There is an ongoing discussion between my friends and I --one that obviously is discussed in other musical circles as well. In "A conversation with John Adams", an article by Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, the conversation turns toward a book Adams is writing, a novel, about how we listen to music.
Adams says. "I realized that the best way to do this was through fiction. My character is a kind of composer, but he's not a composer like me. He's very much the image of what a serious composer should be."
You have to know classical music to understand this remark. By "serious" composer, Adams means someone who writes stringently mathematical and intellectually "rigorous" music, the kind of composer who reigned supreme over the tiny audiences gathered in academe 30 or 40 years ago. By this standard, Adams would be a composer of fluff, even though his music is beautifully crafted, endlessly engaging and has won over audiences throughout the world.
It's this last line that tends to really be the defining point, "won over audiences." We tend to think of "popular" music as something less crafted, more "fluffy." Philip Glass and the minimalist movement wasn't particularly popular when it first arrived on the classical music scene. As mentioned in a previous post about recent articles by Kyle Gann, the academic world tends to want their composers to be less popular, more avant-garde, more "serious" - and yet much of the compositional language currently encouraged in academia comes from composition styles of 50 years ago. How is this avant-garde?
There are new music groups, like "Bang on a Can" which are striving to create new music that reaches a broader audience. They also tend to get labeled as "popularist" composers/performers. Maybe it's just 'sour grapes' by the academic community griping because these "popular" composers have found a way to gain an audience where numerous other "serious" composers are still struggling to perform for anyone outside their university circle of friends.
Beethoven was extremely popular during his life time, as was Liszt and Brahms. Their music is anything but "fluffy." Their music is held up as the standard of great music of their time. Dvořák, on the other hand, is considered one of the top twenty composers to have ever lived by some polls and yet his music is generally not considered scholarly. Why - because he is popular? Having spent time studying his music I find it has all of the same qualities of these other master composers including that appeal which keeps Dvořák's music returning to the concert stage.
Composers like Elliott Carter and George Crumb are favored by the academic crowd because of the intricate interconnection of motives, yet their pieces struggle to gain the devotion of concert goers. Dvořák has similar traits in his music in terms of motivic development, but tends to be more overt in the presentation - and thus easier for the novice listener to grasp basic elements. Philip Glass spent years working as a taxi driver while attempting to gain acceptance for his music, even though he'd studied with the likes of Milhaud and Boulanger. While he has reached wide acceptance for his "minimalist" music, it wasn't over night. John Adams was a teacher and composer in residence with the San Francisco Symphony for year before winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his Transmigration of Souls.
Another winner of this illustrious prize was Aaron Copland for his Appalachian Spring, 1945, a very popular classical piece. While there are also numerous other composers and pieces selected for this prize which fit nicely into the complex academic model - Carter and Crumb to name a few - popularity doesn't preclude the quality. What popularity offers that obscurity does not is the possibility of audience appeal and therefore repeat performances.
I seriously doubt if John Adams spends much time thinking about whether an audience will accept his music -- quite the opposite, he focuses on tying the various elements of the music together. In a post on his blog earbox.com he comments about the anxiety of listening to one of his pieces being performed and how part of the process is understanding the difference a live performance brings to the music. John Cage believed the performance is part of the music and thus 4'33" was created.
While George Crumb said, "It is easy to write unthinking music," I believe music that appeals isn't always unthinking music. IMHO Glass, Adams and Dvořák prove that point. Their music is rich and intelligent with a depth that may never be fully understood by the casual audience. These are composers are popular with audiences, even in the current classical music climate.
The point here is not that I think composers ought to write "fluff" music to gain audience appeal. Nor do I think composers who do not write "fluff" music are somehow missing something. What I do think is that it is possible to write music that has audience appeal is well crafted and complex. Some post-tonal composers felt insulted if the audience found their music enjoyable on first hearing. However, if the audience will never get a second chance to hear a piece, there is no benefit to forcing them through it the first time (IMHO).
I seriously doubt whether I'll ever convince the academic world of the value of music that has audience appeal (although composers like Corigliano, Larson and Higdon all write appealing music and are at least part of the academic community). Whether my own music gains wide audience acceptance or academic approval isn't necessarily on my agenda (although I must admit I'd rather have audience attendance than academic acceptance). I write what I like. If that makes my music it "fluffy" so be it. The music is crafted to the best of my ability, continues to grow and change as I do, and freely explores the techniques of generations of composers who came before me. That is all I can ask of myself.