My Longyear Musicology Lecture

The opportunity to speak in an endowed musicological lecture series inspired me to talk about musicology itself for the first time in my life. I felt like I was going out on a limb a little, but these are thoughts I’d been having about what we need from musicology lately, and I hoped that some young musicologist or two might see this as an opportunity to return to the cause of new composed music, and do some much-needed good. In that spirit I post it here for a wider audience. The topics are pluralism, minimalism as a new historical era, and the problem with calling American composers “mavericks.”

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One night in New York City after a concert I was having a drink with my fellow composer Larry Polansky. He was talking about the musicological and restorative work he was doing on music by Johanna Beyer and Harry Partch, I spoke of my analytical writings on the music of Conlon Nancarrow and Mikel Rouse. Finally, Larry said, “Composers are now doing the work that musicologists used to do, while the musicologists are all off doing gender studies.”

I am a composer, and have been composing music continuously since the age of 13. I have three degrees in music composition, and none in music history. And yet I have published two musicology books and quite a number of musicological articles. I was even hired at Bard College as a musicologist, not as a composer. I’ve presented papers at meetings of the American Musicological Society. I have always had a rather fanatical interest in music history, but I have no specific training that could be called musicological. I always go to musicology conferences half expecting to be exposed and thrown out as a charlatan, and the fact that it has never happened has led me to think of musicologists as being universally generous and good-natured people with a shrewd sense of humor.

That I am invited here today to give the Rey M. Longyear Musicology Lecture certainly preserves that impression. When I started college, the first music history textbook I was assigned was by Dr. Longyear, so my consciousness of the honor of the invitation is wrapped up with some very old memories.

But I never had any particular ambition in the field of musicology, and as my anecdote about Larry Polansky suggests, if the needs that composers have from the world of musicology were being satisfied by music historians, I probably would never have ventured into the field.

Several years ago Wiley Hitchcock, who passed away recently, asked me to write a final chapter, “Music Since 1985,” for the fourth edition of his textbook Music in the United States. Several months later, we had lunch, and he broke it to me that he wasn’t going to go ahead with a fourth edition. No one wanted to read narrative history anymore, he said, everyone was doing gender studies and reception histories and sociologies of vernacular music. “But Wiley,” I argued, “just because people are doing all those worthwhile things doesn’t mean that we can quit doing what music historians have always done. If someone doesn’t write down the basic facts of what’s happening, there won’t be any contemporary accounts of history for future gender studies scholars to work from.” I like to think I brought him around, and the fourth edition of Music in the United States did eventually appear.

There is a perception abroad that in the 1980s musicologists dropped the ongoing narrative of composed music, and when a narrative is discontinued, an impression is created that the story has ended. We composers need musicology, for an objective view of our field from the outside that can create a narrative that will make our activities make sense to the outside world and to ourselves. But for all the good that gender studies, reception histories, ethnomusicology, and histories of vernacular music do, the near blackout of attention to contemporary composing creates a public illusion that the new creation of classical music has come to an end. One reads a lot of dire warnings these days about the death of classical music, and if anything in the world could finally kill classical music, it is this illusion.

What I have to contribute to musicology is data and insights from the composing world, and I would like to use such evidence today to make suggestions on how to get the narrative going again. Literary critics talk about the “master narrative,” the large story behind all the individual stories that largely goes unstated and unacknowledged. Stories that contradict the master narrative often go disregarded, all the more so because the narrative itself has never been made conscious or explicit. I’d like to talk today about three narratives, two master narratives and one more explicit, that prevent the world from getting an accurate view of what’s going on in composed music today, and ask for your help in replacing them with livelier and more accurate stories.

Narrative No. 1: The world of current composition is a) too chaotic to generalize about, and/or b) too marginalized to be worth writing about.

If you look through the repertoire of music history books, there is a tendency to organize the 20th century as movement after movement after movement, and to end with what is ostensibly the last movement: minimalism. Many books talk about the development of music up to around 1976, and give up after Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, or maybe Satyagraha. A few of them will continue with the careers of people who were already famous in the 1970s, like Philip Glass and John Adams. They might briefly mention John Zorn. But curiously absent is any mention of movements past minimalism, or further developments. The student could quite easily get the impression, in 2008, that the history of composed music pretty much ended in the 1970s, with a few famous composers continuing what they were already doing into the ’80s.

There are several plausible excuses that might lead music historians to want to give this impression.

* Music is too diverse these days, there are too many splinter groups driven by different influences.

* The music is too new, we should wait and let future generations describe what happened.

* No composers born after 1945 have become famous enough to generate interest in writing about them, and we seem to be in a compositional slump.

* Classical or composed music has lost its prestige, there’s not point in writing about it any more and we should attend to popular music instead because it has an exponentially wider audience – and that this argument should come from musicologists, of all people, is perhaps the strangest of all.

