Excerpt from
American Music in the Twentieth Century
by Kyle Gann

Chapter 13: Totalism and the 1990s

Any characterization of music in the 1990s must deal first and foremost with the overwhelming fact that there are far more active composers today than at any previous time in history. For one thing, the American birth rate rose dramatically during the period of post-W.W. II expansion and euphoria, resulting in the "baby boom" which began around 1946 and peaked in 1955. Released from economic worry by their parents' newfound prosperity, and at the same time reacting against the bland conformity of their Eisenhower-era upbringings, people born in this era entered the arts in unprecedented numbers....

More than ever, the music of the 1990s cannot be generally characterized in terms of styles, for the era is too chaotically diverse to generalize about. There is, however, a deep unity running through the music in terms of the social conditions influencing its production. Composers born in the 1950s all face certain challenges, and all benefit from the explosion of media, both cursed and favored by the rapid shrinking of Planet Earth. Along with the tremendous increase in the number of artists, which exerts a huge effect on public perception of individual artists as well as on how careers are made, composers who find themselves in their 40s as the millennium ends have had the following experiences in common:

The generation born in the 1950s is the first to benefit from greatly increased exposure to non-Western musics in college. In the past, such an advantage came primarily as an accident of geography: West Coast composers like Cowell and Partch grew up with musics other than European as their major musical environment. Today, however, it is common for all students to encounter African, Indonesian, Japanese, Indian, and other musical traditions presented side-by-side with the European tradition - not to mention the increased teaching of jazz and the vastly greater availability of European medieval and Renaissance music on recordings. Whether a composer takes advantage of this exposure or not, he or she is far more likely to learn at a formative age that European music of the common practice period is just one music among many, with no privileged position. In fact, with greatly decreased classical concert attendance, the prestige of European music assumed by earlier generations has been fading rapidly. Attendant to this is that music education has been phased out of many school districts, decreasing even further students' early exposure to music and the establishment of any common musical culture beyond what is heard on radio.

Since the mid-1980s, sequencing software has become such a common mode of music-making that notation has been fading in importance as a compositional intermediary. Much music today is made, even by amateurs, directly on the computer screen. Even where notation remains central, the process of composing increasingly takes place without a paper trail of revisions. No matter how traditional a composer's training has been, the process of working on a lit screen rather than on paper has a powerful, if often unconscious, effect on assumptions about how to structure music, just as writing poetry on a word processor effects how poems are formed differently than a typewriter does.

Accompanying the de-emphasis on notation is the fact that music publishers have quit publishing all but a tiny amount of the most conservative new music. It is nearly impossible for a composer to get his or her scores distributed through commercial channels in the 1990s. On the other hand, compact discs have become relatively cheap to produce, and distribution channels have multiplied. Therefore, whereas the mid-20th-century composer distributed his music through scores and had a difficult time getting recorded, those possibilities are reversed for today's young composer. To at least some extent this reversal has been healthy, for mid-century composers showed a tendency to consider the score the actual music, with a corresponding loss of concern for how the music sounded; today, more and more music can be judged only for how it sounds, for the score may either not exist or be practically unavailable.

The ubiquity of samplers has effected a drastic physical change in the materials of music. The musical atom is increasingly no longer the note, but the sample, a sonic entity that can just as easily be a sound complex or quotation as a single tone from a musical instrument.

Growing up in an environment pervaded with rock music has become an almost universal experience. It is increasingly rare, then, for composers to write without taking the rhythms, instrumentation, or performance conventions of rock into account. For many, rock has become the vernacular bedrock from which music must grow in order to gain any currency with a large audience.

In addition, the overpopulation of artists in all fields has led to a drastic splintering of audiences and a daunting multiplicity of subcultures. The number of routes toward a successful career has increased proportionately with the impossibility of getting a significant hearing outside one's subculture. The orchestral circuit, the opera circuit, the improvisation scene, the new-music community, the theater music world, the academic music world - as each of these milieus grow, they all become more cut off from each other, and moving among them becomes difficult with so many dozens of composers jostling each other for commissions, performances, and reputations in each one.

Return to the American Music in the Twentieth Century page

return to the home page