Making History Up as It Goes Along

In the question period following my Indiana University lecture the other day, composer-musicologist Brent Reidy asked me what the role of the musicologist should be, given the explosion of interest in the Long Tail, the infinite miscellany of little-known musicians whose internet availability has brought them an audience no retail outlet could ever have provided. I hadn’t really thought about it, and my quick answer – my mouth seemingly working faster than my brain, as it sometimes does – rather surprised me. The musicologist, I said, has to go into the Long Tail and find a narrative, a story, something that makes sense and that people will respond to. Reality is chaos, and chaos isn’t interesting, or rather, can’t be empathetically responded to. There’s no way to describe chaos in its complexity; to describe anything involves making choices. And so the musicologist has to select what means something to him, something that follows a story he identifies with.

In my own case, that was pretty easy. The great musical event of my adolescence was the advent of minimalism, and the ongoing story of minimalism – not so much its birth, which others have covered in detail, but its youth and early maturity – became my narrative. And I mean minimalism in the broadest, epochal sense, the sense in which Glenn Branca once shouted to me in the early ’90s, “I’m sick of people saying that minimalism is dead!”, and I responded, “Minimalism hasn’t gotten started yet” – to which he replied, “Exactly.” There are quite a few wonderful composers whose music I dearly love, and who do not seem to have been pushed in any direction by minimalism – Michael Maguire, Diamanda Galas, Trimpin, Paul Dolden – and I listen to their music and love it, but they’re not part of my narrative. All that’s really moved me as a musicologist was the fact that I was more or less witness to the youth, if not birth, of a new style, and had a very rare chance to chart its growth from the simple to the more complexly elegant. It was like going back and watching the development of the symphony in the 1760s, and I could never understand why no one else seemed as fascinated as I did.

Of course, I never expected that my narrative would remain the only one, nor the dominant one. I was extremely surprised by the musicological vacuum that opened up in the ’80s, the fact that music was changing rapidly and no one seemed the slightest bit interested in coming up with a historical slant to characterize it. In my book American Music in the Twentieth Century (published in 1997), I refused to come up with any general description of music of the 1990s, which I knew everyone would disagree with. Instead I made up a narrative of what all the composers born in the 1950s grew up with in common:

– the introduction to world musics in college

– the corresponding loss of European music’s privileged status

– the ubiquitous influence of rock

– the use of computers, with its emphasis on complex sound samples, paperless notation,

and so on. I had to tell a story that people would understand, and I couldn’t tell a story about the music, which was too diverse, so I told a story about the composers, whose education and experiences were actually pretty similar and easily characterized. What I expected was that someone else would quickly come along and write, “Well, Kyle Gann didn’t exactly get it right, because what happened in the 1990s was this,” and then someone else would write, “that idiot Kyle Gann got it completely wrong, because what happened in the 1990s was this!” – and truth would emerge from all the different viewpoints. No narrative has a monopoly on truth. And I didn’t care, I’m a composer, not a musicologist, I just wanted to start the ball rolling.

But I’ve waited years and years for some other narrative to come along and supersede mine, and all I’ve seen is a continuation of the tired old modernist line – you know, “orchestral music continued to be written and became more and more complex.” The musicologists don’t seem to want to deal with any music after 1980 that doesn’t fall into all the same categories and explanations as music before 1980. So I went way out on a limb with my narrative, and people remain suspicious of it because there’s damn little expressed consensus, and no balancing counter-narrative. And frankly, I’ll be relieved when mine isn’t the only narrative out there, so I hope Brent and his ilk, if ilk there be, will crawl into that long tail and come out with something new.


  1. Scott Klein says

    You may of course be right– and likely are– about the dearth of counternarratives to your 1997 book. But it’s also worth noting that as academic publishing goes, there’s often a decade between narratives and counternarratives. That’s often how long it takes for a young graduate student to respond to an important book– to write a thesis, turn it into his or her own book, and get it published. So perhaps there are counter-Ganns in the pipeline even as you write, even if the likelihood of such a young scholar emerging out of nowhere in this blog and email-intensive world of new music seems small.

