My post on the ages at which composers find their mature styles elicited some correspondence from an economist named David Galenson who has written a book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. The book deals with the chronology-related creativity patterns of painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, and movie directors – no composers, unfortunately, but maybe that’s where we come in. Don’t ask me why an economist is writing about this, but he has some interesting ideas, and he offered me a 1916 quote from Wassily Kandinsky that applies to the imitative young composers I wrote about who get orchestral commissions: “Such artists are like starlings who do not know a song of their own, but imitate more or less well that of the nightingale.” I want to read the book.
To continue on that track: I write a lot of program notes, as you know – for three different orchestras this year alone. In the case of very recent works, this usually involves getting a copy of the score, and a CDR of a performance if the work is not a world premiere, and I pretty much have to superficially analyze the piece to describe it and tell the audience what to expect. Recently I was assigned a piece written by a composer in his 20s, the piece for which he is best known. I have rarely seen so inept a work. Unable to sustain or even fully form an idea, he fell into the habit of completely changing texture every two measures on the barline, and one of the “themes” he pointed out as significant in his own program notes was so undistinguished I couldn’t be certain where it was in the score, nor notice it in the recording. Moments that seemed intended as romantically expressive used instruments in the most ineffective registers. It was not an issue of stylistic bias on my part; it was a basically a type of tonal and partly bitonal piece that, had it been competent, I might have been expected to like. Had one of my students written it, I would have patted the culprit on the head and thought, “Well, that’s not too bad for an undergrad, I hope grad school straightens the kid out.” But the piece has been performed by a more than half a dozen orchestras, and has resulted in several new commissions.
And good lord, the reviews in this composer’s press kit: “Beethoven.” “A young master.” “Audiences are ecstatically enthusiastic.” I don’t mean the Winona, MN, Times-Picayune, I mean some of the biggest-name critics at some big-city papers have prostrated themselves before the coming of this Messiah of ineptitude. The hip-deep hyperbole seems almost a compensation for not having anything explicit to say about the music. Since I usually get press kits for the young composers I write about, I notice that this is quite common. Every one of them can boast press notices bulging with the most lavish praise. The critics exhibit all the wise, skeptical, cautious, seasoned judgment of the White House press corps, which is to say, they salivate on command. Bless them, they do advocate for orchestras to play new music, and for that I thank them. But they are ridiculously quick to assume that the composers who make it into the orchestra circuit are the best around, quick to convince themselves that these pieces by young composers are masterpieces, and also to assume that those who haven’t “made it” into the orchestra circuit must not be very good. Hearing only a tiny smidgen of the new music that’s happening, they grab at what the orchestras give them, and exercise no independent judgment.
The result? A Potemkin music scene, in which our spirits are demoralized not only by the great music that goes unrecognized, but also by the bland and incompetent music into which tremendous resources are poured. And how can anyone protest with the critics so avidly warming to their assigned puppy-dog role? The bios of these young composers, at least the American ones, all read the same: they attended Eastman, Juilliard, Peabody, Curtis, or a couple of other places, studied there with big-name composers (who made their careers the same way), and who took up the youngster as a protégé, introducing him or her to conductors, giving them the awards on whose panels they sit, and getting their pieces played. In these press kits, I read the repetitive process over and over again. Often the young composers themselves shyly reveal, in interviews, that they’re aware that their style hasn’t really coalesced yet, and seem a little embarrassed by the grandiose expectations that have risen around them. But that doesn’t matter. They’re being fed into a machine, as the successful orchestral composers I know readily admit, and the machine will take care of them.
And the orchestras have little choice but to trust the machine. The only new music they know is what the older composers tell them about. I recently wrote an article about a 28-year-old composer whose music I really like, Mason Bates. For it I interviewed an orchestra conductor who told me that the great thing about Bates’s music was how utterly distinctive it is, and how it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Well, Bates is something of a postminimalist who works DJ rhythms into his music, and if you’ve never heard the 20 or 30 other postminimalists whose music his vaguely resembles, yes, he must seem completely distinctive. The historical note here is that now, such are the attractions of minimalism that even the big conservatories can no longer avoid putting out a generation of 20-something postminimalists who are getting taken up by the orchestral circuit. Does this mean that the composers who’ve been pioneering postminimalism for the last quarter-century will now get their reputations rehabilitated? HA! Sorry, fellas, if you didn’t get famous by 30, the next bus leaves at 65. The consolation prize will be all the apologies I receive in a couple of years from all those critics and musicians who kept pronouncing minimalism dead as I kept insisting it was only getting started. (I’m not holding my breath.)
I’m happy to see young composers get attention and experience having their music played. It’s a shame that so many hundreds of performances and awards are concentrated in just a handful of them, and that those few are inevitably picked by the same people at the same schools. And it’s more of a shame that we have only that one mechanism for entering into a well-commissioned composer’s career, one which has no place for composers who blossom in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. One organization I really respect is the Herb Alpert Award, which is intended for emerging composers: but explicitly admits that some composers don’t emerge until they’re 45, 60, even 70. The orchestra world should learn to take this patent reality into account.
Meanwhile, every other year I analyze Rothko Chapel in class, and describe the life of Morton Feldman: three recordings issued during his lifetime, dozens more suddenly appearing in the years after his death, plus a recognition as one of the century’s great composers that he didn’t live to enjoy. And now Lucky Mosko (of whom I’ll be writing shortly), highly regarded by his colleagues, has died at 59 without my having had a chance to hear a note of his music. We are no better than in Mozart and Schubert’s day at rewarding great composers while they’re still alive: worse, in fact, because you no longer have to die young to achieve only posthumous acclaim. Instead we have the permanent, institutionalized razzle-dazzle of composers who made propitious connections in grad school.