Disproportionate Reactions

Here I am, the third-string composition teacher at a small undergraduate college. I write uncontroversial, peer-reviewed books about Nancarrow, Cage, Ashley, Ives, three of whom are dead. I never sit on the Guggenheim committee, the Fromm commission committee, the Pulitzer committee, and I can count the prize committees I’ve been on with less than one hand: the Grawemeyer one year, and no one I voted for won; the Herb Alpert Award about ten years ago; and the ASCAP Young Composer Awards about 18 years ago. I used to be a music critic and have some influence over people’s careers, but that was years ago, and I closed up my dwindling shop in 2005. I’m in two small musicological organizations, the Charles Ives Society and the Society for Minimalist Music, neither of which plays any role in the composition world, and in neither of which I wield any power. I amuse myself by restoring the occasional forgotten composition to the repertoire. My music isn’t played often. The only current outlet for my opinions is this blog, which has been mostly inactive these many months. In short, if you listed all the people who have power over what happens in the world of new-music composition and performance, you would list hundreds and hundreds of people before you came to me, if indeed you ever did.

My views on composition are heterodox and far outside the mainstream of what most composers believe these days. And yet when I express those views, some people become absolutely livid and write in to damn me and tell me what a horrible person I am, expending tremendous emotional energy as if I must be stopped at all costs. People gather at composers’ web sites to bewail my pernicious opinions. And the only possible explanation I can think of, that makes any sense, is that I am hitting a nerve – that I am telling a truth that someone doesn’t want to think about. Because unless I am persuasive solely because I am right, why would anybody in the world give a damn what I think?

UPDATE: One thing that no one has mentioned about my nefarious academic/professional post, which has some people clutching their pearls, is that I gave the new-music community a free lesson in how to write more effectively. No one thanks me (well, one commenter slyly alluded to it), but I bet that some of the people who think I’m the Snidely Whiplash of composition will not be too proud to avail themselves of my suggestions. I hope so, I’d like to see more fluent writing in the new-music discourse.

You’re welcome.


  1. Mark says

    But thanks to you we now all have the record of the year in our possession: ‘November’ by Dennis Johnson. Your fervent enthousiasm and advocacy of minimal(ist) music will always be appreciated by me!

  2. Duncan says

    A quote from “Rubberneck” which was a UK magazine from the 1990’s about improvised and experimental musics

    ‘If you find mistakes in this magazine , please remember that they are here for a purpose. We try to publish something for everyone, and some people are always looking for mistakes.’

    Some people like to carry their shit around with them
    Music is very wide , wider than most people would imagine
    and there is more than enough space for everyone

    KG LOLs: Great quote.

  3. says

    You may lack a certain kind of power, Kyle, but those of us who also reside outside the mainstream and who have been the fortunate recipients of your generous support and understanding can attest to the real and more benign power that you do possess. You provide a sustenance that can mean the difference between carrying on and chucking it all in. That’s not a small thing.

    KG replies: Thanks, Paul. I do sorely miss my supportive circle of Downtown composers, where the arguments weren’t on so basic a level. I feel in something of a Diaspora: banished from Eden back to classical-music world.

  4. mclaren says

    At least your post appeared. My comment on the NewMusicBox article was deleted and never appeared — because (hilariously enough) I pointed out the endemic problem of epistemic closure in the academic contemporary music community.

    “To add to Dennis’ remarks, one of the crucial differences twixt
    academic composers and people who compose real music in the real world
    involves that well-known phenomenon of epistemic closure.

    “Academic composers exist within an airtight bell jar which prevents
    sounds and riffs and approaches not part of the groupthink of
    yakademia inside the sealed vessel, and in the same way prevents the
    stuff going on inside the sealed vessel from percolating out into the
    real world.

    “The dead giveaway of this kind of epistemic closure comes in two ways:
    first, the lethal epithet “approachable.” Along with “naive,” the
    most deadly attack any academic composer can make on a piece of
    contemporary music is that it’s too “approachable.” This is code for
    “sounds like something outside our sealed academic bell jar.” It’s the
    kiss of death. John Halle describes a classic instance in which he won
    an award which was then voided by Mario Davidovsky, who overruled the
    contest judges. Why? Because “we don’t award that kind of thing
    here.” `We’ meaning the closed sealed-off
    locked-tight-inside-a-bathysphere academic musical community.”

