Anger is Not the Only Form of Zeal
The title of this post is taken from an eloquent blog post by Matthew Guerrieri, in response to this essay by Justin Davidson about the “New New York School” of composers. In a nutshell, Davidson complains that for all the talent evident in the bustling New York City new music scene, the actual music written by composers represented in current festivals such as Tully Scope, the Tune-In Festival, and the Ecstatic Music Festival is “shockingly tame.” Davidson points to the lack of “a machine to rage against” as a primary cause. Guerrieri makes the point that “rage and constraint are aesthetic choices, not aesthetic necessities, and, like any aesthetic choice, it’s what you make of the choice, not the choice alone.”
Although it is certainly true that rage and rebellion can result in life-changing works of art, it is by no means the only impetus for artists to create great things. One of the reasons I am drawn to a lot of this music (among many types of music) is precisely because anger is not necessarily the motivating force behind it. Nor is blinding cheer in many cases—there is music inspired by loss, heartache, darkness, philosophy, poetry, politics, and yes, sometimes even wide-eyed joy. How exactly is that a problem?
It is assumed that many of the composers in this group have blithely shrugged off what it means—in a traditional sense—to be a composer, and what sort of music a composer like that creates (as if there were only one answer!). They have thrown open the genre floodgates and allowed multiple universes of music to come streaming in for random appropriation. Although notions of “the what” and of “the how” are definitely being challenged, this change of priorities has involved careful thought, deep study, extensive conversation, and deliberate action. It has by no means occurred in a vacuum, or on a whim. The result is an incredibly articulate community of composers and performers who ardently believe in and support the creation and proliferation of this music. Some composers and/or listeners out there who find change uncomfortable may feel that there is nothing left to relate to in the work, but for others, doors and windows are opening that shed completely new light on the field of contemporary music. Anger and suffering may bind people together, but in and of themselves they don’t necessarily build lasting change, and I think we can all agree that change and adaptation is needed in order to survive.
That concert halls are packed to the gills for performances of, for example, Feldman, Cage, or William Brittelle seems an overwhelmingly positive sign for contemporary music. That the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, traditionally drawing the most conservative of Washington, D.C., classical music audiences was recently filled with the youngest audience I’ve ever seen, one that jumped to its feet at the conclusion of Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market, is mind-bogglingly wonderful. And it’s not just about this group of New Yorkers—change is afoot around the country, in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, and beyond.
These composers of the “New New York School” are, as Guerrieri states, “making a go of it,” which last time I checked was what most composers strive for, and that is working out well. I for one am glad and proud, and I believe that they are ultimately helping all of us by spreading their musical wings into new realms, and inspiring others to do the same.