When I was a student at Oberlin, my composition teacher Randolph Coleman used to say that from now on, composers would bloom a lot later than they used to, in their 50s or 60s. He felt that there were so many competing influences on a composer’s musical style that it would take a couple more decades to assimilate them and find your own voice than it used to when everyone grew up in a culture with one dominant kind of music.
At the time, this sort of went over my head, and to the extent I grasped it, it was a depressing pronouncement for a 20-year-old. (I remember defiantly thinking it wouldn’t be true of me.) But now that I’m 48 and have watched a lot careers unfold, I think old Randy might have hit the nail on the head. Partch, who made up his own musical style from bits and pieces of world musics, didn’t really hit his stride until he started adding percussion to his music in his 50s, and he sprang into something like celebrity around age 66. Nancarrow, who combined jazz and Bartok with a new technology, was discovered at 65 and started becoming famous at 70. Lou Harrison, who brought together musics from all continents, was kind of a tangential, eccentric figure for most of my life, then in the 1990s, nearing 80, surprisingly got touted as possibly America’s greatest composer. Robert Ashley, despite some early notoriety, didn’t get started on his seminal work Perfect Lives until age 48, and he’s now, at 73, in his most fertile period – best opera composer of our era and still almost unknown to classical audiences. We think these people are the oddballs, the eccentrics. They might have simply been first of a new breed. They may represent, instead, the composer career trajectory of the future.
When you grow up surrounded completely by music in one style, becoming a child prodigy isn’t so unusual – a sensitive kid can quickly master a clear, finite set of rules. The ubiquity of classical, modern, jazz, pop, and other musics offers a paralyzing panoply of choices. We don’t have much of a record of composers becoming well known in their 20s or 30s lately. For the few who have done so, it usually seems due more to marketing and PR than sterling quality of music. The British keep force-blooming their 20-something-year-old composers, to later embarrassing results.
One characteristic of the Critics Conversation we had here on Arts Journal lately was, amidst lots of drawing on various historical analogies, a pervasive assumption that composers who are really good are bound to take the classical music world by storm in their 30s or 40s. The fact that almost no one is doing so is, to them, evidence that music isn’t doing very well, that there are no good composing ideas around at the moment. Personally, I have CD cabinets and file cabinets full of evidence that we’re in a very exciting time compositionally, with plenty of good ideas and beautiful music. (Since none of the classical critics listen to me, I have to conclude that they’ve all written me off as having no musical taste whatever.) But it may be true that the composers I follow are in a phase analogous to Partch in the ‘50s, or Ashley in the ‘70s, doing interesting work that hasn’t quite gelled enough for public consumption.
Likewise, to quote Wordsworth for the 50th time: “The authentic poet must create the taste by which he is to be appreciated.” When Morton Feldman died at 61, the classical music world had barely given him the time of day. In the next ten years, he became a very big deal indeed. Maybe it not only takes decades for composers to assimilate and master the influences they draw from now, but longer for audiences to assimilate a composer’s life’s work – and with the number of composers around, no one receives any very big chunk of an audience’s time. It won’t surprise me if, as we grow older, a lot of my contemporaries begin hitting their stride, and get revealed as more important figures than anyone had thought. And maybe we should not assume that any archetypes in the history of music are invariable, but make allowances for what may be a fairly new (though not unprecedented) pattern in human creativity.