame game — is it the fault of the composers or the audiences? — we ignore a fundamental difference between what composers think they’re offering and what audiences think they’re getting, or think they should be getting. Traditionally, most composers have held a deeply felt, almost religious belief in ‘Art.’ I know I do. This is what leads us to the profession despite the unpleasantly poor hourly wage it brings most of us.”
What most critics or writers on the subject mean when they call a play or a piece of music “accessible” is that it is easy — it fits comfortably into pre-existing aesthetic and cultural paradigms of just what art is supposed to be. A part of the modernist tradition, however, is that the perspectives (“truths,” if you will) that it seeks to express are, in fact, not easy — that the themes and ideas and expressions are dodgy, thorny, and complex, not easily subsumable in a sentence or two or a memorable melody, digestible in the maw of mainstream culture and the industry and institutions that sustain it.
Compromise with one’s own vision in the service of a wider, friendlier audience to the work is still compromise: some dimension of the vision, some aspect of its approach, is shorn away and remains unexpressed; and in the modernist idea of the identity of form and content it leads inevitably to a dilution of the work. Yet only through the rejection of compromise does an artist serve that vision of his art fully. Where does that leave him? Is it arrogance — is it a bitter, condescending belief that the audience is not good enough for the art, as critics of the modernist tradition believe? Not according to Fineberg:
This is not to say many composers are certain that they themselves are writing masterpieces. The belief has more to do with the possibility of masterpieces and a confidence that such works will inevitably, even if belatedly, be recognized. Ultimately, we share what some may view as an embarrassingly corny and idealistic view of art: We believe it enriches the world, whether or not the world knows or cares. This belief depends on the idea of intrinsic value.
The rest of Fineberg’s essay goes into some detail about the ways in which the idea of intrinsic value has become corrupted by a levelling democratic and “inclusive” ideal, and how this corruption has affected contemporary cultural institutions. “When the so-called authorities themselves buy in to the idea that nothing is intrinsically worth more than anything else, they become a negative force,” Fineberg argues. “They’re no longer trying to find great works and expose them to the public; they’re just hoping to impose their tastes, promote their political or social agenda, or simply get rich and famous.”
There is no easy answer to the question posed in Fineberg’s title, except a tenuous faith in art itself, especially the faith in the unique insights that this new music and new drama seek to offer. “As Igor Stravinsky said to Robert Craft in their book of conversations, ‘The crux of a vital musical society is new music,’ and this is true of all the arts,” Fineberg notes. But new art makes new demands upon its audiences — and, at the same time, new not dissimilar demands upon those who claim to support and promulgate these art forms in our cultural institutions, administrators and curators and critics alike. “If we refuse to take a risk on something new and unfamiliar, then there’s no more place for art,” Fineberg concludes. This is where the real risk, and the real art, begins.
Fineberg’s essay is online here and worth careful attention.
NB: Fineberg’s complete piano works will be issued by Métier Records on a new CD, Voix Voileés, performed by Marilyn Nonken, later this year. The recording also includes a performance of Hugues Dufourt’s Erlkönig. More about this CD and Marilyn’s performance of Fineberg’s “Replique” from his collection Fantastic Zoology is available here (scroll down to the third entry).
- In the book Outrageous Fortune, an artistic director said, “It would be easier for me to do a play like Quills [a play by American playwright Doug Wright about the Marquis de Sade] in which Jesus comes out of the grave with three erect penises and fucks Mary on the floor than it would to do No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter. A play that is abstract in the storytelling — I’d do it, but that would be more controversial than content.” The reasons for this would tell us volumes about the state of the current non-profit theatre system. [↩]