The Uneasy, Unarticulated State of American Music

By Kyle Gann

Delivered at the ISCM Conference in Vienna, November 13, 2013

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) asked me to give a talk on the state of American music at their November, 2013, conference in Vienna - which strikes me as analogous to making Noam Chomsky the U.S. ambassador to the UN. I had to write a statement for their catalogue, which was translated into German.

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The Uneasy, Unarticulated State of American Music

The term "American music" is devoid of specific connotative content today, even if we limit it to composed music in the concert tradition. If it means music made by Americans, Americans today come from all over the globe - and some whose ancestors were born there are working in global traditions. The American educational system pretty reliably exposes young composers to analysis of European modernist masterworks; jazz harmony; musical software; indigenous innovators such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Conlon Nancarrow; and a number of third-world musical traditions, most notably Indonesian gamelan, West African drumming, Japanese gagaku, and Indian classical music. In addition, young composers absorb pop music and mass culture on their own. From this increasingly de-centered pedagogic tradition, they are understandably flung in all directions, flowing into a sea of aesthetic proclivities with myriad flavors but few demarcations or distinct categories.

This absolute openness in terms of aesthetic choices contrasts markedly, though, with drastic limitations on what kind of visibility or impact the composer can expect to achieve in American society. The increasing power of corporations, and their decreasing sense of social responsibility, have created a very different atmosphere from the one I remember growing up in. Major record labels used to promote new music as a public service through the 1960s and '70s, but the corporate-friendly Reagan years made any such altruistic principles a thing of the past. Corporations now so heavily push only kinds of music that can be easily categorized and that return a reliable profit that the amount of public distribution accorded new classical (or postclassical) music has decreased to a trickle. I remember clearly that around 1973 European record labels such as Deutsche Grammophon quit marketing their records in the U.S. because they considered it a losing financial venture, and thus we quit being apprised of the latest new music from abroad.

In addition, the fall of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War brought an era of abundant arts funding to an end. In the 1950s and '60s, the CIA funded the presentation of much American music and art in Europe in order to make a public case that a capitalist democracy could stimulate as good or better artistic production than socialism could. With the fall of the Soviet Union it became no longer necessary for the U.S. government to compete to prove that it could be a cultural success. In addition, right-wing politicians - who always need an alleged enemy to scare the population with - turned their malevolent attention from communists to artists, and produced propaganda to the effect that artists were elite and immoral snobs undermining our family-oriented ethics while living off the public dole. As a result, government arts funding was greatly curtailed, especially for individual and innovative artists, and rerouted toward large public institutions of the most reliably conservative tendencies. Initiatives for cross-cultural exchange dried up. Opportunities to showcase American composers in Europe became rare, as did opportunities for European ensembles to play in the U.S.

It was reported during the 1980s that there were 40,000 self-identifying composers in the U.S. - by now the number must be considerably higher than that. A few hundred of those, perhaps, can expect to become visible within a particular musical subculture. Those who manage to get a foothold in the orchestra circuit will receive the most attention, for the capitalist reason that orchestras, which advertise heavily in newspapers, therefore get dependably reviewed by said newspapers. But even here, the bulk of the general audiences of those orchestras are more likely to consider the occasional living composer a necessary evil than a cultural leader.

It is arguable, I think, that, as a result, there are no American composers today who have achieved the same public stature since 1980 as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams did just prior to that date. While the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this would be that the generations of composers born after 1950 are rather lame, I suggest that another explanation is more convincing. The creativity of the best composers continues at a high level. But the skewed economics of distribution, combined with the sheer numbers of working composers and their smoothly-modulated rainbow of styles, make it increasingly unlikely that any major figures commanding a wide consensus will emerge in the near future.

In 1967, musicologist Leonard Meyer published a fiery book that was widely read at the time, called Music, the Arts, and Ideas. In it he predicted "the end of the Renaissance," by which he meant that there would cease to be a musical mainstream, and that instead we would settle into an ahistorical period of stylistic stasis in which a panoply of styles would coexist. This seemed an outrageous forecast at the time, but Meyer's prescience has been greatly confirmed.