But allow me to go back to a musicologist from my student years, someone it is all the more appropriate to honor now because he recently died: Leonard B. Meyer. Meyer’s book Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture appeared in 1967. Along with perhaps John Cage’s Silence, it was the most widely discussed music book among composers during my student years, which were the mid-1970s. Meyer opens with the words:

“This book is an attempt to understand the present.”

Well, so much for the kind of timid musicologist who says we should wait and let future generations sort things out. Meyer channeled the spirit of the first great musicologist of the 18th century, Charles Burney, who in 1770 embarked on a series of tours of France, Italy, Germany, and Austria in an attempt to describe the state of musical culture as it was at that moment.

But let us follow Meyer’s opening words:

At first I supposed that an underlying order would reveal itself if some basis could be found for deciding which of the several currents of contemporary music would become “the style of the future.” I formulated the question many different times, and in many different forms: how will twentieth-century music develop? which existing tendencies will be the dominant, consequential ones? why, after fifty years, have we not reached a stylistic consensus? and so on. But none of the “answers” seemed satisfactory. Mostly they turned out to be plausible platitudes.

Then it occurred to me that, because it presupposed a particular kind of answer, perhaps the question itself was the wrong one. Perhaps our time would be characterized, not by the cumulative development of a single style, but by the coexistence of a number of alternative styles in a kind of “dynamic steady-state.” (Music, the Arts, and Ideas, p. v)

Then later in the book, he asserts more deliberately,

I should like to suggest – and, considering the rapidity and frequency with which styles have followed one another in recent years, the suggestion will probably seem a rash one – that the coming epoch (if, indeed, we are not already in it) will be a period of stylistic stasis, a period characterized not by the linear, cumulative development of a single fundamental style, but by the coexistence of a multiplicity of quite different styles in a fluctuating and dynamic steady-state. [Music, the Arts, and Ideas, p. 98]

This was 1967. It did indeed seem like a rash suggestion. The dominant compositional figure of the day was Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose pretensions to have summed up all previous music were widely envied and imitated. Minimalism had just reared its head, and would soon look like the Next Great Movement to which everyone would abruptly switch, like a flock of birds changing course. Evidence for Meyer’s theory was not abundantly visible. Worse than that, to a composer, these were fighting words.

“Whaddaya mean, stylistic stasis and a multiplicity of styles? You just haven’t heard my music yet. As soon as I’m famous, everyone will be imitating me. That will be the new dominant tendency you think you can’t find!” You’ve got to imagine the cacophony of thousands of young composers having this same indignant reaction.

Nevertheless, the word “pluralism” began creeping into conversation. Minimalism grew more popular, but not everyone converted to it. Almost as a reaction against it, a noisy scene of free improvisation grew up around John Zorn and Elliott Sharp in New York City. Personal computers made it possible for any teenager to make music from samples of other recordings. Orchestra composers discovered the New Romanticism, and, exploiting the nonlinearity of style quotation, ventured into Postmodernism. Serialism morphed into the New Complexity around the cult figure of Brian Ferneyhough. DJs started making art music by spinning discs. Twenty years later, all of these styles are still flourishing, with no one of them gaining particularly more of the market share than it had at the time. (This election has been going on 20 times as long as the current presidential race. It just doesn’t seem as long.)

At some point, everyone eventually looked back and realized that Leonard Meyer had been right. There was no dominant new style. The ways in which all these current styles relate has remained disconcertingly consistent. A “dynamic steady-state” is an accurate term for the way it feels. It had been a scary prospect, but actually we’ve learned to live with it, and found that it has advantages. By one account several years ago, there were 40,000 composers in the U.S., and the idea of 40,000 people all gravitating toward one dominant style is what would have been really scary. The variety of subcultures allows a lot more artists to get noticed, and gives young musicians a choice to find what style of music-making they feel most comfortable with.

So this was a massive coup for musicology. Leonard Meyer had predicted what was going to happen in the compositional world long before most composers started becoming aware of it – and his predictions were abundantly and dramatically validated. And what he predicted – the end of the mainstream, the explosion of pluralism, the onset of a new kind of music world – was, arguably, the biggest story in the history of music. Of course dozens of books appeared hailing the event, validating Meyer’s insights, and charting the brave new world in which we found ourselves.

Oh, wait a minute. That’s not what happened. Instead it was more like:

“Let’s take another look at Fanny Mendelssohn.”

“I think we need to study the influence of minstrelsy on Broadway musicals.”

“Don’t you think Handel’s music would sound better on 200-year-old woodwinds?”

Here was the biggest story in the history of music – and everyone pretended not to notice. Musicological reporters should have been all attention, covering it the way environmental scientists cover the calving of icebergs in the Antarctic. But they all chose this moment to turn away and look busy with phenomena that had been there for decades without anyone noticing.