  2. says

    I think part of what’s going on here is a heavy reliance by historians of many stripes (including musicologists, of course) on the Great Men theory of history combined with a desire for simplicity of historical narrative. To a large extent the history of classical music is taught as a descending line of great men — Palestrina begat JS Bach, Bach begat CPE Bach, CPE Bach begat Haydn, Haydn begat Mozart, Mozart (and Haydn) begat Beethoven, Beethoven begat Brahms, Brahms begat Wagner, Wagner begat Schoenberg, Schoenberg begat Babbitt, etc. Obviously this is an oversimplification of an oversimplification, but you see what I’m getting at.
    “Lesser” composers are important insofar as they illustrate the grant narrative of great men — they are the connective tissue of the narrative. In the 20th century, we have seen a second class of great men who get treated as interesting oddballs — great composers who represent unique anomalies, worthy of consideration but not themselves part of the grand narrative. Ives, Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow, Partch, Young, Reich. Because they aren’t seen as part of the primary narrative, the fact that they can be seen as forming a second narrative is overlooked, and the “lesser” composers who would form the connective tissue of that narrative are ignored because caring about such composers relies on belief in the existence of the grand narrative that they support. So everybody has heard of Buxtehude and nobody has heard of Philip Corner. A handful of first and second generation minimalists have been accepted into the canon as anomalies, and their status as anomalies is protected by the attitude that the possible competing narrative of “minimalism” never arrived, even though in fact it did.
    We’re finally beginning to see some serious efforts at understanding minimalism — Robert Fink’s _Repeating Ourselves: Minimalism as Cultural Practice_ creates a compelling narrative of the rise of minimalism through the early 80s, for example. And one of the advantages of Fink’s approach is that he treats the individual composers and works and events not as defining forces but as representative examples of an evolving zeitgeist. That zeitgeist is, of course, the cumulative effect of a particular set of long tails.
    Incedentally, while I don’t know him very well my impression is that Brent Reidy is a great guy.
    KG replies: I’m sure on some level you’re entirely right, Galen, but what a lame excuse! Do “great men” just appear, complete with halos? – or are they created by the critical discourse? I was interested in Reich well before people were talking about him as a Great Man, and Feldman too. How did they become Great Men? By someone championing them. And with all due respect to Reich, who wrote some phenomenally influential early works, it’s not like he’s hit a home run every times he’s stepped up to bat. He’s got his good pieces and his ho-hum pieces, and I refuse to accept that there’s no one of my generation who can measure up to him. John Luther Adams? Peter Garland? Mikel Rouse? Elodie Lauten? Larry Polansky? I see no shortage of great men, nor women. Until someone’s been dead a few decades and his music survives on its own, Great Man is a PR category, not an ontological one.
    The more legitimate musicological problem has been the splitting up of the music scene from a mainstream to a dozen or more niches, which makes it difficult to perceive anyone as great. No one’s going to vote for someone outside the musical niche they’re attached to. So – why no typology of current niches? Why no musicological surveys of the current splintered composing world? Myself, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, because I’m frankly partisan, and it would just give 65% of composers a new reason to hate me. But look at Sequenza 21: mention Kurtag and half the composers genuflect, and mention JLA and the other half shout, “Oh yeah, he’s great!” There’s two distinct scenes represented right there, not to mention all the ones not represented. We start examining the assumptions, methods, and expectations of each niche, and the really important composers will emerge soon enough. But instead, we get – nothing. A vacuum, as though everyone had stopped composing in 1980. Not even the conservative composers who get orchestra music played all over creation get written about intellectually.

  3. says

    I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t any composers in the Downtown or Postminimalist tradition who deserve to be treated as “great men and women” — I’m with you that we’re flush with them. In fact, a big part of my point (which was apparently clumsily espressed) is precisely that, as you say, “Great Man is a PR category, not an ontological one.” What I’m suggesting is that too much of the music historian/theoritician community still buys into the “great man” theory even though it’s invalid, and it blinds them to the music that’s happening outside of the Lineage that they’ve accepted.
    A few “great men” who don’t fit into the Lineage get created by being championed, but because they don’t fit into the Lineage they’re treated as anomalies — and as you yourself have illustrated, many of them don’t get annointed until long after they are dead. I’m suggesting that part of the cause of that delay is that because they don’t support the master narrative they have to be extracted out of whatever possible competing narrative they’re a part of. So Feldman and Reich are safe for annointment only if the master narrative can declare that minimalism is dead.
    Maybe I’m putting the emphasis in the wrong place, or maybe I’m just full of it. I do think you have a very good point about the balkanization of classical music genres playing a crucial role.
    KG replies: No, I agree, that’s a more nuanced way of putting it, and I think you’re right.