    I went on like that for some paragraphs, giving specific examples of promising young composers refused tenure for writing the wrong kind of music, young composers who got their scholarships revoked and who got thrown out of the music department because they refused to write the “proper” kind of modernist music, composers who were refused degrees in composition and had to get a degree in musicology instead because they insisted on championing a style of music that was too “approachable” or too “naive” or too “accessible.”

    Most likely the people at New Music Box became enraged far beyond the capacity for rational thought when I compared musical academia’s reaction to styles of music outside the sealed bell jar of musical academia to the Republican party’s denial of global warming and Darwinian evolution.

    It’s genuinely hard to overstate the amount of fear and hatred generated by the epistemic closure of American musical academia for any hint of dissent with the prevailing groupthink. Comparisons with Soviet Lysenkoism not only seem apt, but altogether too mild.

  5. says

    I’m not one of the carpers, and found the article in question worthwhile; but a sincerely expressed and yet erroneous statement can provoke intense responses as easily as a truthful one, maybe moreso. The pearl-clutching validates only that the points were made strongly and clearly (which is of course the point of the writerly craft).

  6. says

    I agree with Paul. I tend to think of you as an “outsider” but that is a good thing for people like myself interested in the new developments in music composition. I know you are an academic by virtue of your job but I applaud your single mindedness in pursuing your own vision.
    That said I have praised your music criticism and other writings many times and I use them as models for my own blogging and thinking about music.
    Perhaps the prized committees which fail to include you are simply more representative of the mainstream and reluctant to confront progress and change. Either way you have an audience, I have heard students speak well of you pedagogy and I believe that your influence is there but not obvious to you by virtue of the feedback you have been getting from those mainstream types. Keep up the good work and please keep amusing yourself and your fans by resurrecting music and producing your own work. There are many of us reading and listening.

  7. says

    Actually, the response to your post seemed mostly positive. You haven’t earned that Whiplash mantle yet!

    KG replies: Yeah, you should see the incredibly abusive ones I just deleted.

  8. Seth says

    Hi Kyle,

    My last post (the one you blocked) was an attempt to give you back a bit of your medicine (which can be quite abusive), and to write some things that I think are important for you to read. Regardless of what you do with them (and regardless of whether I’m ultimately completely mistaken), you clearly read them, and they bothered you in some indeterminate, hopefully eventually fruitful form, so my work there is finished.

    Regarding -this- post, I can’t honestly take you too seriously here, and hope you don’t take yourself too seriously here either: you -are- a major voice in the field, and when you say something provocative, people actually do sit up and take note. Your gifts as a critic and writer have hardly been forgotten, and are grievously under-replicated in the work of other writers on new music. Your reputation is hardly determined by your own sense of your status, society memberships, etc. It’s determined by the jolt people get when they remember the last thing of yours they read or heard, and their consequent excitement at the prospect of the next thing. Plenty of people out there, myself very much included, still understand you as a person who gave them a ton of music they didn’t previously know, and gave it to them in an extremely engaging and generous way, and because we’re suckers for that, you’re a presence that won’t go away. Gratitude is a nice nice thing, the deeper the better.

    If you write something that I read and think is bullshit, I’d much much rather write you back then write you off. The question is, what would you rather have? My hunch is: also the former.

  9. Isaac Schankler says


    I hope you don’t honestly consider my (mostly bewildered) response in NewMusicBox to be pearl-clutching, which seems like a fairly uncharitable interpretation at best. I mostly wanted to express what I also said in my comment on your post — that your spin on the academic/professional divide just doesn’t resonate with me or my experience. I hope we can have a civil, non-abusive discussion about this.

    Even just where I live in southern California there are many composition departments with wildly divergent aesthetics — different visions of what it means to make “academic music,” let’s say. The catch is that everyone believes what they are doing is vital and hardly anyone sees their music as purely “academic” (in the derogatory sense that you evoke). In fact it’s quite rare for someone to stand up and proudly self-identify as an academic, in the way that Felsenfeld did in his article. (It’s a little bit like being called a hipster in that way.)

