COMPOSERS NEED ENEMIES. Maybe all artists do, but composers seem to have a special knack for forming cliques, cultivating rivalries, and denouncing opponents. Part of

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Composing themselves

Inside the minds of two brilliant musicians.

COMPOSERS NEED ENEMIES. Maybe all artists do, but composers seem to have a special knack for forming cliques, cultivating rivalries, and denouncing opponents. Part of the process of aesthetic maturation, naturally enough, is defining what one isn't. Furthermore, a nonrepresentational art such as music can be so frustratingly vague (what is content? what is meaning?) that for many composers, probably, ideological conflict helps give their work point and purpose.

The Music of Silence

by John Tavener, with Brian Keeble (Faber and Faber, $12.99)

Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life

trans. Robert Spaethling (W.W. Norton & Co., $35)

For much of the 20th century, the Tonal vs. Atonal Wars, which raged so heatedly and accomplished so little, provided convenient banners to march under. "Their music is so fundamentally different from ours," both sides thought, "that we can't both be right." Call it the Knight on a White Horse Syndrome: Everyone else opposes me so strongly, it just proves that I alone bear truth. But what if no one actually does oppose you? Well, then, you have to invent someone.

Fanning the flames of this old battle comes English composer John Tavener, whose The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament was compiled from hours of interviews with his friend Brian Keeble. Mr. Tavener, to put it mildly, is not a happy camper, and by God someone's to blame. Probably no memoir in music history provides such egregious, ungenerous, even paranoiac examples of straw-man-building.

Tavener is best known for his The Protecting Veil for solo cello and string orchestra, and for the "Song of Athene" performed at Princess Diana's funeral. He's one of the most popular and active contemporary composers at work today—rightfully so, I hasten to add. Yet he feels cruelly underappreciated, and the culprit is: modernism. What exactly he means by this term is vague—even Keeble, who asks him outright, can't quite pin him down—but it seems to have something to do with post-Schoenbergian atonality in general and 12-tone techniques in particular.

On the one hand, he does admire Webern and the late serial works of Stravinsky for their "transparency" and "inner silence, metaphysical silence." But elsewhere he seems to use "modernism" as a catch-all for any music other than his own—in exactly the way, furthermore, that a Soviet cultural apparatchik c. 1940 would have used "formalism": as a word that means everything and nothing and exists only as a stick to beat enemies real or supposed.

When Tavener states that music "must be free of all superfluous violence. Above all, it must be free of all angst," or that modernism "worships just notes and procedures and nothing of the metaphysical meaning behind the notes," we get a slightly clearer picture of what he means. But then he becomes hysterical and begins to speak apocalyptically: "More and more composers go to laboratories or use computers to write their music. . . . It is just a dialogue between him and the synthesizer . . . God is wiped out, humanity is wiped out. . . ." But honestly, how many composers, in the year 2000, actually "worship just notes and procedures?" In how much of today's music is humanity really "wiped out"? How numerous, and how powerful, are these evil composers? And just how have they done Tavener wrong?

An incredible amount of bitterness lies behind these gross generalizations, which is distressing for two reasons. First, Tavener's worldly success indicates that he hasn't suffered at the hands of modernists, especially modernist critics, quite as much as he'd have his readers believe; and second, this bitterness is at odds with the profound spirituality and Greek Orthodox faith to which he attests. For a composer with such a deep relationship to "the metaphysical meaning behind the notes" in his own work, Tavener seems curiously preoccupied with what everyone else is or isn't doing. Not for him the quiescence and generosity of spirit of John Cage or Lou Harrison, whose personal spiritual beliefs are no less deeply held and whose music is no less inspired by these beliefs.

The Music of Silence comes in three parts: a first-person account of Tavener's early career, a transcribed interview with Keeble, and extended commentaries on six of his works. There is much background information for the fan of Tavener's music, and for the writer of program notes, but the book will be perhaps less compelling a read for the general classical music listener.

And for other composers? You'll roll your eyes until they ache, if you don't just give up and toss the book across the room halfway through. Which would be a shame. There is much wisdom and insight in Tavener's reflections, if only his funhouse-mirror views of what is actually going on in contemporary music didn't make it so hard to take him seriously.

IS TAVENER getting the respect he deserves from critics and colleagues? Maybe, maybe not. But there's no question at all that Mozart didn't. His primary problem, though, was not jealous cabals of mediocre colleagues (though they did exist) but his irascible father. Their complex relationship is the most fascinating aspect of Robert Spaethling's brilliant new translation of Mozart's correspondence, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life.

Meticulously reproducing Mozart's exuberant, slangy writing style—including misspelling words in English where Mozart had done so in German—Spaethling brings Mozart before us more vividly than any third-person biography could. What a varied personality the letters depict: hardworking, frivolous, idealistic, shrewd, arrogant, affectionate, self-deprecating, self-deluding, sanctimonious, scatological (not so much as a vowel has been censored from the notoriously coprophiliac letters Mozart wrote to his cousin Maria Anna).

Mozart seems to have been constantly angering his father—not attending assiduously enough to a job search, traveling and settling in the wrong places, falling in love with the wrong women, spending too much money. And in Mozart's responses—telling his father exactly what he wanted to hear while presenting measured arguments for doing as he pleased (which Mozart always went ahead and did anyway)—we see the master psychologist, the man whose operatic music above all revealed so much insight into human nature.

Spaethling provides generous footnotes, identifying every person and musical work mentioned and linking the letters with lively accounts of the background facts Mozart left out. Here's a composer who in many ways really did have it rough—but the warmth of spirit and sheer likability revealed in Mozart's letters stand as a rebuke not only to Tavener but to any self-martyred contemporary composer.

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