Every professor of composition knows, and will tell you, that you can’t predict, from a 20-year-old composer’s output, his or her eventual success. People mature creatively at different rates. Some composers bloom in their 30s, others, grappling with an array of original ideas, may not achieve an integrated aesthetic until their 40s. Others may seem to follow the crowd for the first half of their career, then undergo a startling change of direction around 45 or 50. Only in retrospect do their compelling late works reveal the germs of genius inherent in their eccentric early works. Among the 20- to 25-year olds, the ones who initially produce the most professional-sounding music will often be the least original – their technical polish may be evidence more of a mimetic ability than an original vision. The more “out there” a composer’s personal vision is, the more awkward his or her early works will probably sound, and the longer it will take his or her compositional language to crystallize into something eloquent and communicative.
The early idioms of many composers testify to this. For instance, Nancarrow didn’t discover his instrument until age 36, and took another 8 or 10 years to master it. Partch, having an even wider range of unconventional elements to integrate, was nearly 50 when his style started to feel compelling. Varése wrote romantic music that he later abandoned, and struggled to bring his style into focus at just shy of 40. Feldman’s music seemed like a cute adjunct to Cage’s philosophy until his ambitions suddenly blossomed at age 44. Elliott Carter wrote an undistinguished neoclassicism into his 40s, and didn’t find what we recognize as a Carterian idiom until age 43. Rzewski wrote some charming minimalist works in his early 30s, but didn’t create his own style until he was 37, with The People United. Robert Ashley was involved in the avant-garde all along, but didn’t begin to stand out until he wrote Perfect Lives at 48. Giacinto Scelsi was 54 when he found what he had been looking for in his 4 pezzi su una nota sola. Other composers have bloomed earlier. Charles Ives wrote Thanksgiving, one of his greatest works, at 30. Cage entered into his first-period maturity in his late 20s. And La Monte Young made his life’s monolinear path clear at 25. There really is no universal pattern.
As I say, every composer knows this. Oddly enough, however, music critics, conductors, orchestra managements, and some record labels operate on a strikingly different theory of creative development. Convinced that compositional talent is similar to that for dancing or mathematics and thus inevitably manifests itself by age 25, they are on the constant lookout for the brilliant young composer. Giddy with the thrill of discovery, they pick the next Beethoven out of a crowd of grad students, shower him with commissions and recording contracts, spend a bundle promoting his name to the public. He is groomed to take an elevated position in musical society, much the way Hollywood positions young actresses to become stars. (For some reason Great Britain is especially attached to this habit.) The youngster becomes famous, is watched and listened to, taken seriously because “the authorities” have staked their reputations on him. The youngster’s music may develop, may not; it doesn’t matter, because he will continue to be lionized, performed, recorded regardless of whether his music lives up to its early promise. Only in the rarest occasions will there be a general admission that enthusiasm was premature; George Benjamin is the only such case I can name. By law of averages, these lionized composers will most often be the imitative ones whose early music seemed highly polished because it wasn’t encumbered by a need to integrate new insights.
And so, among famous composers, we have two career paradigms: the composer discovered before age 30 by the classical music establishment, and the composer discovered after 65 by younger composers. What about the composer who achieves public success at age 40 or 50, due to the dawning realization that his or her work has reached a remarkable maturity? This almost never happens. In Rzewski’s case I think it helped that he was such a persuasive pianist for his own works – the orchestra world has still not embraced him. Carter’s career I’ve never figured out, but I imagine inherited wealth didn’t hurt. But I am moved to these recurring reflections once again by writing program notes for yet another batch of competent, but not-yet-terribly-distinctive, 20-something composers that the orchestra world, with its critical entourage, has confidently declared will be the geniuses of the future.