The first stage of the breakup was a separation in the 1960s and '70s into three large trends. One was the stream of serialist music along an American adaptation of European 12-tone principles, which grew in political power and visibility during those decades due to its widespread adoption in university music departments. At almost the same time, minimalism grew from the world of ideas John Cage had opened up, and offered a more timeless, less articulated aesthetic, parallel to certain non-Western musics. Minimalism found a home in the lofts of Downtown Manhattan, and the music of the post-Cagean world came, by the late 1960s, to be called "Downtown music." Serialist, mostly associated with academic music departments and ensembles, and - partly due to its association in Manhattan with Columbia University - earned the back-formation "Uptown music." In the 1980s, some composers who rejected both minimalism and serialism, opting instead for a continuation of a more intuitively Romantic, conventionally orchestral modernist aesthetic, insisted on being called "Midtown" instead. Several of the most prominent "Midtowners," such as George Rochberg, David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, and William Bolcom, actually returned to employing the conventions of late Romanticism (Mahler's idiom being especially popular) with an accompanying dose of irony, satire, or collage. In 1983 the term "New Romantic" was coined for this development.

These divisions played havoc with the standard modernist model of conservative versus avant-garde. Most obviously, the previous association of tonality with conservatism and atonality with avant-garde fell apart. The Uptown serialists could claim to be avant-garde for posing the most challenges to the audience's perception. The Downtown minimalists could claim avant-gardeness by having transcended European genres and embracing a world aesthetic. And the Midtown New Romantics could claim avant-gardeness for having jettisoned even the modernist assumption of stylistic homogeneity. A composer writing a highly tonal piece might be taking Benjamin Britten (conservative) as a model, or Arvo Pärt (avant-garde); and who cold tell for sure?

The battles among these three segments of the composing community, each trying to take on the mantle (and attendant funding and distribution) of the new mainstream, were fierce, played out in newspaper diatribes, college classrooms, and concert halls. After a few years, though, this state of things began to fall apart. First of all, the number of 12-tone pieces (or at least the number of composers publicly extolling 12-tone principles) fell off dramatically in the late 1980s. Minimalism, entering the orchestra world through commissions given to Glass and Adams in particular, became somewhat watered down from its original hard-core principles, and morphed into a textural lingua franca. The extremes declined, as did the prestige of being on the extreme. The shape of American music went from looking like three separate streams to more like a bell curve. There are still adherents of the "New Complexity" in the U.S., Jay Alan Yim possibly the best known. At the other end of the curve, there are those attached to the Wandelweiser school of silence and extreme duration and simplicity, like Michael Pisaro. But that the guru of New Complexity is a British composer, Brian Ferneyhough, and the Wandelweiser a European group, may further suggest how un-American it is to be an extremist these days.

It is against the background of those battles that many of the composers born after 1975 have defined themselves. The new generation of composers is conflict-averse, its discourse reduced to a broadly tolerant pragmatism. However much the young composers believe they have blessedly transcended ideology and partisanship, they have nevertheless inherited some of the previous attitudes in a less articulated form. What appeared at first to be aesthetic and ideological conflicts have turned out to be driven by socio-economic and/or political pressures. Instead of distinct categories, what we now have is a continuum of opinions along the accessibility/difficulty scale. There are questions that no composer can avoid asking him- or herself: how much should the composer keep the audience in mind? What should be the relation, if any, to pop music? Is the educated elite of academia a sufficient audience? Should the composer ignore all questions of perceptibility and follow his or her personal pleasure? Is there, indeed, any way to predict what music will go over well with an audience and what won't? Does the long tail phenomenon of internet distribution render all such questions moot? What is most typical of American music at the moment, I would argue, is a large-scale, implicit, almost publicly unarticulated debate on the social use of music, of what it is made for.

