State of the Confusion

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) has asked me to give a talk on the state of American music at their November conference in Vienna – which strikes me as analogous to making Noam Chomsky the U.S. ambassador to the UN. I had to write a statement for their catalogue, which will be translated into German. Since it won’t appear in English, since the tenth anniversary has inspired me to think more about potential purposes for this blog, and since I have to expand it into a fuller paper, I thought I’d run it up the flagpole here and see who shoots at it. Also, the core of the argument relates to a book I’ve been asked to write and am mulling over, so feedback might help push me one way or another. Warning: the paper includes the words Uptown and Downtown, which is a blood-pressure hazard for some composers.

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The Uneasy, Unarticulated State of American Music

The term “American music” is devoid of specific connotative content today, even if we limit it to composed music in the concert tradition. If it means music made by Americans, Americans today come from all over the globe – and some whose ancestors were born here are working in global traditions. The American educational system pretty reliably exposes young composers to analysis of European modernist masterworks; jazz harmony; musical software; indigenous innovators such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Conlon Nancarrow; and a number of third-world musical traditions, most notably Indonesian gamelan, African drumming, Japanese gagaku, and Indian classical music. In addition, young composers absorb pop music and mass culture on their own. From this increasingly de-centered pedagogic tradition, they are understandably flung in all directions, flowing into a sea of aesthetic proclivities with myriad flavors but few demarcations or distinct categories.

This absolute openness in terms of aesthetic choices contrasts markedly, though, with drastic limitations on what kind of visibility or impact the composer can expect to achieve in American society. Major record labels continued to promote new music as a public service through the 1960s and ‘70s, but the corporate-friendly Reagan years made any such altruistic principles a thing of the past. Corporations now so heavily push kinds of music that can be easily categorized and that return a reliable profit that the amount of public distribution accorded new classical (or postclassical) music has decreased to a tiny trickle. It was reported during the 1980s that there were 40,000 self-identifying composers in the U.S. – by now the number must be considerably more than that. A few hundred of those, perhaps, can expect to become visible within a particular musical subculture. Those who manage to get a foothold in the orchestra circuit will receive marginally the most attention, for the capitalist reason that orchestras, which advertise heavily in newspapers, therefore get dependably reviewed by said newspapers. But even here, the bulk of the general audiences of those orchestras are more likely to consider the occasional living composer a necessary evil than a cultural leader.

It is arguable, I think, that there are no American composers today who have achieved the same public stature since 1980 as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams did just prior to that date. While the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this would be that the generations of composers born after 1950 are rather lame, I suggest that another explanation is more compelling. The creativity of the best composers continues at a high level. But the skewed economics of distribution, combined with the sheer numbers of working composers and their smoothly-modulated rainbow of styles, makes it increasingly unlikely that any major figures commanding a wide consensus will emerge in the near future.

In 1967, musicologist Leonard Meyer published a fiery book that was widely read at the time: Music, the Arts, and Ideas. In it he predicted “the end of the Renaissance,” by which he meant that there would cease to be a musical mainstream, and that instead we would settle into an ahistorical period of stylistic stasis in which a panoply of styles would coexist. This seemed an outrageous forecast at the time, but Meyer’s prescience has been greatly confirmed.

The first stage of the breakup of the mainstream in American music was a separation in the 1960s and ‘70s into three large trends. The first was the stream of serialist music along an American adaptation of European 12-tone principles, which grew in political power and visibility during those decades. Almost at the same time, minimalism grew from the world of ideas John Cage had opened up, and offered a more timeless, less articulated aesthetic parallel to certain non-Western musics. Minimalism found a home in the lofts of Downtown Manhattan, and the music of the freer post-Cagean world came, by the late 1960s, to be called “Downtown music.” Serialist music grew to be mostly associated with academic music departments and ensembles, and after awhile – partly due to its association in Manhattan with Columbia University – earned the back-formation “Uptown music.” In the 1980s, some composers who rejected both minimalism and serialism, opting instead for a continuation of a more intuitively Romantic, conventionally orchestral modernist aesthetic, insisted on being called “Midtown” instead. Several of the most prominent “Midtowners,” such as George Rochberg, David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, and William Bolcom, actually returned to employing the conventions of late Romanticism (Mahler’s idiom being especially popular) with an accompanying dose of irony, satire, or collage. In 1983 the term “New Romantic” was coined for this development.

