A Generation of Equals

Composer Lawrence Dillon, who keeps me honest, and who now has his own blog to assist in that interminable quest, notes an ambiguity in my Where are the Philistines? entry. It seemed to him that I was making a sour grapes gripe for certain composers who weren’t getting their fair share of the pie, whereas my intent was to make a more general plea for my own generation, who seem to be the first generation to come of age after the officially defined end of music history.

But I will, to even out the score, make an ameliorating comment about my own generation, which I have long kept under wraps. Namely: I think one of the disadvantages we labor under is that there are so many good composers in my generation, and hardly anyone who consistently stands out above all the rest. The very quantity is too overwhelming for a non-specialist to deal with. When I wrote my book American Music in the Twentieth Century in 1996, I had to choose eight composers, almost arbitrarily, as emblematic of my generation. Nine years later, I would have even a harder time whittling down my choices to that number. And while a lot of my favorite music – music I go around humming, that I listen to for pleasure and without professional compulsion – is by people my own age, I admit that it is specific pieces I’m drawn to more than any particular composer’s sensibility: Mikel Rouse’s Failing Kansas, Elodie Lauten’s Waking in New York, John Luther Adams’ In the White Silence, a bunch of specific David Garland songs, Beth Anderson’s Piano Concerto, Carl Stone’s Shing Kee, Rhys Chatham’s An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, William Duckworth’s Imaginary Dances, John Maguire’s A Capella, Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass, Janice Giteck’s Om Shanti, Daniel Lentz’s The Crack in the Bell, and on and on and on. Some of these composers are fairly consistent in the quality of their output, others (myself included, I fear) notably not so; every one of them has produced something for which I’d have to apologize and murmur, “Well, not really his best work, you know.” To pick one or two or three of these people and say, “This is the Boulez or Stockhausen of my generation, this is our leading genius,” would be as impossible for me as it is for the public at large. And in America, at least, the way the star system works that has taken over the classical music world, somebody has to be Numero Uno, for if audiences are going to take the trouble to pay for tickets and drive to the concert hall, they want to be assured they are hearing The Very Best. It’s an extremely unfortunate, Philistine, artistically infantile need, but that’s a rant for another day.

What’s confusing is that, to tell you the truth, except for the quantity, I don’t see any difference between my generation and the previous ones. Out of the Darmstadt crowd of the 1950s and ‘60s, I would not have picked out Boulez and Stockhausen as top dogs: I always found Maderna’s music far more beautiful, Pousseur’s and Ferrari’s more interesting. Reich and Glass were not the most fascinating minimalists, just the only ones left standing when the dust cleared. In either repertoire, it’s specific pieces I gravitate toward, not the composer’s entire output. I love Boulez’s Pli selon pli and scorn his Le Marteau, take Koyaanisqatsi very seriously and get bored by Satyagraha, turn my nose up at Reich’s Desert Music though I adore Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. The composer whose every note is sterling is a bird so rare as to possibly not exist; Beethoven wrote some drivel, and there are Bach works I find dreary. If we’re waiting for the composer whose every work is magical, we’re going to wait till global warming has melted our CD collections.

I have often felt that it was one of the great strengths of my generation that our stylistic enterprise is so collective, that we build on each other’s achievements, and have not arbitrarily elevated isolated figures among us to stardom. Unfortunately, it is not a strength that accords well with the American need for celebrity. I suspect what it would take for postclassical music to enter public consciousness would be some sacrificial lamb to get touted as the genius of the age. Every composer would want to be that person, but if it were me, I am scrupulous enough that I would get a guilty twinge every time I heard some gorgeous piece by one of my peers that I wish I had written. How much better if we could short-circuit the star system altogether. Every artist knows, and cites, the reason you can keep crabs in a shallow bucket without them escaping: because if one crab succeeds in getting close to the top, the others will pull him back down. What my generation has been working on, but hasn’t figured out yet, is how to pull together and get everyone out of the bucket all at once.