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.