Generation of ’38 (Part 3): Because Time Was in the Air

[Ed. Note: Over the course of this week, NewMusicBox is proud to be republishing this three-part essay which was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, John Harbison, director, and was originally printed in the festival's program book. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and the Tanglewood Festival. The first part of the essay is here and the second part is here- FJO]


Finding ways to forge new syntheses and techniques for themselves through explorations and surprising reconciliations of tonal and post-tonal languages, the generation of American composers born in and around the year 1938 (who were the focus of the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music [FCM]) moved into the forefront of American classical music in the 1970s and ’80s. For many of them, one stylistic turning point enabling this development occurred in the mid 1970s. Heiss says:

It was time. By the mid ’70s a lot of people decided to act differently. It felt artistically right. It got to be the mid ’70s and the feeling came…. All this was “in the air”…. Suddenly Appalachian Spring was once again a beautiful piece.

Time was in the air, carrying with it new language, including “neo” terms and referential practices, as in the new tonalism, neo-Baroque compositions, “New Romanticism,” quotation, “polystylism,” and intertextuality. This discourse suggests a developing stage in the assimilation between the past and the future. The German philosopher Reinhart Koselleck wrote, “All testimony answers to the problem of how, in a concrete situation, experiences come to terms with the past; how expectations, hopes, prognoses that are projected into the future become articulated into language.”1 Music embodies this process within itself.

Without using the term “postmodern”—barely known in musical discourse in the late 1960s, Leonard Meyer described it in Music, the Arts and Ideas (1967). His formal definition is technically precise, and ends with a literary soundbite that is still relevant: “[This is] a period not characterized by the linear cumulative development of a single fundamental style, but by the coexistence of a multiplicity of quite different styles in a fluctuating and dynamic steady-state.”

New ways of telling time moved from background into foreground more directly in the next decade. In 1976, the opera Einstein on the Beach, composed by Philip Glass in collaboration with the visionary director Robert Wilson, was produced at the uptown venue of the Metropolitan Opera House; its experiments with performative time have made this work a historical benchmark. As part of the FCM generation, Philip Glass symbolizes the authority of the minimalist movement, on its way to mainstream recognition by the mid to late 1970s.

Philip Glass
Photo by Jim Ball, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales

Glass’s achievements point to stylistic divisions within FCM composers which they themselves so readily acknowledge. Most of them have not adopted his aesthetic of purposeful stasis. (It has remained for a younger generation to embrace and then develop more fully its potential.) Even so, minimalism made yet more room for everyone by swinging the pendulum of stylistic priorities so far in the opposite direction away from postwar serialism that the middle ground looked like a radical center.

Several factors in the 1960s helped direct the flow of aesthetic traffic along the way to Meyer’s “dynamic steady-state.” An old and frail Stravinsky, who was living and working in the United States, provided models and inspiration for the continued quest for growth within tradition. Even his “living presence” for Harbison symbolized the unknown future. “He was like a nova coming over the horizon” to Heiss. “Stravinsky was my hero. I just waited for his next piece,” Borden says. Stravinsky’s late works communicated new possibilities for integrating tonal concerns into twelve-tone music within a Spartan Webern-like texture of restraint and clarity. Curran said, “I began to find [In Memoriam] Dylan Thomas and Agon even more critically beautiful because they were of their time. They still had a critical edge.” By 1972 Wuorinen contemplated his creative future through the prism of Stravinsky’s late works, writing in 1986 how

“some of us, as composers, have been so profoundly affected by the late works, in which are first exhibited techniques and devices we have extracted to employ and extend, as to want to predict that the final chapter of his output will be the most significant in the long run. [They point] “even to a possible synthesis of the tonal and twelve-tone approaches.”2

Another contributing factor was the historical gain in the cultural weight of popular music in the 1960s. While rock and roll from the ’50s mattered little to the FCM generation, most of these composers responded to the changing valence of vernacular music filled with ever more gravitas during this period. As “Beatlemania” took hold, the musical intelligentsia fell like bowling pins knocked down by such albums as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with composers (e.g. Berio, Rorem) and historians (e.g. Wilfred Mellers, William Mann) writing tributes to their musicality.

“The Beatles turned out to be curious people,” said Corigliano. They made “pop music suddenly interesting again.” Del Tredici admits, “The Beatles penetrated my wall against popular music. I really paid attention to them.” For Bolcom, rock linked him to the counterculture—a period when you could “kick out the jams,” borrowing a punk rock phrase for rebellion.

