Like many composers of my generation, I grew up playing rock ‘n roll.
As a kid, I took piano lessons, sang in choirs, and played trumpet in school bands and orchestras. But it was playing drums and singing in a series of garage bands that really got me excited about music.
My first bands covered tunes by the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Beach Boys and other big groups of the day. As time went on, we got tired of just rehashing other people’s songs and started writing a few of our own.
The deeper we got into songwriting, the more adventurous and ecumenical our listening became…Yes, Jimi Hendrix. But also John Coltrane, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa…
On the back of his early records, Zappa used to print this defiant little epigram:
“The present-day composer refuses to die!” – Edgard Varèse
My buddies and I would read that, scratch our heads and wonder: “Hmmm. Just who is this VaREEsee guy?”
Then one day in the local record shop (this must have been about 1967), one of us discovered one of the first Varèse discs (a mono LP). We quickly wore out the grooves.
From Zappa to Varèse, it didn’t take long for us to discover Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Partch, Oliveros, Reich, Nancarrow, and a whole new world of music.
One of the defining epiphanies of my life came when I acquired a Columbia Masterworks LP titled “Morton Feldman: The Early Years”. All I really knew about Feldman was that he was a pal of John Cage’s. But when I heard the Piece for Four Pianos, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This music took me to a place that Pink Floyd just couldn’t go. It was right about then I decided I wanted to be a composer.
Over the past several decades, many other young musicians have made defining discoveries of their lives through recordings. With easy access to virtually the entire history of musical cultures around the world, the old categories and boundaries of style have lost most of their meaning. By now, maybe it’s all rock ‘n roll. Or better yet, maybe it’s all just music.
Composer/critic Kyle Gann writes persuasively about “totalism”, a recent trend among composers who aspire to have their cake and eat it, too. Like minimalism before it, this new music combines the accessibility and vitality of rock and the intellectual substance of classical music, but with greater sonic and rhythmic complexity than either rock or minimalism.
Composers like Eve Beglarian, Glenn Branca, Peter Garland, and Lois Vierk,
may be “iconoclasts” or “mavericks” in relation to the classical music world and commercial pop culture. But their music is close to a central part of the soul of our times.
And why can’t we have it all?
Young musicians and listeners today are increasingly sophisticated and open-eared. They don’t care much about what music is called. They care about how it sounds.
This bodes well for the future of new music.
After all, as Duke Ellington put it: “If it sounds good, it is good.”
– John Luther Adams