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Critical Conversation
Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

Wednesday, July 28
    Initial posting. Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?
    By Wynne Delacoma
    posted @ 07/28/2004 3:22 pm
    I have never understood the allure of trying to define the next Big Idea, especially in such a tumultuous field as classical music. At certain points in history, big or semi-big Ideas are so obvious that they practically name themselves. With the rise of Glass, Reich and Riley, minimalism was obviously one big idea. Serialism was another. But eventually, many big ideas turn into big ideologies, schools of thought that stifle creativity rather than stimulate it. It is beyond me why we would feel the need to search for big ideas--or worst yet, predict the next one--at a time, like now, when none is obviously rising to the surface. Admittedly, big ideas are useful for critics, and I mourn the lack of them at the moment. We have all struggled to describe a piece of music in a way that readers might actually understand, that would help them imagine the sounds we heard. "Minimalist'' and "12-tone'' are handy labels, shorthand we can assume will have some meaning for our readers. The urge to classify is a human need, a source of comfort, a way of making order out of the chaos around us. In our hearts, however, we must acknowledge that our carefully constructed order is most likely an illusion. I have no doubt that any number of potential big ideas are swirling around out there, But until one emerges, its absence is no tragedy. Big ideas are useful when they come along. They give listeners a way to understand unfamiliar music. They give composers with competing views something to rebel against. But presuming to define and predict trends has always struck me as preposterous, an exercise in pomposity. Who among us really knows where a dynamic art form is headed?

    Movements and media
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 1:42 pm

    Interesting stuff here, including the first trickle from readers.

    "Post-modernism." "Post-minimalism." The very labels tell us there is no "big thing." We now define what's happening only by what it's not.

    One musical legacy of the 20th century was the vast spread of classical music, even into smallish cities. Today you can see sophisticated opera productions, with a very fine orchestra, even in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For all the exalted (some might say hyped) reputation of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, on a given evening you may hear better playing in the pit in Houston.

    What hasn't gotten spread abroad is the new-music scene, which is still heavily concentrated in New York, maybe Los Angeles and a handful of academic centers. Of Kyle Gann's long list of significant newer composers, no more than three have been heard in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the five years I've been here. But then neither, to my knowledge, have we had a single piece by either Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez. We have two small contemporary-music series, but their programming tends to be wary of upsetting people's digestion.

    Kyle also raises the issue of the record industry vis-a-vis new music. After a veritable explosion in the 1990s, when the CD was the hot new thing, the record business now is a floundering "mature industry." With what used to be the "majors" reduced to kitschy crossover and repackaging back catalogue, performers and even composers are putting out their own CDs, which don't get widespread distribution. Which provides yet another example of the fragmentation of music and culture in general. Downloading has the potential of transforming the whole recording business, but at least for classical music it's not there yet. Maybe we're all just waiting for "the next big thing" in music delivery systems. But in the meantime, don't count on major recorded exposure for new music.

    There's also the problem of the daily-newspaper scene. Even a city as big as Houston, the fourth-largest in the country, has only one daily newspaper with one classical music critic (the knowlegeable and thoughtful Charles Ward). Gone are the days when critics at hotly competitive papers tried to outdo one another by going out on partisan limbs. The high-and-mighty pontifications of Virgil Thomson wouldn't sell today.

    I felt this keenly when, after working in competitive newspaper markets in Albany and Rochester, N.Y., I went to The Kansas City Star, which had just absorbed its competing paper. As the only classical-music critic in town, I found myself more cautious in my judgements, less willing to be outrageous. No one told me to do so, but I just felt myself in a very different position. It doesn't help, of course, that ours has become so litigious a society. Or that papers, increasingly jittery about perceptions of bias, promote "fair and balanced" (pace Fox News) coverage.

    What critic today would write, as Hanslick did of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, of "music that stinks in the ear?" Maybe we're more responsible in writing about new music, more careful. But we're a lot less fun to read. 

    Good point from the reader raising the issue of gender balance, which isn't even close in much of the classical-music world. Nowhere is the imbalance worse than in music criticism. The New York Times finally hired a woman, Anne Midgette, and we've got Wynne Delacoma in Chicago, Willa Conrad in Newark, Melinda Bargreen in Seattle, Janelle Gelfand and Mary Ellen Hutton in Cincinnati, Wilma Salisbury in the number-two spot in Cleveland. Have I forgotten someone? Out of maybe 55 full-time classical-music critics at American papers, that's hardly parity.

