Y Not 2K?

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

The music that has constituted the "contemporary music" of my lifetime so far is a music violently opposed to nostalgia. As Pierre Boulez, one of its leading architects, wrote, "If you do not negate, if you do not make a clean sweep of all that you have inherited from the past, if you do not question [your] heritage and adopt an attitude of fundamental doubt towards all accepted values, well!, you will never get any further." And again, "When one has had one's fill of experimenting, there comes a nostalgia for the past. . . . [S]uch nostalgias have no interest for me; they are . . . unable to contribute to a future. . . ." The very music, as written by Boulez, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, was structured to defy nostalgia, to defeat memory, to so baffle comprehension that one couldn't even think back to the beginning of a piece from the end of it.

How charmingly ironic, then, to end the 20th century in a wave of nostalgia for that very music. Schoenberg's Moses und Aron,at last trotted out by the Met as though they'd just discovered the 20th century, is reviewed sentimentally by critics who tout Schoenberg the way the Republican House managers touted the Rule of Law— aware that the public isn't really behind them, but determined to act proud of their lonely principles. Boulez is named composer's chair at Carnegie Hall, extending his influence in a city and time ultimately as foreign to him as he is irrelevant to it. David Schiff and Paul Griffiths in The New York Timeslament that composers no longer write incomprehensibly complex music. I was drafted to a panel on modernism recently in Los Angeles, where the aficionados got caught up talking about 1950s Darmstadt and couldn't get off the subject even after audience members begged them to.

Serialist music is fun for experts to talk about, partly because it makes no sense. There was no discernible point in writing a dry, unrewarding, unmemorable piece like Boulez's Le Marteau sans maitre,and that's exactly what's fascinating about it. Unlike the music of any other era, 20th-century music, which for most people is still identified with high modernism and nothing else, has always been a Cause— a Worthy Cause at times, a Lost Cause quite often, a Noble Cause, a Hopeless Cause. As a cause it never achieved the big public triumph it sought for decades, and so still seems unfulfilled. It never had the opportunity to become so ubiquitously popular that it overplayed its hand, fell into complacent excess, and made even its advocates finally glad to see it depart. Might as well expect the Irish to just drop their interest in independence from British rule without achieving it as expect musicians who spent their lives fighting for the cause of 20th-century music to move on to something else.

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."

And so, just at the moment when one would expect all kinds of hype about the new music of the 21st century, we get— nothing. The turn of the millennium occasions no focus on the new, just attempts to keep the old alive. Newspapers and press releases trumpet the same names that were in the air when I was an undergrad 25 years ago. You wait for all those composers born in the 1920s and 1930s to be replaced in the critical dialogue by the names of those born in the 1940s and '50s. But it never happens. Finally, in the Timesa few weeks ago Paul Griffiths, noticing their absence, wrote an article titled "Where Are America's Young Composers?"

Well, I know where they are, I've been to their apartments, they leave messages on my answering machine. But you're not going to hear about them, because there's a moratorium on discussing them except to dismiss them. Young composers are not allowed to climb the ladder that the generation before last climbed.

I have three explanations for this neglect— explanations not mutually exclusive, but that kind of go hand in hand. The first is admittedly a little mystical: it's that an end-of-the- millennium feeling prevents us from looking ahead. There's no point in investing our time and enthusiasm, I imagine people thinking deep down, in whatever's going on musically at the moment, because when the calendar changes it'll be a whole new game anyway. We won't allow ourselves to perceive what's new now with this mammoth deadline just ahead.

The second, more pragmatic explanation is based on hard evidence relayed by those working in the field. Arts organizations are reforming themselves after a corporate model. They have become more bottom-line conscious, which means that they try to make money by programming artists you've already heard of. No one who is not famous yet will be allowed to become famous, because those who are not famous do not bring in a guaranteed audience. Presenters have quit putting their money into artists' fees, and have directed it into marketing and advertising, for which they need recognizable names. The strategy has a forseeable crash point, because some of those famous names— Boulez, for example, is 71— ain't going to be around for much of the new millennium.

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 Timesare 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.

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 courseyou 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 Fiveclimaxes 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 Variationsfor 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 atonaland arrhythmiccomplexity 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 maitreis 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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