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.