    Brahms and Wagner
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 1:34 pm
    Dead horses should not be unduly beaten, and this conversation is about the present and future, however much we might learn from the past. But Alex, I still think there were big differences between W and B -- not just Hanslick's polemics, but what they themselves believed and what we today can still hear. It would be interesting to know what Schoenberg thought about this, or what Walter Frisch thinks (maybe they've articulated themselves already on the subject). Even if one buys the idea of the basic similarity of harmonic language in W and B (and sure, they were both in the German tradition, post-Bach, post-Beethoven), there are other differences. Like form and rhythm and use of motivic phrases or kernels and the relation to words and so on. I buy your Britten-Boulez comparison, though. But what about the differences in abstraction from a Pollock painting to an Earle Brown graphic score to Babbitt? Everything looks "unified" from a distant enough perspective.

    To John Rockwell: Styles, Not Politics
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/28/2004 8:20 am

    When I said that music in 1880 was unified, I meant stylistically, not politically. Despite the heated Wagner-Brahms debate, I think close analysts would agree that the two composers were speaking pretty much the same language in harmonic terms. With some judicious re-scoring, you could make parts of "Parsifal" sound like the Fourth Symphony, and vice versa. Compare the stylistic canyons of the year 1950: Britten's "Billy Budd" and Boulez's "Structures" simply do not inhabit the same universe, even though both were performed almost simultaneously in Paris in 1952.

    I'll readily agree with Kyle Gann that post-minimalism is probably the biggest "middle-sized" idea these days. The classic minimalism of Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass was the last "big idea" of the twentieth century, and I doubt we'll see another anytime soon. Minimalism had a far greater impact on pop music (Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, David Bowie, all modern electronic and dance music) than it did on classical composition, where it is still being very gradually assimilated. Young composers tell me that the minimalists are routinely dispraised in academic music departments around the country, which seems incredible. Before we go forward, we have to understand the past ‹ absorb the twentieth century in all its "alienated majesty," to quote Emerson.

    The Idea and its Conditions
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/28/2004 7:49 am
    Hi John - the composers on that list range in age from 23 to 66, but the bulk of them are in their 40s and 50s - maybe a third of them aren't 50 yet. We could discuss totalism, and I could give you another list mostly in their 40s. I’m 48, and I don’t feel well qualified to characterize the music scene of people a decade or more younger than myself. Some youngster will have to speak for his own generation.

    As for making a dent in public consciousness, I don’t believe that that is any longer within the composer’s control. These days, corporations refuse to push music that doesn’t make an immediate return on its investment, and so they act as a daunting filter. A lot of these people have CDs on small labels that, in the golden 1960s and ‘70s, distributors might have carried for variety’s sake, but will do so no longer. Heck, in the '60s Columbia would have been recording these people. In terms of the new-music scene at its current drought level of support, a lot of these people are considered well-known - given that, by and large, these are names you will not find on orchestra programs, because they don't bother with the orchestra (or vice versa).

    It’s easy, if we want to do it, to define “the next big idea” in such a way that nothing could possibly qualify under current cultural conditions: 1. it has to have broken through massive corporate indifference to creative music, and to have reached the public; 2. it has to be by composers who became “successful” by a certain age; etc. I offer a definition that is realistic given the status quo - otherwise we’re likely to, instead, end up talking about the status quo itself.

    Question for Kyle
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 7:20 am

    There was a time, long ago, when I was as up on the byways of new music as Kyle is. But an innocent question (innocent because I don't know half of Kyle's postminimalist names): how many of those composers are under the age of 50? If, as I suspect (but don't know for sure), the considerable majority are roughly Kyle's age, then can their work be considered the next big, or even medium, thing?

    Of course, you could argue that in their maturity they represent the current mainstream, even if they've hardly made a dent on the larger public consciousness. I mean, maybe there's a big idea seizing those who write poetry in Urdu as a hobby, but can it legitimately be compared to chorale preludes on Lutheran hymn tunes or the birth of the symphony or "the music of the future" or even Serialism, back when? Trees falling unheard in forests, etc. 

