August 18, 2004

The Rise of the Composer Gerontocracy and the Collapse of Pluralism

Why is it that no young composers are able to make a splash? Is it purely that there is not enough $$$ to effectively promote a newcomer to the point of name recognition (given the insular nature of the community).

Or has modern medicine finally created the famous 'gerontocracy' predicted in science fiction and cyberpunk novels for years. A world where the very old aggregate so much wealth and power that they effectively control culture.

What would be the symptoms of such a culture neuroses? Is it possible that recent new music programming evinces a rejection of pluralism and the seeming re-acceptance of European high modernist culture is symptomatic of such a phenomenon?

Every year we see more spectralists, more Boulezian clones getting orchestral performances here in the US while the native composer speaking a native language (like Rzewski or James Drew) seems under-represented. Yes, I know John Adams is over-represented. I don't believe his case is representative because of his seeming brand name power. (He's now like John Williams is for mega-budget Spielberg-type movies. Have a contemporary tragedy, need an American composer? Get Adams on the blower. As proof - how many so-called Totalist composers were performed by major orchestras last year?).

In NYC it is easier to find a performance of a lesser Boulezian composer than it is a minimalist now. Do we need the French now to teach music because so many American composers have accepted the poison of pluralism?

Has the Carter/Boulez cabal reasserted itself through simple longevity? Color me not completely convinced, however, I'm seeing signs, including frustration in Europe with the control of the high modernist camp and the seeming death in NYC of the downtown scene (or at least its collapse into rock music mannerisms).

Posted by jeff at August 18, 2004 02:27 PM

Alternatively, it's that audiences have finally absorbed the language of the 50s.

Posted by: Lucas at August 18, 2004 03:36 PM

I'd considered that, but have they really? The reason I discounted that was mainly that the audiences don't really have a say in programming. Record sales, concert ticket sales are fairly flat. Institutions control most of the new music programming today. (Outside of venues such as Lotus in NYC, etc). Critical acceptance isn't a factor, since nobody lives or dies by reviews these days!

Posted by: jeff at August 18, 2004 03:44 PM

Funny how every composer sees himself and his own aesthetic compatriots as the oppressed ones.

Posted by: evan johnson at August 19, 2004 06:47 PM

Sign of the times. Even Carter sees himself as oppressed. Does Boulez? BTW, your comment hides your aesthetics. Quoting from your bio:

His musical aesthetic is derived from post-Darmstadt European modernism, with Bruno Maderna and Helmut Lachenmann as explicit influences; discrete mathematics and linguistics also inform his musical interests. Johnson hopes to study in Europe sometime in the next few years.

Are you oppressed? ;-)

Your snide comment suggests you feel yourself above this fray. Ha... You imply that 'sour grapes' is the driving force behind my commentary. I suggest that a gerontocracy is in effect; that the aesthetics of the 50's and 60's are being enforced upon us, almost in a Stalinist sense because of the impotence of our high cultural systems. With stagnation comes repetition.

Posted by: jeff at August 19, 2004 09:51 PM

that bio is four years old, and not terribly representative anymore - although yes, my music could easily be taken for a European's, I suppose.

No, I'm not "above the fray", and I'm too young to be oppressed yet. but I don't think anything has stagnated. Young composers now write the music they want to write, as they always have, whether it flows with or against prevailing aesthetic currents of the time and location.

Almost no composer alive nowadays is satisfied with the number and quality of their performances, I assure you, and I'm not sure we need to invoke "gerontocracies" or "impotence of high cultural systems." There are simply too many composers and too few performance opportunities for everyone to be satisfied with their lot all the time.

Posted by: evan johnson at August 20, 2004 12:43 AM

Thanks for clarifying. As I said in the essay, I'm not convinced of the effect, and to clarify my response to your initial point, I also don't identify with the minimalists, or the totalists or even Rzewski. So, your suggestion that it was us against them was unfounded to start.

Your point that it is all over-abundance is the usual and simplistic response to the problem. Yes, of course, its true, but what I found remarkable (and telling) is how little innovation there has been in that time, as performance opportunities in general drop. And of course, I am speaking of the NYC concert scene, and you from your local perspective.

What I am seeing here, is a dearth of pluralistic concerts, where you'd have a Carter and a new minimalist or an up and comer Boulezian with a white-note woman composesr. It doesn't feel healthy like it did briefly in the 80's. It feels stagnant here and not just careerist-obsessed, but stylistically correct obsessed.

Posted by: jeff at August 20, 2004 06:30 AM

ubjvcspe oueuulyt.

Posted by: Bennett at August 29, 2004 07:50 PM

Comming to this discussing a bit late....

I'm looking at this as two issues, maybe three.

First, the reassertion of modernism. It's really focused on a few places, like NY, Boston, and Chicago. I think it's more due to older funding sources, like the Fromm and Guggenheim, that tend to throw money at anyone who writes modernist music. Talent has nothing to do with it - I was genuinely surprised by a few of last year's Fromm choices, for instance. As the other fund sources either dry up, thin out, or try to make broad statements, the Fromm is decidely modernist (with a few exceptions, I'm sure). So, if this is true, we're just seeing the last gasps of a dying tradition (old fashioned academic modernism).

Secondly, the French stuff. Sure, they're getting a lot of play, but the music they're writing (the spectral composers, that is) is startlingly different than other composers. There's no reason to denigrate what they're doing - and calling them Boulezian is a disservice. (They often refer to Boulez as the "old man".) These things wash up on our shores every now and then. Remember "Eastern European Spirutal Minimalism?"

As for the totalists not getting much play with the symphonies - isn't what they're doing really AGAINST that tradition? (Which is, of course, part of their charmand originality) Sure, there have been quite a few larger works, and I'm sure they'll get their time eventually. You can also comment on the lack of works with electronics in the orchestra (in the US, that is...).

I guess I can see your point about groups being stagnant. They're playing it safe nowadays, which is always boring.

Posted by: Anthony Cornicello at September 3, 2004 11:38 AM