Take a look at this list of books:
Leonard Meyer: Music, the Arts, and Ideas, 1967
Iannis Xenakis: Formalized Music, 1971
David Cope: New Directions in Music, 1971
Michael Nyman: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 1974
Cornelius Cardew: Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, 1974
John Vinton, ed.: Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Music, 1974
Robert Erickson: Sound Structure in Music, 1975
Roger Reynolds: Mind Models, 1975
Steve Reich: Writings About Music, 1975
Walter Zimmermann: Desert Plants, 1976
Gregory Battcock, ed.: Breaking the Sound Barrier, 1981
Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras: Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, 1982
Wim Mertens: American Minimal Music, 1983
Pauline Oliveros: Software for People, 1984
George Rochberg: The Aesthetics of Survival, 1984
To follow up on and illustrate my last post, these were the books that informed me about new music in my youth, that chronicled about where it was going and what it was doing. They explained music that was only a few years old; they described and categorized current trends; they predicted what would soon be coming up in the future. There was a real effort to understand how music was changing and why, and a small industry devoted to arguments on every side. Most important, a narrative was being drawn, that a diverse group of thinkers (many of them composers advancing their own interests, of course) were contributing to. We in new music had a story about what was going on, and we could all be on the same page even if we disagreed about the details.
And then, suddenly, – nothing. In the 1980s art rock, totalism, free improvisation, postminimalism took over stages in New York and elsewhere in quick succession, but no books noted, no authors tried to explain. In the next several years we had a few memoires by elder statesmen reminiscing about what they had done way back when: Milton Babbitt’s Words About Music (1987), George Perle’s The Listening Composer (1990). In 1990 Cole Gagne came out with an odd little book, self-consciously vernacular in style, called Sonic Transports, that contained a lot of dubiously edited information about Glenn Branca and “Blue” Gene Tyranny; good luck finding it. The mid-’90s gave us two books of interviews, Gagne’s Soundpieces 2 (1993) and Bill Duckworth’s Talking Music (1995) – excellent, though aimed more at celebrating the diversity of what was going on, preserving some raw material for future musicology, rather than trying to draw a narrative to make sense of things. (The ’90s also finally brought us books by Rob Schwarz, Ed Strickland, and Keith Potter thoroughly exploring the minimalism of the ’60s and ’70s.)
Finally, since the 21st century started, we’ve had a few 1970s-style synthesizing compendia appear: John Zorn’s Arcana: Musicians on Music of 2000, the 2004 collection Audio Culture edited by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner, and Duckworth’s Virtual Music (2005). The first of these covers the free improvisation world, the second is largely historical and focuses on technological issues, and the third explores music’s relationship to the internet. Put these three books together and you can start to make a picture of the era, though not much in terms of more general compositional issues. That leaves, by my calculation, my American Music in the Twentieth Century (1997) and Music Downtown (2006) and John Luther Adams’s Winter Music (2004) – finally, the first book of essays by a composer of my generation – as the only books to address general recent compositional trends in a narrative format since the genre disappeared in the early ’80s. And Schirmer kind of blindsided me by marketing American Music in the Twentieth Century as a textbook, thus making it more difficult to find, which wasn’t the original idea.
Of course, there are a lot of issues here, and no one explanation. A significant one is that university presses were pressured to go commercial in the 1980s, and certainly weren’t encouraging anyone to write about a subject perceived as non-lucrative as new music. But so many of the helpful early narratives about new music were by composers – why, in the ’80s and ’90s, did composers quit writing? The breakup of the new music world into a dozen or more niches certainly creates a daunting challenge. The “musical intellectual” niche, proudly clinging to Ligeti and Kurtag and following Ferneyhough’s every move, is isolationist, and doesn’t consider the rest of music worth writing about, yet their own music is too arcane for books about it to be marketable. The midtown orchestral composers, possessing all the institutional power, don’t feel compelled to pay attention to anyone but themselves, yet most of them write such bland, compromised music that no one wants to write about them. Other niches, like postminimalism, have received so little public support that no one knows about them as a group phenomenon despite their vast numbers. And sometimes I think the microtonalists are doing everything they can think of to keep from being heard or seen.
But isn’t this niche problem itself a plum of a musicological pickle? You can’t say no one saw it coming: I well remember scary predictions in the mid-1970s that someday soon the mainstream in classical music would break up and cease to exist, and that we’d have a bunch of different streams that would hardly relate to each other. Well, it happened. Is that a reason to quit writing about it? Isn’t that fact in itself the great musical story of our time? and why aren’t some of the more ambitious musicologists rushing to clarify it, to put their own stamps on our understanding of it? With so many niches and such an explosion in the number of composers, there should have been more books, not none. Just because we don’t have a central musical style anymore doesn’t mean we can’t have a central narrative whose primary outlines everyone could accede to. And how can we have a meaningful new-music world at all without a narrative?