    The Next Medium-Sized Idea

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/28/2004 6:39 am
    So maybe the starting question can be reformulated a little more modestly: What's the next Medium-Sized idea? That is, who are the younger composers capable of generating a derivative school, of being eventually coopted by car commercials, of being asked to write Hollywood film scores?

    Well, thought I answered this, but let me try again. One of the most widespread current styles, a true lingua franca in which a great variety of composers across the country communicate, is postminimalism. To recycle a description I’ve published, rather than “say it again in worser English” as Robert Frost said, postminimalist music is generally

    tonal, mostly consonant (or at least never tensely dissonant), and usually based on a steady pulse. The music rarely strays from conventionally musical sounds, although many of the composers use synthesizers. Postminimal composers tended to work in shorter forms than the minimalists, 15 minutes rather than 75 or 120, and with more frequent textural variety. And the preferred medium for most of them was the mixed chamber ensemble pioneered by Glass and Reich, though without the minimalist habit of ensemble unison. [Postminimalist music also tends to combine elements from diverse cultures, though in an integrated rather than eclectic manner. Quasi-minimalist additive and subtractive processes, often moving A, AB, ABC, and so on, are common as a structural basis.]

    Another way to characterize postminimalism is negative: it was the exact antipodal opposite of serialism. Like the serialists, the postminimalists sought a consistent musical language, a cohesive syntax within which to compose. But where serialist syntax was abrupt, discontinuous, angular, arrhythmic, and opaque, postminimalist syntax was precisely the opposite: smooth, linear, melodic, gently rhythmic, comprehensible. The postminimalist generation, most of them born in the 1940s, had grown up studying serialism, and had internalized many of its values. Minimalism inspired them to seek a more audience-friendly music than serialism, but they still conceptualized music in terms familiar to them from 12-tone thought: as a language with rules meant to guarantee internal cohesiveness.

    A few of the composers I’d consider as falling into this movement include William Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, the late Jonathan Kramer, Ingram Marshall, Beth Anderson, Daniel Goode, Dan Becker, Carolyn Yarnell, Belinda Reynolds, John Halle, Randall Woolf, Melissa Hui, Marc Mellits, Ed Harsh, Elodie Lauten, Peter Gena, Bill Alves, David Borden, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Giancarlo Cardini, Michael Byron, Conrad Cummings, Robert Een, Jim Fox, Jean Hasse, Paul Lansky, John McGuire, Paul Epstein, Peter Garland, Paul Dresher, Tayloe Harding, Mary Jane Leach, Beata Moon, Hans Otte, Maggi Payne, James Sellars, Andrew Schulze, Nicole Reisnour, Allison Cameron, Wayne Siegel, Charles Smith, Giovanni Sollima, Bernadette Speach, Kevin Volans, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, sometimes James Tenney, Stephen Scott, Mary Ellen Childs, Guy Klucevsek, Phil Winsor, Joseph Koykkar, Thomas Albert, Sasha Matson, and Wes York.

    Now, I don’t know about asking these guys to write film scores - geez, is that going to be a criterion? But I did note that the 2000 film Pollock, about the Abstract Expressionist painter, had a fascinating film score by Jeff Beal in a thoroughly postminimalist idiom.

    Apology & comment
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/28/2004 5:29 am

    Oops, Paul Miller, yes of course. Not Paul Taylor, the choreographer. Too bad about Rebirth of a Nation, for which I had at least modest hopes.

    OK, so we're more or less agreed that a musical consensus was always a mirage. (We have a consensus! What do you know?) Even so, there was at least a lingua franca. There were rules, conventions, categories, broad notions of taste and appropriateness, a notion of the vulgar and refined that the transgressive likes of Ives and Mahler could challenge and exploit. We have none of that today. Composers are condemned to reinvent the wheel and audiences have lost the valuable capacity to be shocked. Can anyone imagine a piece of music starting a Rite of Spring-like riot today?

    That state of grace, in which composers know that audiences know what to expect and create drama by defying those expectations, ain't coming back. That makes for a difficult creative climate, not just for composers but for performing musicians too. How do you surprise a jaded audience with a sudden diminished seventh chord or a "wrong" resolution, or an quirky change of meter? The bourgeoisie has become epatement-proof.

