When Does the Post-Prohibitive Age Arrive?

I was 19 when I wrote the first piece that I still, today, consider worth performing. A 180-degree departure from my previous music, it was all on the C major scale, with no sharps or flats. My composition teacher at the time, one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, utterly disapproved. He told me I should be using “good 20th-century intervals like tritones and sevenths and ninths.” Even at that age, I had enough common sense to wonder how in the world a brilliant guy like that could hold a notion as silly as the fiction that there was some kind of mystical link between certain intervals and certain historical eras. In the moment he said that, I kind of realized that the last remaining strings that tied me to 20th-century modernism had been cut.

Today young composers come and tell me that their professors won’t let them write the kind of music they want to. What’s wrong with the music they want to write? It’s too… tonal, or too consonant, or too triadic, or it doesn’t have climaxes, or it’s not tense enough, or not gestural enough, or it’s too slow, or too happy, or too static, or too pop-influenced, or it doesn’t have enough dynamics marked. One student from a prestigious grad school said, “Will you take a look at my music? The faculty and other students make fun of it because I use key signatures.” None of this is any less silly than “use good 20th-century intervals like tritones and sevenths and ninths.” They come to me at my school, from other schools, sometimes even across the country, because they’ve figured out somehow that I will let students compose any kind of music they want.

I know exactly what their previous teachers think of me because of that. They think that I have no standards, that I’m wishy-washy, that I don’t understand the Great Musical Tradition, that I’m not dedicated to quality. (I once heard second-hand what George Perle thinks of me: “I don’t get this Kyle Gann guy, he seems to only criticize every piece on its own merits.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. And a colleague recently accused me of “false-fueling” the students, i.e., letting the “untalented” ones think they were pretty good.) It’s not true. I criticize plenty of things in my students’ music. This week a composer working in pure conventional tonality came, and among other things I substituted a VII chord for his IV chord because his harmonic rhythm lagged in mid-phrase. A few years ago I had a brilliant guy writing a big, bangy Uptown piece, and I made sure that no extraneous gestures vitiated the noisy climax he was trying to create. One student wanted to write an atonal string quartet, and I stopped him, not because I don’t allow atonality, but because he had never even heard an atonal string quartet before, and was just dutifully fulfilling some expectation he’d gotten from somewhere. In all these years, after dozens of students, I’ve only had about three who wrote the same general kind of postminimalist music that I do. I’ll allow any kind of music I know how to criticize, and if I can’t criticize it, I’ll send them to someone else. One kid doing a kind of dance-oriented electronica was just out of my field, as was another student writing algorithmic Max/MSP charts. But God forbid any student should ever tell a composer, “Kyle Gann won’t let me write the music I hear in my head.”

I don’t pretend to be unique in this regard, but we are less numerous than is usually admitted. Lots of composition teachers say they never discriminate by style, only by quality, but in reality they consider the “wrong” style deficient in quality. And in my experience, the teachers who match my liberality tend to be at the lesser-known music schools. The young composers who complain to me about their repressive teachers don’t come from Tennessee Tech and University of Arkansas, they come from Peabody, Eastman, Columbia, UCSD. It does seem that the nearer you are to the top of the compositional heap, the more invested you probably are in a specious historical essentialism without rational foundation, an idea that 20th-century music MUST express a certain kind of tension and anguish, a certain dissonance and complexity. Earth to composers: the 20th century is over! Or they say, these are violent times, and our music must express that violence – a simplistic reflex that no reputable aesthetic theory of the last 3,000 years would support. Lacking any intellectual framework for their mandates, the only message they really have is: CONFORM. How depressing that composers, of all people, should push that particular button, and what vivid evidence that, though they may put notes on paper, they are not artists.

I talked to Peter Garland recently, a composer of gorgeously simple diatonic music, and he made a wistful comment that by now we ought to be living in a “post-prohibitive” age – that is, there should be nothing that is off-limits for composers to write. Certainly composing is a dialogue with the past, and any good composer should be extending or inventing some tradition, commenting on and building on and criticizing and rejecting some music he or she loves. But composers have so many different pasts now, and who are we to tell them their past is the wrong one?

“HEY YOU – you’ve got the wrong past. Get out, and don’t come back in here until you get a different one.”

The students who listen to their big-shot teachers and obey go out dutifully writing the kind of dreary, complicated, tension-filled, angst-ridden music they’ve been told to write, and their big-shot teachers get them commissions and orchestral premieres, and that timid, uncreative music sticks in our orchestral tract like an indigestible meal. I can’t believe that, thirty years after “good 20th-century intervals” were urged on me, I’m still fighting this laughable generational impasse. And when composer Cary Boyce, in Sequenza 21 this week, characterized late-20th-century music as “the sentimentality of despair,” I was thrilled to realize again that there are other composers out there rebelling against the conformity.