Our Potemkin Music Scene

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.

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  1. says

    Isn’t marketing wonderful? (No need to answer.)
    The orchestras are dying. They hire marketeers to save their bottom line. Marketeer figures, rightly, we need young people in the audience. Too many grey hairs. So go find Gen X/Y/Z composers.
    This could be good. Maybe there is someone out there worth discovering. But they have to look good. Nice teeth. Magazine cover material. Helps if they have a dog, too.
    What about the music? It really doesn’t matter. Sell more seats.

  2. says

    I’m glad to hear about an economist addressing some of these large-scale issues. The classical music community spends a lot of time blundering around addressing symptoms instead of problems because we don’t have a broad enough perspective.
    If the system is as you describe it, i.e. big-name composers select proteges from their grad student population and grease the skids for them, and then the orchestra machine takes the composers that have been offered up by the system, then I wonder if part of the problem might be that the admissions process for composition programs is flawed. If the big-name composers are trying to select their best students for The Treatment, and if their judgement of who is the best among their students is good, then maybe the problem is that they don’t have the right people in the program to begin with.
    So then the question is where in the pipeline from highschool to induction into the orchestra-composer elite does the system weed out the wrong people? I’m about to engage in some very risky generalizing, stereotyping, and speculating, so please read it with an appropriate level of skepticism. I can think of two plausible scenarios.
    First, admission to undergraduate programs tends to be based on academics and interesting well-roundedness, but perhaps the profile of the future-great-composer is more likely somebody who didn’t do particularly spectacularly in school because they didn’t work hard on the things that didn’t interest them, and isn’t well rounded because they spent all of their time writing wierd music. The big-name composers are hired by the big-name universities, but the most promising young composers can’t get into those schools. So they study with people who have less clout, and at a school with fewer resources for getting performances, and they don’t have an impressive portfolio or big-name letter writers when grad-school application time comes along, and they don’t make it into the grad programs with the hot-shot composers. Meanwhile, the capable and hardworking but less than brilliant composers did well in High School, got into first-rate undergrad programs where they got good performances and had famous teachers, and on the strength of their portfolio and recommendations they then go to a grad school with big-name faculty.
    Second, if we think my generalizations about personality traits are off the mark, maybe the problem is in what the admissions committees at big-name grad schools are looking for. Suppose that the competent-but-less-than-brilliant composers tend to be more satisfied with doing excellent immitations of established styles, while the composers who will turn out to be really great spend their time trying to find new ways of doing things and often failing. The college seniors who are writing music that sounds the most like professional music might be the most likely to remain competent but not reach greatness, whereas the ones who will turn out to be great are generating lower quality work because they’re not working from an established model. The admissions committee would likely admit the composers whose work sounds the most professional, thereby accidentally selecting for competence rather than future greatness. Maybe admissions committees would do better to prefer the young composers who are failing in the most interesting ways rather than the ones who already sound like pros.
    In the meantime, if anybody reading this ends up reviewing my grad school application, please note that if you like my music it’s because I’m already on the path to greatness, and if you don’t like it it’s because I’m failing in interesting ways. Either way, I’m ready to be devoured by the machine.

  3. says

    “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.”

    So: Composer X is out there, apparently bamboozling major critics, and the public is being conned into believing that his inept work is worthwhile.

    Under those circumstances, what’s gained by (and what’s the point of) your ever-so-coy refusal to name composer X, the work in question, or any of the critics who’ve been so thoroughly taken in?

    KG replies: I’d love to, but I work for the orchestra in question, and it’s not part of my job to denigrate their concert series offerings. I feel guilty enough just bringing it up, but there’s social value in people knowing how these things operate. And besides, as I say, I don’t really blame the composer. I think he’s in a tough spot, probably scared shitless by each new commission and wondering why he meets, on all sides, an effusive praise he hasn’t yet deserved. He’s a victim, like the audience and the other composers who might be given such opportunities, of a stupid system that has nothing to do with merit, and you can’t blame people for taking advantage of what the system offers. But you can start changing the system.

    If anyone, I blame the critics – they’re the free agents who could afford to tell the truth and don’t. Two possible explanations: 1. they’re too fond of access to the musical centers of power and refuse to make waves, or 2. they’re morons.

  4. says

    Galen, I’m not sure it’s necessarily correct to assume that the “future-great composers” all do poorly at anything other than music in high school and college. One can have a passion for music and still be well-rounded; I’d hate to think that all the composers I like were narrow and only focused on writing music and weren’t part of the real world, even if only the academic part of the world. Xenakis studied architecture, for example. Richard Friedman is a very gifted programmer. There are other examples as well.
    I think what you mean is that the “less-than-brilliant” composers protect the status quo. That I’d very much agree with. It’s not so much that they excel in academics, because I suspect that if anything, they are more likely to concentrate in their particular area and not be well-versed in the humanities, the sciences, etc.
    The ones who really are great are often iconoclastic, may be generally misunderstood, and have a voracious appetite for both creative efforts and knowledge in general. I also think that the truly great ones are not politically savvy and tend to speak their minds. That’s often a very valued quality in academia, but not everywhere, and I think what the “not so gifted” composers have mastered is the art of schmoozing and politicking. That’s why they advance in academic circles and why they flourish; they play it safe, don’t rock the boat, and write like everyone else, usually the composition teachers at the institutions they attend.

  5. Sara Heimbecker says

    Galen Brown wrote: “perhaps the profile of the future-great-composer is more likely somebody who didn’t do particularly spectacularly in school because they didn’t work hard on the things that didn’t interest them, and isn’t well rounded because they spent all of their time writing wierd music.”
    I agree with Galen that the students who don’t do so well in school aren’t part of the traditional university system. These young composers are the ones writing compelling electronic music and exploring the industry in a different way.
    For example, this is a clip http://www.vitamine-source.at/files/listen/dorian_concept_-_tape_two.mp3 from an eighteen year old Austrian/American kid who isn’t attending the Hochschule or the Mozarteum, but rather the Fachhochschule in Salzburg.
    I’m not holding this composer up as a bright, shining example of what the future holds, but rather as a typical example of what happens when you give a kid piano lessons and a Nintendo.