Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation!

We’re at that time of year where the pace of life accelerates considerably (at least for those of us in the teaching biz) before the inevitable caesura around the holidays, so it’s not too surprising that I almost missed Dan Joseph’s article last week decrying the absence of composers from his “generation,” which he defined as 1963-1980. Beginning with a story about Frederic Rzewski ranting about composers from that generation back in the mid-’90s, Joseph leaps into an extensive essay on the dearth of composers born in that era.

To give you a thumbnail sketch of Joseph’s viewpoint, I offer the following extended excerpts:

“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.”

“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.”

“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 Millennials, 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”?”

“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.”

In culling through Joseph’s essay and subsequent comments, I see that his concerns can be condensed down to the following:

– There is a seeming lack of Gen X composers (at least at new music concerts in NYC), in relation to those from the Boomer and Millennial generations.

– Many of us had really depressing childhoods (“the America of our childhood was also somewhat of an impoverished land of broken dreams and broken families”), thereby fostering a current generation full of skeptics and cynics and resulting in non-linear life paths.

– There is no signature movement or style (“a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular”) associated with our generation, resulting in a lack of notable voices.

– We can’t help having been “passed over” because of the timing of when we were born.

– While we have had a positive influence on our musical world, our lack of need for the spotlight has muted our overt importance on the broader musical culture.

Starting with the first issue regarding the lack of Gen X composers, this confused me at first. Anyone who’s read my columns over the past two years knows that 1) I’ve been interviewing many composers around the country from precisely this demographic and 2) I’m comfortable making lists of composers if it’s necessary, so please know that my first reaction to this was to create a massive list to disprove Joseph’s thesis on its face. But after re-reading his article and the subsequent comments, I understand that a simple list would miss what he’s pursuing. In his comments to David Smooke, Dan interprets David’s own examples of Gen X composers as being representative of the “academic classical establishment” (an interpretation that I would strongly disagree with), after which he states that his “field of view” is broader than that and that his argument is qualitative rather than quantitative, describing our generation’s character and profile as “muted and muddled.” In his comments to Jennifer Higdon, he again asks if Gen X composers are “missing” after agreeing that there are many active and accomplished composers in that generation–again, this was confusing to me.

I think I read Dan’s comments to David and Jennifer in the following way: previous generations have always seemed to have their A-list composers, who were considered as such during their lifetimes as well as after their deaths. These A-list composers were broadly recognized, at least within the musical community if not in the general population, and they were known for having very distinctive musical styles that could be easily associated with their own public personas, which were also often known and recognized. One could use just their last or even first names when speaking about them and be understood (Igor, Bela, Aaron, Benjamin, Samuel, Lenny, Milton, Elliott). Dan’s thesis seems to be that because Gen X does not seem to have any composers who he can point to who fall under this rubric, there must be something wrong with us and our upbringing. From here he extrapolates his subsequent arguments about the lack of an organized musical “movement” among these composers, which has ultimately resulted in them making a less substantial impact on our culture and our world.

Regarding the number of composers, I’m comfortable in pointing toward the rapid increase in the number of graduate academic degree programs in composition that started in the 1960s and 1970s and have steadily increased since then to suggest that, at least numerically, there are more (professional and otherwise) composers in the Gen X group than there were in previous generations. While in the past, most composers may have congregated in several cultural urban centers, the ability for composers to thrive outside of those centers has increased dramatically since the advent of the internet and, I would argue, that the Gen X’ers were the first generation of artists to break ground on that front.

Joseph’s comments on our childhood and its effect on our current psyche, while overly dramatic and reductionist, include some (relatively) valid points. Did more of our parents divorce than the Boomers? Yes. Did the steady disintegration of the utopian ideal that was propagated during the 1950s and early ’60s have a lasting effect on how we as adults view our career options? Yup. Did the fact that both mainstream composers and academia began to (slowly) move away from didactic, overly process-driven, and dissonance-laden concepts as their only viable options have an enormous effect on young composers in the late ’80s and early ’90s and subsequently create an “all-bets-are-off” free-for-all attitude towards musical language and technique? Definitely. And did that free-for-all pull composers away from the supposed importance of a “signature style”? Very much so.

