Kids These Days

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.

22 thoughts on “Kids These Days

  1. JKG

    It’s too late for that, Colin…
    Gosh, I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but as long as there has been more emphasis upon stretching the notion of musicality beyond recognizable barriers in order to further include the patently untalented, there will now always be with us “composers” who have the credentials, but whose music sounds like utter crap. They can’t survive in the real world, and yet their tenure and postured “expertise” regarding things compositional will help to insure there are even more untalented hacks in positions of authority in the music world. If the argument is raised, “then why doesn’t somebody do something about it?”, one must contend with the virtual wall of politically correct inclusivity which insulates such posers from honest scrutiny. This fact is the primary basis for academic music being given less and less respect over the past few decades, and will continue to do so. The only solution is for music schools to make the painful decision to be RESPONSIBLE in the matter of producing composers whose work is rooted in the notion of general audience appeal. That won’t happen, because most academics, talented or not, consider themselves ABOVE the audiences they write for (thanks to their BRILLIANT pedagogues).

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  2. Colin Holter

    This is not the first time you’ve made reference to “patently untalented” university composers, JKG, and it won’t be the first time I’ve asked you to do the following: Name five of these composers. You are not affiliated with a university, so you have nothing to lose. Respond with the names and locations of five individuals currently employed at the assistant, associate, or full professor level at a reputable college who write awful music.

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  3. JKG

    Sorry about that, Colin…
    I must’ve misunderstood your thread. After all, don’t students usually become professors? I will not name names, as obviously the matter of my subjective opinion will then become an object of derision. However, it would be entirely dishonest for one to assume that, just because one has a degree in composition, that they are capable of expressing something worthwhile artistically. Aren’t universities in general all about their bottom line? – what do THEY care if someone has talent of not, as long as they PAY for an “EDUCATION?”

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  4. jonrussell20

    Gosh, I had no idea there was such derision toward music of our generation. Where are you hearing this from? It’s probably true that much of the music being written by our generaion is, as you say, “packed with mechanical, obstinate, ill-informed, stagnant, thin-sounding, slick, twitchy, harmonically lame-ass music” – but that’s probably true of every generation. The fact is that at any time in history, a significant amount of the music being composed is not especially good. Today, we have more composers than ever, so there’s also more bad music than ever. And, probably, more good music too. There’s just MORE. I think it’s pretty dumb to condemn a whole generation’s music, especially when it’s as diverse as ours. I would gladly condemn SOME of the music by SOME members of my generation, while I love other music; if anything, I think music today is less monolothic than ever, and it doesn’t make much sense to make sweeping generalizations about it. I honestly haven’t heard people making the claims you site, and if I did, I wouldn’t take them very seriously.

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  5. EvanJohnson

    After all, don’t students usually become professors?

    No.

    However, it would be entirely dishonest for one to assume that, just because one has a degree in composition, that they are capable of expressing something worthwhile artistically.

    Dishonest? Not really. Silly? Yes. Does anyone assume this? No.

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  6. swellsort

    Subjective
    One thing JKG is overlooking is the fact that artistic merit is a completely subjective opinion. It is not a verifiable, scientific fact. It is a matter of interpretation and personal biases. To say “However, it would be entirely dishonest for one to assume that, just because one has a degree in composition, that they are capable of expressing something worthwhile artistically” is a subjective comment. The thing that at least partly separates our generation from previous ones is that we can be more objective about art. We are able to avoid subjecting others’s work to our relentless personal opinions. We can see the beauty of a work, even if we don’t particularly like it.

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  7. Jebman93

    So this poses my favorite question, “Who is the fresh avant-garde in creativity today, the young contemporary composers, or the old contemporary composers?”
    In the end, either type is acceptable, just give it a hundred years.

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  8. JKG

    Agreeing with Colin…
    Hmmm… it seems in the process of agreeing with you concerning “those darned kids,” Colin, that I unadvertently made the connection regarding precisely “where” university professors come from – students. I’ll make a deal with you – I’ll give you my top five picks of atrociously bad academic composers, if you’ll name five composition professors who never attended college. At least your task is the “objective” one. *grin*

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  9. pgblu

    JKG has a huge chip on his shoulder — you could post a story about the resonant characteristics of grapefruit, and he will find a way to make it all about talentless university professors. If he wanted a debate about this, though, he would actually provide evidence, and do other things to make his argument convincing. As it is, his generalized allegations are only going to appeal to people who already agree with him and like to feel vindicated.

    JKG, you may not realize this, but what you are doing on this site could be considered abuse. Not because what you say might offend people, but because you seem to hijack just about every topic for your agenda. Can you please tell me what the alleged lack of talent in academia has to do with the aesthetic shift between generations that Colin has posted about? Or what lack of talent in academia has to do with teaching pupils about improvisation? I was amazed at the way you turned Belinda’s recent post into something it wasn’t.

    I beg you, before you post, ask yourself this question: am I contributing something to the discussion, or am I looking for some attention?

