This week, quite out of the blue, I received an email from Todd Levin. It seems his wife found my post about his music through Google and pointed him to it.
After I picked myself up off the floor, I made sure to ask for an interview. Mr. Levin graciously agreed, and the results are below. The good news is Todd Levin is a real guy. The bad news is… well, everything else if you enjoy his music.
iconmaster: Just what have you been doing since DeLuxe was released in 1995? It seemed like you went into hiding there for a while.
Todd Levin: Not “hiding.” I just never wanted to be a “career” composer – it didn’t interest me. There are other things I enjoy doing more on a daily basis than writing music. Nor did I want to compose music in order to earn money. There are other ways I’d rather earn money.
i: How have your views on classical music and the world of classical music changed or matured since DeLuxe?
TL: I would say my views on classical music and the world of classical music have not changed/matured substantively. Classical contemporary music is, on the whole, less interesting to me than it was 10-15 years ago, though there always are individual exceptions.
i: You said in Todd Levin that you didn’t want to influence history. However, I think you probably did in some way. Do you feel like critics and fellow composers have come around to your point of view somewhat? Now that you’re older, do you still find yourself wanting to “push the boundaries” in music?
TL: I said what I meant. As to critics and fellow composers, I wouldn’t know what they’re thinking, as I haven’t really spoken to anyone in the contemporary classical music world in over five years.
i: You also said that classical music needs to “climb down from its parochial pedestal and throw off the artistic aurora.” Do you think classical music can compete for attention in today’s digital culture? Does it need to? What should it do to stay relevant?
TL: I think that in the most basic terms, comtemporary classical music is as impotent (or more so) than it was 10-15 years ago, in terms of its ability to impact culture in any meaningful way. There are individual exceptions, but I’m talking broad generalities.
i: Do you think this is a trend we ought to be trying to reverse, or should we just accept that classical music is not really a “fit” in contemporary culture?
TL: Why would one desire to be involved in an art form one believes to be impotent, and unable to make a significant cultural contribution to the arts community as a whole? I think I stated this as clearly as possible in the text of Todd Levin (DG Ultramix) on DeLuxe.
i: Are you working on any music projects right now, or looking ahead to any?
TL: I always revolve ideas in my head, but I do this for my own personal delectation only.
i: What other composers or musicians would you consider to be successfully covering some of the same ground that you’ve been covering (figuring out what “classical” music should sound like today)?
TL: The last group of composers who created their own musical language were the minimalists such as Glass and Reich. Adams has extended this musical approach successfully by packaging this music better than any other “post-minimalist.”
i: It’s probably hard to make a living off composition these days unless you hit it big as a film composer. What kind of work are you doing instead of music?
TL: I’m a curator of Post War and Contemporary Art, and have been doing this before either DeLuxe or Ride The Planet was released. I’ve been involved in the Post War and Contemporary Art market as a buyer/seller for almost thirty years.
i: That’s great work, and I’m glad you enjoy it. But isn’t contemporary art even more rarified than contemporary classical music? Consider how many people will buy and listen to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack or just about anything by John Williams, and compare that to the number of people who visit modern art galleries. You might argue that soundtracks are too populist to count as true “classical” music, but once you take the movie out of the equation I’m not sure of any empirical test that could neatly divide those categories. To put it another way: isn’t it the responsibility of the artist, rather than the medium, to inject the cultural potency that you feel is missing in classical music today?
TL: Your assumption, viz. “…contemporary art even more rarified than contemporary classical music..” is sadly, incredibly mistaken.
Go to a major international art fair such as Basel Miami Beach, and look at the crowds. Look at the prices being paid. Look at who shows up to be seen – anyone who is anyone in the fields of the Arts, Business, Sports, Popular Culture, etc. The immediate cultural influence is overwhelmingly massive. Young artists are sexed up for the pages of such magazines such as Vogue, WWD, GQ, and Esquire, and the results of major auctions when record prices are set is seen immediately on Bloomberg News, CNBC, MSNBC, and any/every major paper/web page. Your comment shows a total ignorance of the contemporary art scene [iconmaster note: He’s not wrong], and more importantly the market mechanism.
Art can be quantified, therefore, it can be bought and sold, and therefore, a market economy which is impossible for classical music exists behind it. Global music sales (including digital music sales) were just under $20 billion in 2008, down for the tenth consecutive year in a row – but remember (and this is important) classical (or ‘fine art music) sales make up only about 2% (!) of that total amount. Global fine art sales are probably around $40 billion dollars, and have increased every year for the past ten years, with Post War and Contemporary Art being the largest portion of that total.
Contemporary Art has an immediate cultural impact on people’s lives today in a way that it never has in the past – artists such as Jeff Koons are rock stars (not classical stars) in their own right, with all the attending cultural awareness and adulation. Contemporary classical music once had that power – at the end of the 19th Century (think Wagner) – but has allowed itself to be marginalized and rendered impotent.
That’s why someone like Philip Glass is important. His early work not only created a new language, but he also took on the responsibility of creating his audience and inserting himself wherever possible into the wider cultural milieu. Interestingly, do you know why PG became the cultural phenomenon he now is? Because of the support of the visual arts community – they basically ‘made’ him.
i: Finally, what do you think are the essential components of a good work of music?
TL: It’s like pornography – “I know it when I hear (see) it.”