Waiting for the Next Revolution (or Did I Miss it?)

A few months ago electronic composer Nic Collins sent out a heartfelt questionnaire to several of his new-music maven friends. (I should say, I don’t know whether “electronic composer” is still a meaningful term, but I’ll qualify it by adding that Collins makes the most touching and humanistic examples of electronically-produced music I’ve ever heard.) Nic was having a kind of intellectual crisis due to his perception that there was no aesthetic revolution going on among his students comparable to the Cage/sound art/minimalism revolution of the 1960s and ’70s – or at least, that there had been no new movement with a series of groundbreaking works that his students could be as energized by as he had been. Since the 1970s, he wrote, “I have continued to hear great new pieces, but I have detected no shift in the fundamental terrain of music that rivals the magnitude of the changes that took place in the 60s and 70s. I find this admission more than a little depressing.” And he was afraid of falling into the pattern described by Douglas Adams (which I’d never read before, but I see has made its way around the internet):

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” (The Salmon of Doubt, 2002.)*

(I’ve been sharing this quotation with my students, and it makes them look thoughtful.)

Anyway, many people responded to Nic’s questions, myself included (it was February when I was in Miami with nothing to do for the afternoon, so I quickly wrote him a long screed). He promised to make public his summary of our responses, some consolatory, some casting his original premise into doubt, and has now done so as the article “Quicksand” (PDF) on his web site. It’s worth reading.

*I have always loved a similar saying attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “I never dared be radical when young for fear I would become conservative when old.”


  1. mclaren says

    Okay. So how many people were composing music in just intonation or various equal tunings like 19 equal or 22 equal or 15 equal or any of the non-just non-equal tunings like pelog and slendro in 1972?

    Damn few.

    Today, armies of people compose using these non-12 tunings. Technology made it possible.

    How many people were composing neorhythmic music (you call it totalism) in polyrhythms like 17 against 19 against 14 against 23 against 24 in 1972?

    No one.

    Today, tons of composers use these kinds of polyrhythms. Technology made it possible.

    How many people were using exotic new timbres, specifically computer-generated timbres or timbres matched to a non-12 tuning to make triads in 13 equal sound smooth and beatless (for example) in 1972?

    A handful. If you didn’t have access to a mainframe computer in 1972, you were out of luck. Today many composers use these kinds of exotic timbres. Technology made it possible.

    Then there are all the other hot trends, like live interactive algorithmic composition (aside from David Behrman and a couple other people, who else was doing that in 1972?), composition using live coding, laptop orchestras, Disklavier + conventional instrument combos (only Conlon Nancarrow was doing complex rhythms + live instruments in 1972, and then only in his piece for 2 unsynchronized player pianos), and on and on.

    Judging by the younger composers I’m in touch with, the explosions of new techniques and new trends and radical new movements in contemporary music that sound like nothing from the past (unless you can point to credible precursors of Wendy Carlos’ Beauty in the Beast or Nude Falling Down An Escalator by some guy whose name I can’t remember or the various CDs of amazing computer music put out by Paul Lansky) absolutely dwarfs the amount of radical new music and exciting new musical paths opened up in 1972.

    Wendy Carlos described the big revolution in poast-WW II music as “the three T’s — any possible timing, any possible tuning, any possible timbre.” [Carlos, Wendy, “Tuning: At the Crossroads,” Computer Music Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 1987] You could do only one of those prior to 1984 and the advent of MIDI + personal computers. Today, you can do ’em all at once. That has revolutionized music since 1984 beyond recognition.

    If you doubt this, consider Mikel Rouse’s Quorum from 1984 — made possible only because of the appearance of a programmable Linn drum machine in 1982. Or consider Warren Burt’s algorithmic xenharmonic compositions, made possible only because of the advent of personal computers + MIDI + cheap retunable digital synthesizers after the late 1980s. Or consider William Sethares’ compositions available on CDs like Xentonality with timbres modified to fit the tunings so that wild anti-tonal non-cadential tunings like 11 equal have triads that sound smooth and quiescent — impossible prior to the technology of the 1980s.