These divisions played havoc with the paradigmatic modernist duality of conservative versus avant-garde. Most obviously, the prior association of tonality with conservatism and atonality with avant-garde fell apart. The Uptown serialists could claim to be avant-garde for posing the most challenges to the audience’s perception. The Downtown minimalists could claim avant-gardeness by having transcended European genres and embracing a world aesthetic. And the Midtown New Romantics could claim avant-gardeness for having jettisoned even the modernist assumption of stylistic homogeneity. A composer writing a highly tonal piece might be taking Benjamin Britten (conservative) as a model, or Arvo Pärt (avant-garde); and who cold tell for sure?

The battles among these three segments of the composing community, each trying to take on the mantle (and attendant funding and distribution) of the new mainstream, were fierce, played out in newspaper diatribes, college classrooms, and lecture halls. After a few years, though, this state of things began to dissolve. First of all, the number of 12-tone pieces (or at least the number of composers publicly extolling 12-tone principles) fell off dramatically in the late 1980s. Minimalism, entering the orchestra world through commissions given to Glass and Adams in particular, became somewhat watered down from its original hard-core principles, and morphed into a textural lingua franca. The extremes declined, as did the prestige of being on the extreme. The shape of American music went from looking like three separate streams to more like a bell curve. There are still adherents of the “New Complexity” in the U.S., Jay Alan Yim possibly the best known. At the other end of the curve, there are those attached to the Wandelweiser school of silence and extreme duration and simplicity, like Michael Pisaro. But that the guru of New Complexity is a British composer, Brian Ferneyhough, and the Wandelweiser a European group, may further suggest how un-American it is to be an extremist these days.

It is against the background of those battles that many of the composers born after 1975 have defined themselves. The new generation of composers is conflict-averse, its discourse reduced to a broadly tolerant pragmatism. However much the young composers believe they have blessedly transcended ideology and partisanship, though, they have nevertheless inherited some of the previous attitudes in a less articulated form. Instead of distinct categories, what we have is a continuum of opinions along the accessibility/difficulty scale: how much should the composer keep the audience in mind? What should be the relation, if any, to pop music? Is the educated elite of academia a sufficient audience? Should the composer ignore all questions of perceptibility and follow his pleasure? Is there, indeed, any way to predict what music will go over well with an audience and what won’t? Does the long tail phenomenon of internet distribution render all such questions moot? What is most typical of American music at the moment, I would argue, is a large-scale, implicit, almost publicly unarticulated debate on the social use of music, of what it is made for.

For obvious reasons, the composers who actively court public relevance have been the most visible. Starting in 1987, the Bang on a Can festival, run by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, has championed music of a hard-hitting, exciting profile. The baseball-cap-wearing founders have distanced themselves from the perceived elitism of classical music presentation, presenting in unusual and informal spaces and replacing the formality of program notes with personal appearances by each composer performed. A certain amount of rock-star wanna-beism is in evidence. The much quieter Common Sense collective, a bicoastal group of eight composers including Dan Becker, Carolyn Yarnell, Belinda Reynolds, and others, has banded together to seek group commissions from ensemble to ensemble, like a roving herd of compositional locusts. With these new paradigms begin the strategies of most composers who have become visible since. 1. Eschew elitism and traditional formality in presentation, regardless of what the music is like. 2. Control your own distribution and the means to create your own performances. In either case, take your music into your own hands and be independent of existing institutions.

The Bang on a Can people eventually formed their own label, Canteloupe. Probably the most visible group of younger composers in recent years is that united by another such startup, the New Amsterdam label, including Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly, William Brittelle, Corey Dargel, and others. Brittelle’s theater music tackles the conventions of television. Dargle’s works are elaborately composed pop songs on texts of sometimes shocking personal honesty. Anti-Social Music, despite its ironic name, is a group (including Pat Muchmore, Andrea La Rose, and others) that has specialized in extreme informality of presentation, often setting off the music with abundant humor and surreality. ThingNY, run by Paul Pinto, is an ensemble that has tried publicity stunts such as commissioning brief works via mass e-mailings. The resulting styles of all this music are not always predictable from the format, the emphasis being on finding a new presentation paradigm free from associations of either conventional classical music performance or the stylistic subcultures of the 1980s.

That these groups have garnered the most publicity does not mean their approach is numerically dominant. A probably larger number of composers still move through more traditional channels, attending the most prestigious possible grad school, studying with influential teachers, applying for prizes and awards, and angling for orchestral commissions. Even here, a correlation with style and idiom cannot be assumed. One of the most successful young composers on the orchestra circuit, Mason Bates, moonlights as a club DJ. His orchestral works such as Omnivorous Furniture (2004) typically include him playing a noisy music of pop beats from his laptop in the center of the orchestra. Even so, there is an intermittent streak of lyric romanticism in his music, possibly drawn from his studies with one of the seminal New Romantics, John Corigliano. Some mention should also be made of how widespread the influence of John Adams has become on young musicians’ orchestral music. His propulsive repeating brass chords, dotted by abundant and explosive percussion, have become a rather well-defined style of their own. And since so many commissions for living composers are in the form of ten-minute concert openers, this style/format combination has acquired the jocular nickname “subscriber modernism.”

Microtonality is a steadily growing field, more so on the West Coast. Composers working in equal-step scales are far more numerous, and their music tends toward esoteric complexity; those fewer working in just intonation, with Ben Johnston and La Monte Young as models, often opt for meditativeness. Boston has its own microtonal subculture based on a 72-pitch-to-the-octave scale, based on the practice of Ezra Sims and the late Joe Maneri. This overall trend remains impeded by technological hurdles and performance difficulties. John Adams, though, made an unusually public microtonal statement with his 2003 orchestra work The Dharma at Big Sur, which incorporated natural harmonics in the brass.

Moving outward from these recent, more definable trends, it is fairly impossible to generalize further about what’s going on in American music. American composers write for Javanese gamelan with or without orchestral instruments and electric guitars (Evan Ziporyn has been active in this area); perform music from their laptops; write symphonies; create sophisticated MIDI versions of orchestral music; subvert pop-music conventions (a specialty of Mikel Rouse); base their music in Balkan singing styles. While many composers make an ambitious bid for social relevance, many, many others are content to accept their marginalization in American culture in return for total autonomy. One thing we all grow slowly more aware of is our increasing disadvantage, as individual low-subsidy artists, in terms of technological sound production compared to the massive resources of corporate film and popular music. Wealth brings a sonic sophistication that the autonomous sound-experimenter can only envy.

One can only report that musical creativity continues at a high level in the United States, pursued under a troubling and sometimes debilitating set of circumstances. At one end is the corporate world of commercial music with its untold riches and aesthetic co-optation; at the other end, the rarified air of the unpublic career totally subsidized by academia. In between are thousands of composers trying to strategize an artistically fulfilling career in a capitalist society run amok, poisoned by money and ruled for the benefit of the richest 0.1 percent. In short, we are all, every one of us, trying to discern what kind of music it might be satisfying, meaningful, and/or socially useful to make in a corporate-controlled oligarchy. The answers are myriad, the pros and cons of each still unproven. We maintain our idealism and do the best we can.



  1. says

    Kyle, this should be required reading on day one of every first-year composition course. It’s the most cogent, comprehensive, nuanced, and realistic assessment of the current situation that I’ve seen. It’s also a convincing argument for continuing the blog.

    KG replies: Thanks, Paul.

  2. says

    Nice summing up, Kyle. Interesting, too, to think about how the end of the Cold War affected things. Countries no longer needed to fund their artists touring in other countries to prove their system was better. Couple that with the conservatives in the US turning their attention to the arts, now that the Soviet bogey-man was gone. All of a sudden, arts funding was threatened. So there was a scapegoating of the arts and drying up of funding, and the cross-pollination between countries disappeared, too, all at the same time. It seems that a lot of US composers are now insular, unaware of what music is being created in other countries, to all of our loss, no matter the ubiquity of the internet.

    KG replies: Thanks, Mary Jane, those are excellent points, which I will incorporate into the expanded version. Although with the last one, I do keep running into composition grad students whose lives revolve around Ligeti, Kurtag, and the Spectralists, but who, aside from the occasional Phil Glass joke, couldn’t name a living American composer.

  3. says

    I am a long-time reader of your blog and other writings (oh yeah and your music!). As an artist, primarily a painter, who periodically steers into sound art and installation, I have found your narratives concerning music an interesting parallel with some in the visual arts. Recently this blog by Edward Winkleman has been dealing with similar issues from a visual art standpoint. I thought you might be interested.
    Keep the blog going!

    KG replies: Thanks, Nelson, I’ll take a look at it.

  4. says

    Kyle, I think you’re spot on to frame this as a socio-economic issue, not an aesthetic one. There are no more battles to be fought in the aesthetic realm: as Meyer & Cage predicted, we are in a world of abundance and endless possibilities, from the aesthetic point of view. Economically and socially, on the other hand, composers are literally invisible (as noted recently on New Music Box, the government does not recognize “composer” as an occupation). “All trends today in the American new music scene today are economically driven” — you could definitely make that case, and it would make for an interesting book. Thanks for sharing.

  5. says

    I feel that this is right on the money, especially your points about composers born since 1975. This outward aesthetic pragmatism covers up an under-the-surface battle over music’s purpose. Although I know some composers who are really this open to all music, and others who are willing to fight the good fight out loud for their brand of “avant-garde.” At least in public, most composers lean towards tolerance and recognition of the validity of others’ work.

    It is as if these younger composers want to only react positively to music. Modernism was a reaction against Romanticism. Postmodernism (whatever this might mean) has been a reaction against Modernism. Younger composers act as if they are beyond this agonism, and just select their influences a la carte. I guess we would need a new word for this paradigm rather than calling it post-Postmodernism.

    In another way, it is possible to view this pragmatism using business and economic terms. The most visible of these younger composers are willing to use all the aspects of modern capitalism and technology at their disposal for their music. Rather than just choosing a style as the means of marketing their music, which is one of your main points about Totalism (“having your cake and eating it too”), they now change things about presentation and format instead of (or in addition to) musical techniques to reach people. Rebranding difficult music, rather than simplifying musical style. If it works for large corporations, why not music?

  6. kea says

    interesting article, thanks. one thing i did notice is that while we speak of a geographic “flattening”—composers being exposed to and influenced by traditions of world music, the internet allowing for wider distribution and the collapse of anything that could be called a “national style”—and while one might expect the importance of minimalism (which started out as a west coast phenomenon) and the changing population distribution of north america to have led to wider diversifying of where the arts take place, most of the composers and artistic movements you mention are based primarily in new york city. indeed there seems to be less activity outside nyc than there was thirty years ago.

    nyc has always been a centre for the arts, of course, but during the cold war i think most other american cities of national economic importance were “mini-nycs” where it came to the arts—with symphony orchestras, academies and art galleries, and with the new york drama of old money classical elites vs young radical downtowners playing out on a smaller scale. now, most of those cities are in decline and have slashed their arts funding, and political sentiment has taken a turn for the capitalist. having lived in nyc for several years, i came to feel that it was very much an island—not only in terms of arts funding and presence but in terms of being one of the few places in america where the arts happened *because* of the residents rather than in spite of them (as well as being one of the few places in america that non-americans would describe as socially liberal—artists tend to be nonconformists and require tolerant neighbours). there are other such islands, i imagine. but like the aral sea they are the quickly shrinking remnants of what was once a widely distributed mass audience, and without official support, may disappear entirely.

  7. Kyle says

    Couple of quick comments:

    While I agree with Kea’s statement above that your examples are drastically skewed towards what’s going on in New York, I understand that this is both where you have the most primary access and that you are using it as a singular geographic example in order to make generalizations for an international audience (in translation, no less).

    I was surprised to see no mention of John Luther Adams, especially concerning points about the continuation of the post-Cage/Cowell/Feldman aethetic/”American Maverick”-ism, etc. and about his uncanny ability to independently shape his brand as a composer, although you do mention similar ideas near the end ofyour article and do mention BOAC (IMO another “entity” that has managed to have the most success in the branding arena).

    The single item I take issue with is the your use of the term “Third-World” early on to describe various non-American folk and classical traditions. I’m not sure Japan counts as a Third-World country under any rubric I’ve ever seen, but more importantly I think the use of the term implies a whole set of connotations that you were not intending, or at least that are less relevant to this argument. I’m sure a more apt descriptor can be found and the article will be the stronger for it.

    Otherwise, as everyone else has said, a fine and cogent summation.


  8. says

    Kyle: Thanks so much for this article, with its hilarious introductory “hook.” I am saving it for repeated reference. Just one side note: the three principals of New Amsterdam are Greenstein, Britelle, and Sarah Kirkland Snider. I think it’s important, in that context, not to leave mention of Snider out of the mix.

    KG replies: Thanks, I’m aware of her, but don’t know her music, and so would not feel secure using her as an example.

  9. Ken Fasano says

    Bullseye! You summarized perfectly what I’ve been feeling for years. Having grown up around the same time as you, at the end of the “renaissance”, when it was still possible to hear Bartok and even Berio on pre-cable TV, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me personally, at least, I disagree with John Cage: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” No, I have nothing to say, no one to say it to, so I guess I’ll just shut up and walk around with a fake smile.

    • Bob Gilmore says

      Bravo Kyle. Boy, what I’d give to read an equivalent piece on the state of play in European music, even western European music.

  10. says

    Re “baseball-cap-wearing founders”: long ago I was told by a mutual acquaintance that Gordon and Lang wore the baseball caps as kippot, and not simply a fashion statement. (I assume the same is true of Steve Reich.)

    KG replies: Me, I use a fedora.

  11. Arthur says

    Your savvy, well-informed talk should be well received. But I think you trip yourself up when you set up a limiting condition for contemporary music in terms of the questions of composer’s “visibility” and “impact” (whatever that might mean). At the same time, I think you answer your own question as to the ‘what for’ of music today.
    First of all, you are completely correct about, the “market” in general and the entertainment/culture industries. I would also add, that while there are smart, creative audiences, the public sense of the significance of the arts tends to be unresponsive, if not dismissive of any seriousness from the arts (except in a few cities). Film for example, once functioned as a commentary on American life but, while there are any number of meaningful films being produced today, the public conception of “the movies” is wrapped up (and warped by) a spectacle/celebrity/mass entertainment mind set. In my experience these days students can hardly sit through ‘the classics’ and many actually resent films that have grown up actors and ‘messages.’
    Back to music, you probably have Roger Reynolds’ 1975 book, Mind Models. If I recall, he posits a future much like we have: modular, self-selective, networked through composers/musicians/audiences with similar interests. Obviously, recording technology would have, and now does, make all music available and accessible. In the late 1980s, I wrote a program essay for Relâche with the same theme. It was titled, “Universal Individualized Music,” and, off the top of my head, I said that one day you might be able to carry all the world’s music in a container no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Now, it has a phone and camera in it.
    Point being: if, for some time – say, since the 17th century and mostly in Europe – composers and musical institutions established cultural dominants and paradigms for music, there has always been singing, dancing, and music & noise making everywhere. And its has had as many uses as people who make music say it has. The Smithsonian reports somewhere that of all the music less than 20% of all the music produced is in the public realm.
    So, the current state of American music is remarkable in its differences, availability, resourcefulness – your lists of composers attest, to which you could add more ensembles, ‘new music’ series, festivals, website events and web-based radio broadcasts. I think, also, of last year’s worldwide celebration of Cage as one continuous stream of new sounds in our lives. In addition, composer today- following, say Cage, Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier – work interdisciplinarily with the forms of theater, dance, installation, and digital systems etc. more than in other eras. This plenitude could/should be the basis of a way of forming communities, relationships, understandings, meaning and satisfaction to contest or undermine the oppressiveness of the present economic system. But the music can’t stand alone, if it every could.
    To the degree that there are not dominant composers, musicians, ensembles, styles, schools, etc. seems to be who and where we are. Being of a certain age myself, I can’t but agree that it would be more satisfying if those who think about music were more socio-politically and aesthetic/philosophically oriented. That is another kind of work and forms of thinking and conversation that Americans in the arts seem ever reluctant to pursue. Maybe a book on someone like Charles Ives and his social, literary, philosophical concerns (not to mention argument with musical establishments) might be relevant for the times.