Crossing the Atlantic: A Primer on Euro-American Musical Relations

Evan Johnson

The institutional culture of classical music may or may not be dying, but it is certainly diffusing. There is still an American musical “mainstream,” guarded by the august museums that are major symphony orchestras and opera houses, but that mainstream’s prodigious capacity for self-perpetuation seems to be flagging and its borders dissolving. And in Europe, an institutionally-supported roster of central figures and aesthetic strands is increasingly besieged by budgetary, cultural, and political pressures.

If these traditional currents are in danger of drying up in the face of a rising interest in alternative media, venues, performance contexts, and modes of distribution, though, a nagging reality remains: there are still densely populated American mainstreams with little currency in Europe, and composers and styles that are still relatively central in Europe are not—and have never been—well-regarded or influential here. And even if the major symphony orchestras, opera houses, and contemporary-music festivals are no longer quite the isolationalist arbiters of taste they once were on either continent, there are still deep aesthetic and philosophical divides that have yet to be bridged.

In short, there still exist archetypal “American Composers” and “European Composers,” an archetypal “American Audience” and “European Audience,” with roots in decades-old artistic movements, historical contexts, and sets of priorities. However effectively pluralism may be taking over the world, these old national differences are still with us in fundamental ways.

In what follows I will lay out a general account of this persistent rift. After spending some time defining my terms, I will present a series of 20th-century case studies: one contrasting the self-definition of a trendsetting European Composer with a parallel American case, one demonstrating the culturally localized reputation of the most Centrally European of Central European Composers, and two describing and explaining ocean-spanning success stories. At the end, I will briefly survey the present situation and take a stab at the future of transatlantic musical relations.

Let us define the “European Composer” as a creator (of any nationality) who positions his or her work, implicitly or explicitly, as part of a continual, dialectical process of musical “progress”—or, crucially, a composer whose work can be so positioned by an audience. By “dialectical process” I mean an idea of progress that works not linearly, not simply by consciously building upon the achievement of one’s predecessors, but through a constant process of assessment, resistance, and negation. Hence Pierre Boulez declares the death of Schoenberg, Helmut Lachenmann the demise of Beethoven and Mahler, and so forth. (What this “death” consists of, however, is not at all clear.) The European Composer looks over his shoulder for clues to the way forward, and battles on from there.

An “American Composer,” by contrast, operates—or can be successfully interpreted as operating—without the same sense of obligation to history; his or her concern is the present, the tightly bounded experience of a particular work by a particular audience as created by a particular composer with particular interests. This is not at all to say that the American Composer is ignorant of musical history, or does not care about it—only that his or her work is not conceptualized in a dialectical context, and resists such conceptualization by others. George Rochberg’s celebrated turn away from serialism in his Third Quartet was the act of an American Composer par excellence: he made this fundamental aesthetic decision not because he felt it must be done in a universal sense, but because he felt the need for his own purposes. The European Composer asks, musically speaking, what is needed; the American Composer asks what he himself needs. As the American Composer Charles Wuorinen wrote in 1963 (by which time he had declared that “[i]t is safe to say that the major 20th century revolutions in musical thought are behind us”)—”The young composer has a greater responsibility than his forebears had—all the greater because it is largely or wholly to himself.”1

In fact, the central repertoire of “mainstream” American music (as exemplified by, say, John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Rouse, and so on) splits even more dramatically than do Wuorinen and Rochberg with the European-Composer model, in that the idea of “progress”—whether driven by personal aesthetic ambition like that of not only Wuorinen and Rochberg but Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Steve Reich or, as with the European Composer, by a sense of external cultural necessity—is irrelevant to their work. The Mainstream American Composer wants to write what he or she considers to be good music, full stop, historical resonance and overarching “progress” be damned. Wuorinen’s 1963 “responsibility to himself” still involves a concept of advancement of a musical science; that of the truly Mainstream American Composer does not. (In a sense, of course, the refusal to submit to a larger idea of “progress” is itself a strongly progressive move; this is the paradox of postmodernity.)

In these terms, the European Audience—and by “Audience” I mean not only (or even primarily) those hearing a work but also other composers, concert presenters, festival organizers, critics, and the like—wants to conceive of a musical work as does a European Composer, and similarly in the case of Americans. A European Audience will appreciate a work that they can hear as actively engaging, positively or negatively, with the historical state of music and of society. An American Audience—and here I am purposefully speaking in generalities—will respond to a piece of music without regard to its possible larger cultural significance.