  2. Arthur says

    I would like to see Kyle’s screed and hear from Nic on what he has heard on this subject. For what it is worth, I would suggest that the Cage/post Cage era was so transformative because it occurred in opposition to both the long tradition of Western music and the, then, more recent, overbearing academic musical culture of serialism. In other words, composers and performers consciously broke with the entire composer/composition/concert formula for music. At the same time, as Cage, Glass and others proved, Euro-American music took on selected influences of the music of other cultures; along with the expansion of new music in the context of dance, theater, the visual arts, video, space. It almost goes without says that new technologies advanced thinking about and the use sound. But there is another dimension to consider for those born after, lets say, the 1980s. This is somewhat more intangible, but let me put it this way: the idea of music and art gave way to immersion in popular music and corporate media culture. Through the 1970s, the underlying aesthetic of making art derived as much from the history and traditions of the arts as it did from a connection to a, largely, unmediated relation to the world and worldly issues. Sure, everyone knew about popular culture and media culture, but they did not dominate a way of being in and experiencing the world – every single day. Anyone born this century lives in the context of an instantaneous sound/noise/music mediated universe with infinite cross-overs, possibilities, and combinations. Younger people, some with perfectly good reasons, validate the diversity of popular culture and make music out of music and the available technologies, but not out of a grounding or being in the world or in relation to a tradition — and wanting to transform it. The examples used by mclaren more or less prove the point.

    KG replies: Thanks, Arthur. Well, OK, since you ask, I’ll post my reply below, with some editing for some personal stuff I never meant to make public; and I waxed a little astrological as well:

    Dear Nic,

    That is all excellently well said, and fits in well with what seems to be a sudden deluge of musings about generational succession lately; at New Music Box, for instance. I’ve spent possibly too much of my life constructing a narrative about the music of my lifetime, and it’s energizing to get the articulate perspective of someone who’s been as much involved as I have. My experience has been pretty different from yours, partly because my own musical proclivities are different, so let me start by reminding you that you are one of my favorite composers, and that your music has meant a lot to me, and given me lots to talk excitedly about. I’ve taken a different path through the compositional world partly because I don’t possess some of your talents. I would never want you to think that any aesthetic preferences I profess for myself imply any kind of disparaging view of your achievements. I am who I am, after all, partly because of my limitations.

    Part of the difference, I think, is that, in the ‘70s, the definition of music didn’t shift for me as radically as it did for you. One reason is that I never had nearly as much talent for technology as you have. The advent of personal electronics opened up an exit off the musical highway that led to “sound art,” if that is still a category, and hundred of composers poured into it. I was excited to discover it as a listener, and still admire it, but that exit wasn’t open for me. I tried punching IBM cards and later got into MIDI, but the magic of natural sound didn’t emerge when I touched the machines. As a result, years after Lucier changed your life, I was still writing notes on paper with a pencil much as Brahms had.

    You speak of the axioms of the post-Cage world; Cage was a Virgo, an earth sign, and I’m a Scorpio, a water sign. I tried like hell, for many years, to convince myself that music was now all about the appreciation of sound-in-itself, but I had already been too impressed by Charles Ives, who wrote, “My god, what has sound got to do with music?” As a water sign, I ultimately need music to be emotionally satisfying, which is why I was so deeply affected by your Sound Without Picture – because it used the physical to underlie the emotional, or maybe, rather, was all the more devastatingly emotional because it pretended to be primarily sonic. I have finally realized, only in recent years, that the physicality of sound is just never going to absorb me the way it did Cage. I really don’t give a damn about the sounds, except as signifiers. So it seems to me, in retrospect, that part of the 70s revolution was sound come into its own. That was a great advance for the earthy people, but the other 3/4 of us (water, air, fire) were not going to veer off course charging after it.

    The nature of music certainly broadened commendably at that point, but for me the important issues didn’t fundamentally change. If anything, I would say (again, in retrospect) that, if serialism represented a temporary rightward detour from music’s gently curving trajectory, the Cage-Lucier-Tudor-Oliveros shift seemed, to me, an equally temporary, if entirely welcome and compensatory, leftward detour. As a historian, in fact, I have tended to explain the explosion in American music in the 60s as the resurgence of an American aesthetic born in the 1920s, that had been swamped by the deluge of European composers who came here to escape the Nazis. I was excited about Piano Phase and Vespers, but I really only saw them as the beginning of something that had potential for future development, not as great victories in themselves….

    Also as a Scorpio (and I’m sorry to wax astrological, but it’s been on my mind lately), I have a rather deep conservative streak, and tend to think about music in centuries rather than decades. What I did get completely sucked into was minimalism, and I felt sure that all music would turn in that direction. But I also rather quickly connected minimalism to the 40s quiet music of Cage and Harrison, and beyond that to Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources and Erik Satie, and even Nancarrow (in whose studies gradual process plays a bigger part than he ever acknowledged). The newness of it all wasn’t more important to me than its historical connections, which, for me, helped validate it. I am human and subjective enough to want to see the pendulum swing my way, and I was pretty upset when it swung away from minimalism in the Zorn-dominated 80s, as you’ll recall. That list you give – Come Out, I of IV, Wavetrain, Rainforest – is an interesting Rorshach test. The various pieces in it meant a lot to both of us, but the nuances may be very different for the two of us. The heartbreak of my musical life, which I’m about over now, was around 1986 when musical fashion turned back toward the darkness of complexity and chaos just as minimalism had promised a new sunrise. As much as you and I are on the same musical side vis-à-vis John Corigliano, Milton Babbitt, John Harbison, and some other people distant from us, a graph of our levels of musical happiness 1975-1990 might reveal some telling contrasts.

    So much, then, for that crucial 15-to-35 period of ours that Adams mentions: now into our respective post-35 periods. Taking the long view, I sort of accept as theoretically necessary that all generation gaps are equally deep. The composers born after 1980 have a completely different relationship than I do to, relatedly, pop music and capitalism. I play for them the music I used to rave about at the Voice, and I’m astonished by what they object to: mostly music that I admired specifically because it was pop-influenced. I can find plenty to complain about in them if I’m looking for it. I analyze Bartok and Webern and Stockhausen for them, and they are not nearly as impressed as I was in college; I’ve come, in fact, to think perhaps we overvalued those achievements in the 70s. Webern’s 12-tone canons and Bartok’s incursions into octatonic don’t seem all that amazing to young musicians who know more bebop harmony than I do. Bartok’s overtone scale is their Lydian dominant scale, and they take it for granted.

    More than that I find them ignorant of yours and my generation, which sometimes means they’re reinventing the wheel, and sometimes means they’re more efficiently aimed at social relevance rather than building on previous history. They do not seem nearly as focused on earlier composers as our generation was. Our paradigm changed hugely in the 70s, and their paradigm changed tremendously with the internet and the vastly expanded influence of the corporate 0.1%. I don’t feel that there’s an objective standpoint from which I can say that our paradigm shift was bigger than theirs. Maybe ours was more motivated by artists and theirs is in reaction to economic and political events. At their best, I do think they are reacting authentically to the world around them, whereas perhaps we were reacting less to the world than to the music of older composers that we had just learned about.

    There is some discussion lately that the young composers are conservative, and break no new ground. I think that is definitely true of some of the post-1980ers who’ve become well-known, but I also think in every generation it’s mostly the shallow, glib, and untalented who come to major attention earlier in life; just as true of our generation and our teachers’ generation. And I don’t think it’s universal, because of the new composers you hear a lot about, there are three of four I follow with great interest. Also, while I don’t pay much attention to the new music scene these days, there are young composers who get in touch with me and send me their music, and – given how well documented my opinions are – it is probably tautological that the ones who contact me are using ideas that I find very interesting. (If they didn’t already suspect that, they wouldn’t contact me.) Some are doing wonderful things in microtonality, a lot of them are using polytempo structures that we would have called totalist in the 90s, some of them have enviable command of software. Consequently, I probably have a higher opinion of the young generation of composers than I would if my experience of them was more statistically representative. As with us, their challenge will be for the really brilliant ones to figure out how to shine above all the mediocre celebrities.

    So while I have to be a little agnostic concerning your perception of “no shift in the fundamental terrain of music,” I am not pessimistic about the future of the young composers’ music. Maybe 70% of them are unimaginative hacks composing according to the stilted conventions their professors imposed on them, but I’d say exactly the same thing about our generation….

    At the risk of weakening my argument by over-explaining, I’ll also add one segment of my habitual narrative that is generation-specific. The universities expanded rapidly in the 60s in response to Kennedy’s fear that America was losing the space race. So during that period desperate music departments hired dozens of crazy people to teach us: Sal Martirano! Alvin Lucier! Anthony Braxton! Ben Johnston! Ed London! Harold Budd! James Tenney! It seems obvious that no one that crazy or creative could possibly get a teaching job in today’s stultifying academic environment, and that means that the excitement that came from being in college music departments in the 70s is not likely to be duplicatible again in our lifetimes. You got in because SAIC is a crazy place, and I got in solely by camouflaging myself as a musicologist; the Bard administration does not consider me a composer. Academia was a dull place before the 60s, and now that those wonderful savants have retired or died, it’s sunk back to its lethargic status quo, probably forever. I could imagine that that in itself could account for some of your perception of the dearth of more recent paradigm shifts. The most exciting composers of the near future will probably be those who either bypassed academia or took it very lightly.

