In the fall of 1996 while I was a graduate student at Mills College, the esteemed composer Frederic Rzewski visited the music department to lecture and meet with students. At that time I already had some acquaintance with the composer and his work, having previously enrolled in a year-long seminar in 20th-century music he gave at CalArts (where he was a visiting artist and I was a student), and thus I had some sense of his style and biases as an artist and teacher. However, on this occasion, during a free-flowing discussion that followed his lecture on Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, I was caught off guard by his unambiguous contempt and disregard for the composers of my generation. Among the more discouraging points he made about us was the assertion that none of us were ultimately going to become composers. We would become bankers and lawyers or something, but not composers, and frankly, he said, “It doesn’t really matter.” Later, while driving Rzewski to his hotel in San Francisco, something I had volunteered to do prior to his arrival, we continued the conversation and it was here that he said something to the effect of “composers born between 1960 and 1980 are a sad, sad bunch.” While I confess that I don’t remember the exact years he referenced, it was clear that I and all of my fellow students were most definitely within these boundaries.
Certainly this was some tough medicine, especially coming from such a titanic figure as Frederic Rzewski, who seemed to me to represent perhaps the highest level of accomplishment and erudition an American composer could hope to attain. To say that I was crestfallen would be an understatement but, as a student with aspirations to be a composer, I found a way to ultimately ignore his disapproval and dire predictions and continue on the path to composerhood. I simply wrote off his opinions as those of a cranky, bitter man.
I ultimately did become a composer, of some description anyhow, which is to say I continue to create new works that are regularly performed, and that recordings of my work are produced, occasionally residencies and grants are awarded, and music continues to be the focus of my life. In the years following my student days, I simply ignored the assertion that my generation was a “sad, sad bunch.”
But recently I have begun to think that perhaps Rzewski had a point. For one thing, as I have continued to carve my path as a composer, it seems to be an increasingly lonely road, particularly bereft of composers my own age. I have regular contact with many older composers, and increasingly many younger ones, but apart from a few close composer friends from my student days I seem to have very few peers of my own generation. I was born in 1966 and that puts me in the era of “Generation X”. Routinely, however, it seems I attend new music concerts that include works by composers born in the ’40s, ’50s and ’80s, (and even recently the ’90s) or sometimes including some from the late 70s, but rarely performances that include works from those born in the heart of Generation X—which here we’ll define as 1963-1980. Of course, they are out there; I do actually know some of them, and no doubt readers of this column will know of numerous others. But relative to the generations before and after, it seems that there is a shortage of Gen X voices out there.
Composers, and creative people generally, are perhaps more inclined to think of their lives as unique and outside of cultural trends. That is in fact what most of us aspire to, at least in part: To be outside of trends. For much of my life, I have done my best to differentiate myself, in my life and my work, but at a certain point it started to become clear that the circumstances of my life, particularly my musical life, were part of a larger pattern that many of my peers shared. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling and insightful exploration of success, Outliers, as I did recently, helped underscore for me the extent to which our lives are shaped by larger cultural forces beyond our control. As Gladwell explains in the opening chapter, aspiring Canadian youth hockey players born earlier in the year (and therefore older, bigger, and stronger than those born later in the year) have an advantage because the league determines eligibility by year. It is a clear example of how statistical factors play into the outcomes of our lives. Exploring some of the sociological literature concerning generational patterns offers additional food for thought.
When it comes to patterns regarding Generation X, it’s worth noting that there are in fact fewer of us. The U.S. birth rate began a steady decline beginning around 1960, reaching a low point during the mid ’70s before climbing again throughout the ’80s. So this might help explain why there seems to be a paucity of composers born during this period. My generation succeeded the great Baby Boomers, the generation who enjoyed growing up in perhaps the greatest, most affluent, and most self-fulfilling era in American history, since victory in World War II led to a post-war economic expansion the likes of which the world had never seen. Boomers had great advantages and great opportunities and exploited them with great gusto, leading right up to what author Tom Wolfe described as “The Third Great Awakening,” which is essentially what the ’60s were: a time of intense social revolution and experimentation. Unfortunately for Gen X, this revolution was not so much about us. In fact, the radical changes of the ’60s, and the sexual revolution in particular, began to unfold amid the invention and eventual widespread use of the birth control pill, and with it the beginning of a dramatic increase in the divorce rate. Attitudes towards children and child rearing went through a sea change, leading to what some have described as the “neglected generation.” Remember latchkey kids?
The revolution of course, ran its course, and while there was great and important social change and growth-in-awareness, the America of our childhood was also somewhat of an impoverished land of broken dreams and broken families. As a result of this sequence of rather wild cultural swings, Gen X’ers are almost equally rooted both in the utopian impulse that defines our parents’ adulthood, and also its almost equally spectacular failure. We were thus brought up in a world of lowered expectations and downward mobility, the first generation to do worse than its parents, or so it has been said. Not too much later, with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, a new conservative era was about to begin, largely closing the books on the “Great Awakening” and its aftermath, and it is in this gap, this wrinkle, that the broader Gen X identity was forged, that of the self-absorbed, underachieving slacker. While there may be some truth in this stereotype, what the classic Gen X personality is arguably really expressing is a kind of indifference, to both radical rebellion and to traditional roles and paths. The prototypical Gen X’er is skeptical, cynical, and self-effacing and not surprisingly, many of this generation have followed unusual, non-linear paths in life, often without attracting much notice. This would seem to fit the broader profile of Gen X composers whom, I have suggested, appear to be missing.
