Yesterday I attended a concert of music by student composers. None of the pieces were atonal. None were minimalist. None were postminimalist. None were spectralist. None were written according to any kind of system. All except one had big romantic gestures. Chords crashed down in the piano. If there was a cello, which there usually was, it came barreling up off the C-string into its highest register and then played harmonics. Everything was big, impassioned, virtuoso gestures. And before, during, and after the concert the faculty ran around congratulating themselves on how wonderfully diverse in style the students were.
I asked my savviest colleague what he thought the students were most influenced by. “Hollywood,” he replied.
UPDATE: After so many comments so quickly, let me parse what I think the above means somewhat. It’s an impressionist sketch, and exaggerates – but just slightly. When the students write the way the faculty teach them to, the faculty tend to be satisfied with the range of stylistic diversity – this is probably true everywhere. Minimalism is considered passé. The students don’t know grid-pulse* postminimalism ever existed, because I am its only representative in academia. Spectralism is attractive to the older and more sophisticated (grad) students, but requires some technique. Fidelity to any kind of -ism or movement is seem as an anachronism anyway. Once you declare all ideology invalid, what metric is left but success? I think the students are very aware what kind of young composers are getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s generally the ones whose music makes a lot of noise and allows for expressive virtuosity. It’s a crowded field, yet if you get famous in it by age 30 you can do very well. Individualism will not help you toward that goal – if you’re different, it takes too many decades for people to figure out what you’re about. Being identified with a movement will not help. I got the impression here of a race toward one pinpointed goal, some students reaching it more effectively than others. (I suspect the faculty partly define the race, and that the ubiquity of film music can’t help but shape its direction.)
*Since, just as the masses use minimalism to mean Wagner, Ravel, and Gregorian chant, people now use postminimalist to mean whatever they want it to mean, I am introducing (as I’ve threatened to) the term grid-pulse postminimalism to refer to an important American movement of the 1980s and ’90s that I’ve spent decades documenting. It was a style of steady tempos, diatonic harmony, and occasional elements of quasi-minimalist process, and its notable practitioners include Paul Epstein, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, Peter Garland, Mary Jane Leach, Daniel Lentz, Mary Ellen Childs, and many others. The leading article on the style is my “A Technically Definable Stream of Postminimalism, Its Characteristics, and Its Meaning,” in The Ashgate Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music (Ashgate Press, 2013). Since I invented the term it means what I intend it to mean, and if you think it can mean something else, you are mistaken. Didn’t realize the Joisey crowd was here tonight, have to define everything.
UPDATE 2: Heavens, more than 1100 hits and so many responses!, to what I thought was a spur-of-the-moment throwaway post. While I have everyone’s attention let me underline one point, and not my main one; my main one was well stated by Stefan Hetzel in the comments, that even student works should have something individual about them that mattered strongly to the composer. The 1980s, with its fight amongst serialism, minimalism, and neoromanticism, is conceived by young composers today as having been a living hell. Today, when one is so bold as to mention postminimalism or any -ism except spectralism (because it’s European), everyone yells “Boo! Hiss!” and forces you to admit that no such distinctions are valid, music is only music, and we’re all individual, like snowflakes. Yet the existence of musical movements did chart out a realm of musical diversity, and drew contrasts among different philosophies of how music could or should operate. Take all that away, tell students that there are no differing philosophies, no schools of thought, and what is there left for them to do, except do their competitive utmost to become, by age thirty, the number-one purveyor of virtuosically emotive gestures, since that is the behavior rewarded by new-music performers and music critics? I realize that I am in a tiny, microscopic minority on this issue, and that there are likely no younger composers at all who agree with me. But I find the prevailing anti–ism, anti-movement consensus anti-intellectual and anti-art. I am a dinosaur, overdue for my extinction, no doubt, but at least you can’t accuse of me of groupthink. And we are seeing the erasure of all philosophical barriers result, I think, in an increasingly stultifying homogeneity – at just the time in which diversity is ideologically prized as being the highest good.