Reports of Our Speed Are Greatly Overestimated

The world is moving so fast today, isn’t it? Now that we the have the internet, the moment something is discovered it can be flashed around the world. We’re all in a state of instant communication, and the time lag of assimilation of creative work has been reduced to less than a day.

The flat, clichèd tone of that paragraph may clue you in to its high bullshit quotient. On the contrary, we grow musically more and more behind the times. My friends and I spend lots of time trying to bring into the world music that was made 20, even 30 years ago. I’m transcribing Dennis Johnson’s November, the two-hour 1959 piano piece that was the inspiration for La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. I’ve just transferred to CD some rare recordings of Julius Eastman’s works for multiple pianos from a 1981 concert; I’m sending them to Mary Jane Leach, who’s involved in a project trying to bring Eastman’s music back into circulation. My jazz pianist friend John Esposito is sitting on an archive of 1980s recordings of the jazz great Arthur Rhames, trying to get them released. Recordings of influential music by Rhys Chatham from the early 1980s just came out recently (on Table of the Elements, a label nobly devoted to preserving that era). Much of the most important music of the 1980s, despite a tremendous local impact at the time, remains buried, unavailable, and undigested today – and as for the 1990s, fuggidaboudit.

Luciano Berio wrote his Sinfonia in 1969, and by 1973 its Columbia recording with Bernstein had electrified the American new music world. Likewise, Steve Reich’s Drumming from 1969 hit the world the summer of 1974. I consider that period the peak of music’s speed of assimilation (unless, indeed, the peak really occurred in the 19th century, which I sometimes suspect). Since then everything has slowed to a trickle. At Oberlin in the ’70s we students were obsessed with music of the ’60s, but today’s academia hardly acknowledges any music after 1975. I matter-of-factly described Robert Ashley to a student as the greatest opera composer of the late 20th century, and our opera coach, overhearing me, was astonished: he had never heard the name. Nothing unusual about that, unfortunately.

And it’s not just that individual composers go unheralded. New conceptions of music get collectively developed (totalism’s multitempo ensemble structures, Ashley’s text-driven operas which have already given birth to offspring) without the subsequent generation ever learning that that’s already happened. One of my more inventive students created a video alter ego for himself in a music video, and was surprised to learn that someone named Laurie Anderson did the same thing over 15 years ago. Decades go by, one musical movement succeeds another – artrock, postminimalism, text opera, performance art, just intonation, spectral music, sampler collage, new complexity, free improvisation, ambient, illbient, totalism – and years after those movements have crested and begun to evolve into something else, students, faculty, and music lovers alike are still struggling with moral qualms over that scary 1960s phenomenon, minimalism. If the lag time for the acceptance and understanding of new music was 4 years in 1969, today I’d say it’s at least 25.

We seem to be settling into a corporate-dictated stasis, a world divided between a calcified classical (and even jazz) repertoire and “Golden Oldies.” Art continues to move forward, but the money collectors of the world have turned off the spigot on culture, and the amount of new work that drips through approaches zero asymptotically. I’m sitting here looking at thousands of CDs of music from the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s that no musical public is likely to catch up with in my lifetime. Internet, schminternet – it feels like the world is moving at a decelerating snail’s crawl.