Four possibilities present themselves, then. American Composers can primarily appeal to and be supported by American Audiences, and be virtually unknown abroad, or they can find themselves supported mainly by European Audiences. European Composers, similarly, can be appreciated by their “native” Audience and ignored or derided by the American one, or they can enjoy transatlantic appeal. All of these possibilities, in their various combinations, will be encountered in what follows.

Before I go any further, a few of clarifications are in order. First, I am of course generalizing wildly and, perhaps, irresponsibly; I am speaking only of the most general trends. Second, I am defining “Europe,” for now, primarily as Germany, Austria, and France; the role of other national cultures will come up later. Finally, an American-born composer is not necessarily an American Composer, and a European-born composer is not necessarily a European Composer; in many cases, that capitalized designation is not chosen by the composer but is thrust upon them by the interest of the corresponding Audience.

California-born John Cage, for example, makes for a quintessential European Composer. Despite his iconoclastic image, Cage polemicized for his work as historical necessity in such early essays as 1939′s “The Future of Music: Credo,” and positioned his own aesthetics, at least at first, by means of a triangulation with Beethoven and Satie. That his 1958 visit to Darmstadt was so influential, and that so many of his later commissions came from German institutions, is no coincidence. By contrast, Olivier Messiaen, despite his status as godfather to nearly the entire cadre of Darmstadt pioneers and his deep and consequential familiarity with the entirety of Western musical history, is by contrast easily assimilable into American Composerdom; his volumes upon volumes of technical writings explicate his methods, his concerns, his quixotic obsession with birdsong and his Catholicism as motivations for a profoundly anti-dialectical iconoclasm that is fully comprehensible “out of context.” In short, nationality is an unreliable guide. Sometimes, as we will see below in the case of Helmut Lachenmann, a composer’s Europeanness is so pervasive as to render their music untranslatable; but, just as often (as brief glances at the cases of Iannis Xenakis and the pioneering American minimalists will reveal), a composer’s work can be embraced by foreign audiences and musical establishments on the latters’ own ideological terms.

Case Study: Boulez vs. Babbitt

The different attitudes of the American Composer and the European Composer towards the idea of dialectical historical progress are almost comically clear in the parallel cases of Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez. Both were involved, starting in the 1950s, in the development of totalizing systems of musical organization. Both, at first, traced their lineage back to the Second Viennese School and saw Schoenberg and Webern as predecessors and influences. When Boulez was reaching his “limit of fertile ground” in Structures Ia (1952), Babbitt was pushing in a broadly similar direction with works like the Composition for Twelve Instruments (1948/54) and Du (1951). But the ways in which they presented their own work, and the attitudes they took towards their chosen predecessors, could hardly have been more different.

The youthful Boulez was an infamously enthusiastic polemicist. Anyone involved in the history of 20th-century music recalls, perhaps with a wince, the 27-year-old composer’s proclamation in the article “Eventuellement…” (“Possibly…”):

What conclusion are we to draw? The least expected: let me state, in my turn, that any musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time.2

“Eventuellement…”, though, is only the most famous, and admittedly the most spectacular, example of Boulez’s thorough sense of historical necessity. We also see it in the famous “Schoenberg is Dead” of 1952; we see it in the 1974 article “Schoenberg, le mal-aimé?” (“Schoenberg, the Unloved?”), in which Boulez’s discussion of his predecessor’s messianic attitude reads remarkably like an reminiscence of his own youth. More generally, we see it in Boulez’s habitual use of the plural “we” in describing the aesthetics and importance of his own work:

We thought (and when I say “we”, I mean the generation of composers who recognized each other, in the years immediately after the war, by certain attitudes) that the days of manifestos were long past, and we therefore set ourselves—sensibly, you must admit—to demonstrate the “movement” by going straight ahead.3

Imagine what the Boulez of 1963, quoted here, would have thought of Wuorinen’s proclamation, in the same year, that a composer has a responsibility only to himself!

At the same time, Boulez shows little interest in discussing how his own work is put together. Only in “Eventuellement…” and in the (ostensibly private) letters to John Cage do we get any extended discussion of the constructive specifics of his work; otherwise, the closest we get is in “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” and “Constructing an improvisation,” in which Boulez approaches questions of general form, considerations of instrumental sound, and yet again the imposing force of historical necessity. It was left to determined exegetes like Lev Koblyakov (for Le marteau sans maître) and György Ligeti (for Structures Ia) to discern and disseminate the note-to-note methods behind the musical output of Boulez the polemicist.