    (Incidentally, the same issues apply in the visual arts, but exhibition wall texts still prattle on about "transgression" and "challenging received notions" as if those terms had any meaning.) 

    We critics are left trying to orient ourselves in each new piece. Fortunately, we are helped by the tenacious human penchant for spinoff, plagiarism and imitation. Even in a time that prizes originality above all else - and therefore debases the whole concept - every new invention immediately attracts a swarm of knock-offs. These neo-pseudo-school-of-pieces do us the great service of throwing into relief the qualities of the first or the best (not necessarily the same thing).

    So maybe the starting question can be reformulated a little more modestly: What's the next Medium-Sized idea? That is, who are the younger composers capable of generating a derivative school, of being eventually coopted by car commercials, of being asked to write Hollywood film scores?

    Alex, if the postmodern carnvial is over, have you detected the next phase?


    To Alex and Justin; the pedant at work
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 3:45 am
    Alex: a unified style in 1880, in the teeth of the Hanslick-Wagner-Brahms brou-ha-ha? Justin: It's Paul Miller, not Paul Taylor, and however bad both you and I thought his "Transmetroplitan" was, you're lucky you didn't see his "Rebirth of a Nation" two days later, which Jon Pareles reviews in today's Times and which I comment on in my Friday column.

    Listening for Passionate Engagement
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/28/2004 2:41 am

    Composers are recovering from the twentieth century, the century in which big ideas ran amok. A kind of competitive marketplace developed in the wake of Wagner in which composers tried to outstrip each other in the invention of new languages, new trends, new stylized relationships with the past.

    You had Debussyish impressionism, Schoenbergian atonality, Stravinskyan neoclassicism, Milhaud’s jazz style, Hindemith’s “music for use,” Weill’s “epic opera,” Krenek’s “now opera,” Copland’s “populist” style, Ives’ polystylistic collage — and that takes us up only to the middle of the century. In the postwar era, pandemonium. Stockhausen has at one time or another described himself as the purveyor of “serial music,” “point music,” “electronic music,” “new percussion music,” “new piano music,” “spatial music,” “statistical music,” “aleatoric music,” “live electronic music,” a “new syntheses of music and speech,” “musical theatre,” “ritual music,” “scenic music,” “group composition,” “process composition,” “moment composition,” “formula composition,” “multi-formula composition,” “universal music,” “telemusic,” “spiritual music,” “intuitive music,” “mantric music,” and, last but not least, “cosmic music.” All big ideas — but big music? At no time in the last hundred years did any one style predominate. The last time music can really be said to have been “unified” was in 1880 or so, before the advent of Debussy.

    Is the lack of big ideas a crisis or a boon? On the one hand, I think it’s immensely clarifying for composers to be speaking the same language. Part of the trouble that listeners have with “modern music” is that they have absolutely no idea what to expect: noise, silence, tonality, atonality, a hundred shades in between. So if there were a trend toward consolidation, toward the creation of a new “lingua franca,” it would be all to the good. But it’s not going to happen. Our musical world is too global, too multifarious, for any one language to take over.

    More than ever, the composer is going to be a kind of creative parasite, feeding off available sounds. Which is not to say that every piece must become a crazy-quilt of styles. The so-called postmodern era is also over — the carnival at the end of the modernist fast. Rather, nothing is in theory “out of bounds,” anything is possible. What matters is not the language of the work but the passion and focus of the speaker. As a critic, I am trying more and more to make no pre-judgements whatsoever on the question of style,  and simply to listen for passionate engagement.

Tuesday, July 27
    Jotting I: We do have a Big Idea
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 07/27/2004 4:48 pm
    Musicians reflexively think a big idea means a dominant musical style, like classicism or serialism, but such a style often simply reflects the political, social and intellectual ideas that shape an era. I believe classical music in the United States currently is dominated by the radical egalitarianism that emerged politically in the 1960s. The belief that anything and everything should be equal has produced a period, at least in the United States, where any classical style, sufficiently well crafted, is acceptable - or should be, according to the radical egalitarian dogma.

