Age: Does It Matter?

Many of the prominent American composers between the ages of 60 and 80 continue to pursue the trademark styles and techniques for which they initially became known. These styles and techniques, however, are as varied as the entire field of American music.

For a significant number of composers in this age group, serialism remains a vital compositional frame of reference. Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt were extremely influential teachers for a whole generation of composers and their compositional legacy continues in the music of Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938), whose music is as structurally complex and demanding as that of his teacher Babbitt while as classically balanced as that of Sessions. Donald Martino (b. 1931), Benjamin Boretz (b. 1934), Henry Weinberg (b. 1931) and Peter Westergaard (b. 1931), all also former Babbitt students, have each remained strict serialists throughout their careers. Although in recent years, even composers as uncompromising as Mario Davidovsky (b. 1934) seem to have softened a bit. Curiously, Babbitt’s most famous pupil Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) never composed serial music but has continued to cultivate a unique personal language for the Broadway musical for over 40 years.

During the formative years of the composers born in this generation, the most viable avant-garde compositional alternative to serialism was the music and philosophy of the late John Cage whose advocacy of indeterminate musical processes still informs the works of his disciples Christian Wolff (b. 1936) and Earle Brown (b. 1924). The Fluxus movement of the early 1960s, which took Cage’s compositional methods to an even more extreme realization, led to confrontational works by Yoko Ono (b. 1933) and George Brecht (b. 1925), but nowadays there are few strict adherents of the Fluxus aesthetic these days, although the singular career path followed to this day by La Monte Young (b. 1935), often cited as the founder of minimalism, can be traced to his earliest conceptual pieces during his involvement with Fluxus. Cage’s experimentation and the Fluxus movement both played key roles in the development of the so-called “Downtown” music scene in New York during this time as opposed to the more established, academically-oriented “uptown” one. And while the uptown-downtown divide is no longer a geographical reality, the aesthetic divide still informs a great deal of the music of composers of this generation.

Arguably the most important new style that emerged and has continued to flourish from composers of this generation is minimalism. La Monte Young and the three other composers primarily associated with the minimalist movement in music–Terry Riley (b. 1935) a classmate of Young’s at UC Berkeley, and two Juilliard trained composers: Steve Reich (b. 1936) and Philip Glass (b. 1937)–were all born within a couple of years of one another. All four were strongly influenced by non-western music: Young, Riley and Glass by the music of India and Reich by African drumming and Hebrew chant. And while the austerity of each of their early styles has blossomed into musical languages that are far more malleable, each composer retains an instantly identifiable signature sound.

Of course, a great many composers of this generation neither adopted minimalism nor followed the avant-garde paths of serialism and indeterminacy, but either remained adherents of or defiantly returned to the American tonal tradition of composers like Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson. Dominick Argento (b. 1927), Ned Rorem (b. 1923) and Lee Hoiby (b. 1926), all of whom are primarily known for their operas and songs, have consistently created music throughout long careers in a neo-romantic, conservative style. Although David Del Tredici (b. 1937) began his career writing atonal music, his style also switched to neo-romanticism after he began an 18-year series of pieces based on Lewis Carroll‘s Alice books, beginning with Pop-pourri (1968).

Others, whose style has been labeled “post-modernist,” including six prominent composers born within a year of each other–William Bolcom (b. 1938), Barbara Kolb (b. 1939), John Harbison (b. 1938), John Corigliano (b. 1938), Joan Tower (b. 1938) and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)–write music which reference a wide variety of styles incorporating such diverse idioms as romantic orchestral music, dissonant modernism and jazz, into an predominantly tonal idiom. One of the most difficult to categorize composers, George Crumb (b. 1929), whose music is equally related to neo-romanticism and post-modernism as well as to the legacy of John Cage and experimental music, has throughout his career pursued a unique musical vocabulary with incorporates unconventional musical notation, unusual instrumentation–for classical music, at least–such as the banjo or the toy piano, or unorthodox methods of playing.

Finally, many of these composers, have pursued lifetime careers in electronic music, a field of music that was essentially born as many composers of this generation reached adulthood. Morton Subotnick (b. 1933), who in 1967 created the first piece of electronic music commissioned for commercial recording, Silver Apples of the Moon, on the Buchla synthesizer, has built his entire compositional career on exploring the possibilities of electronically-generated sounds. Experimentation with electronically generated or manipulated sound has also been the major lifetime focus of Gordon Mumma (b. 1935) and Alvin Lucier (b. 1931). Most compositions by Jean Eichelberger Ivey (b. 1923), founder of Peabody Conservatory‘s Electronic Music Studio and one of the first women active in this field, are scored for one or more instruments with tape. The works of several other women who use tape as a primary medium reflect an interest in the concept of music as a meditative or healing medium, such as New Zealand-born Annea Lockwood (b. 1939), whose sound sources are often drawn from nature, her life partner, Ruth Anderson (b. 1928), and Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932). Robert Ashley (b. 1930), who has been at the forefront of electronic music for the past half century, has over the past two decades, refined his electronic sonic vocabulary to create a unique new form of opera in which he performs with a regular ensemble.

Social awareness has played a key role in the works of a great many of these composers, stretching across all of their stylistic differences. Ashley’s recent opera Dust takes on the issue of homelessness in America, while Joan Tower’s series of Fanfares for the Common Woman celebrates womanhood. African-American Valerie Capers (b. 1935) based her dramatic work Sojourner (1981), which she described as an “operatorio,” on the life of ex-slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Reich drew on both his childhood memories of bicoastal train trips between his divorced parents’ homes during World War II and the trains that transported Jews to death camps for his Different Trains (1986). And gay composer Corigliano was one of the first composers in this age group to write a work dealing with the AIDS epidemic, his Symphony No.1 (1990).

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