    Now lest anyone get the impression that JKG’s post merely hit too close to home with me, and I’m shooting quills (after all, I teach at a university), let me be the first to say that yes, university programs do select for innovation and not just for talent. Sometimes the innovation is prioritized, and that has to do with universities being under pressure to justify themselves as institutions for ‘research’, not with feeling threatened by talent, or having no interest in talent.

    When a composer is hired on the strength of his/her innovation, though, and the hiring university overlooks the fact that that person has less than excellent chops in orchestration, ear training, theory, or any of the other things that constitute our basic handiwork, then that university is shooting itself in the foot. Students, even the most clueless ones, can smell B.S. within one or two class sessions, and then they post nasty comments on public websites devoted to rating professors, and it does have an effect on the university’s reputation. It is not in any university’s interest to hire incompetent people, regardless of their field.

    The trouble is, JKG, that you continually equate what you call ‘general public appeal’ with talent. Some great music has little appeal for the general public, but it is influential to the direction of music history, and that in turn affects what is offered to the general public. Call it a ‘trickle-down’ effect, if you will, though that sounds pretty snooty. Maybe just a trickle-out or trickle-across kind of thing. For example, most people do not care for Stockhausen, including yourself, but without him, such musicians as Frank Zappa, Anthony Braxton, Radiohead, Herbie Hancock, and the Beatles would have been that much less inspired.

    A healthy democracy doesn’t only care for the preferences of the majority, but also provides safe haven to the minority opinion. That’s what the term “institution” implies. A university is an institution. Those employed by universities need to accept this “safe haven” as their rather modest role, and if they let it go to their heads or abuse their tenure by resting on their laurels, then by all means, call them out and name names, but remember that you live in a glass house.

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  10. jbunch

    stuff
    I guess I would agree in part with the idea that we are coming from a different place – but only in part. For some of us, harmony isn’t necessarily the most important aspect of a work of music, perhaps it’s rhythm, or timbre, or like Feldman creating sonorities that are beautiful in themelves but ultimately not proceeding from any system (unless of course I am brashly misunderstanding this aspect of his work – which could be the case). Many of us are interested in “non-rhetorical” approaches to composition which has meant something different to different generations. What’s the conceptual difference between Mozart’s Fantasia in C and the Cage’s Music of Changes? Among the many differences, the one I am interested in right now is that for Mozart, non-rhetoric operated only on the largest formal level (and probably not ever really there) whereas in Cage, the non-rhetoric was fundamental at every “level” of the piece’s structure. It’s sort of the difference between Sartre writing about meaninglessness using brilliantly polished arguments and Beckett writing about it by adopting the absurdity into the means of expression itself. If that is your position, how is a concern with harmonic design going to serve your ends?

    On the other hand, I get the sense that some people write musical non-rhetoricism not by design but by default – which in my opinion is a technical shortcoming. For many of the people I have talked with who consider themselves of the “avant garde” there is this rejection of the past tome still reverberating through the body polemic. If someone rejects past musical tradition – from a genuine philisophic motivation – then where is the place of orchestration in the traditional sense in their music?

    I guess I’m too jaded to believe that everyone is genuine in their anti-formal, anti-traditional stances. But it’s not my role to separate the sheep from the goats here. All this to say that there are ideas (legit and shady) behind the condition of youthful composition and we had better take those into account rather than allowing the superficial criticicisms of our master critics dominate the conversation.

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  11. philmusic

    I see no problem at all. Your all going to be just like us If your not just like us already.

    I think I got 4 composers
    Brahms, Bruckner?, Schoenberg, and Shapey-never went to college but taught. not a bad group.

    Anyway, it is far too easy to criticize institutions including colleges for their presumed failings. JKG, your anger is not an argument and there is so much to talk about.

    Phil’ Page

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  12. JJeffers

    The above comment prompts me to come back with the ‘adolescent’ in the Disney family movie that tells his parents “No, I will never be like you!”

    Having said that…no, I will never be like you.

