Steven Stucky: The End of History
About twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed The End of History. As it turns out, he was deeply mistaken. But of course, he was talking about political history; in the arts, might that catchy “end of history” tag be a little nearer the truth?
In music, over decades if not centuries, “history” meant a progress-driven narrative proceeding from the simple to the complex, from the popular to the elite, from the utilitarian to the abstract, from the modal to the tonal to the atonal—to noise. This model was always too crude, too centered on a blinkered, Germanic musicology divorced from the real lives of many musicians and listeners. Hardly anybody believes that narrative nowadays, whether applied to the past or—especially—to the present. (Ach, Dr. Adorno, where are your pronouncements now? Under quarantine: not allowed off campus.)
So . . . gingerly . . . let’s say that yes, we are post-history.
To be sure, the forward arrow of history is still hurtling with a vengeance—but only in the domains of delivery systems for music, modes of consumption, the interaction of musicians and machines, and the economic models for trying to make a living out of these transactions. Only in those domains, you say! Admittedly, they are shifting the very ground beneath all our feet.
Fine. But even more important than all of that is the content, the expressive range, the styles, the aesthetics of today’s many musics. And here the picture is at once simple and bewildering: there is no forward, there is no backward, there is no high, there is no low, there are no rules. The establishment has crumbled (whether it knows it yet or not), and a democracy of means and tastes reigns. The paradigm of steady-state pluralism Leonard Meyer described more than forty years ago in Music, the Arts, and Ideas is still in force today. The musical society we live in is promiscuous, polyglot, impure—what John Adams was getting at when he titled a movement of his Chamber Symphony “Mongrel Airs” back in 1992. I think we can expect this situation to persist for a long time.
So: we have met the future, and it is all around us.
I met the future, for example, only a few weeks ago. In early April, the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered the works of four young composers from around the world: Enrico Chapela (from Mexico, now in Paris), Anna Clyne (from Britain, now in New York), Erin Gee (from California, now in Austria), and Fang Man (from China, now in New York). Even their national and geographical identities tell the same story: mixed and mobile, no longer tied down to old categories. Our post-historical future was on display in the music itself, too: tonality and atonality, excess and reticence, acoustic and electronic sound, plain and recondite, all happily sitting together, cheek by jowl. These four composers are blithely unconcerned about which pigeonhole their works should sit in, and in that regard they are perfectly normal, perfectly representative of their many thousands of colleagues around the world.
The future was on display that night, too, in the very spectacle of one of the world’s great orchestras staking its reputation on the music of (more or less) untried youngsters. For all the confusions and uncertainties around us, that’s a future I’ll be happy to live in.
Composer Steven Stucky, whose Second Concerto for Orchestra brought him the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Music, is also active as a conductor, writer, lecturer and teacher. He has taught at Cornell University since 1980, chaired its Music Department from 1992 to 1997, and now serves as Given Foundation Professor of Composition. In addition, Stucky serves as Consulting Composer for New Music at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2008, he was appointed Chairman of the Board of the American Music Center.