The Ballad of the AARP Composer

One of the things I’m looking forward to most about getting older (actually, one of the only things I’m looking forward to) is the right—usually conferred around retirement age, but sometimes obtained as early as 50—to be as intellectually and creatively lazy as possible. Precedents abound; I’ve been careful to observe how these auspicious composers stay stodgy. Here’s a tentative outline of the steps I’ll take to make the least of my twilight years:

  • I will continue to write the same kind of music I wrote when I experienced my first critical success—my “breakthrough,” if you will—until death. If it worked in 2010, why won’t it work in 2040? 2060? Years of tepid reactions to my music will no doubt convince me that listeners are stupid cattle to be pitied, and if you think they’ll be smarter 30 years from now, you can think again. Speaking of ignorance…

  • I will take the position—implicitly, if not explicitly—that all composers younger than my friends and I are careless dilettantes with no regard for the craft of composition. Should I be thrust into some situation—master class, lecture, etc.—where dealing with these urchins is inescapable, I will try my best to be patient, but I can’t be held responsible for crushing their overwrought little dreams like so much sculpted marzipan.

  • I will be fanatical in my espousal of the music technology that prevailed during my glory days and contemptuously dismissive (with a side of weltschmerz) of any and all more recent technologies. Despite mountains of prima facie evidence to the contrary, including actually seeing some of these new technologies in action, I will deny their validity at every opportunity. And don’t you dare say that I’m just too old to understand this newfangled machinery. I was writing Max patches and playing with Lemurs when you were no more than a glimmer in your father’s eye.

  • When presented with a new perspective on music, I will reject it flatly, as one might reject a dessert menu. This will not, strictly speaking, be my fault; decades of linguistic conditioning will prevent me from exercising the necessary epistemological muscles to comprehend this foreign way of thinking. Paradoxically, I will die with the absolute certainty that I have mastered the art of writing music, but I will know less about it than I do now.

Join me, won’t you, on this 40-year journey to curmudgeonhood. We can hang out at a diner and always order the same thing. No dessert, though.

16 thoughts on “The Ballad of the AARP Composer

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I always wondered what it would be like to be fifty, to be all lazy and regressive and dump on younger composers. When you get there, Colin, tell me if it’s good for you!

    Dennis

    (turning 58 next week)

    Reply
  2. kmanlove

    It makes me wonder (not that I will allow myself to live long enough to face this problem) how some few older composers a) manage to continually do great, exciting, and innovative stuff and b) continue to support young composers doing the same thing (aka competition). Hats off to those people!

    Something in me feels bad about telling composers that USED TO do good work (or even mediocre work) to take it to the nursing home, but when they start talking crazy and accusing me of ruining music or something like that, I say send them on!

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  3. william

    Jeering at elders is an important right of passage for young composers. Among other things, it’s part of formulating one’s own artistic identity. And it keeps things growing. Keep up the good work.

    But I feel the problem you address is far more complex. Part of your generalization is true. Composers find methods that work, and they like to stick with them– sometimes even after a law of diminishing returns sets in.

    On the other hand, music might be thought of as a kind of language. Why would an author want to learn and begin writing in a new language that would take decades to master when she could continue refining her use of the language she already knows?
    Historically speaking, the most profound music seems to have been created when composers deeply matured and refined their styles over a life time – Art of the Fugue, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Ninth, Das Lied von der Erde.

    There is also considerable variation in how composers evolve as they age. Some stick to developing what they have always done. Bach developed a new fangled concept called “tonality,” his big “breakthrough as a young man,” and continued developing it in largely contrapuntal forms to the end of his life, even while his own children ridiculed his “counterpoint” and called him an old fogey. Fortunately, he stuck to his ideas, and as a blind old fart, dictated the Art of the Fugue to an apprentice. Stravinsky, on the other hand, went through five distinct stylistic periods during his life. He finally turned to serialism, after jeering at Schoenberg for most of his life.

    What would have been the point in telling Nancarrow to stop using those damned old player pianos? George Crumb had a remarkably unique style, but at some point he seemed to feel he had said what he had to say – or what he could say. Can we really hold that against him? I think we have to look at the individual to really understand questions of stylistic evolution.

