IN Boston for the debut of his work "Swords and Plowshares," Ned Rorem addressed an audience at Harvard University about his life as a composer in his characteristically witty, sarcastic, and tongue-in-cheek manner. During an exchange with the audience, the Monitor's reporter asked: "What would it take for composers today to regain the high standing among the masses that they once had?"Mr. Rorem responded: "It would take a complete revolution in the way we think.... I don't believe that art has any necessity the way it did even as recently as 125 years ago.... Of all the arts, music is the worst off.... All the other arts are contemporary. "The books we read that are reviewed every day in newspapers are by living authors. The plays we see are by living playwrights, and if they're not by living playwrights they are by playwrights as recently dead as Eugene O'Neill or Edward Albee and they're called 'revivals.' Imagine someone calling a Beethoven symphony a 'revival.' "The movies we see are, by definition, contemporary. The paintings in the galleries in New York are 90 percent by living artists.... Only in music is this predicament the way it is and getting worse by the minute. And that's also because of the pop music situation. Pop music has eased out [contemporary] so-called 'classical' music ... to the point where the literati - the cultured people of today who read their Kierkegaard and Aristotle and who like Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock or listen to Vivaldi ( it's always Vivaldi) - when it comes to music, it's popular music. It's not me or you or Elliott Carter.... Composers don't 'exist' in the ken of the culture, not to mention the uncultured public. "In Nantucket where I live part of the time, there were 20 young pre-teenagers learning to play the violin. That program has been discontinued. That to me is very, very sad. When I was a kid in school, we were taken to museums, we had music such as it was, and I was exposed and so was everyone else. We could reject it or accept it. Today there's nothing to reject because it isn't given to them. "I will say one thing.... It's astonishing what can happen overnight.... For example, feminism. For 3,000 years people assumed that women were inferior in one way or another to men ... that situation changed almost overnight, not that it's any better, but at least people know what you're talking about and women are fighting back.... The glasnost situation, the Berlin Wall - maybe it's all for the worst - but at least it happened and it happened very very quickly. "...If suddenly [America] were to get a president who was not a philistine, ... there might be some hope. What's hope for me would be tragedy for President Bush, but I do hope that something will happen in our lifetime."