Charles Rosen recently wrote: “The changes in musical performance registered by Philip were part of a larger movement in all the arts, in paring away the clichés of Romantic excess. Listening to a recording of Sarah Bernhardt intoning Racine makes one laugh today.”*
But excess lives on anyway. Think of the city of Paris’s millennium commission to Glenn Branca piece for 2000 guitars. Well they reneged on the 2000 guitars and Branca got a 100-guitar version done at the WTC in 2001 (pre-9/11). And Robert Wilson’s five hour performances in the 1970’s and Morton Feldman’s six hour String Quartet #2 (maybe it was only five). Excess is not “Romantic” by definition (unless one simply wants to define it that way), it’s style, style, style. Our contemporary style of excess seems to be to glue people to their seats with no elbow-room or sprawl potential for as many hours as a no-frills transatlantic flight in order to listen to either very few instruments, or many more on stage than is needed to make the requisite sound. Cage, in a friendly manner, called Feldman “an extremist,” rather than a romantic. I’d call all these exhaustion artists the last gasp of the heroic male composer (I’m sure it includes some females). I like some kinds of extremism, that of ideas, that of poetics, that even of personal experimentation with extreme states. But I don’t like the kind that remind me of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
* “Playing Music: The Lost Freedom,” a review by Charles Rosen in the New York Review of Books (November 3rd, 2005) of Performing Music in the Age of Recording by Robert Philip (Yale University Press)