New Music: The Generation Problem

Hard to believe from my gray locks, but I was 13 once – or so says the evidence from boxes of old manuscripts in my storage room. I fell in love then, slowly and cautiously, with the Concord Sonata and Le sacre du printemps and Cage’s Variations IV. I needed a refuge from grownups, and like many teenagers, found it in music that grownups didn’t understand. My peers anchored their contemptus mundi in loud rock ‘n’ roll, but I was practicing George Rochberg’s 12-tone Sonata-Fantasia on the piano, along with the acerbically atonal Form by Stefan Wolpe, which I once confounded my girlfriend’s mother with by playing for her. Is there any function of music so perennially reliable as this, to be used by teenagers to set themselves off as special and incomprehensible?

Between 13 and 19, I plunged into Cage, Varèse, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Boulez, Carter, Nono, Pousseur. The louder, more violent, more complex, more dissonant, the better. Composing meant piling up as many major 7ths and minor 9ths and chromatic tone clusters and rhythmically conflicting layers as possible. Then minimalism came along – Steve Reich’s Drumming and Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths suddenly appeared in the summer of 1974.

Maybe I had gotten into musical complexity too early. If I hadn’t discovered the Concord and Variations IV until college, like most music students, maybe incomprehensibility wouldn’t have lost its freshness so easily. But at 19, minimalism suddenly made all that complexity seem old hat. Having used so many dozens of chromatic tone clusters by my freshman year of college, it had already become painfully apparent that there is a ceiling to meaningful dissonance. I had piled up as many minor 9ths as human hands and lips could play. The idea that I could go back to the major scale as a starting point – and still seem avant-garde and special – came as a relief.

At the same time, there was much talk in the 1970s about new music’s decreasing social and political relevance. Rock music had stolen center stage in terms of music’s engagement with social issues. Cornelius Cardew had abandoned the world of complex, incomprehensible music for political reasons, and Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski, in rhetoric at least, followed. From the appearance of Rzewski’s Attica and Coming Together, minimalism seemed to have a political impetus as well as a musico-historical one.

And thus came about an association that today’s young composers seem incapable of grasping: the move to simplify music and make it more comprehensible and communicative was a PROGRESSIVE move. Progressive musically, because it bypassed the info-overload dead end of endless noise and complexity, and made possible all kinds of subtle new phenomena that had never before been used in Western music, though one could find precedents in musics of Asia and Africa. Progressive politically because it offered the opportunity to reconnect with audiences of nonmusicians, in a performance paradigm that had little to do with the stuffy formalism of “classical music.” Eventually I found that there were many, many other composers like myself who felt that the development of minimalism was the clearest progressive approach to a music of the future.

Now we jump ahead thirty years. Young musicians go to college having heard little beyond commercial pop and maybe some standard classical music. In college they discover noise bands, Stockhausen, Varèse, John Zorn, obscure varieties of post-punk, even Elliott Carter. The music is exciting because it’s so mysterious, so noisy, so evocative of rebellion, so delightfully transgressive. Listening to it sets them off, as it did me, from their parents and their more bourgeois peers from high school, makes them feel special and in-the-know. Noise and chaos and mystery and sonic violence exert their perennial attraction on disaffected youth.

Meanwhile, I play them music by my peers, the ones for whom simplification spelled progress: Janice Giteck, John Luther Adams, Peter Garland, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, Beth Anderson. This music doesn’t make them feel special – it’s not transgressive, anyone can understand it. It’s not the parent-insulting music of youthful rebellion. Far from setting off the listener as insider to an exclusive club, it reaches out to audiences and aims at universality. Duckworth is pretty, it’s OK, but Elliott Carter: “Wow, that’s cool!” What seems dry and dusty and obscurantist and academic to me seems progressive and mysteriously cool to my students. What seems progressive and fresh and socially forward-looking and even beautiful to me seems bland and backward and unchallenging to them.

Part of what’s happened is that we have indeed reached, in a certain sense, the end of history – in the sense that successive generations would continue to absorb the experiences of their elders. My generation devoured everything that had happened in music up to that point, because it was in the air. 12-tone music was dubious but nonetheless available, vinyl discs of serialist music were unavoidable in record stores, there were no gaps in the last 250 years of music that were difficult to fill in. Today, the entire body of 20th-century classical music seems to be a gap. Whether someone comes to college having already heard Varèse, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, seems dependent on chance factors, while total ignorance of more recent major figures like Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley is virtually assured. The idea that music could be premeditatedly dissonant, confusing, off-putting comes as a delightful shock to today’s 18-year-olds, just as it was to me at 13. The insight that increasing doses of noise and complexity can quickly reach a self-defeating dead end is seemingly not inheritable.

As a result, my generation can’t look to younger musicians for an easy audience; our new music doesn’t sound to them like anyone’s revolution. In the context of the traditional classical music world, with its uppity dependence on a certain kind of pitch complexity and dramatic gestural rhetoric, writing the quiet, subtle, meditative music we did was a bold, brave, fresh feat. Outside that context, its courage isn’t always apparent, even when its beauty is. We may have to evermore defend ourselves as progressives despite appearances, just as Schoenberg defended Brahms as a different kind of avant-gardist. Brash young musicians making noise assemblages on their laptops may think of us as not provocative enough, too accepting of the status quo, too eager to please. And perhaps, in some decade to come, they’ll reach the limits of their own tolerance for layered guitar distortions, and decide there was something to us after all.

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