It seems like every month another young composer shoots out of grad school and starts blogging, brimful of enthusiasm for the musics of Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez. I have nothing against that music. And if I did, what would it matter? Might as well rail against Brahms. What depresses me, and makes me feel trapped in an age of endless musical conservatism, is the ever-renewed enthusiasm, the sense that that old, old, well-known music, music with no more secrets to divulge, music of a past century, needs ever to be championed by the young, the young of every era and for all time.
In 1973 I came out of high school brimful of enthusiasm for the musics of Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez. By the time I graduated college, I had discovered the next generation – Reich, Riley, Glass, Oliveros – and by the time I was through grad school I was grappling with Adams, Lentz, Meredith Monk. That means that during seven years of higher education I went from studying music by composers 30 years older than myself to those who were 20, 15, even 10 years older than me. Now I mainly pay attention to the music of my numerous brilliant contemporaries, and I’ve even had my music influenced by people younger than myself.
Did this happen because staid, prim Northwestern University was exposing me to Meredith Monk? HA! That’s a laugh. Most of the faculty there still considered Hindemith a little outré. My generation didn’t trust our teachers to tell us everything, and we did our own research.
Now, in an endless stream, come the 21st-century postgraduates, children of the 1980s, who brush me aside as irrelevant because I don’t fawn over the important music of our time: Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez! And I think to myself, “Kids, those people are your grandparents’ generation, except for Carter, who’s your great-grandfather.” Had I followed that pattern, I would have come out of college all excited about Copland, Hindemith, Milhaud! instead of the postminimalists. If the young composers were on my timetable, I’d be considered old-fashioned by now, and they’d be grappling with music by composers born in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s a big difference between thinking about music that has been irrefutably validated by history, and music that is still in doubt, music that needs to be examined, music that no one in power will yet vouch for, music that makes your teachers uncomfortable. How do you become a composer wrestling only with a history already etched in granite, rather than interacting with still-pliable movements and a repertoire whose course you will be called upon to alter and direct?
Of course, what’s obvious is that grad school teachers are pushing Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez!, and doing so very persuasively. But – why are these young composers listening to their teachers? My generation rebelled against our teachers, and so today’s young generation is rebelling against us by – not rebelling?