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Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

A 10-Day AJ Topic Blog (July 28-August 7, 2004)


Monday, August 2

    READER: Big Ideas... Who Needs Them?
    By James Weaver
    posted @ 08/02/2004 11:29 pm

    While my background is in the visual arts, I am an accomplished guitarist. As Wynne Delacoma accurately points out, none of us are ever going to become capable of predicting the "next big" anything. Worse yet, while John Cage's incorporating Zen Buddhist practices to composition and performance may still have a strong potential, his 1962 "Silent piece 0' 0" personifies Delacoma's statement:"...schools of thought that stifle creativity rather than stimulate it." Whenever mediocre thought and subsequent performance are elevated to the level of being news worthy based on timing rather than content, a glaring problem exists.  read more

    The Idea of No Idea
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/02/2004 11:28 pm

    Thanks to Douglas McLennan for the clarifying challenge. The problem I’m having here is that I'm interested in personalities first, ideas second. The living composers who excite me most are those who go against the grain of whatever language or languages they’ve chosen to adopt, asserting an unmistakable musical self. As we’ve all said, twentieth-century music was tyrannized and traumatized by artistic dogmas. The apparent reluctance of some of us here to delineate “big ideas” in billboard-sized lettering does not by any means signify a lack of enthusiasm for contemporary music. Speaking for myself, I do my utmost to honor the individuality of the composer in question, without resort to "isms." When I said before that pop music seemed to be the scene of “big, scene-setting ideas,” I was not necessarily paying that vast, ill-defined genre a compliment. As I observed in an article back in February, jazz, rock, and even hip-hop seem to have cycled with ever-greater speed through stages of classicism, romanticism, modernism, avant-gardism, and neoclassicism. Let them ride the old mystery train as long as they wish. Composers, it seems to me, have reached the station at the end of the line. They are now setting off on foot, to borrow a beautiful image from Alfred Schnittke. Or, to quote William Billings, “every man his own Carver.”

    This is, in fact, a great, brilliant era in music. Every year in the past decade has come at least one work that’s completely rocked my world — Magnus Lindberg’s “Aura,” with its chaos-theory recollection of Sibelius; John Moran’s “Everyday Newt Burman,” gripping surreal theater generated by tape loops and sound collage; Thomas Adčs’ “Asyla,” with its meticulous and galvanic and somehow inwardly skeptical evocation of a sweaty techno club; Osvaldo Golijov’s St. Mark Passion, blending the solitude of composition with the collective ritual of the Latin-American street; Helmut Oehring’s “Self-Liberator,” a shrieking dark Germanic take on funk and hip-hop production; Lou Harrison’s “Rhymes with Silver,” a work too pure of heart to be summed up in a phrase; John Adams’ “Naďve and Sentimental Music,” the great American symphony of our time; Steve Reich’s “Three Tales,” a reinvention of opera as a total theater of technology that simultaneously returns music to its origins in speech; and, most recently, Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano, in which a young composer glides over the 20th century without suffering the anguish of nostalgia. There are many ideas in rapid circulation here: ideas about technology and electronics and sampling and pop and folk and alternative tunings and non-Western traditions and the 20th-century past. But in each case the composer’s ability to master the material is the biggest idea of all.

    Way Beyond Crossover
    By Kyle MacMillan
    posted @ 08/02/2004 8:56 pm

    I’ve been on the road and have come back to the office to discover a tidal wave of entries in the blog. And I must confess that it’s all a bit overwhelming. I’m not quite sure where to start. But I thought I would just share some initial notions that perhaps relate at least indirectly to what has already been written.

    It seems to me that the single biggest development of the last couple of decades is the ability for anyone to get a CD (or simply download it) of virtually any kind of music that has been composed or performed anywhere in the world in the last 1,000 years or more. Compare this virtually limitless musical availability to the enormously more finite musical influences on even such recent composers as Igor Stravinsky or Aaron Copland. It seems nearly impossible to overstate the potential ramifications. Beyond merely borrowing from jazz or blues as George Gershwin did, a composer in 2004 with very little effort can reach back to the Renaissance for a chant, grab a native rhythm from New Guinea and mix them with a 19th century romantic harmonic structure or whatever. The ramifications are enormous, and composers have only begun to exploit them.

    Such blurring of historical, geographic and stylistic boundaries goes way beyond what has typically been known as “crossover” or “cross-pollination.” It is musical composition with virtually no limitations. That to me is a “big idea.” Now, of course, this notion both unites and disunites simultaneously. On one hand, this notion of borderless music composition is becoming widespread.  Indeed, it is unstoppable at this point. Even if a composer does not engage in it consciously, a composer cannot help but be affected by the ever-widening variety of music he or she encounters inevitably on a daily basis. Such blurring can be heard everywhere from John Corigliano to popular music to the film scores of Howard Shore to the burgeoning milieu of world music. But by its very nature, such an approach is disuniting. Instead of creating one sound or style, it constantly seeks  new syntheses of sounds. Unity and disunity all at once.

