Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am profoundly grateful to receive the Erasmus Prize. I suspect that every winner looks at the list of previous laureates and wonders whether he or she is worthy to be included among such eminent company. I certainly do, and I can assure you that it is a humbling experience. As an American with a very American name, to be chosen at this particular moment in history when our country is not presenting its best face to the world—that makes receiving this prize all the more meaningful.
In a period of social upheaval like what we are currently experiencing, one that is restless and unstable both politically and culturally, many artists feel impelled to turn their activity outward, to take a stand and to use whatever communicative powers they possess to address the crucial issues that affect us all. One might imagine that, because the current mood, not only in the United States but here in Europe as well, is taking such a conservative turn, fearful of change and determined to preserve the status quo, so must artists feel compelled to respond by using the communicative power of art to address just those issues, whether they be social or environmental, that they feel government is ignoring.
This move toward social activism among artists is not a new thing. We can see over and over throughout history how the concerns among artists have oscillated back and forth from inward to outward—from, on the one hand, cultivating a personal voice and “shutting the world out,” to, on the other hand, being socially committed and determined, like Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, to get the world’s attention. For some artists the abstract ideal and the perfection of the artwork itself is what matters most, is in fact all that matters. For others the artwork should carry a message, social or political, that, regardless of how it is framed, hopes to influence as large an audience as possible. Fortunately great art can emerge from either of these two positions. No one would think to disparage The Well-Tempered Clavier or the Goldberg Variations for the absence of social import; nor would we deny the emotional and artistic importance of as publicly motivated a music as the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
My life story is a curious narrative that bounces back and forth from these two poles, the introvert and the extrovert. I was never a pure example either, neither an ivory-tower musical formalist nor a socially engaged activist. I have nonetheless been deeply touched by both impulses, the public and the private. I came of age during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War and the birth of the Counterculture when music, in this case rock music, possessed an astonishing power to unite people unlike anything I’ve witnessed since. Rock music of that era was literally the voice of the collective consciousness. It was a thrilling time and I’ll never forget how powerfully that music felt at the time. Nonetheless, I have to admit that the most important moments in my life have been spent with music, painting and literature of the greatest intimacy, created in the most personal and most private sense: the poems of Emily Dickinson, the string quartets of Mozart and Brahms, the landscapes of Cezanne and Van Gogh, work by artists who, as far as I can imagine, had no thought of addressing millions of people or of making a political statement.
I experienced music-making firsthand from my earliest years. My parents were both musical, although not professionally so. My first musical memories were of my father playing the clarinet and my mother singing. They had met when my father was playing in a jazz orchestra which at the time was hired at a dance hall owned by my mother’s stepfather. So all during my youth I heard in our home both jazz and classical music. We listened to both “art” music and “popular” music without necessarily prizing one form over the other. In retrospect I think that was a curiously American attitude, and I’m sure that exposure to both kinds of music formed my own musical DNA.
Because we lived in a rural area a long way from the nearest large city, I had to create my own musical experience by myself. I discovered the great composers, from Bach through Stravinsky, entirely through recordings and by reading the scores, most of which I had to order through the mail. I never heard a Mahler symphony in live performance until I was in my twenties. Music, especially during my adolescence, was an intensely emotional experience. I couldn’t get enough of it, listening, playing, conducting student performers and composing my own. My first orchestra composition was performed by a local amateur orchestra at a concert in a mental hospital before an audience of severely disabled mental patients for whom the sound of live music instantly affected them, making them shout with joy or weep uncontrollably. I am sure that this experience taught me the most about the power of music to unlock people’s deepest feelings.