Other composers within the FCM generation began reinventing tonal practices in the late ’60s, provoked more by the investment of cultural authority in vernacular expressive culture as a whole than rock in particular. In 1967 David Del Tredici used pop art as his bridge to Lewis Carroll’s world of Alice in Wonderland. He deliberately included electric guitars, an instrument he described as “a monster in the world of classical music.” Around then Bill Bolcom found ragtime through the burgeoning interest in historical American music that would come to fruition in the next Bicen tennial decade. He regards his music from the late ’60s as early examples of “the trend [of] integrating all kinds of music in the same piece to find interfaces.” Similarly, David Borden wrote a piece which “began with nasty atonal stuff then it broke into a friendly tonal part. George Rochberg heard it, he had already converted to tonality in the Beethoven sense. He said, ‘Nice try, Dave.’ “

How much the ’60s in general precipitated these challenges to authority and hierarchy remains an open question. Who living through those years was not aware of the Sturm und Drang around us? In the watershed year of 1968, the FCM generation turned thirty, the age at which one allegedly lost the “trust” of the younger generation. They behaved as individuals with respect to politics, some more, others less directly involved. Harbison, for example, is unique among the group in taking an activist role in spending a Freedom Summer doing civil rights voting registration work in Mississippi. Chihara remembers how the Vietnam War mattered above everything else to him.

A third factor concerns philosophical idealism and the extent to which composers and intellectuals invested music with utopian agency at the turn of the ’60s and mid ’70s. We can only briefly hint at connections here. Many FCM composers believed that art could provide redemptive experiences to pervasive social alienation. As if they were recapitulating the axioms of John Dewey’s pedagogy, a few FCM composers, particularly those associated with Musica Elettronica Viva, wanted their audiences to “learn by doing,” writing pieces that enabled participation and spontaneous creative combustion between composer, performer, and listener.

The idealism of the age imbued a diversity of practices with common goals. Even though the sound of the music differs so greatly among some FCM composers, in the background hover similar principles and dreams. Rzewski honed radical politics, which has informed his destiny as an artist, particularly struck by Pete Seeger’s advice to include tunes that everybody can sing in whatever he wrote. Richard Teitelbaum set himself the goal of transcultural improvisation, combining Eastern idioms with improvisational practices. For Chihara, the late 1960s offered respite from academia: “I resorted to a Cageian silence. I read Zen in the Art of Archery…. One of the things he said was ‘I am the arrow. I cannot miss.’ You would identify yourself with many things. [This was] our posture as composers…. We embraced this, and other philosophies. We didn’t resist.” Few did.

The cultural aftershocks of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam war led directly to the intellectual revolutions of the 1970s of second-wave feminism and African-American cultural nationalism. Both have had special relevance for some FCM composers, who by virtue of gender (Tower, Zwilich) and race (Hemphill, Wilson) faced different professional and creative obstacles and challenges to their own artistic development. For both women and minorities, the reclamation of history by previously marginalized subjects had a salutary impact on their growth. (How many other occupations still use the noun “woman” as an adjective, as in “woman composer”?) For Tower the emergence of historical scholarship proved to be a primary tool for “self-determination” and “autonomy,” to quote Gerda Lerner, a pioneering feminist historian of the 1970s. After she participated in the International Conference of Women in Music in New York in 1981, Tower began organizing concert series for performances of neglected music by historical and contemporary women, an activity which she continues to this day.

Zwilich, ever the “contrarian” (her term), supported cultural feminism, particularly during the publicity blitz that descended upon her after she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1983. She understood her position as a “role model” and did not shirk from frequent questions that focused on gender issues in the field. In one commission celebrating the opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, she composed a piece commenting on a self-portrait painted by a literally “self-effacing” female artist from the early 1900s to comment on the social constructions of gender roles she resisted fiercely in her own life.