By contrast, Babbitt’s writings on the principles behind his own works and those of Schoenberg, with whom he clearly feels a strong kinship, hasten past questions of history and cultural compulsion to settle on the internal properties of pitch structures that capture his interest. For Boulez, Schoenberg is a tragic, if not heroic, figure for whom we are exhorted to have sympathy and after whose hard artistic digging we are encouraged to follow. For Babbitt, he is a masterful conjoiner of hexachords: “Phrases such as ‘historical necessity,’ even ‘inevitability,’ as justificatory were…unfortunate, undesirable, and—beyond all else—unnecessary.”4 In Babbitt’s mind, Schoenberg represents “the idea of this hermetically sealed music by a hermetically sealed man.”5 Here the American Composer functions as American Audience vis-à-vis Schoenberg, finding value primarily in the internal qualities of a bounded musical experience; Boulez, the European counterpart, finds an equivalent but diametrically opposed value in the way Schoenberg’s work as a whole digests and redirects history.

It has been hugely detrimental to Babbitt’s popular reputation that in writing about his own work, as well, he dwells less on its infectious verve than on abstruse structural considerations. This is not to say, though, that Babbitt’s writings are always internally directed. His gift for the verbal salvo is on par with Boulez’s. But there is a strong and systemic difference: Babbitt’s polemics, like Ives’s before him and Wuorinen’s after, are directed not at the requirements of the past, but at the desires of the present; not at what other composers need to do, but at what needs to be done for composers. “Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History,” “On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer,” and “Brave New Worlds” are strongly worded broadsides aimed at what Babbitt sees as a pervasive intellectual climate of disinterest and misapprehension pressing the American composer on all sides. These writings are not the veiled self-exhortations or pep rallies produced by Boulez but pleas for support and recognition. They are directed outwards, aimed at changing the behavior of everyone else, rather than inwards, towards his musical colleagues and towards himself. Where Boulez calls for the summary demolition of opera houses (itself a particularly, almost quaintly, European image), Babbitt laments his own failure “to secure a mere Guggenheim fellowship.”6 The operative pronoun in these American polemical lectures and essays is not “we” but “I.”

The fundamental dichotomy here, between historical progress and scientific discovery, between “what must be done” and “what I want to do,” is precisely the difference between our European Composer and our American Composer. It is a difference in self-presentation, in how one talks about one’s work rather than the work itself, but in turn it affects how audiences that share the cultural milieu of these attitudes receive a new work.

Case Study: Helmut Lachenmann vs. the United States of America

When London’s Royal College of Music recently presented a festival centered on the music of the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, the key word in their publicity materials was “Transcendent.” This descriptor aroused derision in the more Continentally-oriented segments of London’s new music circles, for however “transcendent” Lachenmann’s noise-based sonic surfaces may seem, his conceptualization of them are anything but. Lachenmann’s music is thoroughly suffused with history. Even in escaping it, or in capturing and expelling it (as in the concerto for string quartet and orchestra entitled Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied or his multiple quotations of O du lieber Augustin, the German folk song also quoted by Schoenberg), this is music that gets its hands dirty mucking about in the dialectics of cultural progress.

Lachenmann’s influence on later generations of German and otherwise Central European composers (Matthias Spahlinger, Gerhard Stäbler, Beat Furrer) has been incalculable. He is, by any measure, among the most important figures in the institutional musical life of Central Europe. And yet, in 1995, the musicologist and Lachenmann expert Elke Hockings could write in the British journal Tempo that “…to the wider English music public,…[Lachenmann] is little known. There are hardly any comprehensive accounts of Lachenmann in English….The apparent confusion about Lachenmann in English-speaking countries is somewhat surprising.”7

Despite the RCM’s recent celebration, the situation has changed little. A large collection of Lachenmann’s writings, entitled Musik als existentielle Erfahrung (Music as Existential Experience), languishes, mostly untranslated. The laudable but isolated efforts of conductor Bradley Lubman notwithstanding, Lachenmann’s influence in American musical culture is essentially nonexistent.