I don’t mean to make fun of the musicologists. I remember in grad school that musicologists seemed painfully aware that they occupied one of the world’s dullest and driest professions, and to their credit, they staged a revolution. By turning toward gender studies, vernacular musics and oral and nonwestern traditions, and the history of audience reception – all those telling fields of evidence that traditional musicology had pointedly excluded – they broke away from the stifling Great Man narrative and revitalized the field. As a result of those efforts, musicology has become, in my opinion, the most vibrant sector of musical academia today.

But, in so doing they all agreed to quit paying attention to the ongoing history of composed music in America and Europe. Maybe it was because the new style, minimalism, just didn’t seem to have much intellectual prestige. Maybe to continue writing about composers seemed like a continuation of the dull old Great Man narrative. Maybe the field became so exciting that musicologists started talking only to each other, and grew out of touch with composers. In any case, as my friend Larry said, composers, out of desperation, moved in and started doing the necessary musicological work that music historians used to do.

So as someone who has lived his life in touch with the composing world, I want to make an initial stab at a plan for an outline to a prolegomena of a beginning for how musicology could deal with the advent of pluralism. The composing world is indubitably complex, but it is not infinitely complex. It is probably not more complex, say, than kinship relations among the indigenous people of Venezuela; and like that subject matter, I believe it could be dealt with via sociological methods. I believe that an ethnomusicology of North American and European composer subcultures is possible, and would be tremendously beneficial.

For one thing, there are certain subculture splits we’ve long known about. In 1967, as Meyer was publishing his prediction, a split had been torn in the fabric of musical life in New York City. A group had broken away from the mainstream of acoustic concert performance, and called itself Downtown music. The minimalists, who were easy to identify until 1980, were a subset of this subculture. As the 1980s opened, the music world seemed very much split into two parts. But soon the free improvisers began dominating Manhattan and various other cities, equally averse to both conventional classical music and the clean simplicity of minimalism. The word Uptown was coined as a back-formation to cover what had originally simply been the musical mainstream. But in the mid-1980s I would refer to some of my friends as Uptown composers, and they’d reply indignantly: “Oh, I’m not Uptown, I’m Midtown.” I had no idea what they were talking about, and asked them to explain. They had come to associate Uptown with the cerebral 12-tone composers up around Columbia University, and as they perceived that ship going down, they had no intention of drowning with it. Their music was more the heritage of neoromantics like Copland and Barber and Britten and Shostakovich, more audience-friendly, and explicitly crafted for the existing classical music institutions and audiences.

What I’ve said so far fairly sums up the state of at least American music around 1990. There’s general agreement now that it’s been a good ten years since the Down-Mid-Uptown terminology was adequate to cover the plethora of subcultures that now coexist. Part of the challenge for the musicologist is that you can’t take what composers say at face value. Composers will tell you what they think they think, but rarely what they think, and they hate terminology and being categorized. If you can find a composer who will admit to being narrow-minded and discriminatory against certain styles, I want to meet that person and document him as one of the earth’s rarest creatures. And yet composers do discriminate against music of other subcultures, constantly, and insist that they do so merely on the basis of quality, not because of aesthetic disagreement. To chart the current scene, to relive the achievements of Charles Burney and Leonard Meyer, the musicologist has to go undercover as an anthropologist, and find your evidence indirectly.

For instance: Within my generation, there are only three possible opinions of John Cage:

1. He was a charlatan.

2. He was an important philosopher, but his music isn’t very good.

3. He was the pivotal figure of 20th-century music, the source of everything good that came afterward.

These opinions of Cage slice through the music world and tend to be associated with other groups of attitudes and practices. It’s possible that one might find among younger composers a more nuanced or ambiguous feeling about Cage, but if so, it would be interesting to know the birthdates of those composers, to find at what point the fixations about Cage began to relax.

Another example: Roger Sessions. There are two possible opinions:

1. Sessions was one of the most important composers and composition teachers of the 20th century.

2. Who?

I have sat in groups of composers in which some simply assumed that everyone would know and admire Roger Sessions’s music, and others barely knew who he was or scorned him as someone completely unimportant. That stark disparity of perception defines two subcultures. Another similar name is Robert Ashley. Some consider him the most innovative opera composer of recent decades, others have never heard of him, or think of him as an obscure avant-gardist from the ’70s. The experience of a composer becoming famous within one composing subculture and remaining completely unknown in other subcultures is becoming more and more common. Mark Twain said, “You tell me where a man gets his corn pone and I will tell you what his opinions is” – but I think for musicology, if you could tell me what a composer’s opinions are, I could probably tell you where he got his corn pone.

For instance, I was recently web-accosted by some composers who insisted that expression markings in a score should all be in Italian. When I was being educated, no one ever mentioned such a thing. My teachers Ben Johnston and Morton Feldman would have laughed at the idea. The composers who believe in Italian directions have no more in common with me than a bebop musician does with a klezmer musician. We live in different worlds, and cannot be shoehorned into the same narrative, unless that narrative is explicitly pluralistic.

