Another Old Fart’s Grumpy Diatribe

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?


  1. kevin Parks says

    Thankfully, there is less of a need to rebel. Previous generations of composition teachers may have had many forceful authoritarians among them, but thankfully those days are mostly over. It is no longer uncommon for students to study with teachers whose musical language, background, interests and aesthetics are wildly different and this can sometimes lead to exciting results. Perhaps the problems of the past have scarred the folks of your generation so bad that they have silently vowed “never again.” In fact, my experience, at times, has been quite the opposite, i have had to press some teachers into revealing even a tiny hint of what kinds of solutions they would explore for compositional problems i confront. Do I paint a too utopian picture? Perhaps i have been lucky. My only problem so far has been teachers that continually insist on an overabundance (in my view) of articulations and dynamic markings in scores, but maybe that is just my beef and i still feel like i am getting off easy compared to the battle stories i hear from older generations. Anyway put all them silly markings in the score for my lessons and take some out later. hee hee.
    I would like to see scores by composers later than the Boulez, Berio, Xenakis, Ligeti, Carter generation you mention be more easily available.
    One of the challenges of teaching a class like “Music Since 2000” (great idea huh? feel free to steal it!) is getting scores.
    Perhaps we are more interested in inclusion (and its evil twin appropriation) than rebellion. I dunno. But thanks to you “old farts” and your diatribes we have a whole lot less to rail against. Thanks!
    Raising my glass to Kyle Gann-ily yours,
    kevin parks
    (who desperately wanted to be the first to leave a comment!)

  2. says

    Coming from a band fag background, I feel that Ligeti, et al. was the music I was looking for in high school but never had access to. I was stuck with Holst (whom I rather like, actually) and really bad arrangements. I still never really got around to Ligeti until grad school. By the same token, I had found it really odd during my pre-grad school time that no one was talking about music from the 70’s and 80’s, and when I mentioned to my composition teacher my lack of knowledge about experimental and electronic musics from that time, I was told that there wasn’t “much there.” Of course, I was surprised (because I considered this person less dogmatic than that) and annoyed. Eventually, I found out on my own that there is a lot there. I think once the younger generation finds ways to present these works in theory and music history classes in a way that is satisfying to them, the next generation will come out jazzed about Ashley, Johnson, Lucier, Monk, Oliveros, et al as much as Ligeti. And I mean ‘when’ not ‘if.’ There is so much going on in music and not just in the ‘classical’ world. It takes some time for academia to digest it all. I think that the fact that an excerpt from “Nixon in China” appears in Straus’ post-tonal theory book is a sign that even the atonal die-hards are willing to listen to the world around them and talk about what’s going on.

  3. says

    Kyle, just a brief note from a younger composer: I don’t agree “Boulez, Berio, Xenakis, Ligeti, Carter” (BoBeXLC for short) have no secrets left to divulge – *some* may, still. In fact, BoBeXLC is short for five rather different composers. In my personal opinion, for example, C is old hat, some of Bo is OK but in general he’s less interesting than everybody thinks, Be is a great composer from the past, L is an interesting traditionalist and X is an amazing composer whose work is still not sufficiently understood – that is, we know his constructive tools since Formalized Music, but I’ve never seen a good, deep, account of, say, his form.
    Thus, I think it’s not justified to group them together. When you do this, you seem to put more emphasis on generational phenomena than on what individual composers have to say.
    X in particular broke into new grounds that are still utterly new, I think, and still basic categories. It’s not a problem if his shadow extends for a century or so – Beethoven had a similar effect.
    But on the whole, I’d agree that some composers from later generations deserve to be studied more.

  4. Evan Johnson says

    [Originally sent as an email]
    “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?”
    It’s very simple – composers who espouse the values mined by those older-generation musicians, values that many of us still find compelling, are not easy to come by, especially in this country. Personally, talk of rebellion aside, I am extremely excited by the work of the following composers born after 1950, off the top of my head: Peter Ablinger, Rebecca Saunders, James Saunders (no relation), Brice Pauset, Richard Barrett, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Christopher Fox, Frank Cox, and Aaron Cassidy.
    The problem? Only the last two are American, and recordings of almost all of them (the only exceptions, and they are slight, are Barrett, Pauset, R. Saunders, and Ablinger, scattered recordings of which can be found online at American outlets) are pretty hard to come by; performances of all of the above in this country are essentially nonexistent, and their work is ignored by all commentators in this country, uptown, downtown, lefttown, righttown, new media, old media, multimedia. So it’s understandably hard, especially for those without European contacts, to find new work that excites these composers of which you speak as much as the old work you talk about.
    And if you want to talk about rebellion, I fear you underestimate the degree to which, among my generation (Americans born after 1970, say), enthusiasm for the above list does constitute “rebellion” for those who are interested in such things.

  5. says

    One of the big problems that young composers face in trying to find exciting new music is that there’s so much new music out there that it’s hard to know where to start. The music history classes deal with the exciting historical music, and the composition teachers know what’s going on that they themselves like, but there’s not necessarily anybody on any given faculty who will know about the recent and current music that a given young composer will be excited by. I didn’t discover David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon until Lee Hyla pointed me in the right direction during my Masters at NEC — and they’re now three of my favorite composers, and would have been years earlier if anybody had thought to introduce me.
    In retrospect, I feel a bit foolish, and like I should have been able to go out and find some of these people on my own, but I also recognize that “in retrospect” includes a general sense of the the downtown and minimalist movements and their trajectories and major figures — I didn’t have the background knowledge to do the exploration very well, again because the people guiding me were expert in other areas.
    I don’t mean to place blame on any of my former teachers or schools — they all did their best to guide me based on what they knew, and did a good job — the problem is structural. And I would add that downtown music suffers even more than uptown music, because the uptowners are better ensconced in academia where they serve as guides for the curiosity of their students. I’m not sure what the answer is, although digital music distribution via the internet will help, and increased useage of genre terminology will help. A more balanced faculty in academia will lessen the problem for downtowners, but at the same time there will be uptown-oriented students who need to be introduced to obscure, out-there uptown composers and might not know faculty who can direct them to those composers, so a larger solution is needed.