Hockings sums up Lachenmann’s American problem when she writes: “On the European continent, Lachenmann’s music is more or less successfully merchandized by means of a highly philosophic vernacular. This dialectic rhetoric has seldom been attractive to English-speaking music enthusiasts.” She all but blames the influence of Babbitt: “English-speaking academia in general…strives for the positivist’s rhetoric, full of factual information and one-dimensional logic.” Whatever one thinks of Hocking’s characterizations, or her obvious sympathies in this cultural collision, her observations have merit. The American musical establishment has, in fact, received Lachenmann’s work with an attitude ranging from indifference to disdain. In a 2003 article in The New Yorker, alongside the misapprehension that “in Germany…a deep mistrust of the musical past lingers,” Alex Ross dismisses Lachenmann (along with the rest of established German musical culture) as “dyspeptic complexity of the Adornian variety.” It is clear that he doesn’t care for the music; but it is telling that he condemns it on philosophical and aesthetic grounds, for what it tries to be as much as for what it is—in other words, for its historical presumption. More recently, Ross entered the ring once again on his blog “The Rest is Noise,” ridiculing a disapproving Austrian reviewer of a Mark Morris Dance Company performance in Vienna as an “Austro-German culture chauvinist.” (Doesn’t the corresponding description apply to anyone who would use such a phrase?) Not to be outdone, reviewers for the American record-review website dismiss collections of Lachenmann’s orchestral music released on the Austrian Kairos label as “determinedly, uncompromisingly unmusical,” and as “more intellectual twaddle from the German avant-garde.”

Lachenmann is among the purest examples of a European Composer, purer even than Boulez. His music is as profoundly infused with history as anyone’s, and a whiff of that preoccupation is apparently enough to send the American Audience away.

Transatlantic Successes: Iannis Xenakis as American Composer, Riley/Reich/Glass as European Composers

We have seen a stark example of the fundamental difference in attitude between the American and the European composer with Babbitt and Boulez, and we have seen in Lachenmann a portrait of untranslatable Europeanness. But European composers can certainly be assimilated into American Composerdom, and vice versa; I will present Iannis Xenakis as an example of a European relatively welcomed by American Audiences, and the American minimalists as adopted Europeans.

In 1987, the Greek-born and Paris-based Xenakis wrote in Perspectives of New Music: “to refuse all rules outside the work is to refuse to be crippled, blind, and deaf.” And: “Nothingness resorbs [sic], creates. It engenders being.”8 True, Metastaseis was a succès de scandale at the Donaueschingen Festival in Germany in 1955, and Xenakis had a career of the utmost prominence in Europe from then until his death in 2001. But Xenakis’s music, created out of a willful deafness to both his musical colleagues and their shared cultural lineage, has also succeeded in what so many other Donaueschingen-fêted composers, of his era and ours, have not even attempted: by constructing a creative personality based on the resolutely anti-”musical” discourse of symbolic logic and fluid dynamics, and by adopting the cultural heritage of classical Greece rather than that of Enlightenment-era Prussia, Xenakis fashioned himself into an American Composer.

In fact, Xenakis has serious strikes against him from the perspective of the American Audience: not only his prominence on the European festival circuit, but the extraordinary difficulty of his music. And yet he held a residency at Indiana University, received major performances in this country (including a large commission from the city of Ypsilanti, Michigan), and remains a respected figure here in a way that Lachenmann has never been. The creative attitude evinced by his 1987 essay, and the inwardly-directed scientism of his (translated!) tomes Formalized Music and Arts/Sciences: Alloys that places him broadly in the category of Babbitt, cannot be irrelevant to Xenakis’s atypical American reputation.

Steve Reich: “After Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern came a pause followed by Stockhausen, Boulez, and Berio and after them came myself, Riley, Glass, Young, and later, others.”9

European Audiences love extremes, without which dialectical progress—a constant process of negation spinning itself out continually since the messianic presumptions of Schoenberg and their later “productive misreading” by Boulez and other Darmstadt-era artists in search of self-definition set the process in motion—cannot continue. Steve Reich and the compatriots he names here, like Cage, and despite their (mostly) all-American background, are thus welcome. The conceptual transparency of these composers’ early works, alongside the structural rigor that Reich himself compares to that of Darmstadt serialism—by which means the dialectical thread is kept aloft—is surely part of what has proved so attractive to the institutional European Audience.10

The Present

The evidence for the above case studies, of course, is years and decades old. Since Boulez, Babbitt, Xenakis, and Reich wrote or did not write their position-defining works and polemics, fifty years and two generations’ worth of changes in these general musical cultures have occurred. So what is happening now?