    But one thing we do know: it is vitally important for young composers to rebel, to jeer at elders, to vaguely feel as if they were immortal.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  4. jbunch

    thoughts from a dry brain in a dry season…
    I agree with you in terms of rebellion (everyone interesting does it) and especially your point about composers who refine their styles (another good example would be the much beloved Elliot Carter).

    What I think was really the oomph behind Colin’s statement are these jerk composers who run around passing judgment on people who are doing something merely different than what they are into. There is a difference between stagnation and refinement people like Carter show refinement people like (those who must remain nameless) evince stagnation. The difference is only partially attitude (attitude being only the tip of the iceberg of the imagination). The defensiveness – and that’s really what it is – is only a sign that there is some secret, some fragile lie that must be protected at all costs. This friends is not education – and none of us are at all inspired or enriched by the experience.

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  5. philmusic

    “Jeering at elders is an important right of passage for young composers. ”

    I wonder how Brahms fits into this. Perhaps he was never young. Anyway, if jeering at ones elders is just an expected “right of passage” then there is no real meaning to it at all. Some folks continue to jeer all their lives. On another topic, Aaron Copland was one composer who did great things for the younger generation of composers. Who has taken his place?
    Phil’s page

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  6. kmanlove

    I’m not completely sure, but I think all the people here that patronizingly used the word “rebellion” are the exact people Colin is talking about. We shouldn’t forget that “rebellion” can and should be used beyond writing off fussy teenagers and composers who see art of a significant vehicle of change.

    By the way, I don’t think you can put anything on the internet like that without sounding angry, so I apologize in advance for that.

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  7. william

    I think Brahms and many other mid 19th century composers might indeed be related to the topic we are discussing, which might be referred to as the Oedipal Artist-Prophet. The idea is a bit complicated, but perhaps there are a few interested in a more serious discussion.

    To understand, we have to look at a bit of history. The rise of 19th century cultural nationalism had a profound affect on music, including cultural revivals among Slavs, Italians, and Germans. This nationalism strongly influenced the music of the day and led to a cultural conception that might be referred to as the artist-prophet, a transcendentally inspired hero-artist, who spoke as the voice of “his” nation. Composers such as Wagner, Dvorak, and Verdi, fulfilled such a role, and helped emerging European countries assert their ethnic identity and aspirations to national existence.

    The artist-prophet was also seen as a revolutionary, since cultural nationalism was destroying the still reigning social structures of feudalism. The artist-prophet, with his creative genius, was to maintain a pattern of destruction and rebirth that would renew the vigor and identity of nations (and ethnic groups) through cultural innovation.

    For the first time, classical music became a genre deeply conscious of its history. It became a practice to re-evalute the past masters and emulate them as manifestations of national and ethnic genius. Bach and Beethoven were rediscovered. Brahms, for example, religiously studied and emulated them. Due to the ethos of historical continuity in cultural nationalism, Brahms became the first academic composer.

    The revolutionary character of the 19th century artist-prophet established the foundations of modernism. The literary historian, Anne Douglas, even suggests that by the early 20th century, the modernists created a form of “cultural matricide” devoted to disempowering and destroying the anachronistic and matriarchal values of Victorianism. This might one of several reasons the modernist artist-prophets took on an especially masculinist character.

    They also represented a rather obvious Oedipal psychology. The artist-prophet was to destroy the father and replace his achievements with his own new revolutionary view that would reinvigorate the nation with his “superior seed.” It became de rigueur to polemicize against the preceding generation of composers, to destroy and replace them.

    We see the manifestations of modernist Oedipalism even in this discussion, the young studs jeering at the curmudgeons. New music, which is still utterly dominated by men, often shares an ethos that, on a psychological level, is not so different than the massive subwoofers blasting in a teenager’s car. “Look at me. Look at me. I am here. My seed is good. I am looking for a female. I will get you all the bananas you want, Baby.” Cutlivated people, of course, are much more subtle, but the ethos is similar.