The different subcultures of music today may not be so easy to distinguish by qualities of the music as by opinions, attitudes, performance practices, and career paths. When I wrote my book American Music in the 20th Century, I had a chapter on music of the 1990s (I wrote it in 1996, so it couldn’t cover the entire decade). I had no prior pattern to fall back on in describing this uncharted decade. I knew that any generalizations I made about the music of that decade would be greeted with protest and derision. So I turned the question upside down, and talked instead about what experiences the composers had in common. I came up with six conditions that virtually all American composers born in the 1950s shared:

* They were the first to benefit from widespread exposure to non-Western musics in college.

* Sequencing and composing software have become such a common mode of music-making that notation has been fading in importance. (In my student days, for many teachers a composition lesson was nothing more than a calligraphy lesson, teaching the composer what kind of manuscript paper to use, how to hold the fancy Rapidograph pen, and so on. The advent of notation software made that type of lesson extinct overnight.)

* Getting scores commercially published had become nearly impossible and rarely advisable in the 1990s, whereas putting out a commercial recording had become virtually something one could do at home on the computer.

* For those who use electronics, the ubiquity of samplers had made the musical atom increasingly no longer the note, but the sample.

* Growing up in an environment pervaded with pop music had become an almost universal experience.

* With the overpopulation of artists and the splintering of subcultures, the number of routes toward a successful career had increased – proportionately with the difficulty of getting a significant hearing outside one’s subculture.

None of these conditions is enough to impose any perceptible uniformity of style on music of the generation born in the ’50s, but they are enough to start sorting out what makes this generation different from its predecessors, and also from its successor. Music is nearly infinite in its variety, but the way in which a generation is brought up and educated within a certain decade is not at all infinite, but often surprisingly homogenous. For instance, the number of American composers born after 1985 who have not been affected in some way by the iPod is probably statistically insignificant. I’ve had a few experiences spending time with composers in their 20s, at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and last week at the Seattle Icebreaker festival, and although there is little homogeneity to their music, it’s amazing how similar their experiences have been, and how many of them say the same things about their music and their education.

What I’m trying to say here is that the history of the present can be written. Charles Burney can ride again. Though extremely varied, the current scene is far from chaotic. The combination of ubiquitous commercial music, a musical internet underground that has arisen in protest, and common trends in college pedagogy, tend to funnel composers into certain tracks. The subcultures need to be accounted for, but they are definable. As musicologists, we may have to stop looking for the history in the music, and look for it instead in the experiences that lead to the music, the scenes in which it takes place, and the pressures that determine its direction. The key to a typology of contemporary music at this point might have more to do with sociology than with musical analysis.

For instance, I could imagine a series of questionnaires being devised to gauge musical attitudes. Rate your approval of the following composers on a scale from 1 to 10: Roger Sessions, John Cage, John Corigliano, Frank Zappa, Erik Satie. Those results could be correlated with other questions: who would you rather get a commission from, the Portland Symphony or the Kronos Quartet? Do you prefer to have friends play your music, or strangers? Would you give a recommendation to a young composer who you knew had only a rudimentary sense of music theory? Like any psychological questionnaire, the questions would have to be carefully devised to get beyond the composers’ conscious group identifications to locate belief systems they may not even be aware of.

The composer John Luther Adams and I once spent an afternoon in the snow in Alaska making a list of things that certain listeners want to hear in music, a list of values. For some people, what’s most important is that a composer innovate. These listeners will naturally regard Varèse and Nancarrow very highly. Other listeners want to hear evidence of a strong personality; they might prefer Sibelius and Feldman. For other listeners, of whom I am one, the most important thing about music may be that it is emotionally compelling, that it draw you in and exhibit a great unity of feeling. Messiaen might be an ideal for these composers. Others want sonic sensuousness, and may find their epitome in Takemitsu. Some value craftsmanship over everything else, and might find Feldman lacking but Hindemith and Ligeti satisfying. Stockhausen famously said, “I demand only two things of a composer: invention, and that he astonish me.” John and I thought we had found the key to a typology of new-music listeners and composers, but it needs to be systematized. Surely the New Complexity composers and the postminimalists would prioritize these aspects of musical enjoyment very differently.

Last week the Icebreaker festival in Seattle brought together two generations of composers. We noted that the older composers, aged 45 to 65, all mentioned important figures who had inspired them, like Nancarrow, Ben Johnston, La Monte Young. The young composers, all under 40, mentioned no composers from previous generations at all. That’s a striking contrast. Does it indicate two different types of creative process? or merely two different types of socialization? I wish some musicologist would figure that one out.

Why would you want to do this? If composers hate being categorized, why not just leave them alone?