    Improvisation -- for Tom
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 08/02/2004 8:38 pm


    I didn't mean that classical music should have incorporated improvisation, in the way that jazz does. (Although it's done that since the '50s, but that's another story.) Maybe I should have used another word. I was thinking of Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac, who sort of spewed out their work. Nothing like that happened in mainstream classical music, or at least not involving anyone as famous as Pollock or Kerouac. The musical equivalent would have been a composer who, in a white heat of creation, spewed out music -- but writing it down, not improvising it in concert.

    (Of course, somebody's sure to point out some composer who did just this. Might be the exception that proves the rule -- a minor or minorish figure, or at any rate someone the music world regarded as marginal, and who didn't get the vast attention Pollock and Kerouac did. Or maybe I'm wrong about this…)

    READER: To Greg, Justin: Hermetic Music
    By Tom Hamilton
    posted @ 08/02/2004 7:32 pm

    Greg: I've read your 3rd point, where you ask why improvisation, as manifest in the 1950s and likened to the procedures of Pollock and Kerouac, seemed to be rejected by the musical mainstream, in favor of a kind of musical formalism. The idea that improvisation can be handily introduced into classical concert music has been largely built on a misunderstanding of the nature of both of those great processes. read more

    No Apocalpse Now
    By Douglas McLennan
    posted @ 08/02/2004 6:06 pm

    I’m struck by how difficult it has been to get our hands around the concept of a “Big Idea.” Indeed, Kyle immediately re-posed the question as “why are there no big ideas in music” and voiced objection. Others, unable to define a large enough idea, seem willing to cede the debate to popular music, where presumably fresher(!?) explorations might be underway. Then there is a wide vein of hostility towards the “Big Idea” construction altogether, a feeling, perhaps, that christening something as such sets up a tyranny of orthodoxy that should be resisted.  


    And yet – I’d like to suggest that if this question were posed to those in the technology sector, it wouldn’t occur to them to think of the Big Idea as a tyranny. Instead they’d be scrambling to try to divine what the Next Big Thing is so they could get in on it. If the question were posed to the medical community, they’d be all over it trying to articulate what they think is the next paradigm that would inform their thinking. I think you’d get similar reactions to this challenge in education or manufacturing or even government.


    No one would seriously suggest in any of these fields that there might not be any more Big Ideas to grab the imagination. And I suspect that few would find that the “tyranny” of a Big Idea is a negative that outweighs the good that comes from focusing collective energy on exploring it. Indeed, in many of these endeavors, progress is made only because of the critical mass of attention accumulated around it.


    Aha – progress. Isn’t that a problematic concept in our discussion? The notion of “progress” in music is a discredited one. Yet, progress doesn’t have to mean “better”. It just means that the conversation of ideas has moved on. If it hadn’t, then we’d still have composers busily spinning out Haydn symphonies (I understand someone is, by the way – and good ones, I’m told). But the fact you can write a Haydn symphony long after the fact seems more like a craft than a piece of art, doesn’t it?


    The premise behind the original question wasn’t that there weren’t any Big Ideas now. The premise came out of a sense that everywhere the culture is fragmenting, everywhere creative people are struggling to come to terms with traditional cultural structures that are breaking down. That culture is moving from the Model-T mass production model to a bespoke culture-on-demand.


    Mass culture is seeing its audience melt away. Popular music (as defined since mid-20th Century) almost doesn’t exist anymore. TV and radio and newspapers are struggling for attention, and soon, pop culture references that have been in the era of mass media a shorthand for common shared experience will be indecipherable to most. The failure to find an idea that energizes the field is not unique to classical music. It cuts across all the arts.


    This isn’t an apocalyptic vision. I am gratified that I can easily get access to recordings of a Machaut mass, a Roy Harris piano quartet, or that I can sample liberally off Kyle’s listening list whenever I want. That I can hear 27 different versions of a Brandenburg Concerto – from the purity of a Harnoncourt or Koopman to the battleship of a von Karajan. In the so-called “Golden Age” it was difficult, if not impossible to get such variety. I like that the idea of a monolithic mass culture is dying. Music isn’t going to die. Orchestras aren’t going to die. The institutions by which we experience them now may die or evolve, but the art itself isn’t going away.


    And yet – I wonder if one of our big problems here is that there is so little public discourse around the ideas of music. How can there be big ideas if the ideas there are aren’t fought over? I love Kyle’s list, and he has made a career of advocating for a particular view. But who’s out there arguing with him (or seconding him, for that matter)? It can’t be a conversation of one. I’m not talking about having to come up with consensus (I discussed this in an article for Newsweek last year), but surely the failure of voices to engage in debate sends a signal that there isn’t enough worth debating? (a view, by the way, with which I strongly disagree).

