The Negative Profession

We don’t often bring guest composers to speak at Bard, and sometimes we feel guilty about that, and make an effort. So a few weeks ago we brought in a fairly well-known composer of my own generation, who told the students that “the problem with minimalism is that it’s self-indulgent to make attractive music just because people like it.” I spent a long time trying to parse that – that it’s self-indulgent to make music that people like. And today a composer slightly older than myself came to Bard – where we house the John Cage Trust, offer a course on Cage, and have a faculty member (me) who wrote a book about Cage and the introduction to the new version of Silence – and told the student composers that Cage was a “dangerous” composer who tried to destroy what great composers had been doing ever since Monteverdi. (For the record, he also told them Philip Glass wasn’t any good and that Shostakovich’s music “wouldn’t last.”) And suddenly I feel pretty good that we don’t bring guest composers to Bard. I may even initiate a policy that composers are not allowed on campus.

UPDATE: I was discussing the second composer with a colleague, and he said, “It’s not like anyone’s forcing him to listen to Cage’s music.” But then we conceded that 4’33” seems to be playing almost perpetually, and that maybe he was just sick of hearing it.



  1. says

    All composers are pretty judgmental and say things that often are pretty dumb. But I’m really struck by this person’s comments. I’ve referred to certain physician colleagues as dangerous, because let’s face it, we can really kill people. But composers being dangerous? Really? And an entire musical genre that barely exists today (minimalism) being self-indulgent (re: masturbatory)? Perhaps we need more self-indulgence when it comes to music, given how incredibly obtuse, selfish and academic much late 20th-century music was, at least uptown.

    KG replies: I’m pretty judgmental, and, as a critic (which I no longer am), am on record as being so. But I have never told one of my students that there’s any music he/she shouldn’t listen to or like, and I don’t walk into other music schools and volunteer negative judgments on other composers. I am even very reluctant to give any negative opinion, unless strongly pressed to offer one.

    • Bill James says

      “Dangerous” is obviously just a means of expression. If I said “that performance last night was a disaster” you wouldn’t say, “well, the crash of the Hindenburg was a disaster, so maybe it’s not appropriate to call a subpar piano performance a disaster.” He was clearly just saying that Cage’s influence is toxic to musical culture (i.e., likely to beget music in bad taste).

  2. says

    So the guest not only insulted Cage, he also insulted Bard, and you! How rude.

    There’s also the reverse phenomenon: Inviting a guest composer to speak, only to have the composition faculty and/or students attack the guest. I saw that happen several times during my college years.

    • says

      It seemed to be standard procedure for a particular faculty member at the school where I did my doctorate to spend the composers seminar before the arrival of a distinguished guest composer running down the music of said composer to all of the students. But none of the guest composers insulted their hosts… at least while I was there. Sorry to hear you had such an arrogant and negative visitor.

  3. Antonio Celaya says

    “the problem with minimalism is that it’s self-indulgent to make attractive music just because people like it.” Did the declarant intend that we should believe that making others happy is a vice and that causing others pain is a virtue? Was the declarant inarticulate and an advocate of the neo-platonic notion that absolute and perfect music exists in a purer state in some other emanation? Why are some composers bothered by the fact that music is a social activity?

  4. bgporter says

    Personally, I found that remarks like these made by visiting composers when I was an undergrad were extremely useful in helping me know which graduate programs to avoid.

    KG replies: Good point. I should have added that our fine students did argue with the second one.

  5. says

    I despair at contemporary composers. On a programme about classical music in the U.K. a well-known English classical composer shouted ‘if you are not interested in complexity, why should I be interested in you – please just go away’. Another well-known English composer, who is resident composer with a famous British symphony orchestra, said in their magazine that ‘he certainly didn’t pander to the audience’.
    This contempt for audiences is unforgivable, it assumes that people in the audience are thick, have no taste, and need a composer to tell them what they can and cannot like.

  6. says

    It always amazes me how people with that amount of ego saturation are so completely clueless as to how buffoonish and ill mannered they appear to those outside their precious little charmed circles.

  7. says

    What seems truly self-indulgent is standing before a group of students and trashing other composers. What is anyone supposed to get out of that? It’s more useful to point out that you can learn a lot from Cage, Glass, Shostakovich and others, whether you like their music or not.

    Maybe you can invent some imaginary composers, whose works spark fruitful discussion (on the order of the imaginary books Borges writes about in “Ficciones”), and hire people to portray them. That might be more fun.