    The problem for classical music is how, aided by revolutions brought on by such things the invention of the transistor and the emergence of jet travel, that egalitarianism has shaken the foundations of many of its mainstay institutions.

    How big is a big idea?
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/27/2004 4:37 pm

    I’m not sure that the Big Ideas of the past seemed quite so monolithic to the people who held or opposed them, except in the philosophically oh-so-self-conscious Germany of the late 19th Century. (I’m talking about the puffed-up “Music of the Future debates.)

    Surely Mozart, for instance, saw himself as fusing many of the idioms that were available to him – Lutheran chorales, Counterreformation counterpoint, learned fugue, popular German melodrama, over-the-top Italian opera, harpsichord improvisations, mooning Romantic melodies, cut-rate fanfares, folk songs, Mannheim gut-punches, and so on. He manipulated all these disparate genres and mushed them together with post-modern panache. Categories, to him as to us, seemed valuable insofar as they could be broken down

    I think of today’s compositional scene as a generation in search of a synthesis, rather than a new order. In going to concerts of new music I’m always struck, not so much any more by the absence of a lingua franca, but by the need to have currents and traditions merge and jostle. Each piece becomes a little Queens.

    It’s easy to see the appeal of this approach, which mirrors census data and patterns of migration. America now boasts its first generation of composers born and raised in Asia ( Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng , to mention only the Chinese contingent) producing a large body of music that is about cultural conflict and accommodation, which is the issue of our time.

    What puzzles me, though, is the feeling that in this free-for-all it’s still possible to distinguish the good from the bad. Quality is not dead. The music of Osvaldo Golijov blends Jewish klezmer, Russian romanticism, Argentinian tango, Israeli folk song, a pan-Latin assortment of rhythms and North American minimalism into an exhilarating hybrid. Yet the other day, I went to hear Paul Taylor (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid) preside over “Transmetropolitan,” an evening of cross-cultural electronic music and literature that struck me as so much amateurish feelgood globalism.

    So what’s the difference? A strong compositional hand, a personal sensibility capable of treating a superabundance of sources like so much reusable clay. When that sort of spirit emerges, a fitful consensus develops. Golijov regularly makes crowds go wild and critics shed their shells.

    That’s fine for those who are already in the concert hall, but can a wider cultural consensus develop behind a musical idea today? Can a composer ever again capture the popular imagination? That’s a topic for another blog.

    Initial entry
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/27/2004 4:31 pm

    Big ideas tend to be backward projections. At any point in music history there have been controversies and warring schools and pedants to pronounce that some composers weren't even composing music at all. Right now, we certainly seem to be in flux, but there seems to me to be several points around which a new "big idea," or big ideas, could coalesce -- or have coalesced.

    One is the connection between the Western tradition and various forms of what we are told is the politically incorrect term world music. This flows all which way, of course: Western composers being influenced by exotic cultures, exotics being influenced by us, exotics being influenced by other exotics (e.g., Bollywood music being big in non-Indian Africa).

    Another is the high-low connection, about which enough said already, at least for now. Another is the impact of technology. Yet another is our shifting attitude toward the various forms of musical modernism, the old uptown-downtown wars being easily perceived now as having been struggles between variants of modernism.

    I think big ideas are still very much possible, but I would challenge one aspect of this mega-blog's written premise. I don't think ideas coalesce (among whom?), and then that they gain "traction with a critical mass of composers." I think composers make music (sometimes linked with ideas, however polemically expressed, and sometimes linked with other composers) and then critics and other camp-followers catch on, articulate them however crudely, and finally turn them into pedantry, by which time the next big idea has already coalesced.

    A blurry patchwork
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/27/2004 3:42 pm

    "The Next Big Thing?" Ah, how we journalists love to find and name trends.

    What are the trends today? Mainly fragmentation: all those web sites, all those cable channels, all those phone companies. The problem with life today, as my mother has observed, is that there are too many choices.

    And--dare I say it?--all those composers. Surely there are more people today calling themselves composers than at any previous time in history. The most devoted of us "professional listeners" hear only a tiny fraction of new music. How can we presume to pontificate on trends?