Number one: Because it’s the story. Because Leonard Meyer predicted the onset of pluralism, and it arrived, and a phenomenon so massively new requires creative new ways to think and talk about it. In the ’70s, we all knew a lot more about how the music of Stockhausen and Boulez and Reich and Glass was written than we all know now about any similarly young composers from the 1990s. There is no reason, with the speed of information implied by the internet, for that process to have become so sluggish. The 20th century is over, and in our musicological discourse, the entire last quarter of it remains a mystery.

Number two: In order to more fairly describe what’s going on in music today, we need to acknowledge sharp divergences in aesthetic aims. Otherwise, any discussion of recent music will unnecessarily privilege one subculture over another. Composers are still ingrained in the ancient habit of thinking that their own aesthetic viewpoint is the only valid one; that’s why their contributions to the process need to be carefully contextualized. Until several years ago, the Pulitzer Prize judges were all drawn from one narrow subculture. The judges for the Herb Alpert award are drawn from a different subculture.

In my music department, we have one jazz professor from a hardcore bebop tradition, one from the AACM, and one educated at the Berkelee School of Music. We’re proud of the fact that our jazz students get a healthy mix of viewpoints. But since so many in the composition field can get away with not acknowledging the pluralistic situation we’re in, many composition departments strive for a homogeneity that is a disservice to the students.

If we could develop a vocabulary to talk about these issues, we could defuse the illusions of objectivity that continue to make them contentious. We composers are in the position of the blind men and the elephant, and we need someone to stand back at a distance and tell us what the entire animal looks like.

“That all sounds great, Kyle – why don’t you just do it?”

Because I am a composer, and therefore partisan. With all the best intentions in the world, I would not give the New Complexity a fair shake. My passion is for the music that flowed from minimalism, and all of my perceptions and analytical apparatus have been have been bent toward explicating it. This Burneyesque task can only undertaken by someone who doesn’t have a dog in this race, not someone who is a self-appointed historian of minimalism. Which leads me to my…

Narrative Number 2: That minimalism was a short-lived anomaly in 20th-century music.

The musicologist Stephen Ledbetter was a student of Gustave Reese, and he tells a story of taking a class with Reese in the 60s:

At one point in class, when the discussion came around to recent trends in music…, someone asked him where he thought music was heading. Reese made the point that the history of music, from at least the 14th century on, has consisted of a series of waves of development in which the style reaches a level of complexity beyond which it seems impossible to go (perhaps for reasons of apparent limits in human perception on the listener’s side or of technical ability on the performers’), and that this “crisis” leads to a radical simplification in one or more elements of music, after which the process begins again….

So when put to the specific question in class about what would happen next in contemporary music, Reese responded, “I have no idea, but I’m sure that it will involve some dramatic simplification, because we seem to have gone about as far as we can on the current track.”

Of course, at just about this time some composers named La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass were simplifying music as dramatically as they could figure out how.

Interestingly enough, we find the same insight once again, elaborated in far more detail, in Leonard Meyer’s book Music, the Arts, and Ideas. In the chapter “Varieties of Style Change,” he theorizes that “once its fundamental material, formal, and syntactic premises have been established, a style tends to change or develop in its own way, according to its own internal and inherent dynamic process.” (p. 114) Meyer goes on to delineate three stages in the development of a style:

* Pre-classic, in which the music has a low level of compositional information and a high level of redundancy, as is necessary for the new style to be intelligently understood;

* Classic, in which the tradeoff between information and redundancy reaches an optimum balance for maximum enjoyment by those listeners educated to understand the style; and

* Mannerist, in which the amount of information rises and redundancy decreases so that the music becomes overly complex for the average listener, and ceases to be understandable by all but a few cognoscenti.

Each cycle in the history of music ends and is replaced by the beginning of a new cycle. As examples Meyer gives the extremely elaborate music of the late Renaissance by Lassus, Palestrina, and especially the mannerist Gesualdo, which was replaced around 1600 by the extremely simple and redundant music of the Florentine Camerata; the highly saturated polyphonic music of Bach and Handel, which gave way in the 1720s and ’30s to the simple, redundant symphonies of Sammartini, Monn, Wagenseil and others; then the hugely elaborate symphonies and tone poems of Strauss and Mahler, which were replaced after World War I by the more modest forms of neoclassicism and early atonality. And at the time Meyer was writing, music had once again reached an apex of complexity and a nadir of redundancy in the works of Babbitt and Boulez.

Given all this, it seems obvious in retrospect that the early, highly redundant compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass should have been hailed as the Pre-classic onset of a new historical cycle. They were certainly not so understood by many composers, but few composers are interested in the entire history of music, and their historical sense rarely extends backward beyond a few decades. My composition teacher in grad school was denied tenure with the words, “You have brought the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass into the classroom, and we don’t want our school associated with that kind of music.” But musicologists had a broader view of history, and at least Gustave Reese and Leonard Meyer had anticipated what might happen. The advent of minimalism offered musicologists a chance to observe firsthand, and for the first time since the process had been described and understood, a phenomenon that has only happened in our culture about once every 120 years on the average. Charles Burney, had he read Leonard Meyer’s book, would have been thrilled by the possibility.

