The Zeitgeist Trap
“Every human generation has its own illusions with regard to civilization; some believe they are taking part in its upsurge, others that they are witness to its extinction. In fact, it always both flames up and smoulders and is extinguished, according to the place and the angle of view.”
—Ivo Andrić, Na Drini ćuprija (The Bridge on the Drina) (1945), translated from Serbo-Croatian by Lovett F. Edwards (1959)
“I know these Earth people better than you; their minds reject things they don’t understand.”
—Susan Foreman in “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of the British television series Doctor Who, written by Anthony Coburn (original air date November 23, 1963)
For the past week, I’ve managed to stay out of both David Smooke‘s and Colin Holter‘s hot topics on the Chatter pages of NewMusicBox, as well as NPR’s 100 under 40 list and the avalanche over at Sequenza21. While conventional wisdom attests (and the numbers actually back it up) that these kinds of discussions are what people want to be talking about most, I find them somewhat stifling both creatively and perceptually.
At several times over the years, most acutely in the early 1990s, I have suffered from bouts of compositional writer’s block. What has usually brought these bouts on—I’m ashamed but obliged to admit here—is the fear that what I was attempting to compose was somehow irrelevant, out of touch with the zeitgeist, too experimental, or not experimental enough. The cure has always been to let the music take me wherever it needs to go and not to worry about how it fits in with the rest of what is going on, or even with the rest of my own music.
Similarly, as a listener, the thing that has most frequently gotten in my way of appreciating a piece of music is worrying whether or not it fit in or did not fit in—both are badges of honor, depending on your perspective, but both are listening traps that get in the way of truly appreciating what it is you are listening to. I’ve flippantly said to friends and music colleagues over the years that I believe Dennis Busch, a New Jersey-based composer born in 1947 who writes symphonies that are somewhat reminiscent of mid-period Haydn, to be one of the most radical composers of our time since what he creates goes completely against the grain of everything else being created now. There are loads of other examples over the centuries of people who created works which are either harkening back to earlier eras or seemingly predicting eras yet to be. But this in and of itself does not result in work that is more singular or significant. Yet similarly, there is also no special honor in creating something that is emblematic of its time, a designation that cannot be bestowed on anything from our time with absolute certainty and which is even a questionable accolade when accorded to efforts from previous eras.
A lot of folks involved with music seem to believe that had Beethoven or Arnold Schoenberg never lived, music would have taken a completely different course. Yet a closer examination of Beethoven’s contemporaries reveals that there were lots of contemporaneous composers doing similar things (e.g. Dussek, Mehul). And a century ago Johann Mathias Hauer (1883-1959) was composing with 12-tone rows before Schoenberg. There are also folks in Beethoven and Schoenberg’s times who took completely different paths which are no less valid than theirs. Immersing oneself in that music might actually be a healthier listening and or compositionally inspiring regimen, but then only if it does not erroneously lead you to think that this other way is the way. The way is whatever path you choose.