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It’s as good a term as any (“Truthfulness” works, too), and whatever we decide to call it, for me it is the most defining feature of a composer’s work. A piece can have as much craft as humanely possible (Greetings to you Mr. Diamond! How are you, Sir?) but if the composer doesn’t LOVE every note that he or she is writing down then it isn’t worth diddly. This is why Good and Honest are never in direct opposition with each other: because I can guarantee you that Milton Babbitt actually hears like that, and loves it, and that he writes completely Honest music and so therefore it is Good. You (collective You) may just not like it as much as he does. And if one loves it himself, he or she probably doesn’t care what people think about it. Obviously, you’d rather have people like it as well…but the most important person to please is the composer him/herself first.

I remember a lecture at Juilliard with Philip Glass — whose music, with a very few exceptional pieces, I really dislike. And this is after many years of force-feeding myself Glass — in Robert Wilson operas at The Met, at marathon concerts at Tanglewood, at every durned premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — I was there. Trying. Couldn’t do it. I tried — I really did. It just sounded, well, not Truthful to me — not honest, pandering, like he was writing what he thought we wanted to hear from him. So then there was this lecture — and I watched him listening to his own music — and his whole body language exposed a man who absolutely loved this stuff. I mean he was banging his head, he was singing along, he was tapping his feet, banging out rhythms. I thought, “$&*!, this guy actually likes to listen to this crap — that’s fantastic.” Completely turned my opinion around. Now I will defend his music as viable — I won’t necessarily go out of my way to listen to it, because I personally don’t care for it, but I will defend it as honest, and real, and therefore, in some very viable way, Good.

The symbiotic relationship between Good and Honest is probably most easily shown by looking back to the issues composers dealt with in the 60′s in American conservatories…where composers were taught that it didn’t matter how they felt about writing or whether it was honest or not as long as it fit into a certain confined (now pretty much defunct, yet still kicking somewhat) American serialist style — and that anything outside of that wasn’t even Music, let alone Good or not. I wasn’t there for this of course, as the “revolution”, led by David Del Tredici, the minimalists, and many others uncelebrated for their efforts (Bob Beaser!), happened well before I got into it. But I have heard from composers who did go through it that we really have no idea how bad it was, and that we are actually very lucky that we can even have this discussion at all…

Now, of course, we are much better off — conservatories really do encourage one to write what you want to write, and they just stick to teaching you the craft. Teachers can and should certainly press students to stretch themselves in directions they maybe didn’t even know existed, but it’s up to the student to decide how to write, after learning about the entire, and I mean the entire, palette of expressive possibilities.

So what of The Audience? Does/Can The Audience comprehend when music is Honest, and so then by logical extension (as far as my argument goes, at least) judge an Honest work to be Good, even if it does not neccesarily conform to personal taste? In a word, Yes, but it’s obviously much more complicated than a simple affirmative. I say “Yes” because I think having that kind of faith in your listeners is essential to a satisfying musical experience for everyone, and that once you start even thinking “No” to the above question (even if the answer is in reality “No”), you start down a very slippery slope of a “well, what does the audience consider good, then” kind of thinking, which I maintain is purpose-defeating and leads to writing inherently Dishonest music. The process of attempting to “guess, or, to give slightly more intellectual credit, understand what an audience would think is Good not only does everyone involved a disservice but also is practically impossible: it’s just silly to know what any group of people (of disparate backgrounds, educations, social structures) would be wanting from a music experience, let alone collectively think, and so what ends up happening is that the composer him/herself’s own personal concept Good gets imposed onto the audience anyway, and so now you’ve got music that is no closer to “Absolute” Good, and yet is now also, by virtue of this roundabout logic, “Dishonest.”

And so now we find ourselves contextually only a digressively short jaunt away from the aforementioned Mr. Babbitt’s infamous and grossly mis-titled “Who Cares If You Listen” article from 1958. Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Babbitt never did propose that composers should not be concerned with what other people think, rather, as the composer’s original, unedited title (The Composer As Specialist) implies, the article itself is about his incredulousness that one would complain about having trouble understanding his music — he knows perfectly well, that unless they have many years of training and background that they wouldn’t. His point was: if no one otherwise reasonably-educated person expects to understand a science paper written by a nuclear physicist — why should they expect to understand advanced music written by the music equivalent, a “music expert”? And why do we resist the notion that Music may have evolved to that point? To justify my digression from the original topic, let me point to the evidence that we’re still not so very far away:

The preliminary differentiation of musical categories by means of this reasonable and usable criterion of “degree of determinacy” offends those who take it to be a definition of qualitative categories, which-of course-it need not always be. Curiously, their demurrers usually take the familiar form of some such “democratic” counterdefinition as: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music.” There is only ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music.” As a public service, let me offer those who still patiently await the revelation of the criteria of Absolute Good an alternative criterion which possesses, at least, the virtue of immediate and irrefutable applicability: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. There is only music whose title begins with the letter ‘X,’ and music whose title does not.”

So let’s say I have the hubris to pluck the Maestro’s thesis from an otherwise whole (and I think, thoroughly entertaining) article, and run with it. I might say that the “criteria of Absolute Good” may very well be forever unrevealed, but indeed it’s that very Mystery, in the form of the search for each composer’s own honest expression of Good, which has fostered Music’s evolution to the point as Mr. Babbitt sees it as reaching “…a stage long since attained by other forms of activity…” More loftily: Through the absence of Knowledge We have created Beauty, all of which is Beautiful because it strives toward the unattainable Good.

Is that what we are feeling when we hear something that moves us? Is it because it’s Good, or is it because our own personal Truth happens to happily intersect with The Composer’s? In all fairness, to mangle another quote into a metaphor, some Truths are (probably) more equal than others. That is, Beethoven’s Honest exploration of Joy in his 9th Symphony does seem to jibe with almost everyone else’s concepts and perceptions on that matter. Conversely, maybe Roger Sessions’s Truthful expressions of brilliance aren’t always shared or understood by a whole heck of a lot of people. I mean, they are, to be fair, representative of the kind of American Serialism eschewed by the academic musical revolution of the 70′s I mentioned above. But they are unequivocally Honest. I can only continue to believe that audiences hear that honesty along with me, and declare it Good.

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