For an idea, turn to the mainest of streams in American musical life: the symphony orchestra. A perusal of the American Symphony Orchestra League’s list of orchestral premieres since 2000 turns up, alongside a strong majority of American works by composers of many stripes, a healthy smattering of new European music. Many appear to be the result of the personal advocacy of Europeans with powerful positions in this sector of American musical life (most notably Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles and Christoph von Dohnanyi in Cleveland, alongside the indefatigable Oliver Knussen, who seems to be everywhere all the time). In general, over the past several years, there have been clear winners in this sweepstakes: Kaija Saariaho, James MacMillan, Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Mark-Anthony Turnage (who is currently engaged in a long-term residency in Chicago).

It is worth noting that only one of these composers, Rihm, hails from what I peremptorily defined above as, for these purposes, “real Europe.” As it turns out, Rihm, certainly a mainstream figure in contemporary German musical life, has come under direct fire from a central figure in another, more echt-European German mainstream—Helmut Lachenmann—for being what we can now describe as “too American”:

A wave of lazy eclecticism, whether Euro- or American-tinged, is splashing over the ears of an astonished and perplexed bourgeoisie, duped by what it imagines to be its openness…and even our New Symphonists [the most prominent among whom is Rihm—EJ] recoil a little, since, after all, they have always regarded their music as a dialectical answer to recognized contradictions with Darmstadt tendencies. 11

In other words, the “New Symphonists” consider themselves European Composers—there are few more European phrases than “a dialectical answer to recognized contradictions with Darmstadt tendencies”—but in his criticism, Lachenmann predicts (and, unsurprisingly, deplores) their American acceptability.

In general, Rihm aside, the role of “outer Europe” has been disproportionate in mainstream American venues. Scandinavians (notably Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, and Einojuhani Rautavaara), Eastern Europeans (Erkki-Sven Tüür, Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks, Krzysztof Penderecki), and citizens of former Soviet republics (Gubaidulina foremost among them) share a role with Americans vis-à-vis central European cultural baggage; having spent centuries in either geographical or political isolation from the tradition that still weighs so heavily on the compositional choices of what we may consider “mainstream” post-Darmstadt Europeans, their works could be expected to be more likely to present a comfortable cultural accessibility to American Audiences similarly isolated from classical music’s history.

In Scandinavia, for example, the looming figure of Jean Sibelius (a near-contemporary of America’s cultural equivalent, Charles Ives) takes the place of the Central European Beethoven and Mozart, creating a tradition a hundred years younger and much less internationally resonant. Furthermore, Sibelius, like Ives, was an outsider in his own time; Vienna’s centrality to European compositional life predates Beethoven, but musical Helsinki was born as a creative center with Sibelius, just as musical Boston and New York were born, fitfully, with Ives and Varèse. And they are still being born. What Lindberg and Saariaho do, alongside more clearly post-Sibelian Finns like Rautavaara, Kalevi Aho, and the late Jonas Kokkonen, will be part of a still-inchoate Finnish musical heritage begun but not necessarily defined by Sibelius. (Even Sibelius’s own centrality, inevitably fading with time, cannot be held as permanent.) Similarly, the seething diversity of American musical activity will be what future generations look back at, concerned with their relation to a historical legacy that does not yet exist.

Americans and Finns, then, along with other “outer” Europeans and composers of other cultures, are in the same boat, not yet in possession of the coherent body of tradition with which European Composers are both blessed and saddled. It stands to reason that their repertoires could so easily coexist.

Finally: Why? Beyond the historical discrepancy just mentioned, I do not intend to dwell long on the reasons for the initial emergence of this divide; one might blame the obvious differences of geography, native culture, and education, and most particularly different national responses to the traumas of the Second World War. (As Germany and France struggled to regain their national identities, the United States rapidly focused on technological and scientific achievements in order to squash the possibility of another, similarly closely-fought conflagration. The correspondence to the musical approaches of Boulez-the-rescuer-of-culture and Babbitt-the-scientist, which were forged at precisely this time, is striking.)

But why has the gulf remained so stubbornly present beneath a surface of alternative distribution mechanisms, performers with world-spanning careers living in hotel rooms, and the emergence of two generations of composers after that of Babbitt, Boulez, Lachenmann and Reich? Why have the personal efforts of Knussen and James Levine, among many others, not sufficed to elide the distinction between Europeanness and Americanness once and for all?