    The Oedipal masculinism of the artist-prophet also helps us understand why composition and conducting remain the most male dominated of all the arts. The m/f ratios for messages in forums like NMB and Sequenza 21 remains around 70 to 1. There are probably very basic psychological reasons why women do not want to participate in these pissing contests. For reasons that might be biological, Oedipalism seems to affect men more than women.

    It may be that women will only gain equality in composition when we entirely reinvent our conception of the composers purpose and function. The Oedipal artist-prophet is already about 150 years old. That conception of the composer will eventually pass, just as those before them. In the meantime, the “young studs” will continue to rebel against “the old alpha males,” not only for basic psychological reasons, but also because that is our definition of what a composer does.

    Anyway, that is at least a small part of what I hear in Brahms. And ironically, like an artist-prophet, I am looking for a new world.

    William Osborne
    william@osborne-conant.org

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  8. Colin Holter

    In the meantime, the “young studs” will continue to rebel against “the old alpha males,” not only for basic psychological reasons, but also because that is our definition of what a composer does.

    I’m not rebelling at all – I just refuse to take shit from older composers who intimate that younger composers don’t take their work seriously. The American new music scene is full of composers – young, old, and middle-aged – who don’t even recognize the problems we face as artists in the twenty-first century, let alone work toward solving them. As I am fond of pointing out, their right to compose trivial music is constitutionally protected. However, the right to defecate casually and with staggering ignorance on the music of composers born after the Berlin wall fell is in fact not a right at all but a privilege, and it’s one that they enjoy only as long as we “young studs” fail to challenge them.

    (By the way, the fact that I am a young stud is only peripherally related to my musical efforts.)

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  9. Colin Holter

    Come to think of it, if they’re hating on composers born after the wall came down, they’re even meaner than we thought! But you know what I mean – composers born after the mid-70s, say.

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  10. pgblu

    Cutoff point
    “I am born anew in your genius.” I’ll have to remember that one.

    Colin, I think the mid-70′s is also an unfair cut-off point. And you could save face by claiming you meant Pink Floyd’s “wall”.

    If you ask me, you’re never too old to take umbrage at being patronized by bloviating curmudgeons.

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  11. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Colin Holter: I just refuse to take shit from older composers who intimate that younger composers don’t take their work seriously. The American new music scene is full of composers – young, old, and middle-aged – who don’t even recognize the problems we face as artists in the twenty-first century, let alone work toward solving them.

    You were serious? I thought you were having some fun.

    But I would like to know what you mean by “the problems we face as artists in the twenty-first century” — are these problems different in character or on a different scale?

    I ask because what you say surprises me. From my antediluvian point of view, composers now have better access to performers and each other, better tools to create their work, and an audience that’s listening again.

    Societal and political problems continue, but you wrote the problems we face as artists. Now admittedly I’m old enough to have walked to school in eight feet of snow uphill both ways, but although I’m still poor as I was at age 20, artistic times seem more open and welcoming.

    Please write more about those problems and what needs to be done to solve them.

    Dennis

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  12. Colin Holter

    Please write more about those problems and what needs to be done to solve them.

    Problem: The quality of middlebrow music (e.g. songs) is as high as it’s been since the early 19th century. What can we offer people that the latest Life-Changing Album can’t? Related problem: How do we make conceptual room for the profusion of ways to experience music (concert hall, ipod, club, hi-fi, etc.)? Solution: One way is to value the unreproducible, to write music that can’t be reified, for instance, into a definitive recording.

    Problem: It’s increasingly difficult to see oneself as the most recent dot in a dotted line from Leonin to the current day. There will never be another riot over a performance of new music; in fact, there are few to no social norms that might restrict a composer from writing whatever music he or she wants. If we can do whatever we want, what do we do? Solution: We try hard to keep expanding our definition of music and what music can do to/for us. Speaking of our definition of music. . .

