Tonight I saw a wonderful concert by the Arizona Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). Pieces and performances were consistently outstanding, but among the works were two classics, Boulez's Dérive and Crumb's Eleven Echoes of Autumn. In addition to my primary reaction — bliss — the concert got me thinking.
A good piece of contemporary art music is like an airplane: it is evidence of the glorious and almost-unbelievably-complex heights people can reach when they aren't devoting all their energies to killing each other. A popular song is like a bike; maybe a techno a groove is a motorcycle. Some people (the Beatles come most immediately to mind, but of course there are many others) have created cars that have endured and become classics in their own right. But art music aims higher.
Think of a symphonic work as a jetliner. Instead of two makers, Boeing and Airbus, here there are thousands. Each one feels a little different, takes you to a different place. Composers try to outdo each other in amenities, meals, and build quality. I think of a big John Adams piece, for instance, as an intercontinental cruiser. It is exquisitely comfortable, features soft-touch interior surfaces, and is polished to a beautiful sheen. And we've all boarded a plane made by one of his competitors — or admirers. They tend to feel plastic-y and decidedly store-brand. But Adams will take you somewhere entirely different from Crumb. And Boulez wants to show you how the machinery and technology works.
In the end, the most important thing is that you are transported to the other side. And what marvelous creations Boulez and Crumb have provided for the journey.