Were we born at the “wrong” time? Only if you believe it to be so. Would I rather have been born in the mid-’80s or early ’90s instead of 1970? (Give up cassette tapes, Dungeons & Dragons, and getting to see Star Wars during its opening week in the theater?) Not on your life. I think our generation has the unique luck to have connections to both the social turmoil of the 1960s/’70s as well as the changes in technology and social interaction of the 1990s/’00s. We were the last generation to live without the internet, the last generation that remembers not having the option of using notation software, and the last generation to remember how the arts could be supported by the general public. Does that put us at a disadvantage against our more respected elders or the media-savvy Millennials? It depends on what you mean by a disadvantage.

I would also suggest that Gen X had a dysfunctional relationship with the media at the same time as the media was going through its massive transformation from dead-tree and network to digital and cable. Because there were so many composers doing so many different things in the late ’80s through the early ’00s and there was a rejection of the concept of a single signature movement or style, this caused both the media and the academics to wait until the dust settled before they made any proclamations of importance. The issue for the Gen Xers arose when the generation born at the end of the ’70s/beginning of the ’80s began to get noticed because of their (supposed) stylistic homogeneity. Personally, I think it had more to do with their comfort with breaking out of the typical concept of what a composer should act like and look like than with any purely musical trend, but whatever the reason, the updated media models (of which this magazine is a fine example) have given composers born in the ’80s and ’90s quite a lot of attention. This attention, which was never available to Gen X’ers during their careers’ formative years, could easily engender feelings that our generation was “left behind” in favor of the young whippersnappers with their savvy and moxie (I’m hearing myself say this in a Grandpa Simpson’s voice…).

Returning to the main “A-list” argument I described earlier that underlays Joseph’s entire article, I have three responses. The first of which is that there are A-list composers in our generation, but you have to be willing to have a truly broad context to see them. Mention the name “Eric” to anyone in the choral realm and they will know who you are talking about; Whitacre’s music has transcended the concept of “standard literature” and his Virtual Choirs have brought unknown attention to the choral genre (I’d also put Tarik O’Regan in that category for choral works). There are thousands who would recognize the names Mackey or Bryant from their high school band concerts. In the concert world, Adès, Puts, and Theofanidis are already known throughout the industry and Mazzoli, Bates, and Friedman are not far behind (as well as many more I really want to list but won’t, to save space). How about jazz? Darcy James Argue and Vijay Iyer. Musicals? Jason Robert Brown. Film music? Michael Giacchino, Alexandre Desplat, and Marco Beltrami.

Secondly, the fact that Gen X composers don’t have a single movement or style is not only a good thing, but it is the most important aspect of that generation as well. Our generation was the “reboot” that erased the many years of serial/chance/minimalism debates from the musical whiteboard altogether. It’s not surprising that it took 10-20 years of exploration in the wilderness by Gen X composers before the situation improved to the point that the introduction of the Millennial composers seemed so effortless.

Finally, years ago in my undergrad days when I was a hardcore jazzer ignorant of the concert world, I got the chance to play with the great trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm. I distinctly remember him musing about his place in the jazz world, frustrated that he wasn’t old enough to be a respected elder but was too old for the media-friendly “young lions” who were prevalent at that time (the Marsalis brothers and their coterie were all the rage back then). But there he was, surrounded by excited student performers who hung on his every word and looked up to him no matter what he himself thought of his place in the world. It is with this mindset—glass half-full—that we as creative artists must meet the world that surrounds us. Whether or not we are “noticed” by the proper authorities or the general public means so much less than our own well being, both now and in the future.

6 thoughts on “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation!

