Unease in contemporary society. Disdain for conservative cultural conventions. Fighting for individual liberties and creative freedom. Wanting to get back more in sync with nature and to listen to what it tells us. Weariness with the prevalence of obsequious politeness in successful new art. Wanting art to be more than sophisticated entertainment for the bourgeois class.
Sound familiar? I’m no historian, but that’s a fair description of some of the core qualities of the Sturm und Drang period in late 18th Century Europe. And I think we’re entering something like that now with a whole new set of conditions. Some of the qualities of individual ethos are surely refracted: Goethe’s “genius hero” manifests itself in mainstream culture as the courage to rebel against corporate culture and lead an independent life, and emotional “excess” is today a more direct quest for emotional intimacy and expression, rejecting the detached jadedness of postmodernism without embarrassment. Where’s the Beethoven and Berlioz who burst out of this? Somewhere in our midst.
So for those of you who, like me, heard that we are at the end of music history as we know it and it’s too late to make the cut in the Taruskin tome, take heart. There’s a lot more to come and some of your work is going to blow us away. As for the “end of literacy” argument that is circulating these days, let’s look at that. In sheer numbers, am I wrong to suggest that we have worldwide far more musically literate practitioners as high-level performers and composers than we ever have—legions more than in those good old days when great composers grew on trees? Yes, public school music education programs are diminished and iPods have replaced the parlor piano, but I see staggering talent and energy among young people leaving our conservatories. And they’re experimenting, they’re mixing genres and tools, and they have a totally healthy disregard for history at the same time they respect it.
True, a core of this literacy argument is also about impending and inevitable changes rendered by technology and digitization which will take some years to filter into things like the death of orchestras. But as one example, I see a future where such technologies will facilitate easier access to make and play alternative tunings, instant changes among tunings, and instruments to realize them with. Don’t you think people will want to codify how they do this and their many other musical endeavors? Won’t they develop necessary literacies, pedagogy and traditions, and probably lap us around the track? History is made by people—and nature has endowed each day’s new generation with curiosity, energy, and giftedness. Music is too fundamental an element of this earth for its development and codification to be abandoned by the force of nature that is human intellectual curiosity.
I love the ongoing discussion of what we call new music. I am asked what it is every day and my answer changes with the season or phase of the moon. Our problem is not something to apologize for—let’s remember it derives from the mistake made when the term “classical music” evolved into a meaningless umbrella with all kinds of connotations. Because classical defined something from the past, new music couldn’t belong, and this has been the fatal separation that in the long run is hurting classical music more than it’s hurting new music. The solution for new music has to include putting the term “classical music” to its death, acknowledging the long and lovely threads that weave in and out through centuries and more than one period of Sturm und Drang, and letting all composed music settle into a name which does not segregate its interdependent and glorious parts.
Let’s keep talking, thinking, writing, composing. Fervently! Creative energy rubs off and transforms artistic institutions as well as the cultural zeitgeist—and I for one would like to see transformation sooner than later. Our traditions of composing and making music are hardly winding down—we are in a turbulent period and are finding our way, perpetually at the front edge of history, leading and not following. Know that creative work truly matters—in your person, in every incarnation—and that what matters in life and in music can never be captured in a history book.