  8. Bill James says

    I guess I’m the only one who likes a little composerly antagonism? I think it’s a mistake to interpret these sorts of negative comments as intended statements of fact. They’re statements of artistic purpose. When a young composer hears an experienced composer say “minimalism is garbage; don’t waste your time with it” the thing he should take from that (if he has any sense) is “it’s okay to call something crap and to define oneself against it.” And I think that’s true. Berlioz had little patience for Bach, yet who regrets a lack of Bachian influence on Berlioz? The same could be said of Debussy/Beethoven. Maybe it’s just because of historical hindsight, but I think Bach and Beethoven respectively would’ve only diluted these composers’ music. It’s a musicologist’s job to find the good and interesting in everything. It’s a composer’s job to create compelling art. Disgust for other art can be a powerful motivator in the search for original, more effective musical strategies.

    KG replies: Perhaps in the long run. My students know my likes and dislikes, and the basis on which I hold them. But to be unable to talk for an hour about one’s music without spontaneously bringing up a composer you detest is childish; to do so knowing that one of your faculty hosts wrote a book about that composer is belligerent. There is a pedagogical argument that our students need to know that there are childish, belligerent people in the world, but I don’t think they need us to demonstrate it.

    I was thinking of getting another blog entry out of the incident, but you’ve reminded me why I got tired of blogging.

  9. says


    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had two churlish guests in a row at Bard. It sounds like they either knew nothing about Bard and its music department or were looking to make a bit of trouble. If you want the names of some of the composers who have given very inspiring talks to our composition majors at Westminster College, I would be happy to send them to you in an email. Apparently, we’ve been lucky to have guests from a wide range of stylistic backgrounds who haven’t displayed an ax to grind. Perhaps taking our guests to Small World Coffee beforehand and plying them with the best espresso in Princeton has kept them good natured!


    KG replies: You made me laugh, because the first composer graduated from Bard (and that will give his identity away to many). As the department court jester (and not a “serious composer,” thank god), I don’t do the inviting. My colleagues invite their uptown friends. But thanks for the offer.

  10. Lisa Chen says

    It’s childish and cowardly not to give the composer’s name, in addition to making your post unintelligible. How about it?

    KG replies: It would not be fair for composers to think, if they make an appearance at Bard, that I will write about them and criticize them by name afterwards.

    • Judd says

      It’s “childish” to go onto someone else’s blog and start calling them names for not doing what you want them to do. But I guess it might pass for “brave” in some circles.

  11. says

    I have a lot of experience in this, having worked for a decade at a record store across the street from a famous university. I was also a member of a composers’ group 20 years ago; the end effect of which is that I longer belong to *any* composers’ group. Among the over- and under-heards:

    1) “Can you imagine any student stupid enough to think that William Bolcom would have anything to teach him?”

    2) “Honegger’s widow that his symphonies weren’t being played anymore. I had the sad duty to tell her they weren’t being played anymore was because they’re lousy.”

    3) Middle 1980’s: One atonal composer crushingly tells a student of a rival composer in his department that the student’s work ‘obviously’ stole the tune from “Rustles of Spring,” … which, of course, only older people know the melody of. Ten years later, I heard him do the same thing.

    The tune? “Rustles of Spring.”

    4) Another one said that Copland, in his lifetime, only helped Jews and gay people. I pointed out to this composer that one of his own teachers, Paul Creston, was helped by Copland during the Copland-Sessions concerts. This temporarily stopped him.

    I make part of my living as an actor in Boston; I realized fairly early on, that composing is usually an artistic creation with little or no acclaim. So, I get my ego-recharges from acting. (I saw, right after the Hurricane Katrina, a conductor premiere a work by a high-school student, an ‘In Memorium’ piece. When it was over, she started to go up on stage to take a bow, until the conductor just waved her away and continued to bow himself. I’ve always assumed that this is par for the course.)


    P.S. “Shostakovich’s music wouldn’t last”?! And how many recorded cycles of the 15 quartets *are* there now?!

    KG replies: I know. 38 years after a composer dies, if his works are still being recorded and written about, he’s “lasted.” And I have a whole critical thing about the concept of “lasting” and why it happens and more often doesn’t happen. Maybe for another time.

  12. Lisa says

    OK, but in this instance its too late for that. It’s better to be upfront rather than skewer the person from behind in full view of your circle. George Armstrong Custer would not approve!

    KG replies: Lisa, I e-mailed you the answers and it bounced back. E-mail me with your real address and I’ll answer again. And frankly, I wouldn’t be too impressed by Custer’s opinion. I know him too well.

    I find humorous your assumption that my colleagues and students check my blog.

  13. says

    When I started my twitter account I promised myself that I would never use it to express negative sentiment — especially not to speak negatively about anyone, ever. Which is kind of wild and radical, but it’s had a wonderful effect on my outlook. I’m not a zen master and do find myself rejecting large swaths of human utterance and experience on a regular basis, but I’ve come to recognize this tendency as a failure on my part when it occurs; life is much more piquant when not spent attacking fellow musicians out of defensiveness and fear.