The central importance of African-American music in American music as a whole deserves special mention, bringing with it this enduring question: how and why did the musical practices of an oppressed and alienated people long characterized as “primitive” and “inferior” become so vital to the American musical imagination?3 The two African-American composers represented in the FCM generation shed some light on the process. However different the musical styles of Olly Wilson and Julius Hemphill may appear, both identified with the Black Arts Movement, including black cultural nationalism. Both acknowledge the contributions of Amiri Baraka’s book Blues People in recentering their historical perspectives. Their music projects a continuum of African-American musical practices and experience which embraces the old country and the new. An activist in the Black Arts Movement Hemphill with his experimental jazz captured some of the atonal energies of the earlier part of the decade, fusing African-American vernacular practices with new idioms. As Marty Ehrlich describes it, “Julius began to use stylistic references to the entire breadth of African-American music.” Wilson formulated influential theories about the nature of African-American music, and his emphasis on “the heterogeneous sound ideal” worked sympathetically with his own classical training. Wilson remembers the beginnings of the Black Arts Movement in 1967 as an awakening of historical consciousness not unlike that experienced by Tower:

There were other people like myself coming to the same conclusion, that we had all studied European music but had experienced other musical traditions, but had no sense of this music as having a core of musical literature about it… no African, no American, no African-American. After that 1967 meeting… I concluded that I was going to become involved. I’m a composer so I became involved through music.

Being involved meant insisting that race, gender, and in the later decades of the twentieth century, sexual orientation as well, were crucial historical variables for understanding the American musical experience as a whole. The later developments for gay activism among some FCM composers, particularly Del Tredici and Corigliano, also speaks to the philosophical embrace of social justice as an artistic priority.

Perhaps the most important arena of change for FCM composers in the 1970s and beyond concerns access to mainstream institutions such as opera companies and symphony orchestras. In the early ’60s some composers worried that electronic music would render them obsolete. In 1970, an older generation sounded further alarms about the hostility at its worst and indifference at its best to new music by contemporary conductors and orchestra players in a gloomy set of essays, The Orchestral Composer’s Point of View. However, the future proved to be more sanguine than one would have predicted.

By the late 1970s some new programs filled the vacuum and these in turn benefited several FCM composers. Such programs were cooperative ventures between private foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts (its budget increasing ca. 400% in the ’70s and ’80s) and “presenters,” or producing organizations. Originating in the late ’70s, program descriptions as formulated by idealistic savvy administrators spoke the policy language of the era, justifying support in terms of community welfare, outreach, and cultural democracy. As John Duffy, a leading figure in such programs, stated in 2003, that “to me models for community involvement are Bach—his writing for the church…—Ellington’s another example. He’s got a band, he’s traveling, he’s writing; they’re creating works together. He’s prolific.” Duffy developed a composer residency program designed to “recapture the soul of the American orchestra.”4 Among the FCM composers who have held such positions are Bolcom, Harbison, Tower, Wuorinen, and Zwilich.

A renewed and surprisingly invigorating interest in traditional acoustic forms such as opera and symphonies marked the 1980s. With the increase in popularity of commissions for symphonic and operatic music in general that has occurred in the last two decades of the previous century, many FCM composers had more opportunity to develop and refine their own personal vocabularies through the diverse kinds of training they received. Because of their training, as Del Tredici remarks, they “looked back at tonality differently.” To put this another way, they recast postwar American serial composition as one kind of system, and harmonic functionality or pitch centricity as another, not to be considered as mutually exclusive with one superseding the other, but rather as practical skill sets.

These foregoing remarks are intended to suggest trains of thought rather than ironclad conclusions. Artists as individuals see themselves as part of the “collective individuality,” to borrow John Dewey’s paradoxical phrase. Just as they characteristically reject or disparage most historical style terms, they resist being identified with overdetermined interpretation about their motivations or their connections to historicizing trends. This is not to deny the intentionality of their composing choices. Certainly, Charles Wuorinen, for example, has committed himself to the most deliberate reflection upon the relationships between tradition and the creative process. Wuorinen has said in 2002,

I also couldn’t really believe that there was this unbridgeable, permanent discontinuity between the music of the past and that of the present. So part of my aim as a composer—-and I guess it’s more prominent now than it used to be—has always been to incorporate certain aspects, whether they’re rhetorical, sonic, or even intervallic, even harmonic, from older music into my own procedures, which remain fundamentally twelve-tone or ordered set music, I should say.5

At the same time, order does not mean mechanistic control. “Composing doesn’t happen that way,” Joan Tower said, “it’s less controlled.” Similarly Bill Bolcom asserts that we “invent new musical languages and then invent ways to talk about them.” Frederic Rzewski notes, how “You make important decisions very often on impulse without thinking about it and for no good reason. And later you invent reasons to explain why you did what you did.”

