Drivers in the New Music Economy

In reading Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s very interesting account of the Pharos International Contemporary Music Festival, I was visited, unbidden, by the stereotype that young European composers cleave more closely to the aesthetics of their teachers than young American composers do. I’d like to solicit your thoughts on whether or not it’s true that a young composer whose music strongly resembles her principal teacher’s is likelier to have been educated in Europe than in America. First, however, indulge me as I think through two related points.

The first point has to do with the comparative mechanisms of composerly success in Europe and the United States. My sense, which has not been validated by firsthand experience, is that composition teachers (who may themselves be less likely to have official university affiliations and therefore to have institutionally prescribed ways to oversee their students’ professional development) tend to take a much heavier hand in the promotion of their students’ music. Cohorts of composers—social ones, if not aesthetic ones—seem to be a real thing in Europe, whereas in the United States I think they’re mostly sighted by hard-done-by outsiders with professional axes to grind. The system of festivals, ensembles, and composers is interconnected in such a way that a few well-placed phone calls can do a young composer much good; however, in order for these gates to be opened, everyone on both sides has to feel confident that the content on offer is up to scratch. It has to be something that the teacher can vouch for and the festival director can sell (for whichever kind of capital, economic or cultural, is at stake!): Epigonal music is, I imagine, a safe bet. Am I out of line?

The second point has to do with what contemporary musics in America and Europe, respectively, are allowed, by consensus, to sound like. Say what you will about a piece by a young composer that sounds like the music of her teacher, but at least it sounds like something, which is to say that it fulfills some more or less widely recognized criteria. My experience in the American academy has been that American composition students, for better or worse, are more apt to produce pieces that sound like nothing. They might sound like nothing in the sense that they’re gray, noncommittal, and vague; alternately, they may sound like nothing in the sense that they’re truly sui generis, and beginning to understand them requires a very provisional and exploratory attitude, a comfort with not making sense. Again: Am I out of line?

Let me wrap up by disclaiming: This is not an indictment of European composers or the European new music economy; rather, it’s a speculation about how that economy might be articulated to certain professional and aesthetic relationships. The last thing I would want to do is to generalize about European and American contemporary music. (There are plenty of commentators on the internet who are happy to do exactly that.) However, the circumstances of production and consumption differ quite substantively by geography, and it would behoove us to better understand the impact of these circumstances on how composers think and what they do.

4 thoughts on “Drivers in the New Music Economy

  1. Phil Fried

    Interesting thoughts. I know I have complained about gate keepers and log rolling quite a bit on these pages. I do know how the system works and part of it is political after all. On the other hand I am aware that many teachers are more than willing to take credit for the success of their students in which they had no hand in at all. Either as a teacher or as a gatekeeper.

    This is important as a teacher’s status or a composers status as a teacher is reflected in having successful students or being associated with them. This is of course not limited to music composition.

    In this way they can skate on top of a rink created by others.

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  2. Scott

    Interesting article! To address your last point about music by student composers: My sense is that in America young composers are generally encouraged to strive for originality and a unique “voice” early on, whereas in Europe a young composer is encouraged to strive for their music to be effective, well-constructed, and skilled. This is certainly not across-the-board, but it seems at least a little bit true. The most common critique I’ve seen of young American composers is that their music isn’t original enough, but I’ve not seen that critique as often of Europeans; good craft doesn’t seem to as valued in the US as it is in Europe.

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  3. mclaren

    European composers like Messaien certainly cut a wide swath and became (in)famous for inspiring mini-clones of themselves. This might have more to do with the flamboyance of influential European composers than with a difference in musical culture; and notable European composers seem to behave with more grandiloquence simply because (until the recent Euro-crisis) they’ve had a lot more funds to dispense and a great deal more government support than in America.

    You have to ask yourself how many American composers would be tolerated–nay, celebrated!–if they started blasting airhorns in concerts of Mozart in protest. But that was how Louis Andriessen originally rose to prominence. You can do that kind of thing and be sure you won’t wind up homeless on the street when the state supports contemporary music with lavish funding.

    This may tend to explain your observation. With little state money to support hi/r career, an American teacher can’t do all that much to help hi/r students. In Europe, it’s different. There is no American equivalent of IRCAM, for example.

    On the other hand, it’s absolutely true that the Americano composer has imbided the commandments of High Modernism with fanatical devotion. In a recent survey in Sequenza21 asking American composers their musical aspirations, every single American composer slavishly parrotted the High Modernism edict “novelty ueber alles.” Every single composer said that he or she wanted to produce music that sounded original and startling — excellence be damned, to hell with craftsmanship, forget about competence. Novelty, novelty, forever novelty. Nothing else.

    John Adams parrotted the same musically and intellectually bankrupt party line in his recent commencement speech when he advised young composers to produce music which “rips you out of your skin.” Novelty, novelty, more novelty. Nothing but novelty. Always novelty, forever novelty, more and more novelty until we’re all swallowing carrot juice while pressing microphones against our throats and calling it “music.”

    So there’s plenty of hard evidence to support the hypothesis that your typical Americano composer has gotten sunk in the deepest shadows of an infantile and fetishistic monomania with novelty for its own sake.

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