I'm several chapters into reading American Composers and their Public: A Critical View, written in 1995 by Nicholas Tawa. So far, he is making the case, no surprise here, that the early modernist composers disdained the conventional classical audience but never built a new audience beyond a niche of peers, specialists etc. He also points out how the music of the teens and twenties focused on texture and innovation, at the expense of form and content.
He uses several quotes from Aaron Copland to characterize the period as being electrifying and that "money and art patrons were plentiful, and there was the conviction that nothing but prosperity and good times lay ahead." And even Copland found it exciting to be fighting the new avant garde battles even if the audience was not ready for contemporary music. Of course, Copland ultimately unified inspiration and acceptance. But in spite of all that occurred in the twenties, the author argues this generation of composers was arrogant, un-democratic, individualistic, self-aggrandizing, out of balance, etc.
In the midst of disparaging attitudes and practices of these composers, Tawa interjects:
Whatever American modernists may have said, they did produce several outstanding works that deserve to be taken seriously by more sophisticated listeners.
Then, he goes on to list Ruggles' Sun-Treader, Copland's Short Symphony, Sessions' Symphony No. 2, Cage's Sonata and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Carter's String Quarter No. 2. While it is odd to hear these recommendations in the midst of invective, it mirrors my experience immersed in this music. The conventional narrative of classical music development is something like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, maybe Debussy etc. and then classical music drives over a cliff (with Schoenberg or Cage as driver/villain, depending on your artistic beliefs). And after the fact, I'm looking through the wreckage at the bottom of that cliff trying to find new music that is in fact good and usable ("Oh look, there's High Color from Cowell. But be careful with that Antheil work right next to it.") In any case, I think Ruggle's Sun-Treader is in fact salvageable and of value, in a heavy kind of way.
Promethean Antagonist thinks much of the ugliness of modern music is due to nihilism, mentioning Stockhausen as an example. While I don't have an opinion about the world view of Stockhausen, I do take Richard Taruskin's opinion on Schoenberg, where the focus on the composer, his methods and tools, overwhelmed any sensitivity towards an audience. Taruskin calls this divergence the "poietic fallacy," which places the making of art ahead of how it is perceived. But even Taruskin goes on to make his Schoenberg recommendations:
Rather than the ones that smell like teen spirit, the Schoenberg works that seem to me to be destined to survive (or maybe just the ones I would like to see survive) are the ones in which he showed his ironic, playfully inventive side: Pierrot Lunaire...the First String Quartet and the Chamber Symphony; but also a number of the early 12-note works like Suite for Piano Op. 25 or the Septet Suite Op. 29...
And since I don't get many chances to recommend Stockhausen, how about his work for two pianos, Mantra. I saw a mesmerizing performance at the University of British Columbia, a decade ago.