    At the same time, within these institutions there is often a palpable sentiment that what people are off doing in those OTHER institutions is academic in the negative sense. But as far as I can tell, they are simply different communities exploring different aesthetic directions. As someone who is frequently caught between these communities, I have found this to be very, very frustrating. But thankfully, at least in LA, these attitudes seem to be slowly changing, as people realize just how self-defeating they are.

    This is why I become so dismayed when I see people — especially intelligent, knowledgeable people — trying to resurrect these old divisions. And they are old! They made perfect sense when serialism had a stranglehold on academic music culture, but this is not the case anymore. So many composers of the generation that worked in that environment, including many of my teachers, seem frankly traumatized by the climate of that era. But my generation’s trauma is different. I just want Mom and Dad to stop fighting, maybe.

    The endpoint of all this seems to be a constant ambient hum of collective alienation where nearly everyone feels like an outsider, including people as obviously accomplished as you. I think it’s going to take real work and courage to move past this alienation, but I think it can be done.

    Right now I’m thinking specifically about a community of composers loosely connected to the wulf, a nonprofit org that presents experimental music in LA’s Arts District. A lot of the music presented at the wulf could be derided as academic — non-tonal, conceptual, uncompromising, etc. But there’s a sense that this music is doing cultural work that is significant, and poorly represented in the culture at large. So the question becomes how to better frame that work in a way that is welcoming, without sacrificing the content of that work.

    I remember one specific extended email exchange about encouraging this kind of inclusiveness, between Mike Winter, James Klopfleisch, Casey Anderson, Christine Tavolacci, Daniel Corral, Scott Cazan, Erik Clark, Adam Overton, Todd Lerew, and myself (whew!). One of the outgrowths of this conversation was a concert by Klopfleisch that included (not terribly serious) mini Q&A sessions in between each piece. The result was something quite personal, engaging, and a little raucous, not at all like your typical new music concert. And yet I don’t think anyone would dispute the academic origins of the music itself!

    This is what’s happening here and now in my world, and it seems to me to have almost nothing to do with the academic/professional divide. (But then in LA, maybe “professional” has different connotations…)

    Anyway, I appreciate the insight into your writing process! Other than Alex Ross and a handful of others I have a hard time coming up with people who write about new music with the depth, breadth, and frequency that you do. I too hope to see more fluent writing out there… personally, I struggle with the inverse relationship between fluency and frequency, but that’s another story.


    KG replies: Hi, Isaac. I really thought the pearl-clutching was implied in some of the comments, so sorry to implicate you. For me, it just doesn’t have anything to do with serialism, and I see it as a current issue because I run into it so often. I read novels by my colleagues in the literature department. Some of them (the novels) are beautiful and engaging; others are so ornate and stylistically self-conscious that they seem written only to entertain (or impress) other literature professors. I go to my painter colleagues’ art shows. Some of them are doing magnificent work that takes my breath away, others are all into deconstructionism and give you the feeling that you have to read 13 difficult books translated from the French just to understand what they’re doing. Plus, in the theater department there are people with loads of professional experience and people who think accommodating the audience is a waste of time. Of course none of them self-describe as academic, no one ever has (until Daniel). If it doesn’t resonate with you, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate with *someone*, and as you can see I got a lot of comments agreeing, some from experienced people who’ve been in situations similar to mine. Not many people get the chance to work in both academia and some professional world (as the Voice was) as many years as I have, and so I can see how some people wouldn’t have as vivid an idea as I feel I do of the two different sets of concerns. I’m reading proofs of one of my academic articles right now, and lamenting how much color they drained out of my elegant phrases. At the Voice, my articles always came out better than I turned them in.

    Plus, I thought I was making a great advance by distinguishing the mindset from the milieu, and showing that working in academia doesn’t mean you have to reduce yourself to only being an academic. But a few people just seemed to assume that by talking about academics I’m referring to (and putting down) everyone working in academia, which is not the generalization I was making. I can’t dispute that it doesn’t resonate with you. Nor can you dispute, I hope, that I’ve had decades of experience observing these two approaches to making art and literature. I’m not just making things up in an attempt to put people down, or bewail my supposed exclusion from some elite, and I hope you’ll grant me that much. On the contrary, some of my Bard arts colleagues who’ve been in the wider world and I talk all the time about how academia isn’t a good fit for us. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in a situation someday that makes you suddenly realize what I’m saying. If not, fine.

    I enjoy your column, I hope we meet sometime.