I just got back from a couple of days in western Massachusetts where the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is still going strong. I wish I could have been there for the remainder of the week, but the Molotov cocktail-esque combination of my participation in the wedding of a pair of close friends, my never-ending deadlines, and a trip to the 2007 Cabrillo Festival at the end of the week forced a shortened stay.
The theme of this year’s TFCM is a bit unusual. Dubbed “The Generation of ’38,” this year’s offerings are devoted almost exclusively to the music of American composers born in the year 1938. A few composers born in 1937 and 1939 were allowed in, as were works by two significantly younger composers—Mason Bates (b. 1977) and Jason Eckhart (b. 1971)—who received commissions from the festival at the suggestion of some of the composers born in 1938.
The 1937-1939 gang is quite an interesting bunch. Unrepentant modernists like Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen are exact contemporaries of postmodernists William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, and John Harbison (who organized the festival). The programming casts an extremely wide net that also made space for music by minimalist icon Philip Glass as well as the overlooked minimalist pioneer David Borden, the late jazz iconoclast Julius Hemphill, post-conceptualists David Behrman, Alvin Curran, and Frederic Rzewski, plus neoromantics Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and David Del Tredici (although DDT was oddly represented by his pre-epiphanic twelve-tone I Hear an Army). While there are tons of household names herein (at least in my household), there have also been a few real surprises included in the festival programming, like a series of songs by John Heiss. I was particularly amazed by Olly Wilson’s totally trippy Sometimes (1976) for voice and tape which turns the African American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” into a sonic phantasmagoria that to my ears seemed equal parts Stockhausen and Funkadelic.
Beyond the music being performed this week, there’s something about the rhetoric surrounding the theme of the festival that ought to fuel an intense discussion on this page. Much was made of the fact that this was the first generation of composers to receive PhDs in composition. They are also stylistically diverse and not beholden to the dogmatic approaches that polarized earlier generations of composers in this country.
It has often been said that information will set you free. Is it possible that the additional years of schooling the composers featured in this year’s TFCM received taught them to be themselves? In our current post-“Generation of 1938″ new music environment—where indeed anything can and does go—how important is a PhD in composition?
From the vantage point of 2007, can we hear commonalities in this stylistically diverse array of music that eludes the composers who created it? And if, in fact, there is stylistic common ground, are there any compositional battles left to be fought? Even with such a wide range of composers represented, some important voices from that generation got left out. A five-minute search through the NMBx birthday database turns up: jazz greats Ron Carter, Archie Shepp, McCoy Tyner, Joseph Jarman, Grachan Moncur III, and Carla Bley; electronic music pioneers Max Neuhaus, Barton McClean, Joel Chadabe, and Wendy Carlos; microtonal symphonist Gloria Coates, environmental conceptualist Annea Lockwood, master orchestrator Barbara Kolb, and Jonathan Tunick, one of Broadway’s most acclaimed orchestrators. If you open the door wider, that list could also include country legend Merle Haggard, rock instrumental pioneer Duane Eddy, and Tex Mex hero Flaco Jimenez. Admittedly no weeklong festival could encompass this much music. But still, will anyone ever be willing to open the doors wide enough for a festival that could embrace—just randomly picking four as the lottery does—John Harbison, Merle Haggard, McCoy Tyner, and Annea Lockwood?