Dead Composers, Living Audiences: The Situation of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century

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Gerald L. Phillips, Dead Composers, Living Audiences: The Situation of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008. Cloth, xvi, 358 pp., $114.95. ISBN 978-1-60497-558-1

"The music of dead composers constitutes the overwhelming preponderance of music heard today." This observation, made by Gerald L. Phillips in the introduction to this volume, provides the hook for the title. Phillips's thesis is that, by concentrating upon the musical works of the past, performers and their teachers are hampering, or even preventing, the creation of new masterpieces. The emphasis upon the past is suffocating the work of present. To substantiate his assertion, Phillips thoroughly investigates the role and state of classical music in contemporary society. He poses a question fundamental to all musicians and their teachers: What is the role of the art - and its instruction - in societal context? The discussion is wide-ranging and multidisciplinary, and considers philosophic, literary, scientific, and historical perspectives in an effort to balance the rational and the a-rational in music.

The volume is divided into four parts. Part I, devoted to issues specific to voice pedagogy, is comprised of three essays that originally appeared in the Journal of Singing: "Diction: A Rhapsody" (JOS 58, no. 3 [May/June 2002]: 405-409); "Singing, Creativity and Courage" (JOS 62, no. 2 [November/December 2005]: 159-165); and "A Modest Proposal" (JOS 63, no. 1 [September/October 2006] : 45-51). In the first essay, Phillips urges singers to use diction not merely to clearly articulate the text, but also to express emotional content. The second essay explores the role of creativity when singing someone else's words and music, while the third calls upon voice teachers to lead the charge to revitalize classical music by assigning music of living composers to their students.

In the second section, Phillips widens the discussion to topics that extend beyond voice pedagogy, but still applicable to singing. A discourse on the role of words contains echoes of Marshall McLuhan's phrase "The medium is the message"; Phillips states: "We are buried in language. It mediates every aspect of our experience." (An interesting aside is that the development of language is a relatively recent event in human history, and that thousands of generations existed without it.) Through the use of examples ranging from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen to Larry and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix film trilogy, Phillips examines both the success and the failure of the past to speak to the present-a parallel to the dead not serving the living that harks to the title of the volume. He explores the goals of the Florentine Camerata as it looked backward to the Greek tragedies. Phillips continues the probe into the role of words and music through a discussion of the works of Nietzsche, and in particular The Birth of Tragedy. The reality of the Greek form that is illuminated by the philosopher, Phillips writes-and one that differs from other principal interpreters-is that humans can vanish without a trace. (The implicit analogy is that society should not prize the music of the past to the exclusion of new works.) The individuals of the Greek myths disappear, having done their best in the face of adversity, but not in a blaze of glory or victory.

Part III examines the relationship and parallels of science and music. As scientific theories developed, the frameworks were applied to the arts as well. Human efforts to explain the world, however, lead to a compressed view of reality. In short, we include only what we know or can imagine. But Einstein's theories prodded humans to realize that the universe is larger and stranger than previously envisioned. Similarly Schoenberg, by breaking with tonality, propelled the musical world into a new realm. …


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