Even so, it seems clear to this writer that the FCM generation as a whole continues to thrive on the capacity for what we now perceive as the heterogeneous confusing present. In describing styles, these same composers today often employ the vocabulary of omnivorous and tolerant ears. They use “crossover” language, talking about bridges from the other arts or “interfaces,” “filtering,” “appropriating,” “eclecticism” and “pluralism.”

Perhaps most tellingly, many FCM composers recognize the richness of their training. “Choice”—that keyword of the last twenty years, spanning all kinds of political positions and cultural orientations—has replenished the composer’s tool box. Harbison says, “In this post-Schoenbergian world, having gone through a specific set of disciplines, people have enough to keep them going over a long period.” For Bolcom, “Twelve-tone is useful as an organizing principle, a wonderful way to use balance points. We should teach twelve-tone the way we teach counterpoint.” John Corigliano has described his orientation as “motivated eclecticism.” “Eclecticism is like orchestration, but it can also be dangerous. I think about the kinds of structures that will let me be eclectic before I write the piece. The eclecticism is motivated by the shapes and needs of the piece before I write it.” McKinley says, “Things have changed now. All this is part of a synthesis. Most of us are alike in our connection to a rich tradition, filtering it through the ‘sixties craziness.’ “

As befits a generation that sounds apart and together, the challenge remains to understand the moment—for the collective culture to enter ever more generously into the messages of their music. Their contributions to opera and the instrumental literature, including chamber music as well as symphonic works, still await analytic and historical interpretation in the literature about late twentieth-century music, as it now stands. Perhaps we might be aided by even more curiosity about a flexible generation grasping the dynamic of “steady-state” and making it work for them in so many fascinating and unpredictable ways.

We are the beneficiaries of this huge amount of music, particularly because of the people we have had contact with…. From my point of view, it makes for a richer choice. Things meet in me.

Contemporary art music is completely lost. [There are] no signposts, no common practice. At the moment all is available, all music from recorded time…. A composition student can speak any damn language he pleases…. Whenever in music history has the music of the entire world been available? Now, I ask [composition students] to create a music that you could never know. Imagine what you would make if you made a music without memory.

The traditions keep turning over. People keep looking rearward for the tradition. The tradition in this music is forward. Forward! Not what you did last week, but this week. You see what I’m saying? Now…that’s a hard road.

I made ten charts of grunge music for the Seattle Symphony. [It is very important for a composer] to still keep that being on the edge. I feel this as a composer—it’s just important to have an understanding of every single music in the culture.

I am not fully aware of my intentions [in composing a piece]. It’s for other people to assemble motives and interpretations.

We filter in a more abstract way. Sometimes we appropriate. I can’t take any sort of doctrinaire position. What seems to be the necessity takes charge and overwhelms any position I have taken.


1Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. 1979 trans. Keith Tribe. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004): 3.

2Charles Wuorinen and Jeffrey Kresky, “On the Significance of Stravinsky’s Last Works,” in Jann Pasler, ed. Confronting Stravinsky (Berkeley: University of California Press): 262.

3This question is an adapted paraphrase indebted to that asked by Wilfred Mellers in his book review of Christopher Small’s Music of the Common Tongue: “why is it that the music of an alienated, oppressed, often persecuted black minority should have made so powerful an impact on the entire industrialized world, whatever the colour of its skin and economic status?” Wilfrid Mellers, “Musickings and Musicology,” The Musical Times 129/1739 (Jan 1988): 19.

4John Duffy’s discussion of Bach and Ellington is from an interview with Frank J. Oteri, “The Composer as Statesman in the Music Industry and Beyond: John Duffy,” NewMusicBox, Dec. 1, 2003. The second quotation is from John Duffy, “Preface,” in Theodore Wiprud and Joyce Lawler, ed. Meet the Composers’ Residency Program, 1982-92 (New York: Meet the Composer, 1995).

5Interview for OHAM, Charles Wuorinen with Ingram Marshall New York, N.Y. June 14, 2002.


Judith Tick
Judith Tick

Judith Tick, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Music at Northeastern University in Boston, specializes in American 20th-century music and Women’s Studies in music. As the author of articles and books about Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, she has won two ASCAP Deems Taylor awards and two awards for outstanding scholarship from the Society for American Music. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and serves on the editorial board of Musical Quarterly. Her forthcoming book, Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, with Paul Beaudoin as Assistant Editor, is due out from Oxford University Press in 2008. She was recently appointed to the Board of Advisors for the revision of The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. She served as Consulting Scholar and Guest Speaker for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.

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