The [Too] Tolerant Generation

Alaskan composer John Luther Adams and I were out grouse-hunting the other day, and got into a conversation about our generation of composers. We had flushed out a couple of coveys we weren’t expecting, peppered the air with some 7 1/2 shot, and my spaniel Nellie had done a noble job of scouring the bracken for anything we might have hit – but came up empty. Finally, dropping my gun, I suggested that maybe the reason composers our age hadn’t gotten enough attention was that we showed too much respect for our elders, and hadn’t presented ourselves as individuals worthy of attention ourselves. John removed his orange cap, wiped his forehead with a weary arm, uncocked his 20-gauge, and asked what I meant.

OK, we weren’t actually grouse-hunting, we were drinking at the Broome Street Bar after a La Monte Young concert, but it was just as picturesque, believe me.

After all, John was just about to premiere a piece titled For Lou Harrison, dedicated to one of his mentors. I had just released a CD of basically player-piano music, after having written a book about Conlon Nancarrow. I describe John’s music as a kind of cross between Henry Cowell and Morton Feldman, and he’s always been OK with that. My microtonal music doesn’t sound like that of my teacher Ben Johnston, but I use his notation, and I inherited his approach to harmony. Our mutual friend Peter Garland has evolved an entirely original musical idiom, but he’s always staking his claim to the Partch/Cowell/Rudhyar aesthetic. Our friend Larry Polansky is the continuation of James Tenney experimentalism, and his greatest piece yet is a set of variations on a Ruth Crawford-harmonized folksong. Mikel Rouse dedicated his most groundbreaking opera to his pioneer-predecessor Robert Ashley. The great composers of my generation, at least the ones I think are great, have not exactly revolted against their elders. We have not reinvented the wheel nor the world, nor announced that all music before we arrived was worthless and should be forgotten.

That’s part one of the argument. Part two is that we have also not excommunicated anyone. We have not indulged in the age-old gambit of announcing that our way of writing music was the only way. We have not penned manifestos declaring that “Anyone who has not felt – I do not say understand – but felt the necessity of the postminimalist/totalist/microtonal language is USELESS.” We haven’t done the Stockhausen/Boulez thing, the Picasso/Braque thing. We haven’t even claimed, as John Zorn did, that Carl Stalling, not John Cage, was the REAL father of the avant-garde. I remember in the mid-80s Zorn starting off a liner note, with a startling lack of prescience: “Like it or not, the era of the one-composer piece is just about over….” He seemed to abandon that tack soon after.

There are several things I feel in response to all this. First, I am proud of my generation for not excommunicating anyone. We were scarred by the battles our teachers fought, which appear stupid in retrospect. We absorbed pluralism with our mother’s milk. We learned 12-tone music and sometimes loved it, while nodding our head to the Beatles, while zoning out to Terry Riley, while feeling a warm kinship with Virgil Thomson, while absorbing amazing rhythmic complexities from Henry Cowell, while buying up one Coltrane record after another. I had always felt that working as a critic robbed me of the luxury of believing that my own aesthetic was uniquely privileged, but more and more I find all my peers in the same boat. Many of us may feel (John certainly more than I) that THIS is the way I must write my music, but I’ve never met a composer my own age or younger who feels like only one kind of music is valid today for everyone. Minimalism nurtures no mandates. There were a couple of years back there that the Bang on a Can composers went around saying that new music, to be relevant today, must be based on the vernacular – but what vernacular they meant was a question no one could answer, and the argument petered out quickly in the face of non-vernacular-based great music by Feldman, Varese, Tenney, Niblock, and others. Thank the gods for my generation of composers: we are, by and large, a goddamned tolerant bunch.

The other part is harder to answer. Beethoven claimed that he had learned nothing from Haydn – I will not say that about Nancarrow, nor John about Harrison – quite the contrary. This does not mean that John’s music isn’t a whole different kettle of fish from Harrison’s. Peter Garland can go on about the mantle of Varèse all he wants, but his own gentle, subtly non-repetitive style couldn’t be further from the acerbities of Octandre and Hyperprism. And there’s been little notice that, while Nancarrow’s player piano music is laced together with brilliant large-scale canonic and isorhythmic structures, my own Disklavier music is almost the opposite: whimsical, intuitive, stream-of-consciousness. We’re proud to be card-carrying members of a Maverick tradition (if that is not an oxymoron), but that doesn’t mean we haven’t each staked out his own territory.

My own take on the 20th century was that it was a tremendous unearthing of new ideas – and that now those new ideas are ready to be knit into a more elaborate language. In particular, for me there are four (or five) composers whose music created a space that younger composers could inhabit for several generations:

Nancarrow, for rhythmic structure;

Ben Johnston (or, alternatively, La Monte Young) for pitch structure;

Robert Ashley for text setting and theater; and

Morton Feldman for texture and continuity.

Personally, I feel like a composer could run wild for decades through the rainbow canyons opened up by these composers, without repeating anything they did. In my Nancarrow book I list 26 devices that he used only once each in his output, any one of which is susceptible to further development in other, quite different contexts; plus several ideas implied by his music that he never used at all. It seems silly to walk away from all those untouched riches in search of more pristine ideas. The modernists opened up new continents to musical habitation, and there’s little point in that if someone doesn’t come live in them.

To the extent that the arbiters of musical discourse have not recognized the musical leaders of my generation because we don’t kick ass in the musico-political discourse, that’s their loss. Our commitment to pluralism is a commendable ethical position; our refusal to chase after empty novelty while so many barely-unwrapped new ideas lay waiting to be developed means we are living in a reality that the taste-makers just haven’t caught up with. There are times for innovation, and times for assimilation, and critics and entrepreneurs need to be on their toes when the paradigm shifts.

But I’d be willing to admit that our rhetoric is perhaps not sufficiently self-serving. Every time we justify our willingness to stand alone in some weird sonic territory by pointing to Tenney or Feldman or Young, perhaps the world understandably dismisses us as epigones. We fought the academy, but maybe we forgot to psychically kill off our father figures – at least the ones inside us. Perhaps Peter needs to make a more belligerent case for Garlandism without reference to Cowell, perhaps a manifesto telling what Polansky renounced in his teachers’ music is in order. It’s time for a “Cage Is Dead” article. John, in between puffs on his meerschaum (oops, not true, sorry), admitted that he once told Tenney how much he owed to his music, and Tenney practically got mad: “But John, you’ve gone way beyond what I’m doing, the music’s all yours now!” He was right. We’re too proud to make like Stockhausen, none of us yearns to play the Grand Inquisitor. But we all have strong reasons for making our music precisely the way we make it, for reasons that apply to this exact historical moment that wouldn’t have been relevant 40 years ago. And maybe we need to state our own cases with a little more ego, and less reverence for the composers who meant so much to us – but whose music we’ve indisputably grown beyond.

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