  1. Ethan Wickman

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this topic recently. In fact, the discussion reminds me of my reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” earlier this past summer, and its compelling discussion of the advantage of certain birth years and places. While I was born squarely in the middle of these years (1973), I can think of any number of composers who have garnered a lot of success and attention. At the same time, I feel like we confronted a kind of dilemma during our formative years. That dilemma has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing, as the article acknowledges, is the freedom we increasingly discovered to live in a pluralistic world. Much of the baggage of earlier generations, and their accompanying dogma, steadily evaporated from the late ’80s in to the ’90s. We were free to write the music we wanted. The curse, at least in my own development, was that I attached my own baggage to what I call my ‘liberation movement.’ In grasping eclecticism in my music I always felt that I was taking a really bold stand. The reality is that as younger generations came of age, that “bold stand” was not really so bold, because they were several years removed from even the whiff of the ‘old ways.’ A simple example would be the wrestling match some of us faced about drawing upon tonality in a work. Without what some might call the oppression of our forebears, that tonality really loses its meaning and is no more radical than any other idea. Once pluralism took root, that fact that everything was possible seemed to make nothing special.

    If as Gen-Xers our contribution to the canon seems a bit less bedazzling than those before or after, our struggles were an introspective sort. So much noise has maybe only served to muffle the ‘quiet desperation.’

    Reply
  2. Matt Marks

    I feel like the problem with pinning down Gen X and Y compositional trends has more to do with the difficulties musicologists (Dan Joseph acting as somewhat of an armchair musicologist here, as am I) are having than with any reality that the composers themselves are floundering. Hell, the entire art world lost its grounding after post-modernism, as the easy-to-track progressivism of the 20th century dissipated. If there is a lack of substantial works during that time period – it’s really tough to say though – in my opinion it’s likely due to the gradual withdrawal of innovation addiction. And I think that addiction was/is largely due to composers obsessing over their role in music history. The more we can lose that torch-carrying ideal, the better off we’ll be.

    Reply
  3. Armando Bayolo

    Thank you, Matt Marks! A-friggin’-men! The obsession with history and our place in it, and the remnants of the Hegelian dialectic need to go, STAT (and please, take Malcolm Gladwell, that overrated, self-aggrandizing hack, with you!).

    Ethan, I’m not sure what you went through, but I don’t recall facing dilemmas in school. It seemed my (younger Boomer) teachers were the ones who faced dilemmas. It was our job to learn from them. If anything, the baggage I am faced with is this notion of the Hegelian linearity of history and the obsession with innovation and style schools that Dan’s original article reflects. It’s imperative that any composer who still harbors such ideas shed them, post haste, and focus, instead, on writing the best music s/he can. All other matters are inconsequential.

    Reply
  4. Brighton

    The only people with the free time and financial means to become A-list composers have always been the children of wealth. Our upper class is not interested the arts any longer and neither are their children. The next wave of interesting music will eventually come from Korea and China.

    Universities have nothing to do with it. I can’t think of a great composer who was a phD.

    Reply
  5. Phil Fried

    “..It’s imperative that any composer who still harbors such ideas shed them..”

    This seems in line with my favorite philosopher Emily Peck. Who said:

    Everyone parrots [the words] be yourself, be yourself. What is this precious self anyway?

    I’m sure that know one doubts that there is plenty of success to be had avoiding innovation and history. I believe its called maintaining the status quo.

    Reply
  6. Dan Joseph

    Dear Rob,

    Wow, what an excellent and thoughtful response! I think you have actually made some of my main points more clearly than I was able to in my article. I especially like your notion of our generation being the “reboot” – that’s a big part of what I was getting at. And as I have suggested and which you seem to understand, this is not a quantitative assertion and I deliberately avoided listing names. However, I welcome you to do so, as one of the hopes I had in writing this piece was to learn of other composers of my generation that I am not aware of. Already I have been introduced to some new voices through your article as well as comments on my piece.

    In one aspect however, I think I have been misunderstood. I realize that there may be a bit of a negative undertone to my article, but nowhere have I suggested that there is something “wrong” with us, or that we were ultimately born at the “wrong time.” I see how this may have seemed to be implied, but really I am just trying to understand who we are as a generation (if that is even possible). Ultimately, like you and other respondents, I see the glass to be (at least) half full!

    Best regards, Dan

    Reply

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