But if any musicologists crowded around the minimalists with their notebooks, eager to observe firsthand the historic evolution from a Pre-classic to a Classic phase of a new style, I never heard about it. Instead, the doors of musical academia adamantly closed against minimalism, which was not to be spoken of. Pianist-composer Wim Mertens published his book American Minimal Music in Belgium in 1983, but through the ’80s and early ’90s academic publishers were dead set against any book on minimalist music, as a subject expected to be of only ephemeral interest. Finally in 1993 Edward Strickland published Minimalism: Origins, and in 1996 my friend Rob Schwarz followed with his book Minimalists, which opened with the sentence, “Many do not consider minimalism to be an entirely respectable field of academic pursuit….” – and this, 20 years after the style had achieved its first great public successes.

This past August, some 49 years after the beginnings of the minimalist movement, the First International Conference on Music and Minimalism was convened at the University of Wales in Bangor. The second such conference, which I will co-direct with David McIntire, will take place next year at the University of Missouri. In Bangor, several of us admitted to each other what a pleasure it was to be able to discuss minimalism with fellow academics without being sneered at or having to feel apologetic. What should have been the other great musicological story of our time, along with the advent of pluralism, has had to be documented almost furtively, in the margins of the discipline, even though such documentation would have provided a stunning validation of the predictions of Leonard Meyer.

And even so, only step one of Meyer’s scenario has been acknowledged. The prevailing narrative about minimalism is a clumsy story that it was a short-lived movement wildly popular with audiences, yet devoid of aftereffects. Meyer’s formulation would lead a thoughtful musicologist to look for the development of the Pre-classic phase that minimalism represents into a Classic phase of lesser redundancy and more information. In the musics of William Duckworth, John Luther Adams, Janice Giteck, Paul Dresher, and many other composers down to youngsters like Corey Dargel and Mason Bates, there is a plethora of evidence of such development. Documenting this narrative has been the main thrust of my own musicological work in recent years. Yet I feel I remain completely alone in making this argument, even while no counter-argument has been explicitly advanced – instead just a kind of unspoken master narrative isolating minimalism as a strangely curtailed historical moment.

Of course, the pluralist narrative has its own impact on the development of minimalism. Meyer writes about the interruptive influence that external events can have on the internal development of a style, and given the plethora of musics that everyone has to choose from today, it is by no means certain that postminimalism will survive to follow Meyer’s template up to a mannerist phase. However, the first fifty years of the style have shown a continuous forward development well worth investigation by musicologists interested in how a musical idiom develops according to its own inherent logic.

Narrative Number 3: American composers who depart from European tradition are mavericks, loners and nonconformists.

Among other things, this narrative has been enshrined in the books American Mavericks by Susan Key and Larry Rothe, along with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra series it was based on, and Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music by Michael Broyles, and also in the Peabody Award-winning radio series American Mavericks, for which I wrote the script (under protest at the title). It has also taken slightly different forms, such as the festival presented by the New York Philharmonic in 1994 offering music by Conlon Nancarrow, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Henry Brant, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, and others, under the rubric “The American Eccentrics.” This identification of the maverick and the eccentric is sometimes explicit, as in Michael Broyles’s book, which insists that these individualists are outside the norm both musical and personally. (p. 4)

Technically, according to the dictionary, a maverick is “an unbranded calf, cow, or steer, esp. an unbranded calf that is separated from its mother.” By extension it has come to mean “a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.”
According to the narrative, there is a consistent body of contemporary music practice, and a few maverick individuals, like Partch and Cage and Nancarrow and Lou Harrison and Morton Feldman, who have turned away from it.

The first problem with the maverick narrative is that it doesn’t withstand the most superficial biographical scrutiny. Conlon Nancarrow, a leading maverick if ever there was one, took his rhythmic ideas, and also the idea of composing rhythmically complex music for player piano, from Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources. Till the very end of his life, Nancarrow had charts on his wall that showed tempo relationships copied from Cowell’s book. Cage also studied with Henry Cowell, as did Lou Harrison, and Cage and Harrison collaborated together on percussion music. Harry Partch was influenced by Cowell’s book, and well-known maverick Ben Johnston apprenticed with Partch, and later studied with Cage. Cowell was in the League of Composers with fellow mavericks Edgard Varèse and Carl Ruggles. The maverick James Tenney studied with Varèse. Maverick Morton Feldman studied with Cage, and remained his constant companion all through the 1950s. La Monte Young, the maverick who invented minimalism, was heavily influenced by Cage, and developed minimalism in a constant give-and-take with Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Dennis Johnson, and others. Maverick Alvin Lucier changed his entire musical style from neoclassicism to experimentalism as a result of having given John Cage a lift in his car one day.

