Young composers: What, exactly, is our malfunction? Depends whom you ask. Maybe it’s our reliance on computers. Maybe it’s our resistance to teaching. Maybe it’s our ignorance of tradition. Maybe it’s our failure to innovate. Maybe it’s our inability to orchestrate. Maybe it’s our superficial over-orchestration. Maybe it’s our short attention spans. Maybe it’s our privileging of texture over harmony. I’ve heard all of these accusations, although I’ve only been on the business end of a few myself. I won’t try to address any specific allegation here; I take issue instead with the idea of synchronic compositional flaws that are supposed to afflict an entire generation.
For the sake of argument, let’s posit that these kinds of faults really do cleave across racial, sexual, and geographic differences and that all composers born between, say, 1975 and 1985 suffer from them. Does this mean that the quality of new concert music will decline during our lifetimes? Will our concert programs be packed with mechanical, obstinate, ill-informed, stagnant, thin-sounding, slick, twitchy, harmonically lame-ass music? I guess that’s possible. It’s not inconceivable that some or all of these charges are true. If they are, maybe we need to get our minds right before it’s too late and we destroy classical music once and for all with our subpar output.
But what if it just means that we experience music differently than our elders do? These problems might not be problems at all but rather symptoms of growing up in a later era. Of course our understanding of music diverges from our elders’—we were born more recently and socialized into a different world. If all of us have these weaknesses, are they really weaknesses? Besides, those old codgers will retire sooner or later, and then we’ll be running the show.
Ultimately, however, I find the proposition that all (or even most) composers of my generation struggle under a single handicap—or, worse yet, a uniform set of handicaps—to be kind of laughable. However, I have much respect for artists of the baby-boomer cohort, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss their tireless (and tiresome) finger-wagging without giving them a chance to rebut. If you want to sit us down and hold an intervention to save the future of music, now’s the time.