Let’s Stop Boring Joe Queenan

July 25, 2008

The American humorist Joe Queenan has stirred up a tempest about the performance of contemporary music, and for that, at least, we should thank him. He has published a Guardian essay, “Admit it, you’re as bored as I am,” that grows out of what he tells us is attendance at 1,500 concerts in the past 40 years. In those concerts he has been caused to listen to a fair amount of new music, to which his response might be summed up in the immortal words of E.B. White: “I say it’s spinach and to hell with it.”

For no matter how often and earnestly Joe Queenan and his tribe are told that it’s an heirloom broccoli and that it’s good for them, they continue to feel imposed on when it is served. Despite the fact that the critic Tom Service reproduced the conventional replies to Mr. Queenan’s plaints, that the intendant of the English National Opera, John Berry, gave admirable PR for his own company’s productions, and that many an earnest member of the paper’s readership chimed in, there was nothing new in any of the arguments. John Schaefer nobly imported the discussion to WNYC Radio, where all the threadbare arguments were recited again. And, in my view, this is just fine. It’s as it should be. Because those are the arguments that continue to motivate both audiences and presenters. So long as Mr. Queenan’s simplistic and sometimes factually incorrect lamentations still dominate the minds of people like him — some of the most attentive and loyal among the audience for concert music — someone somewhere has not done a very good job. And this can be remedied.

How can the Joe Queenans who are willing to shell out pretty large sums to sit in our concert halls, while feeling victimized by new music, continue to rehearse the same wails that we have been hearing pretty much since the Truman administration? How is it that he is able to hear no difference between Birtwistle and Webern? If we accept (what I’m not convinced is inevitable) that he will never cotton to Elliott Carter’s music, need we assume that a chronological firewall should prevent him from exploring all new music for ever? Nothing he says in his clearly sincere rant implies that he’s ever heard anything resembling the music of a Derek Bermel, a Lowell Liebermann, or a John Musto — composer-performers as different from each other as they are from the people whose works torture the pitiable Mr. Queenan with ennui or worse. Does he know any of the new music that’s coming out of Latin America? Who is failing in communication with someone as persistent as Joe Queenan in his attendance at our prime classical-music venues?

And are his lapses any more regrettable than those found in some of the rebuttals against him? Why do people like Mr. Service always seem to rejoice in pointing out how many people will gladly come to hear Boulez while “hating Mozart”? Is that really a compliment to Boulez — especially when there are plenty of people who are connoisseurs of both — and of Muddy Waters and Radiohead besides? And we really need to get beyond the arguments of how young and large the audiences are at the occasional all-Stockhausen concert at the Barbican. First, such talk just alienates the people who didn’t join (or belong in) that flock of hipsters; and, second, it reminds me of a certain kind of traditionalist Catholic who never stops raving about how the world is yearning for the Latin Mass of the sixteenth century because the one church in town that has one is crowded. They, conveniently for their argument, ignore the hundreds of times as many Vatican II Masses that contain thousands of times as many worshipers. Happily, specialized and targeted events of substance will always find their maximum audience.

At the risk of seeming maddeningly irenic: everybody in this debate is right. The Joe Queenans quite literally don’t know what they’re missing, and it’s not their fault. Those of us who “know better” but haven’t communicated well have our work cut out for us. And just because everybody has a point doesn’t mean that there are no victims. The whole musical commonwealth suffers from a certain impoverishment when the best of contemporary music is either not effectively presented or is under-represented. The damage is compounded if a few composers with the right connections dominate the prime venues and media, giving the impression that they offer the totality of what new music can be.

But, you know? It will all come right. The best music really is irresistible when it gets heard under appropriately conducive circumstances, and it almost inevitably will get heard so eventually. But it doesn’t mean that all of us who care, including Joe Queenan, can ever consider our job done, or our arguments complete.

UPDATE: While I was quite sympathetic to Joe Queenan’s concerns above, it might lend some perspective to turn from his concert-hall concerns to see some of his views on popular culture.

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