Tower composition in BSU concert unduly criticized

I’m writing in response to Adam Babson’s troubling review of Feb. 28’s Berkshire Symphony Orchestra concert (“BSO plays varied program, explores modern composition,” the Record 3/4/03), particularly his treatment of the Joan Tower piece, “Duets.” Of course, Babson is entitled to his own opinion about the BSO’s programming and performance, but I found his discussion of the Tower dangerously misleading. Although Tower is a living composer who writes challenging and unique music, she is not an “avant-garde” composer, and I do not believe she would label herself as such. Furthermore, while she uses a post-tonal harmonic language, she is not a twelve-tone composer. And, even if she were a twelve-tone composer, she would not necessarily be an avant-garde composer: twelve-tone compositional techniques are 80 years old, and the last great avant-garde in twelve-tone music was at its apex in the early ’70s (how time flies!).

I am not unsympathetic to a misinterpretation of a piece of music; however, I am unsympathetic to a review such as Babson’s, which propagates a destructive popular prejudice against new music. Babson suggests that the concert’s low attendance was due to the inclusion of Tower’s piece, a piece of new music. I have seen Chapin packed for programs which included new music, and I don’t believe Tower’s piece was responsible for the small audience. Suggesting such a thing, and then dismissing the piece as “avant-garde” and therefore impossible to discuss, perpetuates a fear of new compositions. There has been an unfortunate popular conflation of terms such as “new,” “avant-garde,” “unlistenable,” and “unintelligible” in describing music. Certainly, much music of the 20th Century is challenging, but it can be very powerful, and I have watched a number of audiences in Chapin Hall receive new, difficult and unfamiliar pieces very enthusiastically. Unfortunately, articles such as Mr. Babson’s emphasize the difficulties of listening to new music, and mislead people into fearing it.

Babson is ostensibly knowledgeable about music history and is clearly an experienced listener of classical music, familiar with the work of composers such as Mahler (whose music is also often challenging, and who was considered progressive, even “avant-garde” in his day). I believe Babson could have written a more thoughtful review of Tower’s piece, and I suggest that his future reviews be more responsible.

Matt Swan ’03