    READER: A Problem of Marketing
    By Corey Dargel
    posted @ 08/02/2004 5:59 pm
    Compared to the NYC new-music scene, the NYC independent (pop) music scene consistently draws a wider demographic and larger pool of listeners to hear its emerging artists. The venues and the artists themselves take a more proactive role in marketing emerging composers, songwriters, and musicians, so the interesting things that are happening in the pop music world are heard about and talked about a lot (and by a lot of different people)... read more

    READER: Of Sheep Heads and Music
    By P. Bailey
    posted @ 08/02/2004 5:56 pm
    When I put on concerts, one of the main obstructions to bringing in an audience is marketing. The amount of money spent to promote the LA Phil and related organizations gives many people a sense that it is the "thing" to do. The practicality of putting on a concert in an alternative venue (church, art gallery, museum) can limit the exposure and coverage of the event...  read more

    READER: Re Kyle's Listening Examples...
    By Steve Layton
    posted @ 08/02/2004 9:53 am
    Yes, that's helpful, and a nice list (though not terribly "new" to anyone paying fair attention over the last couple decades). For a really broad slice of the current spectrum, including much fine work by people that don't even begin to approach the fringes of the "official radar", I'd like to recommend two sites... read more

    READER: Marketing anyone?
    By Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
    posted @ 08/02/2004 9:35 am

    Is it too much to expect that nearly the entire significance-sickness in nonpop has to do with the dearth of effective investment and imaginative marketing -- as well as, to some extent, the noose of intellectual property laws that strangles compositions that might use popular work as source material?... read more

    Listening Examples Provided

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/02/2004 7:45 am
    Well, I had a little proposal of my own that I worked up last night. I hate having this abstract, general discussion about “today’s composers” when no one seems to know the composers I’m talking about. So I’ve put up a temporary New-Music Listening Page with examples of music by 14 composers. You may like some of it, you may not, but if you get the urge to claim that “today’s composers” are out of touch with popular music, don’t write music with any relevance to social issues, don’t use sampling, don’t capture the spirit of our time, etc., you might want to listen to these before saying so. I’d also consider it real decent of you if you would refrain from dissing the music before listening to it through a plausible sound system.

    These few examples aren’t sufficient, of course, to prove the existence of any Big Ideas out there. But I have several thousand other CDs of music by composers born after 1940 that would make the point.

    To John: Sorry, I get your point about the ages. The postminimalists I listed were mostly over 50, but the totalists I subsequently talked about were born between 1949 and 1961, most of them just about my age or slightly younger. Even postminimalism, though, didn’t take off as a movement until 1980 or just after. Whatever “’70s composers” are (and I’ve used the term), I can’t think of these as them.

    As for how they relate to other music: The postminimalists tend to be rather omniverous. Janice Giteck borrows from many world traditions, notably Jewish and Indonesian. Bill Duckworth’s music borrows from bluegrass, early rock ‘n’ roll keyboard, Erik Satie, Messiaen, Gregorian chant. Daniel Lentz, underneath his synthesizers and feel-good California melodies, is remarkably indebted to Renaissance counterpoint. I think of postminimalism as having about the same weight and density as Middle Baroque music, like Corelli, but with non-functional harmony. The essence of the style is that the structural basis is rhythm, not harmony, following Cage's ideas about time and the influence of his music of the 1940s. Harmony has been reduced to a coloristic role.

    The totalists tend to be more pop-music-oriented, frequently citing Led Zeppelin as an influence. In fact, the critical principle often cited in this conversation that “pop music is where the energy is” is so often invoked by composers of my own generation that it’s hardly cricket to use it against them. This is a more cantankerous and eclectic movement, harder to generalize about, but its signature is a gear-shifting feel of switching back and forth among different tempos.

    But perhaps the listening examples, which include postminimalists, totalists, and none-of-the-abovists, will make the point better than more words could.

    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/02/2004 4:35 am

    A few years ago, in a stab at making some sense for readers of the swarm of composers and styles in contemporary music, I wrote a series on various recent trends: American composers born in Asia; composers whose borrowed heavily from rock and pop; improviser-composers, etc. The series was far from comprehensive. 

    What if, collectively, we tried to come up with topics for an imaginary 10-part series? Or, alternatively, a syllabus for an imaginary course: "[Classical?] Music since 1990." We could group composers into a series of themes (also known as Big Ideas) obviously there would be overlap, and some of the divisions would be fairly arbitrary, but if we think of it as organizing material for readers or students - a real-life activity that many of us actually have to do - it might be useful. I'd suggest a couple of ground rules: Since we're interested in recent developments, composers should be under 50 or else have participated in a trend that has materialized within the last 15 years.

    Perhaps when we have enough responses, Doug could assemble them into a master list, reconciling redundancies. I'd suggest the following format:

    Header [Post-neo-anti-non-modernism]

    Brief description: [A radical rejection of all previous rejections of historicism, characterized by pounding silences and the frequent combination of tubas and lutes.]

    List of 5-6 composers, with birth date, nationality and one or two significant pieces: [Englebert Tubthumper, b. 1967, South Africa. "The End of Everything," electronic environment]

    If this feels to formal and professorial, feel free to ignore it, but I have a feeling it might clarify some ideas.


Read this blog by date: 7/27 7/28 7/29 7/30 7/31 8/1 8/2 8/3 8/4 8/5 8/6 8/7


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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)

All Posts


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)

All Reader Posts


- Discography of Minimalist and
    Totalist music

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


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