Postclassical (Un)Defined at Last!

A fine postclassical composer whom I inadvertently left off my postclassical piano list (I have since added him on) writes to ask in some confusion what my criteria for postclassical music are. Ah! That is the question, isn’t it? I have intentionally been avoiding specifying what postclassical music is, exactly, and perhaps my lists are an attempt to show what it is by dozens of examples, without setting up a definition.

Quite essentially, I don’t know how to define postclassical music any better than anyone else, but I know it when I hear it. I wouldn’t quite expect anyone else to get the same feeling from the word that I do. But I judge it from the transition I myself went through early in my career as a composer. When I was young, I had this vague but powerful sense (a neurosis, it seems to me now) that music was supposed to have a certain kind of pitch complexity, a certain kind of variety, a form that started at one place, went somewhere, and came back; a certain feel for organic unity-within-variety. Music, in order to be Great Art, needed to manifest some kind of psychological cohesion, some analogue to sonata form. Pitch complexity was central, and a piece’s form had to be defined harmonically; rhythm was not an important or sufficient formal element.

Certain pieces challenged that: Riley’s In C, Reich’s Drumming, anything by the mature John Cage. Variety, it turned out, wasn’t necessary. “Going somewhere” wasn’t necessary. I started hearing this music that seemed to begin from a clean slate, that allowed itself to sustain one sound-image all the way through a piece, or that moved in an abrupt, nonlinear, nondevelopmental manner. Classical music required lots of glue to hold its notes together, but this new music seemed to get by fine without glue, seemed to be freer and happier without it in fact. I enjoyed listening to it. I asked La Monte Young why the movements of his Five Pieces for String Quartet were so much alike, and he scowled a moment and answered, “Variety is for people who can’t write music.” What a revelation! The old classical music started with the germ of an idea and DEVELOPED it in a careful manner towards increasing and then decreasing intensity. Climaxes were crucial, to be approached gradually and left carefully. The new music, though, started from scratch, without such assumptions, writing on the listener’s attention as on a blank slate, adding whatever appeared to work without bothering with the inner reality of smooth dynamic curves and gradual pitch-set transformation.

One thing that bugged me about the “classical” music of the 1970s and ’80s was the kind of precious feeling of sounds going into and out of silence. Sounds were supposed to die into silence, decrescendoing “al niente.” Classical composers were deathly afraid of grooves and hard, clean lines. Music was supposed to be mercurial, delicate, always in transition, virtuosic, endlessly rubato, impressive in its subtlety of detail, with different dynamics on every consecutive note, every tiny little nuance very carefully worked out. It was supposed to limit itself to “good, 20th-century intervals like sevenths and tritones” (as one of my professors exhorted me), constantly negating any unambiguous tonal implication, rather than making use of the full spectrum. Ambiguity was the goal, any clear statement a professional faux pas. I got sick and tired of the precious, delicate, busy, hard-working sound of this music. It sounded afraid: afraid to keep going, afraid to start up a beat, afraid to make a direct point, afraid to paint a clear and recurring melody on the canvas of silence.

Reich, Riley, and Glass, and even before them Cage and Feldman, brought a new kind of music with constant pulsations, clear melodies that didn’t fluctuate in volume from the first note to the last, music with a beat, sometimes a groove, bold music that could be loud all the way through or soft all the way through, music that would take a singular sound image and hammer away at it until you really got it. Memorable music. Music that didn’t give a shit whether its pitch constructs were all derived from the material in the first three measures. Music that appealed to how people hear, how their attention spans work, not music meant to be analyzed on the page for its ingenious transformation of pitch sets. Music that if it suddenly wanted to go into C major in measure 135 just suddenly went there, and if it wanted to turn atonal in measure 402, it could do that too. Music that sounded like it was made by composers who were unfettered and free, not by composers who were lining up to be the next successor to Schoenberg in the Great Line of Composers.

This is hardly a definition. It’s a feeling. If you’re tuned into it, you can tell in the first 15 seconds of a piece whether the composer “gets it” or not. Postclassical music can’t yet be defined positively, by where it’s going to, but only negatively, by where it’s escaped from. An awful lot of musicians involved in “contemporary music” are still addicted to that careful, precious feeling, that delicate al niente articulation, the florid interplay of dynamics, all the glue that holds the mercurial variety together. They look for the careful preparation and dissolution of climaxes in music, and are disgusted if it’s not there. The new music seems so unsubtle to them, embarrassingly frank, irritatingly continuous in its motoric beat or unvarying dynamic, insufficiently macho in its refusal to climax. Just this week I played Daniel Lentz, John Luther Adams, and Janice Giteck for some grad music students who were horrified by the music’s unchangeability, its steady beat, its partly electronic timbres, its contentment to pursue one idea for up to 75 minutes. (“Where is the line between classical and pop?,” yelled one exasperated hater of Lentz. “There ISN’T any line!,” I shouted back.)

Well, screw ‘em, and screw everyone who wants to hold onto the precious, mercurial, climax-oriented aesthetic. I prefer postclassical music: it dances, it sings, it rags, it quotes ironically, it muses, it abides, it hammers away, it sits in one place when it wants, it takes sharp left turns, it paints in bold, hard-edged strokes. It burns itself into your ear and your brain. It isn’t trying to worm its way into the history books or win awards from prestigious committees of university professors. And (because of that) it isn’t afraid.

So that’s my criterion. If music makes my flesh crawl and my brow furrow, and impresses me with the deadly hard work that went into it and the weight of tradition it carries along with it, it’s modernist. If it makes my ears perk up and my shoulders relax, and brings a smile to my face, it’s postclassical.