    But this has been a pet peeve I've long had with at least some colleagues. I remember Michael Walsh, when Time magazine still had a classical music critic, naming the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra the best orchestra in the country. Had he heard the St. Louisians often enough, and the competition often enough, to pass so sweeping a judgement? Come, now. For that matter, how would one pick "the best orchestra?" Or "the greatest conductor," as Newsweek once dubbed Herbert von Karajan. (As Anna Russell used to say of The Ring, "I'm not making this us, you know."

    The biggest problem for composers today, it seems to me, is that we all have so much music in our ears so much of the time. Amid this welter of music past and present, it must be harder than at any previous time to find one's own compositional voice. There are those, I realize, who toot the horn of eclecticism, but is anyone out there (apart from, maybe Lyric Opera of Chicago) prepared to pump for William Bolcom as a great composer? A skilled and clever one, okay--but great?

    Yes, Bach brought together elements from the musical cultures of Germany, Italy and France. He wrote organ chorale preludes modeled on 16th-century choral music. So did Brahms. But somehow they found ways to set their own seals, to refresh their models.

    So much of the newer orchestral music I hear sounds like rehashed gestures from early 20th-century composers who did it better the first time. (Can you say "Lowell Liebermann?") The newer American operas getting the most performances--Mark Adamo's Little Women, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking--seem almost willfully impersonal. If there's a trend in newer American operas, it's nondescript, free-floating arioso.

    American politics has become vehemently partisan, but--at least to an observer--our musical scene seems to be a blurry patchwork. Composers who get performed, at least in the admittedly conservative Dallas/Fort Worth scene, tend to be the ones that "get along," that "play well with others." The vehement partisanship of the young Boulez now seems unimaginably quaint.

    But if there's no "big thing" in composition, the same is true with performers. No pleiad of pianists dominates the scene as Horowitz and Rubinstein once did (at least in the US). How many typical symphony concertgoers could name even five conductors?

    Ours seems to be an age of leveling. And of relativism: one thing's as good as another. Elitism is a dirty word. Critics are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

    Alternate Universe
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/27/2004 2:59 pm
    The question we’ve been asked is: Why is there no big musical idea that dominates music at the moment? Asking me this is somewhat like asking Mother Teresa why there are no poor people anymore. I’ve spent 22 years chronicling the latest phases and fads in music as they go by: art rock, free improv, postminimalism, totalism, East/West fusions, political music, interactive computer music, MAX/MSP, DJ-ing as an artform, etc. So I suppose what the question boils down to is: Gee, Kyle Gann, why is it that you’ve had no impact whatever?

    I do think there are some reasons for a widespread perception that there are no attractive musical ideas anymore, no common language, no styles, no -isms. But the perception is not so much in the music as in the limited imagination of music critics and those watching the music scene. Many believe, to put it succinctly, that musical changes in the future have to be analogous to changes in the past, and therefore if the same kind of changes aren’t happening, then there must not be any changes. But here are a few ways in which today’s music scene differs from the past:

    1. Throughout the 20th century, each new movement represented an advance in complexity and abstraction over the last. Serialism brought that process to a dead end. Today there are plenty of ideas that dozens and dozens of composers gravitate toward, but they tend not to be difficult to understand, often more physical than conceptual. There’s an expectation that the next big idea must be some sort of composing system, but that line of thought came to an end, at least in America.

    2. Relatedly, one thing that composers of my generation have almost universally lost patience with is the presumption of historical inevitability. The idea that 12-tone music was the inevitable music of the future and that anyone who didn’t learn to write it was “useless” (Pierre Boulez’s word) left a bitter taste in our mouths. So if your criterion for the new musical idea is that it has some kind of mandate behind it, you’re not going to find it - we’re proud to say.

    3. Many critics, following the Classical Script, keep looking for “the next big idea” in the realm of orchestra music. This is like an old dog on guard at a foxhole for years after the fox slipped out the back way and moved to another state. The new ideas that attract today’s composers are manifested in computer music and chamber music, the latter often involving unconventional, composer-led ensembles. Those who write for orchestra tend to be the more conservative composers, and even those who aren’t conservative have to pare down and simplify their style when they write for orchestra due to the medium’s hidebound traditions and extreme rehearsal limitations. Even John Adams, the most successful American composer for orchestra of our time, has said publicly over and over that the interesting music today isn’t for orchestra. Nonetheless, I don’t believe there is a force on earth that could make most music critics go look for it anywhere else. Like that old dawg, they’ve got it in their heads that the New Idea will make its way into orchestra music, and that’s where they’re going to look.