But are we really that different from the generations before and after us? While admittedly the very idea of a “generation” is somewhat problematic, as it is both difficult to establish clear boundaries as well as to identify a common experience among its members, I would say yes, in both cases, it has been different. As the writer Jeff Gordinier argues in his influential 2008 Gen X manifesto X Saves the World, Gen X rebelled strongly against the grandiosity and super-achieving zeal of the Boomers, as well as to our own rather downbeat circumstances, by identifying more with the fringe and the low profile. The Milennials, or Generation Y in turn rebelled against this under-the-radar, disengaged, alternative ethos of the X-ers by returning to, and even one-upping, the Boomer ethos of high achievement and seeking the limelight. While sharing many personality traits with the Boomers, this generation is also a statistically big generation, much bigger than X, and they are sometimes called “echo-Boomers.” Given this larger context, is it surprising that we don’t hear much about Gen X composers?
It isn’t just a matter of our personality differences and smaller demographic profile that has kept Gen X composers out of view, it is also an issue of timing. Looking at, for example, the trajectory of minimalism can perhaps encapsulate in microcosm, the larger Gen X experience. Minimalism has been the dominant musical movement of the past fifty years. It began with composers of the so-called Silent Generation – all of the major originators, Riley, Glass, Reich and Young having been born in the 1930s. If you were in Lower Manhattan during the late 60s and early seventies you might have been aware of this exciting new development, but most everyone else only caught on later. Boomer composers like John Adams (b. 1947) or Paul Dresher (b. 1951) emerged from music school just in time to catch the wave and develop a spin on this emerging language while it was still new. Soon afterward another wave took shape as exemplified by the Bang on a Can composers, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, all of them younger Boomers (b. 1956, 1957 and 1958 respectively) who also adopted minimalism as their own, emerging in the 80s as the idiom was beginning to reach mainstream audiences and widespread critical acceptance, reaping perhaps the final harvest of this once revolutionary seed. But as Generation X emerged on the scene throughout the 90s, this movement had grown stale, and composers who were still kicking minimalist ideas around were seen as, well, just not that interesting.
In this way our story echoes another chapter from Gladwell’s Outliers that explores the rise of the high-tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and others, all of whom were born on or around 1955. In this story timing is everything and Gladwell concludes that all of these success stories were at least in part the result of having been born at the right time to take full advantage of an emerging technology. Sure, there were some high-tech success stories that followed, even some from Gen X like Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Yahoo’s David Filo, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But just as with composers, particularly those associated with minimalism and its offshoots, as the Gen X years arrive we see fewer success stories, and those that do succeed are far less prominent and newsworthy than their Boomer predecessors. Once again, they are out there, but somehow their voices are either absent from the public sphere, or just plain muted.
Of course not all Gen X composers were or are writing in a minimalist idiom, but if we were to take an informal survey of some of the more prominent composers of this age group, what I think we would find is somewhat of a muddle of conflicting influences and styles with no real significant innovations or discoveries. There is no signature movement or style of this group as there is with the Boomers, which, as I have suggested, is really a second phase of minimalism, or post-minimalism. The Millenials, I would argue, have coalesced around a new style that fuses classical and contemporary pop music in new ways that might be characterized as “post-classical” or “indie-garde.” Sure, there are interesting, talented and accomplished figures among them, but as a group, Gen X composers seem caught in the same wrinkle of ambivalence, between rebellion and tradition, that characterizes their generation as a whole. I might posit the Gen X sound as “a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular.” Is this part of the reason for our absence, the fact that we have no distinctive sound of our own? Is ours’ the sound of “a sad, sad bunch”?
Maybe I am in denial, but I for one am not ready to accept such a blunt and dour assessment of me and my fellow Gen X composers. While clearly we have our challenges–we’re downwardly mobile, there aren’t many of us, we are skeptical, ambivalent and self-effacing and our timing is off–and as a group remain a dim presence, we are now entering middle-age and perhaps our star may yet rise. We could be late bloomers about to finally make a lasting mark. Maybe. But another view has it that–and this again echoes that of Gordinier in X Saves The World–without even knowing it, we have been having an important influence on our culture all along, we just haven’t made a big deal about it. I don’t know if this is true, and maybe time will tell. Perhaps you, the readers, know some important Gen X composers out there that the rest of us have overlooked. I would love to learn about them.
Dan Joseph is a free-lance composer based in New York City. For the past fifteen years, the hammer dulcimer has been the primary vehicle for his music and he is active as a performer with his own chamber ensemble, The Dan Joseph Ensemble, as well as in various improvisational collaborations and as an ocassional soloist. He is also the producer and curator of the monthly music and sound series Musical Ecologies at The Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn.