The new-music blogosphere seems to have exploded into existence in the summer of 2003, judging from the number of such blogs celebrating their tenth anniversaries lately. Although I wrote a couple of entries beforehand, I saved the official unveiling of my blog for August 29, 2003 – without even reflecting, as I recall, that it was the 51st anniversary of the premiere of 4’33” (and of course not knowing that it would become the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina). I also, inexplicably, failed to check the prevailing astrological transits, whose oppositions of Mars and Uranus to practically everything else guaranteed, in advance, plenty of heated argument. Anyway, PostClassic’s own tenth anniversary is upon me, and I suppose it would be churlish of me not to complete the cultural moment with an accounting of my own activity.
Scattered among the celebrations are some laments, apparently initiated by the always sympathetic Elaine Fine, that new-music blogs are attracting fewer and fewer readers, or in other cases going inactive (though others have applied more technological sophistication than I possess to disputing these impressions). I imagine that I am one of the blogs considered as having arrived at the inactive category, down from as many as 27 posts in a month to as few as two quite often lately, and those mostly announcements. I’m sure that my readership is a small fraction of what it used to be, and I am quite happy about that. Weary of finding my most bedrock perceptions deemed controversial, I am content to preach to the choir that remains (Hi David!, Paul, Lois, Doug, Lyle, Brian, John…). It is tasteless, I realize, to repeat compliments one has received privately, but I was told this weekend I had become the Bad Boy of music just by thinking too deeply about matters that everyone else takes for granted. I’m sure others would formulate it differently. As I’ve said before, I write my music for the multitudes, but I would prefer PostClassic be a haven for that tiny minority of musicians who share my views on new music – such as, that it should be written for the multitudes. If my audience further dwindles to the point that this becomes an unnoticed site for my private musings nicely typeset and illustrated, that will be sufficient. In my 20s I kept a journal, and I enjoy the hobby.
The truth is, I’m in rehab. My decades-long lifestyle as a music critic had made me an attention addict, and I consciously decided to recover. Unable to get a composing career quickly off the ground in the years following grad school, I made it my strategy to flash my name into the public eye every week. In the ’90s I was publishing more than a hundred articles a year (with considerable economic incentive, mind you, since I had no other living). The Village Voice began shaving down my column starting around 1999; PostClassic gave me a panoramic word-count again, and, miraculously releasing me from the necessity of news pegs, left my subject matter wide open as well. You may have noticed that I’m a compulsive writer. I believe I’ve published more than four million words. A year ago a magazine editor called me, begging for a 1500-word article to fill an unexpected gap; I wrote it in 75 minutes and sent it to her. I’m not the best, but I’m sure as hell the fastest. Spewing words out into the world every week had become a habit. At some point I realized I was being buoyed along by my own momentum, and getting less and less of what I wanted from it in return. My son worried about his black metal band Liturgy getting “overexposed,” and I started to feel somewhat overexposed myself.
On the morning of July 1, 2011, for whatever internal reason, I woke up and abruptly realized that I was tired of the effort, and most of my other efforts as well. I had been living as a martyr for certain benign forces in new music (Downtown, experimental, accessible), and I didn’t want to be a martyr anymore. I wanted to self-indulge, satisfy my own aims more directly, and let the culture-at-large go to hell if it was so adamantly determined to. I had already been complaining for a year. I was, and remain, particularly weary of the composing world. We raise young composers with grand expectations that will almost certainly remain unfulfilled, and the chief proficiency they emerge with is a vast verbal and conceptual framework for invalidating the music of others. There has to be something about the way composers are trained that makes us all so competitive, rigid, and ungenerous; an education that prepares anyone for that kind of life is a mockery. This past weekend some colleagues from another school and I marveled at how many kids keep coming to college to be composers, and wondered what in hell they think they will ever get from doing so. On that day in 2011 I changed course, though it’s still not fully clear what my new direction is yet. That month I wrote only one blog entry, a brief paragraph. I needed to relearn what not being heard from frequently felt like.
This past weekend I also had a visit with Russian musicologist Olga Manulkina, who has written a thick history of American music, in Russian. She wanted some advice about teaching American music, she said, because the composers at her school harshly disparage John Cage and minimalism, and tell her she shouldn’t be teaching them. She looked astonished when I chuckled and replied, “Just like in America.” She wants to bring me to St. Petersburg to lecture for a new music criticism and arts management program she’s involved in, and she asked me what kind of vision I would present to the students. Pressed, I fell back almost by rote on my old catechism: “I believe that music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences.” That was the philosophy behind the New Music America festivals (1979-1990), which ran from when I was in grad school to my peak years at the Voice, and of which I rather consider myself a product, having been involved with the second and fourth and having reviewed the later ones. I think it’s also the philosophy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which I consider the country’s most honorable large arts presenter. So like most of us I’m a creature of the time and place of my youth: a relic of the late-’70s new-music boom, and withal something of a dinosaur.
“Music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences.” That’s the vision I would keep rooting for in PostClassic, but I’ve said it in these pages every way I can think of, and they’re all available in the archives. The idea seems to achieve less and less traction. There is no longer any visible sector of the music scene that embodies it, and so all my explanations start over from scratch. Every restatement brings arguments I’ve defended myself from a hundred times. No progress is made. Every year hundreds of new composition graduates descend on the world having dutifully absorbed from their teachers that audiences can’t be thought about, and that musical obscurity is a sign of integrity. Meanwhile I’ve discovered the cool contentment of writing about long-dead composers, and am getting interested enough in 19th-century religious disputes as part of my Ives research that I wonder if my next big phase shouldn’t take me outside of music altogether. Unlike music, scholarship can become more fun the more esoteric it gets.
In short, the relative quiescence of PostClassic should not be taken as constituting evidence that the music-blogosphere is dying, or that fewer people are reading music blogs, or any other collective trend. Any synchronicity between me and them is purely coincidental. It’s just a certain point in my life.