    I would like to think that this narrative, which I’ve long been honing as a way to explain currents larger than I can fully understand, might be complementary to yours, which contains its own undeniable truth. Perhaps it only addresses part of your argument. It would be fascinating to have a kind of generational virtual conference to reset the narrative for the next century. 20th-century music is over, and yet we haven’t yet dealt with it, and its issues remain embarrassingly open-ended. I would be very interested to read any other responses you get from this. Perhaps some kind of publication might ultimately result. Thanks, anyway, for starting the conversation, whether it goes anywhere or not.

    With all respect and friendship,


    • AJ Sabatiini says

      Thanks. Kyle. Most thoughtful, as usual. There is always the argument that an individual artist’s imagination takes up or leaves social/historical trends. But I would also comment that in the period from the 1970s on, the emphasis on music qua music and composition, per se, shifted toward an expanded sense of performance, intermedia, staging, installation, site-specific work, new opera as well as collaborations between composers and dancers, filmmakers, directors. Cage/Cunningham opened one set of doors, Glass/Wilson another and, of course, there is Ashley. It might be that making music with others for performance opened up other ways of thinking and practice.

      KG replies: Collaborating with other people, huh? I’ve heard of that. But wouldn’t I have to put down my cigar and leave my adirondack chair and screened-in porch to go do it? Sounds like a lot of work.

      • AJ Sabatiini says

        If you’re interested, you might want to read up on Bob Ashley for some tips.

        KG replies: I kept wondering who all those other names were. I’m such a recluse that I do, inevitably, shortchange the collaborative aspect of things. Though I did make a stab at showing Blue’s and Tom’s contributions to Ashley’s operas.

  3. says

    I enjoyed reading your response to Nic’s questionaire. As someone who excitedly attended most of Berio’s premieres in London in the 1970’s, and still love Laborintus II, I also wonder if that music is generation specific. Berio, Stockhausen and Maderna are rarely performed in the U.K. now, other than a few smaller pieces. Certainly I have also valued craftmanship over innovation but that doesn’t explain why I still love Joy Division.
    My wife works in the dance world and every dance performance in the U.K. is advertised as ‘innovative’, or ‘cutting-edge’. However she just sees a re-hash of what was done in the 1970’s, and done better by better dancers and more imaginative choreographers.
    Regarding the next revolution, have we defined what the form the revolution shall take by defining the Rite of Spring as a prototype? It seems to me that it was the choreography that caused the uproar, not the music, which was well received in a concert a few months later. The choreography contradicted the militaristic ballet world’s idea of what was ballet. The feet were turned in, not out, which in the ballet world is like playing a late Beethoven sonata on a distorted Fender Rhodes.
    Finally, two random points. First, I am an air sign (Aquarius) and sound is of the utmost importance to me, which is probably why I prefer commercial electronic music to academic electronic music. Secondly, in London where staging of opera and music theatre can include obscene language, nudity and quite explicit sex, a very successful musician (in both the classical and rock worlds) described a work I had performed as “very couragious” – it was basically a solo soprano saxophone melody over an unchanging drone. Obviously I took it as a huge compliment; but when it seems writing a melody is couragious, the music world has taken some strange turns.

    KG replies: Thanks, Ian. I should have added, not only am I not an earth sign, I have almost no earth in my chart at all. So sensation is my weakest element in the Meyers-Briggs test. It’s not just what your strongest sign is, but what element you lack. (Which is why I’m a klutz and suck at sports despite being a pretty big guy.) Presumbly you have some earth planets.

