Justin Davidson’s recent New York magazine piece on a rising generation of New York-based composers has elicited comment from all quarters of the American new music blogosphere: Matthew Guerrieri and our own Alex Gardner furnish two particularly thoughtful comments, which I encourage you to read as well. Davidson’s criticism of Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, et. al. is that they suffer in the absence of an ideological opponent—they have nothing to push against, so to speak. Of course, as Gardner and Guerrieri are quick to retort, the assumption that some kind of antagonism to other artistic practices is a sine qua non for composers (young ones in particular) is rather narrow-minded; the sense of urgent rebellion against a musical orthodoxy might be a useful bucket of cold water, but to gin one up now that there is truly no garde to be avant is to miss by a hundred miles one of the most salient cultural signposts of the present.
And the present, after all, is what’s at stake here. Gilbert Galindo, who I wish would comment more often on NewMusicBox, poses the rhetorical question of why concert music has to strive continually to be “new,” suggesting that there’s no good reason for it—and I agree. But I’d like to echo Baudelaire in asserting that while the new may be of no consequence, the present is urgently to be addressed, and this is a criterion on which we certainly can evaluate a piece of music. The search for the “new” in music is responsive only to other changes and developments (in the TV news sense of the word) in music; I can’t imagine anything more solipsistic and antisocial than making all of one’s decisions as a composer based on the contents of other scores. However, we should never shrink from reminding composers of their responsibility to deal squarely with the present, with the (better, with a) life-world native to 2011. I’m sure Davidson would agree that the composers in his article take up this gauntlet.
Or, at any rate, they acknowledge the existence of a gauntlet: Whether they pick it up—that is, whether they take a critical perspective on the present rather than contenting themselves to be symptoms of it—is, along with the extent to which their efforts to mount a genuine critique are successful, up for debate. Davidson’s claim that young composers should align themselves against a kind of music is superficial, of course, but only because it doesn’t ask them to be ambitious enough: They should align themselves against kinds of thought. I hope they do.