One important and unavoidable continuing difference between American and central European musical cultures is the degree of state subsidy. Only with a hugely different economic model of support for the arts could Berlin maintain (until recently) five orchestras and three opera companies, while major arts organizations in culturally savvy American cities helplessly sink further into debt. The list of premieres of major works by influential European Composers (whether of European or American birth: Lachenmann’s Kontrakadenz, Boulez’s isolated total-serialist Polyphonie X, Cage’s Roaratorio) undertaken by German state radio and their affiliated orchestras is long, and impressive. The New York Philharmonic, which has to answer to a financially minded Board of Directors and to the pressures of the private-sector bottom line, has had less success (and when Pierre Boulez tried to alter this precedent during his brief tenure as Music Director—largely, it should be said, through the aggressive promotion of European repertoire—he was nearly run out of town).

There are non-artistic considerations in both cases, of course; there is no reason to suppose that personal loyalties, careerism, and back-room politicking have any less place in a state-sponsored system than a privately funded one. A well-timed recording can also cover many fault lines, as was the case with Stockhausen’s burst of celebrity in the 1960s amid a series of Deutsche Grammaphon LPs. But, beneath all that, it is understandable that the German and Italian states with their radio orchestras and the French one with IRCAM and the Cité de la Musique feel compelled by a cultural mandate to continue Schoenberg’s self-proclaimed mission—to attempt to ensure the superiority of their own musical culture for as long as possible. In other words, there is a sense in which Lachenmann’s music is central to German cultural history and its reflexive self-perpetuation, and Boulez’s to the French, in a way that no American’s music could be for his or her native land. The American Composer, as many (particularly Babbitt) have noted, remains a peripheral figure even among the intellectual classes.

In the end, we cannot avoid the question of history. Since the beginnings of classical music in this country, since the Dark Ages before Ives, Cowell, and the arrival of Varèse, Americans (composers and audiences alike) have been consumers of European musical culture. As Americans, we know our Beethoven and our Schoenberg and our Debussy, but we do not feel them as a Boulez or a Lachenmann does; that is what it means not to be European. For the European Audience, speaking through Boulez, that makes the American Composer “WORTHLESS”; for the American Audience, it makes the European Composer inscrutable.

A list of examples, counterexamples, test cases, and problematic fence-sitters could stretch on indefinitely, and I do not claim a perfect rate of prediction. After all, compositional careers are (often) long and varied, performers with personal or artistic loyalties and affinities cultivate careers on multiple continents, and nothing happens for only one reason. But despite an ever-thickening overgrowth of complicating circumstances, there is still a line in the sand that keeps Helmut Lachenmann on his shores and Jennifer Higdon on ours, and these cultural attitudes towards musical history may well determine how it is drawn.

As for the future, it is, as always, too soon to say. Politically speaking, European national identities are not as sharply defined as they were after the two World Wars, while the continent’s economy slows and state arts subsidies begin to shrink; these factors point towards an eventual global “triumph” of the American Composer and Audience, alongside our nation’s politics and culture. How tightly all these broad phenomena are joined, and to what degree their musical implications are overridden by localized, incidental factors of patronage, individual enthusiasms, and economic incentive—all this is impossible to determine. Perhaps the only solution is to throw up one’s hands and follow the advice of Milton Babbitt: to “try to write the music which [one] would most like to hear.” What music a composer “would most like to hear,” of course, depends on inherited notions of what one should “most like to hear,” notions that divide the European and American Composer profoundly. The anarchic mantra of the American Composer, then, returns us to where we started.


1. “The Outlook for Young Composers,” 54-5.

2. Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, 113.

3. “Ten Years On,” reprinted in Orientations, 440.

4. “My Vienna Triangle,” reprinted in Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt, 474.

5. Milton Babbitt: Words About Music, 24.

6. “On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer,” reprinted in Collected Essays of Milton of Babbitt 429.

7. “Helmut Lachenmann’s Concept of Rejection,” 4.

8. Iannis Xenakis, “Creativity,” reprinted in Rahn, ed., Perspectives on Musical Aesthetics, 158-9.

9. Steve Reich, “Schoenberg,” reprinted in Writings on Music, 187.

10. Steve Reich, “Conversation with Paul Hiller,” reprinted in Writings in Music, 238.

11. “Composing in the Shadow of Darmstadt,” 51.


Evan Johnson received his Ph.D. in composition from SUNY Buffalo in 2006. He is currently preparing the booklet essay for an upcoming Mode Records release of Peter Ablinger’s 33-127.

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