Are Ideas Getting Smaller?

My comments on improvisation from Friday brought a predictable yelp from electronic improviser and composer Tom Hamilton, my faithfulest post-blog correspondent, but his own diagnosis of recent musical ills completely blindsided me:

The fact that the music doesn’t work for you is not necessarily a sign that
the performers come to the music with any less integrity and self-scrutiny than
any other musicians. Your assertion that the music has become “replicatable”
argues more for over-pollination than for your accusation that improvisers
don’t listen to each other perform. [KG: I didn’t really mean to say that improvisers don’t listen to each other, but that the methods of free improvisation don’t show any developmental refinement in the long run. But never mind.]

To my mind, the reasons that new music in general has gone kind of flat for
many people is not for the lack of refined techniques, but for a want of
breakaway ideas. The academic setting that can bring in four European laptop players through student effort is rare indeed. If one person attending got a new idea through listening to that concert, maybe we’ll have something new to listen to in ten

But I want something new…TODAY. So I keep going, keep spinning CDs, and
once and awhile I hear it.

Geeeeeeeez, really? Are we really lacking for “breakaway” ideas in recent years? I’ll admit, I have argued before that the most interesting music now is drawn from 1) the gradual collective development of a language drawn from minimalism, and 2) a synthesis of all the crazy ideas that modernism unearthed without refining. I guess you could turn that around and look at it from the other side and decide that there are no new ideas today. But as a composer I’m still working out the implications of the great idea of my youth, the sustained process first evident in Steve Reich’s Drumming, Terry Riley’s In C, and Phil Glass’s Music in Fifths. And I’ve even argued that the constant search for the new big idea was a 20th-century disease, that led us to cook up one new method after another, declare each one the Music of the Future, and then abandon it without really working it into a subtle, powerful language. But maybe I’ve been blind, or just putting the best face on a bad situation. Possible? Even if I’m right artistically, do we need breakaway ideas to focus attention on new music? Tom clarified a little:

Maybe I was imprecise, but the intent/implication was that while we have so
many artists with individual notions of music (my perpetual grinding on “pluralism” over your “totalism”), we haven’t had many really new ideas in the last decade. Not so incompatible with your complaint about free improv, but just different cause: I think the ideas just keep getting smaller.