Then I went off to university, and the cognitive dissonance began. It was the late 1960s, in contemporary music the era of what we now call “High Modernism.” Serialism, twelve-tone composition, and the radical atomization of all music’s elements was for serious composers the prevailing Zeitgeist. The new music that had the greatest prestige was that which was composed most consciously, most systematically, most rationally. I say that I experienced “cognitive dissonance” because, as an impressionable student, I felt torn between, on the one hand, feeling that if I wanted to be a serious composer I ought be writing in an atonal and rhythmically discontinuous style, something that was utterly alien to me. And on the other hand, I could see that most of the other students were wildly, passionately captivated by all the great popular music that blossomed during those years of the late sixties and early seventies. It disturbed me profoundly to think that in order to be a composer one had to do what my professors seemed to be suggesting: that I shut myself off, ignore the Dionysian energy of rock and soul music and instead live and compose like a monk, writing music intended for a tiny audience consisting mostly of other composers.
Newly composed classical music during the twentieth century had, with some exceptions, evolved to a state of ever increasing complexity, and, especially with the abandonment of tonal harmony, its audience had diminished to the point of being a miniscule elite. When I was in college during the late sixties and early seventies, the model for a serious composer was to adopt the identity and behavior of a scientist. You viewed the composing of music as a kind of research. You did not concern yourself with communicating with anyone who was not equally informed and sophisticated. The contemporary composer would not worry an audience, because that was no longer the goal. The goal was advancing the language and the technology of music, and for this working in isolation would
free composers from having to consider their art as a commodity. The model was to adopt a “scientific” approach to composing. This of course resulted in an ever widening divide, the virtual alienation between composer and audience. And we young composers were told that this isolation would be a permanent condition, and that was a good thing, presumably because the composer would no longer have to worry whether his work was accessible.
Many of the most influential composers at the time were European, some of whom had emerged from the postwar period determined to make a radical break with the art-historical past. Many created works of great originality, intricately organized and brilliantly imagined, but which were nonetheless impenetrable to all but a small audience of cognoscenti. Even Stravinsky, one of the greatest creative artists of all time, in his last years, felt the necessity to systematize his music and adopt the serial method. (But he was too much a man of the theater not to make even his most rigorous works somehow appealing and accessible.)
And, as I say, the paradox was that while contemporary art music was becoming increasingly difficult and “specialized”, the popular music of the late 1960s and early 1970s was brimming with activity. It was the great era of The Beatles, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes. I was thrilled by the energy, the color and the emotion of much of this pop music, and I was also aware of how dominant a role some of these artists played in the culture. Through their art, and of course their very charismatic personalities, they spoke to millions, in the same way that the great novelists of the 19th century like Dickens, Hugo and Tolstoy affected a huge audience. I recently saw an article in an Italian newspaper about the fall of the Berlin Wall. The headline was: “Dylan, Springsteen, Bowie: The Voices that Made the Wall Come Down.” Now, I don’t for a minute believe that some pop singers, even the Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan, were the reason the Soviet Union fell apart. I suspect economics probably had more to do with it than a couple of rock anthems. But what interests me about the headline is the mythology that a work of art, whether it be a Dylan song, a novel by Emile Zola, a play by Brecht or a symphony by Shostakovich, could have such an impact on people’s social awareness that an actual change in society might result.
I draw these two distinctions—the composer-as-scientist and the rock star—just to describe the vast terrain that the world of music embraces and in which I have had to live and work. I am old enough now to have respect for both points of view, and every day when I sit down to work I struggle with trying to find the best way to create a work of art that has its own integrity and yet can speak to as wide an audience as possible.
I note that the Erasmus jury, in awarding the prize this year, said that I have “made contemporary classical music ‘communicate’ again, important at a time when this genre has increasing difficulty in finding a following.” I am humbled by this citation, but in accepting the honor I also acknowledge that the world of artistic creation is as varied as there are artists who inhabit it, and there is no single ideal model of how an artist should or ought to behave. Quite honestly, I don’t know a composer who doesn’t want to communicate. A lifetime in music has taught me that there are many voices, each communicating in its own way, be it intimate or public. What for me counts most is the depth of a work’s feeling, the delight of its invention and the beauty of its form.