    Problem: Most listeners maintain centuries-old aesthetic criteria. How do composers tell audiences what’s on our minds when our definition of music differs so dramatically from theirs? Related problem: Our society is more powerful and less innocent–in the Blake sense–than ever before. How can we perform our duty as society’ conscience if we can’t communicate with society? Solution: Actually, I’m still working on this one. It could be a while.

    As you can see, these are ethical and aesthetic problems, not practical ones of the sort that Dennis cited. He’s right to point out that in many ways things are better for us than they were for our elders, but if we really want to be responsible artists, we face cultural hurdles more daunting than the highest logistical ones.

    Reply
  13. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Colin, thanks for expanding.

    The reason I talked about practical issues is that from my perspective the aesthetic questions seem to have persisted over the past century, and some are ameliorated by internet opportunities. Practical issues seem to have changed. Perhaps this is indeed generationally relative, but you’ll need to guide me here.

    You ask, “What can we offer people that the latest Life-Changing Album can’t?” This question was posed to me by my own compositional elders, so the fact that we’re awash in excellent ‘middlebrow music’ is perhaps a difference of scale rather than questions.

    As for the valuing the unreproducible, wasn’t this revealed in the Cagean and Fluxus approaches, which are the generations before me? Or have these faded so far into history that their contributions have become canonized and this feel reproducible?

    Your next point again might be a quantitative difference that arises from facing so much recorded and distributed music — the difficulty of seeing oneself “as the most recent dot in a dotted line from Leonin to the current day.” When creating electroacoustic pieces in the late 1960s, I felt the breadcrumbs totally carried away with the wind, with us composers entirely lost from the historical trail. Being lost in the wilderness of self-doubt, whether personal or historical, may be the composer’s normal state?

    The second part is a clear challenge, when you ask, “If we can do whatever we want, what do we do?” Admittedly, the feeling of sunrise over the artistic horizon was vast in my own early days, but grasping it seemed possible. If we could only have it all, I thought then. In a sense, we now do — and when you say, “We try hard to keep expanding our definition of music and what music can do to/for us,” it suggests to me that by expanding the definition, you reset the ‘border of conflictedness’ outward without searching for the solution to the existing problems circumscribed by that border. If I’m reading you right, then you suggest we set aside the problems composers have struggled with because they may be the wrong problems, and instead look beyond the smallness of our world.

    As for listener aesthetics (where “our definition of music differs so dramatically from theirs”), this is an ongoing effort since the schism brought about by recording and its ever-present Face of History. It seems there are bridges being built across that, especially to the grassroots or niche audiences that could not be reached before a worldwide network existed (and if I read your bio correctly, you were born the year after I went online — ouch!). What this says to me is that you have an opportunity that did not exist outside of the university or small urban cooperatives such as that which I was part of in the early 1970s, even if it does not declare an end to the aesthetic question.

    Societal power and loss of innocence would seem to be a spiraling problem that looks proportionately similar from generation to generation, and if you accept a “duty as society’s conscience ,” then you may condemn yourself to an early life of being misunderstood followed by a later life of being dismissed.

    I can’t agree more that “if we really want to be responsible artists, we face cultural hurdles more daunting than the highest logistical ones.” But as a composer, what is that responsibility?

    Dennis

    Reply
  14. philmusic

    “How do composers tell audiences what’s on our minds when our definition of music differs so dramatically from theirs?”

    Colin its true that commercial music in a commercial society rules—but wait, people are also very accepting of the unfamiliar if it is put into the right context. Many successful concerts are based on the proper context (ok, spin) for the works included. Also, many folks who say they hate “classical music” don’t mind similar stuff when they hear in films—they don’t even realize that it is modern or post-modern classical at that. I’m hopeful.

    “…How can we perform our duty as society’ conscience if we can’t communicate with society?”

    I’m not sure of your meaning here—do you mean because most folks don’t listen or go to concerts or are you saying that “concertgoers” don’t care for the unfamiliar? If the unfamiliar is the crux here then find a way to reach out. Don’t leave the job to others.

    An additional reality check for us composers is the financial paradigm change from the traditional fat/thin times, to a new paradigm where it’s always fat for some always thin for others. Anyway all you can do is your best.

    Phil’s Page Text

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