Age: Does It Matter?


D.C. Culbertson
D.C. Culbertson over the years
Final photo by Mark Longaker, others unknown

By D.C. Culbertson
© 2001 NewMusicBox

“Act your age!”
“Age is nothing but a number.”
“With age comes wisdom.”
“He looks good for his age.”

People talk a lot about age. They speak of golden years, midlife crises, middle-age spread, callow youth, being young at heart, and nurturing the inner child. They debate the issue of physical vs. emotional vs. psychological age, speaking of “youthful” people in their 70s and “old” people in their 20s. A doctor writes a book on how to determine one’s “Real Age” based on one’s physical condition and lifestyle. And on and on… But is the issue of chronological age important when speaking about composers? Does a composer’s age influence the type of music he/she writes? At what point is one no longer considered a “young” composer, and can a composer who is chronologically “old” write in a young way?

For example, some believe that 40 is a pivotal age when a composer comes into his/her own stylistically, pointing out that Philip Glass and Steve Reich wrote their most significant works (Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians) shortly before their 40th birthdays. But others are quick to point out that fellow minimalist Terry Riley wrote his most significant work, In C, before he even turned 30. Others point out composers like Pauline Oliveros, who is nearly 70 but still exploring new musical avenues, and 92-year-old Elliott Carter, who recently completed his first opera and is believed to be composing some of his best work at present.

Going further with this idea, can any generalization be made about composers from the same age group? If there is, how does their music compare or contrast with composers of another generation? Or is every composer so different that no real generalization of any kind can be made, regardless of age?

When exploring such a concept, there are a lot of different elements that need to be considered. Take musical form, for instance. Is opera popular among one age group and virtually ignored in another? Does one age group favor traditional forms like sonata-allegro or theme and variations, while another almost entirely disregards them? We hear from time to time about the impending demise of the traditional orchestra or the difficulty in getting new works for orchestra performed. Does this correspond with an increasing drop in the number of orchestral works composers have been producing over the past 50 years or is there no apparent basis in fact for it?

Is there a predominant musical style among any particular age group? For instance, is serialism more common among composers who were active during the height of the Darmstadt school–or later, or earlier? During minimalism’s heyday, the names of Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich were tossed around a lot, but were most of their contemporaries also using it? And what about aleatoric music or neo-romanticism?

What kind of musical influence is evident? While one generation draws heavily on European classical traditions exemplified by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, does another prefer to look back to an earlier time and draw on medieval and Renaissance traditions? What about music from non-Western cultures, particularly if it reflects the composer’s ethnic heritage? Or American folk music? Or jazz, or rock?

Do current events, cultural or social issues show up in any particular generation’s music? Can one see the effects of events such as the Korean War, the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic or the civil rights movements mostly in the age group who lived through them, or in later generations? What about influences from the composer’s own world–poetry they’ve read, movies or paintings they’ve seen, or even dreams they’ve had?

And what is the music scored for? Does one generation favor traditional ensembles such as the string quartet and piano trio? If they do use traditional instruments, are they used in non-traditional ways, whether it be bowing the interior strings of a piano, extended vocal technique, or playing only the head joint of a clarinet? Do others concentrate on electronic and computer music? Who primarily uses instruments not normally associated with “serious” or “classical” music, such as the banjo or toy piano? What about the use of ethnic instruments or ensembles such as the gamelan? How many composers choose to disregard any tradition and use instruments of their own invention, either exclusively or in combination with traditional instruments? And which go even further and make extensive use of things not normally considered instruments at all, such as plants, turntables and auto parts?

Armed with a copious list of American composers, I explored these factors and more among the age groups under under 40, 40-60, 60-80 and over 80, to see if any generalizations could be made along these lines. (Just for the record, I decided to limit my research to living American composers who write music that can be labeled “serious” or “contemporary.”) I read books, checked numerous websites, watched videos, combed through LP and CD liner notes, and sent numerous e-mails. What follows are a series of purely unscientific–but, hopefully, well researched–findings.

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