    So what are the big new ideas? Well, my perception is that, most importantly, there have been two major movements that have grown out of minimalism, which I and others call postminimalism and totalism. Both of these are very widespread movements, especially postminimalism, which has dozens of adherents from Hawaii to Florida and from Maine to Mexico. I’ve got a discography of postminimal and totalist music you can look at, and a 1999 article about how the movements originated. I wrote an article defining postminimalism for New Music Box, and another defining totalism. In my book American Music in the Twentieth Century, I discuss the educational and cultural conditions that led composers into these particular styles, and you can read that part on my web site. And these aren’t the only farflung movements out there, just the ones that I’ve studied the most.

    Of course, you can say, and some will, that postminimalism and totalism haven’t attracted much public attention: ergo, they are not the Big New Ideas. But there are a lot of reasons that new music doesn’t reach the public today, and inherent attractiveness of the music is not the most telling. After all, Le Marteau wasn’t much of a box-office hit, but it put serialism on the map, just because back then people took new musical movements seriously. Today’s postminimal and totalist composers can’t get their CDs into stores, can’t find distribution. The music’s there, and tons of it is really attractive. The big ideas it manifests aren’t perceived because so few people hear enough new music to realize the similarities among so many young and mid-career composers. By and large, it is not the composers who are to blame for that, nor (quite often) the music itself.

    There's my opening salvo, anyway.

    Taking Issue With The Question
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 07/27/2004 2:53 pm
    Not for some postmodern heck of it, but I must take issue with the question itself. I think the idea of unifying styles is misleading and even untrue, historically. I think the better term is "language," and even that has never been as unified or unifying as the history and theory books suggest. The language of art music in the Middle Ages was that of monophony, whether a single voice or unison singing, in either sacred chant or secular song. But plainchant or trouvere/troubadour song, respectively, existed in many different styles, rites and variants.

    The same could be said of the Renaissance, where the common language was polyphony, but different schools produced alternate sounds, text setting, timbres, etc. In the baroque era, it is not as if the famous Monteverdi and Artusi controversy over style led to later composers adhering just to Monteverdi's compositional aesthetic. And the common practice period witnessed a pan-European adherence to tonality, however national styles differed so greatly as to belie any gravitating to one big concept of music.

    I guess I am getting carried away with examples, but there are so many. People are always looking to codify, list, label and define the world (especially in hindsight) in order to wrap our heads around large constructs, but it's never that simple.

    So, with that buzzkill behind me, I must say I am thrilled there isn't a major idea, language or style dominating the scene these days.

    It's one thing to teach harmony, counterpoint, theory and compositional techniques to students, to let them know what has come before and to help them understand what makes the standout works of the past so exemplary. But why force their vision into a web of rules and shoulds? Few creative artists benefit from a muse who is a schoolmarm.

    Much good a dominating presence serial composition was for the world. Composers who broke out of that mold and now write non-12-tone music discuss the dodecaphonic years with a ghastly remembrance usually reserved for victims of political oppression. "When I was going to Princeton in the '60s, it was so much in the air that you had to be [twelve tonal]," David Del Tredici told me last year in a interview. "No one said it; it was just the environment -- that is really powerful."

    Even twelve tone's grip on the musical world was less than was thought at the time. Every day, it seems we find out about composers who continued writing tonal music of some sort, not to mention the radical departures of Harry Partch, Morton Feldman and George Crumb.

    Now listeners and composers have much more to choose from. Composers today can create their own language without repercussions. There are certain stylistic threads, of course, from Coplandesque to post-minimalist, but composers can really establish their own language as much as style, and then experiment further. An excellent composer in my city, the University of Pittsburgh's Eric Moe, has established his own diatonic, but not necessarily tonal language that is unmistakably his although it synthesizes many techniques.

    If it is broken, don't fix it. Let works stand or fall on their own merit, not propped by formulaic conventions. Just listening without the incessant need to judge music against a central theoretical trunk can be a liberating experience. Sure, today's multiplicity of styles and languages can make it harder on critics when writing about music, but it is well worth it.

