Too Soon to Celebrate

Critic Anthony Tommasini’s piece in the Times today is headlined, “Dogma No More: Anything Goes.” Isn’t that a wonderful
pronouncement? And the occasion for the article is his realization that young
musicians these days are open to all styles, and no longer care about the
aesthetic battles of the past. His evidence is a concert by the Ensemble ACJW
that included a wild and eclectic mix of composers: Stockhausen, Babbitt,
Berio, Davidovsky, Daniel Bjarnason. “Categories be damned!,” Tommasini
cries. Amen to that, and thank goodness musical politics have ceased to sway
us. But wait a minute: I hadn’t heard of Bjarnason, but I thought Stockhausen,
Babbitt, Berio, and Davidovsky were composers who tended to all be championed
by the same people all along. So I looked up Bjarnason, who’s a 20-something
Icelandic composer whose music is nominally tonal but dramatically virtuosic,
and I have noticed, for years, now, that the same young musicians who champion
atonal hardliners like Davidovsky and Babbitt also seem eager to find young
European composers whose music is dramatically virtuosic. That those who
champion complexity, drama, and European values in the old music champion it in the new as well
hardly comes as a surprise.

Tommasini notices a problem too: while today’s young musicians are open-minded
enough to accept not only Davidovsky but Bjarnason, they seem to avoid composers of a milder, more neoromantic bent, like Barber, Harbison,
Christopher Rouse, and so on. Tommasini calls those the “mainstream” composers
(young composers in that tradition have insisted to me that I refer to them as
“Midtown”), but he also quotes Harbison’s self-applied term “notes-and-rhythms
composers.” Now, this is ironic, because the interview with me that’s in the
July, 2008, issue of Musicworks
magazine is titled “Pitch and Rhythm Guy” because that’s how
I referred to myself during the interview. The term would apply equally well
to dozens of postminimalist and totalist composers I wrote about in the Village

during the 1980s and ’90s. In fact, I once explicitly made this connection in a
book: “If Copland, Harris, Barber, and their ilk represented a first wave of
American diatonic consonance, postminimalism is the second.” Of course, the
postminimalists, Zen-oriented and antivirtuosic, represent an entirely
different world than the mainstream neoromantics. And not only did no one in
the postminimalist crowd make the ACJW playlist, they didn’t even make
Tommasini’s round-up of the
current panoply of styles among which today’s young composers no longer

critics have been as sensitive to the damage done by aesthetic style wars as
Tommasini has, and he’s scored some valiant points against the intolerance of
the high modernists. But if he’s going to convince me that the days of dogma
are over, and anything truly goes, he’s going to have to at least acknowledge
that the large milieu of nonmainstream composers I write about exists.
Otherwise, his failure to include us – and him of all people – just makes it
look like certain doors are as tightly shut as ever.