    KG replies: Well, you’re more of a saint than I am. After the life I’ve led I’d be heartily laughed at if I tried to say negativity was never justified. But in a pedagogical situation I’m very careful to justify any negative opinions I express in front of students, and to keep my comments work-specific. I remember all too well the prejudice I held against Gertrude Stein for many years based on the blanket dismissal of her made by my hero of heros Charles Ives. There’s no evidence he ever even read her.

  14. Jay says

    Yes! God forbid that the priesthood of composers should write music that the plebian masses find…um….attractive. And the Milton Babbitt Memorial “Who Cares If You Listen?” Award goes to…

  15. mclaren says

    It’s even more self-indulgent to make ugly music just because people hate it.

    Call it “inverted kitsch” — the silly prejudice that anything most people don’t like and don’t understand must be wonderful and profound.

    The motto of self-deluded Jonestown-style cult gurus for thousands of years.

  16. mclaren says

    Incidentally, what Luke Gullickson practices on twitter is known to the Buddhists as Tonglen. “One visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all sentient beings.”

    I highly recommend it.

  17. says

    I think the argument against minimalism was meant to be a specific case of an argument that looks something like this:

    Seeking popularity for its own sake is a self-indulgent act, and so if your primary objective in composing is to write the music that will maximize your chances at popularity you’re likely to compromise your ability to make a Meaningful Contribution to Musical Progress.

    I disagree with some key premises of that argument, but at least it’s sort of coherent. It’s also genre-neutral, if you allow for different kinds of popularity. Steve Reich famously tried to write serialism in college because serialism was the coin of the realm in academia in those days. He finally pursued his real interests when Berio suggested ‘If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you write tonal music?’

    But the blanket application of that principle to minimalism reveals a particularly ugly case of genre bigotry. Suppose I said “The problem with atonality is that it’s self-indulgent to make ugly music just because that’s what faculty search committees like.” That’s simply not what happens. Some people write post-serialist atonality because that’s what they love, and some of those people get academic jobs. Some people write minimalism because that’s what they love, and some of those people get programmed at Bang On A Can. Some people write country ballads because that’s what they love, and some of them get record deals. It’s too hard to make it in any branch of the music business for it to be worth trying if you’re not making the kind of music you want to make. And even if there are people out there trying to work in a genre they don’t like, as a bid for popularity, how good can they be at it?

    KG replies: Very well said. I think there’s also an attitude layer among perhaps a large majority of composers along the lines of, “If you write music that can be understood by the lay public, you’re not a serious member of the confraternity of composers and we will not treat you as such.”

  18. says

    As a performer, I am fine with complex music. I am fine with simple music. I am fine with music that appeals to a lot of people. But the first requirement is that it please ME (or confound me, or make me delirious, or demand my attention…something like that).

    KG replies: Agreed. And I’m also committed to the proposition that music can be very, very complex and still appeal to a non-specialist audience. It takes some work.

  19. Lois Svard says

    A friend who is a Grammy award winning jazz drummer was expressing great dismay yesterday that a talented high-school student of his didn’t know who Cage was and know how important he was – and then he began to quote one of his own musical philosophies – taken from Cage’s Silence. Always good to be reminded that, for every churlish composer who doesn’t like Cage, there is someone (or many someones) out there in the wider world who has a great deal of understanding about Cage and his importance to the musical world.

  20. Philip S-L says

    Maybe you should consider the type of composer that you want to bring beforehand? Talk to them and see what their ideas are like.

    Some composers are very focused on particular traditions and do not move outside of them–their music sometimes reflects this, but not always.

    Also, the composer market is not filled completely with academics, and as such, are not always able to be objective when they talk about their ideas on music; they are subjective to their tastes and can be really harsh about what they think is “good” music. It is like expecting a performer that grew up performing only music from the romantic era, and prior, to discuss and perform a piece by Webern.

    In response to banning composers (I know you’re not serious):
    Didn’t you moderate a great lecture with Mr. Glass a few years ago? And, I have very fond memories of Osvaldo Golijov introducing a performance of “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.”

    This post is interesting though because it is somewhat refreshing to hear that their are still traditionalists out there that are ignorant of certain strains of music, and have subjective ideas of what some of us “enlightened” post-Cage, post-Glass listeners tastes are. It reminds me of the response I got from a colleague about some music I wrote when I was a student at Bard–I asked what did you think about the piece and they said, “I don’t like it, it’s tonal.”

    KG replies: Hey, Phil. Like I say, I don’t pick the composers, I just go to make the students think I’m supporting my colleagues. Just turns out all their friends hate my kind of music. And seem to enjoy pointing that out when they see me in the audience.

    • Antonio Celaya says

      The more types and opinions all the better. If some have closed minds it will prepare students for the world. Many composers to get up and compose in the morning need to think of their stylistic or methodilogical predelictions as mandated by history or the muses. Music is a matter of faith for such folk. I have little stomach for faith and cherish my doubts – though I often wonder if that is a good idea.