But wait a minute – I’m confused. I thought all these mavericks were supposed to be loners, dissenters, and individualists, who went their own way and were influenced by nobody. And it turns out that they all knew each other, hung out together, studied with other mavericks, gave concerts together, stole each other’s ideas. I could spend all afternoon multiplying examples, and when you get into the younger maverick composers who were students of the older generation of mavericks – like Larry Polansky and John Luther Adams and Elodie Lauten and 200 others I could mention – the connections become too dense to tease out.

Where does this maverick idea come from? Apparently from people who admire the individual cases but are curiously resistant to seeing all the connections. The purpose of the narrative seems to be to legitimize various individuals without legitimizing the group they belong to. There is a tremendous reluctance to admit that there has been a mass exodus away from the norms of classical music performance, and a kind of comfort in believing that it was only limited to a handful of composers who each look like the rough-and-rugged Marlboro Man of music. But in reality, these cattle aren’t off on their own, they’re cattle who simply formed their own herd somewhere else.

Another problem is the fiction that these composers share some kind of creativity that is qualitatively different from that of European composers. All of these maverick composers are supposed to be personally eccentric, unlike the famous European composers, who of course all represented a kind of buttoned-down, straight-laced, middle class conformity. Like Beethoven. And Berlioz. And Wagner. Artists who are eccentric, and who break the rules? This is supposed to be a new and particularly American development? And American CEOs aren’t eccentric? I knew Conlon Nancarrow and John Cage and Lou Harrison, and none of them struck me as being as eccentric as some of my music history professors were. In fact, at the “American Eccentrics” festival, Yoko Nancarrow and Sydney Cowell took great exception to their husbands being labeled eccentric. And what do we do with all the European composers who broke away from European conventions, like Giacinto Scelsi, and Eliane Radigue, and Maria De Alvear? Are they the “European mavericks”?

This maverick narrative needs to be dismantled and folded into the pluralism narrative, where it fits nicely. Allow me to substitute a more realistic narrative that doesn’t rely on some mystical personality trait. Americans rebelled against the conventions of European classical music performance for obvious reasons. One was that those conventions were suffocatingly rigid and narrow, based in an orchestral and chamber music performance practice rooted in European economics that did not transplant well to American soil. In breaking away from the restrictive demands of the European orchestra, the American composer simply moved closer to the American painter and American novelist and American poet, who were not bound by the economics of traditional distribution to preserve the same forms and practices. Why don’t we have American maverick novelists, and American maverick painters? Because the maverick quality was an illusion created by the alleged normalcy of European performing institutions. And if European composers didn’t rebel so much, maybe it’s because European orchestras continued playing their music, giving them an incentive to keep coloring within the lines.

The moment an American composer was forced to make music without the kind of resources he would have had available in Europe, the seed of pluralism was planted. The moment an American decided to use a rhythmic device or a peculiar tuning that would have gone beyond the rehearsal capabilities of a European-type orchestra, a split in our increasingly pluralist music world resulted. Rather than pick and choose which composers to legitimize in spite of these choices, we need to legitimize the choices themselves, and admit that they define a new subculture in our pluralistic society. Once we fully acknowledge the pluralism narrative, the maverick myth fades to redundant insignificance.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“This book is an attempt to understand the present.” Such bracing words haven’t appeared in a musicology book in far too long. Composers need for musicologists to advance the narrative and help clarify what’s happened. Having gone without such a cultural update for so long, many of us feel like we’re trapped in the movie Groundhog Day: we wake up every morning and it’s 1980, and we have to get up and start by explaining minimalism all over again, because nothing more recent has gone on the record. Perhaps pluralism wouldn’t feel like such a steady-state if the narrative could move forward a little.

I’m not sure what advantage composers can offer musicologists in return. But it does seem to me that the first person to intelligently describe what’s happened in the last few decades might well have the kind of impact that Music, the Arts, and Ideas did in the ’70s, and may find him- or herself quoted at length in the Longyear Musicology Lecture of 2050.

Comments

  1. Scott Unrein says

    “I’m not sure what advantage composers can offer musicologists in return. But it does seem to me that the first person to intelligently describe what’s happened in the last few decades might well have the kind of impact that Music, the Arts, and Ideas did in the ’70s, and may find him- or herself quoted at length in the Longyear Musicology Lecture of 2050.”

    You just did.

    Damn if your writing doesn’t feed my soul, slap me in the face and say, “jackass, go do your life’s work.” Thanks.

  2. Brett Stewart says

    Wonderful essay. Very well written and to the point.
    I would direct all to Alex Ross’s recent book The Rest is Noise for an unacademic attempt at the musicology Kyle wants. I have never read anything that connects the pluralism of the 20th Century into a single narrative so well.
    KG replies: That’s true, and I had thought of it. I think we also need more systematic comparisons of different subcultures.