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  13. JKG

    Thank you, pgblu…
    You make excellent sense. I suppose I should qualify my comments, as obviously they do hit home for some of you, for whatever reasons. I do not, in a gazillion years, believe every or even most composition professors suffer from the sad fate of having been encouraged in a life of music without the skills to produce anything meaningful. They are quite a small percentage, and frankly have all but NO influence on the conduct or abilities of other composers. Most innovative composers I know are genuine, even if there music does not hold up to scrutiny to the general public (which is to say, the average joe just doesn’t “get” SOME of their work, and understandable due to the experimental nature of it). I do have respect for such experiments, and it is indeed sad that institutional integrity demands a scientific bent rather than any sort of aesthetic one – no doubt because subjective judgments are never “fair,” but objective ones always are. I am then tempted to ask, are all scientific experiments a success, all the time? No. And neither are all musical experiments – a simple fact. Is there an element of compassion for the world at large, encompassing even the plumber and the child, from within the ranks of university composers (students and professors)? It is true such compassion should not be mandatory, as some “artists” could never care for anyone but themselves – but wouldn’t it be something if there work WERE made available to the masses for consumption? No money, no strings attached – just pure performance and musicality? I venture to maintain that those who write out of sheer LOVE FOR OTHERS have a much more intense take on what it means to be human in the midst of being an artist; a trait most truly great artists appear to have as a foundational aspect of their self-teaching. I am not angry with anyone, by the way – only pointing out the fact we really do need to help schools weed out those hacks who should have been helped into some other discipline at the undergraduate level. Our students do, in fact, become just like us except for their own reasons. As a result, the best get better and the worst – well, I don’t wish to offend anyone. I will remain honest, but I will accord with a different level of sensitivity if that is needed. I like you guys, and have learned a great deal. I do not turn every post into a forum to rail against the untalented, as an honest evaluation of my posts will reveal. I work hard to phrase myself in such a way that good questions will turn up useful answers (which has worked marvelously, by the way). Again, thank you all, and for any of you in a position to encourage someone “talent-challenged,” please feel free to offer the best example at hand to them.

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  14. JKG

    Oh, and speaking of Disney….
    Cal Arts has a composition professorship open to a composer of international merit, with over-the-top experimental skills. Any takers?

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  15. JKG

    Improvisation (Belinda)
    Yass, yass, Belinda did make a wonderful comment about whether students are being encouraged to express themselves at the drop of a hat. My response had everything to do with the fact so many teachers are caught up the the formal aspects of their disciplines, they themselves could not improvise their way out of wet paper bag. As far as grapefruit resonance is concerned, it has been noted that the type of mallet used on the grapefruit doesn’t seem to change the dull whack of it’s being struck. However, hurling a grapefruit at a gong can produce amazing results, and a wind machine even more amazing. They are also good for sheer visuals, if that’s your thing. Texas grapefruits are larger, and likely will provide appeal to those seated further away, while Florida grapefruits are better for smaller audiences. Even the talented will have a difficult time introducing fruit to his/her orchestration, particularly the noble Citrus paradisi.

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  16. philmusic

    I am more then happy to be mistaken. I wanted to make a joke that was on topic at least. Colin’s main points are well said. Every generation experiances the world differently.

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  17. Kyle Gann

    The Younger Generation
    Actually, it’s always struck me that composers born after 1970 have fewer hangups about composing than my generation did, and reach the point of making interesting music at an earlier point in their lives. I’ve always blamed it on having lived through the difficult period at the end of the 12-tone era, when the conflicting demands and attractions of our academic training and burgeoning minimalism created a difficult set of double-binds to negotiate. It seems to me that the younger composers have fewer neuroses and an easier time getting performances. I’m surprised to hear that anyone thinks we look down our noses at them. Envy is more like it.

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  18. JKG

    Well put, Kyle…
    Yes, I see the same thing. Younger composers these days are more performance oriented, and thus are far more interested in what the audience thinks than what their teachers think. It was a mistake for those late-atonalists to brush off minimalism as a populist child of the melismatic seventies, yet in fact the movement represented a return to audience-centric serious music. Things have been pushed beyond all proportion at this juncture, to the point where some “popular” music is actually considered far more serious than much “serious” music. Could that be because some “serious” musicians took themselves and their art too seriously? No wonder the jealousy… and what are they jealous of… talent?

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  19. philmusic

    “Actually, it’s always struck me that composers born after 1970 have fewer hangups about composing than my generation did, and reach the point of making interesting music at an earlier point in their lives.”

    Well Mozart, to use an old very young person as an example, created quite a stir as a child with his First Symphony, I don’t know if its so interesting now. At that time the leading compositional trends were not so hard to master. It could be argued that some of our current compositional trends are also not too hard to master.

    Phil’s page

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  20. JJeffers

    Not to be rude
    I wasn’t trying to be obstinant. I actually hope for my sake that I write differently than many of the examples I have heard coming from ones who have gone before. And by this I’m not talking about composers in the history books that we all know, but those who actually graduated from my institution (or who work there). This all stems from a composition symposium we had recently where several of the works by resident and visiting faculty professors had very similar texture and feel. I felt like they had all gotten in a room and said “let’s write like this”. The only real stand-out was my primary composition teacher, who I think, is one of those people who has to be different and reacts to prevalent things like a magnet face to a similar polarity. I feel the same way :)

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  21. JKG

    Very interesting, JJeffers….
    You mnetion something very telling about the attitude which goes into composition in the first place. If the emphasis is upon “sounding different,” how musical is that? What is the real goal of music, or does it even have one? Has it ever had one, or are we just kidding ourselves to think that music is in fact a communicative art? If so, do we merely communicate with our peers at hand (especially fellow composers), or do we reach out to humanity at large? Is the work we set out to accomplish more fairly labeled a “student work,” or is all of our work an expression of who we really are in the moment? Oppositional disorder notwithstanding, I think I’d likely appreciate an effort more towards simply being oneself than either allying or setting apart oneself from others.

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