  4. says

    I grew up at about the same time as Kyle and Nic, and I had the same feeling of living in interesting times. But I think that these times continued far longer for me than NIc, due to a slight difference in musical perception and aesthetic. You can be revolutionary by not acting to extend history, or to revolutionize it, but rather, like Alkan, Satie, John White (and perhaps even Harold Budd), to do your own thing irregardless of historical directions, or, failing that, to be part of a DIogenes Club-like movement of iconoclasts. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing can be to write a tonal piano sonata (i.e., White) while everyone else is taking their clothes off, writing discords, and spending millions on expensive studios.
    It seems to some that, like Leo Trietler’s assessment of modernist music in 1969 as the medieval legend of the souls of the dead, who march at top speed or else crumble to dust (Treitler, ‘The Present as History’, PNM (1969), p. 5), music must progress to survive: to be more dissonant, more outrageous, a remnant in thinking from the refugee German composers mentioned elsewhere (the Great European Tradition). Those who believe this are often oblivious to the subtleties of innovation, and being oblivious, they remain ignorant of the contexts and implications of the music they hate. I’ve quite recently received a condemnation of the music of Harold Budd as an historical dead end, with no influence, while at the same time praising the younger LA-based composers on the Cold Blue label, who were very much inspired by Budd. The critical reaction to White’s music in the 1980s and 1990s are vitriolic — Paul Griffiths made fun of White’s name as white, as in blank, which is what he saw in White’s music. So maybe Nic is looking in the wrong places for innovation.

    KG replies: Intriguing. Budd’s been one of my biggest influences, too [kicks self for not attending CalArts].

  5. says

    Thanks for this post (and thanks to Nic Collins also).

    Background: I’ve been composing computer music since 1984, independently. I also am a developer of music software (I’m one of the five or six people who regularly develop for Csound).

    My feelings, and they are feelings at least as much as thoughts, is that Cage and minimalism (I particularly love Feldman) were indeed a radical break with the past, more so than serialism, which I view as a stimulating episode without legs. I personally regard Cage as one of my “fathers” along with Xenakis.

    Since that era, so much has changed in music technology and in society, that I feel that any underlying changes in musical style, or any new masterpieces, have perhaps been masked. Lost in the noise.

    About being lost in the noise, everybody who is even remotely serious about making music for other people to listen to can get it on CDBaby, SoundCloud, etc., etc., and it’s not that hard to get yourself on iTunes where anybody can find it. But, they won’t find it. There is simply too much mediocre music and no reliable guide to the good music.

    If this ever changes, then I think another stylistic revolution will go off like a bomb, because such a revolution requires impresarios and critics as well as creators.

    Another factor, in my own field of computer music is that the technology is as difficult to master as an acoustical instrument, or the traditional course of training for a composer, but keeps changing. This keeps musicians off-balance, frankly. But I think a core of technology is developing in computer music, that the pace of change is slowing down. This is happening at the same time that the software is more and more a standard part of the production studio (e.g. Max Live in Ableton).

    Another factor in my field is that composition students (and I make a point of asking about them when I talk to Brad Garton or somebody, and of talking to them when I meet them at concerts etc.) continue to resist learning programming languages. Teachers now teach Max instead of Csound because of this. It’s irrational, because Max is just as much a programming language as Csound, even though it has more visual goodies, yet Csound is more powerful as a musical instrument. But there you go.

    However, this will definitely change. Right now, the computer music programs are migrating to tablets and even phones (I’m preparing Csound 6 for Android). They also are getting built into the production software that film composers, producers, and pop musicians use (Max Live, again; there’s also a Csound Live). So, after a while, the tools of computer music will stop shifting under everyone’s feet and start just being a part of the standard toolkit. Then there will at least be a real possibility of another stylistic breakthrough.

    Yet another factor is that the way people use music has changed, to the detriment of art music. People listen as accompaniment and background. They don’t, so much, listen to listen. I don’t know how much this is really the case, or where this will go — your comments appreciated here.

  6. says

    A couple of comments have addressed this, but to make it more explicit: the real revolution of the 21st century may well be the decoupling of the art of music from its performance by expert musicians. Almost all of the challenges encountered by composers today can be traced to the lack of performance opportunities. A composer presently has to run a gauntlet of conductors, musicians, administrative types and support personnel just to realize a piece using acoustic instruments in a concert hall setting. As a result, the new music that is finally performed is written by composers who have the necessary contacts and networking skills to get their work heard. Now I agree that all of the new music performed presently is written by talented artists, no question. And I agree that what skilled musicians add to a performance cannot be duplicated. But the present system is simply too limiting and will give way to electronic music realized and distributed by the composer to avoid the time consuming, complicated and expensive process of performance.

    More musical art generated electronically by more people will lead to a sort of natural selection of electronic music as the preferred medium for worldwide distribution directly to the ear buds of the listener. Music created by computer will also be generated more efficiently thus giving the composer time to make a living as the world demands – not as commissions, grants and adjunct faculty positions allow. We will become poets once again, creating because we have something to say and not because we have something to sell.