For his Great Conversations in Music at the Library of Congress, Eugene Istomin brought together six composers of different generations and various esthetics: Milton Babbitt, Richard Danielpour, Lowell Lieberman, George Perle, Ned Rorem, and Ellen Taafe Zwilich.

Richard Danielpour, Lowell Lieberman, Milton Babbitt, Eugene Istomin, Ned Rorem, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, George Perle

Istomin welcomed them with this introduction: “We are here to talk about the state of music in America, and the influence of Europe on our culture, as well as our own impact on Europe in return.” The debate was altogether very amicable and lively, with a willingness to listen each other. There was a common concern about the future of musical creation.

 Here are the ten questions Istomin had prepared.

  1. Roots. Do you agree that European roots are fundamental in our culture, not only in classical music, but in pop, jazz, and folk music?
  2. The Composer. What made you decide to be a composer? For whom do you compose your music?
  3. Twentieth-century masterpieces: Distinguished composers and friends, what do you consider to be the six most important works written since the turn of the 20th century?
  4. Appreciating different works. Pierre Boulez’ Pli selon pli written to a text by Stéphane Mallarmé, Poulenc’s La Voix humaine, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms – can you equally value them, as different they may be from one another?
  5. Eclectic programming. Stravinsky commented on Gary Graffman’s programming of his Serenade in A along with Rachmaninoff’s Etude-tableau in E flat minor: “What a wonderful neighborhood for me! ” How do you want the listeners to be introduced to your music? Do eclectic programs such as Graffman’s disturb you?
  6. Performers. As to performers, Ned Rorem once said: “Great players and great singers have a unique personality signature. Billie Holiday cannot not be Billie! Frank Sinatra cannot not be Sinatra! Heifetz cannot not be Heifetz! Casals cannot not be Casals! Horowitz cannot not be Horowitz!” I certainly agree with that – do you, composers? What does that mean for the performance of your own music, what qualities do you require from the performers?
  7. Accessibility. Why is new pop music instantly accepted by the public? Why is new serious music mostly inaccessible even for classical music lovers, except for a small group of modern music buffs? Where do you place minimalist music?
  8. Language and tonality. Picasso once said: “In order to understand the Chinese, I would have to learn their language. In the same way, Cubism is a way of seeing. You have to learn a bit.” For an appreciation of atonal or serial music, should we refer to Picasso’s analogy as well? Does one need to be an experienced listener in order to enjoy and be moved by Beethoven, Brahms or the Symphonies of Tchaikovsky? What about Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and Schönberg’s Erwartung?
  9. Experimental music. What is experimental music? Which works are only experiments? Which are works of art?
  10. The Avant-garde. Does the systematic search for newness render avant-garde works obsolete? Wouldn’t they become passé before having been present?

Link to the Library of Congress website, where the debate can be watched: