Y Not 2K?

As the millennium ends, Modernist Music is making a comeback. Why are we suddenly nostalgic for the formerly new?

There's a well-known syndrome in the prize-giving world known as the Matthew Effect after the Bible verse Matthew 13:12: "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath." According to the Matthew Effect, recognition tends to accrue to those who already have it. For instance, an organization can bring prestige and attention to itself by giving Charles Wuorinen a prize because he's already won the Pulitzer and MacArthur awards, whereas if they give an award to some far better but less acclaimed figure, no one may notice. So Carnegie Hall takes no risk by bringing in Boulez, even though he's a quantity so known that you can't imagine anything exciting coming from the choice.

Times of economic insecurity exacerbate the Matthew Effect. In the publishing business, I watch it grow worse every year. As the print media get more panicked about corporate bottom-line pressures and Internet competition, placing articles and books about rising young artists becomes impossible. People will only buy a book or newspaper, publishers are convinced, to read about people they already know about. In hard times, only those who have plenty of recognition will get more of it. The money people may be right in the short run, but they're courting cultural catastrophe.

The third explanation seems so obvious, and is so meticulously avoided by every other writer, that it feels like a breach of manners to bring it up. Griffiths complains that the young composers he's discovered aren't nearly as exciting as the modernist masters because their music is based on pastiche, and on reworking the more audience-friendly styles of early modernism. Well, of course it is: The young hotshots he gets to review up there at the Times are those who write in conventional classical genres, orchestra pieces, chamber music. Those composers are desperately trying to make careers by catering to an orchestral establishment for whom 12-tone music was a PR disaster and Romanticism a fail-proof standby. For them to try to advance the musical language in any interesting direction would be professional suicide.

Serialist composer Pierre Boulez: "When one has had one's fill of experimenting, there comes a nostalgia for the past."
Steve J. Sherman
Serialist composer Pierre Boulez: "When one has had one's fill of experimenting, there comes a nostalgia for the past."

Griffiths is absolutely right: Pastiche is not a theoretical idea that critics and aficionados can get passionate about. If you're determined to limit your sights to composers writing within that orchestral establishment, of course you can't progress any further than Boulez and Stockhausen. That's as far out as that tradition went.

But there's an equally obvious rejoinder. If you'll look at composers working in new media, computers, unconventional ensembles and formats, the 1990s have been boiling over with new ideas, new energy, new and more seasoned assimilations of technology. Classical critics and administrators dearly yearn for the music world to continue in its familiar form, and therefore dismiss any composers who color outside the lines as, "Well, you know, not really picking up the inheritance, now, are they?" But the music world of Y2K emerges from a vastly different sociology than that of 1950, and the best music around reflects the changes. For young composers today to reinvent the world with the same contempt for nostalgia that Boulez's generation enjoyed, they have to work in media over which they have complete creative control, not kowtow to commissioning ensembles who have rigid European standards locked in their heads.

The pretense that today's young composers can't rival their grandfathers requires ignoring the most patent facts. They won't write complex music, runs the woeful lament. Are you kidding? Michael Gordon's Four Kings Fight Five climaxes at eleven different tempos at once. Mikel Rouse is writing operas in which different scenes in different meters and keys overlap simultaneously. Larry Polansky's Lonesome Road Variations for piano is longer, more massive, and more intricate than Ives's Concord Sonata, and far more than any Boulez sonata. Paul Dolden is making sampler pieces with 200 orchestral lines going at once. We got complexity out the wazoo. It's just not the atonal and arrhythmic complexity of the serialists. You can hear deeper into the complexity than you can with your average Boulez or Carter tone poem. And it's actually more exciting to hear how the complexity works than it is to be assured by a learned treatise that Le Marteau sans maitre is a seminal work.

I can make one ironclad prediction for the coming century: As long as institutions and critics continue to define "composer" as "one who writes in conventional notation for conventional European-style ensembles," the young composers who get lukewarmly lauded in the newspapers will never have the magnetism of the modernist giants. The Aaron Jay Kernises and Michael Torkes and Augusta Read Thomases of the world, doing their damnedest to ingratiate themselves with the little old ladies on the orchestra boards, do not offer a creative energy for intellectual discussion to crystallize around. On that we're all agreed, right? Let's all take the next step together— quick. "The present day composer refuses to die," said Frank Zappa, and he was right— but the 20th-century composer will be dead in nine more months. Let us not enter the 21st century looking backward.

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