  3. Andrew Granade says

    Kyle,
    Wonderful post and full of the kinds of comments that I, as a young musicologist, have been longing to hear. It has always struck me as curious that in urging students to approach music of the past 20-30 years, I’ve had great success with composition students and almost none among traditional musicologists.
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of younger musicologists avoiding narrative history, especially of the past quarter century, because of anxiety about approaching it “incorrectly.” Musicology programs today often teach that you need to have an angle in your scholarship, and that message is repeated by many journal editors. But I likewise find that the plurality of modern musical life has caused musicologists to tunnel into a particular stream of music and not look outside of it, a condition that is not conducive to the type of analysis for which you are calling.

  4. Patrick says

    Thanks for that Kyle. As a Musicology undergrad interested pretty much solely in the music you write about, it was great to read that. Seems like those words could become something of a manifesto for those of us headed in this direction.

  5. says

    i have an overwhelming desire to try to talk about the last few decades in music. however, as a phd student, such efforts are sometimes even prohibited!
    –for instance: it is now taboo to write a biographical dissertation. maynard solomon visited here last year to discuss his biography writing. he suggested that such an enterprise is useful and intellectually challenging. he dared to claim it should be something doctoral students do for their dissertation. his comment was met with an equal amount of affirmative nods and mutters of “no.” the “nos” seemed particularly angry, in fact.
    biography is only one part of the story, but a big one that’s missing. sometimes i think that a biography on someone like jim tenney could do a lot. but even if i or another student wanted to do this, we’d have to wait until we finished our dissertation.
    (thanks for the wonderful essay.)

  6. says

    As a lay person with a strong interest in music, I welcome the directions that you outline in this post. I remember the relative ease of finding information about contemporary composers in the 1970s compared to today. I look forward to more extended comments on the various musicology blogs.

    Another point is worth exploring.
    Getting scores commercially published had become nearly impossible and rarely advisable in the 1990s, whereas putting out a commercial recording had become virtually something one could do at home on the computer.

    It is often nearly impossible for an ordinary person to obtain contemporary scores. I’ve written to composers that you mention without success (or often, without even a response). Why do we need to be Kyle Gann or eighth blackbird to get contemporary scores, even (or especially) when recordings are available?
    KG replies: Man, is that ever the question of the new century. I’m going to move it up front.

  7. Ryan Howard says

    Kyle, I really enjoyed reading this essay–I think it ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the health of our contemporary music scene.

    Two things come to mind–you’re right that composers can never be entirely aware of their own prejudices, but having musicological work done by non-composers is no safeguard against subjectivity–there is no reason non-composing musicologists can’t be equally biased in their assessment of certain styles and subcultures. (Just look at Taruskin.)

    On the other hand, wouldn’t it be possible for even a composer-musicologist to strive for an entirely quantitative, rather than qualitative, overview of composers’ diverse backgrounds, survival strategies and aesthetic aims? I think you’ve already done this to a certain extent (though not entirely bias-free!) in American Music in the Twentieth Century.

    Looking forward to hearing your talk at Yale this coming week.
    KG replies: Thanks, Ryan. You’re right, I didn’t really mean to imply that a musicologist would automatically be more bias-free than a composer, nor that some other (younger) composer besides myself couldn’t do the job. If we were to wait for someone truly free of bias, the job would never be done. But after a lifetime of honing the aesthetic reasoning that turned me in a minimalist direction in the first place, my objections to the New Complexity line are so reflexive that *I*, personally, wouldn’t be able to explicate that music with a straight face, try as I might. On the other hand, I’m rather proud of my textbook chapter on the New Romanticism, which I flatter myself is pretty objective. Accurate description is not entirely dependent on sympathy.

  8. Philipp Blume says

    I agree in principle with a lot of this, and certainly appreciate the clarity with which it was written — you have picked some examples and quotes that I will have to keep in mind for the future.
    My problem is with a fairly minor logical fallacy that appears not only here but in a lot of discussions of current music. That has to do with the labeling of ‘experimentalism’ as a style, like in the sentence about Alvin Lucier
    I quote: “Maverick Alvin Lucier changed his entire musical style from neoclassicism to experimentalism as a result of having given John Cage a lift in his car one day.”
    Neoclassicism is certainly a style, generally speaking. But I never think of Cage in connection with Lucier, though they’re both into ‘experimentation.’
    I’m reminded of a quote which you also might find pleasurable. Chris Dench (labeled a New Complexity composer, in case anyone’s keeping track of labels) has said something to the effect of “complexity is to pre-existing music as polyphonic music is to monodic chant.” Sorry that’s a paraphrase, and the quote may not leave a great taste in your mouth, but perhaps I could propose an analogy:
    “Experimentalism is to style as the ocean is to a duck pond.”
    KG replies: Well, good point. Within a certain obvious milieu, I think experimentalism refers clearly to a certain group of composers, but in general it has a very wide and nebulous connotation.