    I am sure that a new dominating force will come that will limit what is acceptable for composers. It's the way history transpires. We should be thankful we have this hiatus.


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There was a time when great cities had multiple newspapers and culture was hashed out daily in the press, strongly-held opinions battling for the hearts and minds of readers. Today it's rare for a city to have more than one or two outlets where culture can be publicly discussed, let alone prodded and pulled and challenged... More

If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? In the past, musical ideas have been fought over, affirmed then challenged again, with each generation adding something new. Ultimately consensus was achieved around an idea, and that idea gained traction with a critical mass of composers.

Now we are in a period when no particular musical idea seems to represent our age, and it appears that for the moment – at least on the surface – that there is no obvious direction music is going. So the question is: what is the next chapter in the historical conversation of musical ideas, and where are the seeds of those ideas planted?

Or: Is it possible that, with traditional cultural structures fragmenting, and the ways people are getting and using culture fundamentally changing, that it is no longer possible for a unifying style to emerge? Is it still possible for a Big Idea to attain the kind of traction needed to energize and acquire a critical mass of composers and performers?

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READER: The purpose of music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)

READER: Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)

READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)

Final Disinformation

- Kyle Gann (08/06/2004 8:41 am)

READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:21 am)

Over and out - an anti-rant rant
- Justin Davidson (08/06/2004 7:05 am)

READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:21 pm)

READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:41 pm)


Greg Sandow
  The Wall Street Journal
 - To Justin: Hermetic

 - Performance ideas
 - Truly big classical

Another view

Wynne Delacoma
  Chicago Sun-Times
 - Composer bashing, female
    critics, form and content
 - Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?

Alex Ross
  The New Yorker
 - Clarification, Departure
 - The New New Thing
 - Provocation!
 - To AC Douglas
 - Pop Innovation
A Potential Goldmine
 - To Rockwell: Styles, Not

 - Listening for Passionate

Kyle Gann
  Village Voice
 - Listening examples provided
 - Queries for John Rockwell
 - Unfair on my part
 - Composer bashing
 - Inside a big idea
 - Names & Their Inadequacies
 - The Idea & Its Conditions
The Next Medium-Sized Idea
 - Alternate Universe

Justin Davidson
 - Thanks, Kyle
 - proposal
 - To Kyle
 - Who's saying give up?
 - Some Things Are New, Actually
 - High/Low Redux
 - pop envy
Where was THAT in Classical

 - Apology & Comment
 - How Big is a Big Idea?

John Rockwell
  The New York Times
 - Reply to Kyle and a Plea
 - Arghhh, or however you
    spell it
 - The Magpie
 - Brahms and Wagner
Question for Kyle
 - To Alex, Justin: the pedant
    at work

 - Initial Entry

Scott Cantrell
  Dallas Morning News
 - What's success?
 - Pop music precendent
 - Multiculturalism
 - Fragmentation
 - Female Critics
 - Movements & Media
A Blurry Patchwork

Charles Ward
  Houston Chronicle
 - Jotting IV: Grab Bag
 - Jotting III: When John
 - Jotting II: I'd Rather Not Get
    A Call From Stalin

Jotting I: We Do Have A Big

Anne Midgette
  The New York Times
 - What's the big idea?
 - A Few Responses To
    Other Postings
 - Back to Fragmentation
    for a Minute

 - Gender footnote
 - Another preamble

Andrew Druckenbrod
  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 - Composers are Composers
    but Distinctions are
 - No apology to pop and

 - Taking Issue With The

John von Rhein
  Chicago Tribune

Kyle MacMillan
  Denver Post

Joshua Kosman
  San Francisco Chronicle


The Purpose of Music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)

Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)

To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 10:00 am)

re: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is notentertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)

Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:20 am)

Summing Up
- Brian Newhouse (08/05/2004 9:26 pm)

Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:18 pm)

Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:40 pm)

What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
- Steve Layton (08/05/2004 7:34 pm)


- Discography of Minimalist and
    Totalist music

- Kyle Gann on Post-Minimalism
- Kyle Gann: Following the
    Classical Script


- DJ Spooky
- Tan Dun
- Zhou Long
- Bright Sheng



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