For obvious reasons, the composers who actively court public relevance have been the most visible. Starting in 1987, the Bang on a Can festival, run by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, has championed music of a hard-hitting, exciting profile. The baseball-cap-wearing founders have distanced themselves from the perceived elitism of classical music presentation, giving concerts in unusual and informal spaces and replacing the formality of program notes with personal appearances by each composer performed. A certain amount of rock-star wanna-beism is in evidence. The quieter Common Sense collective, a bicoastal group of eight composers including Dan Becker, Carolyn Yarnell, Belinda Reynolds, and others, has banded together to seek group commissions from ensemble to ensemble, like a roving herd of compositional locusts. With these new paradigms begin the strategies of most composers who have become well-known since. 1. Avoid elitism and traditional formality in presentation, regardless of what the music is like. 2. Control your own distribution and the means to create your own performances. In either case, take your music into your own hands and be independent of existing institutions, which are perceived as being stuffy and resistant to individuality.

The Bang on a Can people eventually formed their own record label, Canteloupe. Probably the most visible group of younger composers in recent years is that united by another such startup, the New Amsterdam label, featuring the composers Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly, William Brittelle, Corey Dargel, and others. Brittelle's theater music mimics the conventions of television. Dargle's works are elaborately composed pop songs on texts of sometimes shocking personal honesty. Anti-Social Music, despite its ironic name, is a group (including Pat Muchmore, Andrea La Rose, and others) that has specialized in extreme informality of presentation, often setting off the music with abundant humor and surreality. ThingNY, run by Paul Pinto, is an ensemble that has tried publicity stunts such as commissioning brief works via mass e-mailings.

Many of these composers clearly feel that they have to compete with the entertainment industry to attract listeners, and that, on the slightly more level playing field of the internet, they may have a chance to do so because their music is livelier, more original, more irreverent, and thus ultimately more attractive than the pabulum peddled by the corporations. However, the resulting styles of all this music are not always predictable from the format, the emphasis being on finding a new presentation paradigm free from associations of either conventional classical music performance or the stylistic subcultures of the 1980s. The terms postclassical and alternative-classical have been widely adopted, as indicating that these composers were trained in European classical music but no longer observe its conventions.

However, that these groups have garnered the most publicity does not mean their approach is numerically dominant. A probably larger number of composers still move through more traditional channels, attending the most prestigious possible grad school, studying with influential teachers, applying for prizes and awards, and angling for orchestral commissions. Even here, a correlation between style and idiom cannot be assumed. One of the most successful young composers on the orchestra circuit, Mason Bates, moonlights as a club DJ. His orchestral works such as Omnivorous Furniture (2004) typically include him playing a noisy music of pop beats from his laptop in the center of the orchestra. Some mention should also be made of how widespread the influence of John Adams has become on young musicians' orchestral music. His propulsive repeating brass chords, dotted by abundant and explosive percussion, have become a rather well-defined style of their own. And since so many commissions for living composers are in the form of ten-minute concert openers, this style/format combination has acquired the jocular nickname "subscriber modernism."

Microtonality is a steadily growing field, more so on the West Coast. Composers working in equal-step scales are far more numerous, and their music tends toward esoteric complexity; those fewer working in just intonation, with Ben Johnston and La Monte Young as models, often opt for meditativeness, or else the expansion of classical harmony toward the higher notes in the harmonic series. Boston has its own microtonal subculture based on a 72-pitch-to-the-octave scale, following the practice of Ezra Sims and the late Joe Maneri. This overall trend remains impeded by technological hurdles and performance difficulties. John Adams, though, made an unusually public microtonal statement with his 2003 orchestra work The Dharma at Big Sur, which incorporated natural harmonics in the brass. Although some young musicians have taken to anachronistically calling this music spectral music, it is quite different from European spectral music in its concern with precisely exotic melody and harmony rather than approximated acoustic phenomena.

Many young composers continue to be most influenced by music of the European avant-garde, though it tends to be the older European music they learn about in college rather than anything more recent. György Kurtag and Helmut Lachenmann, along with the Spectralists Tristan Murail, Gerard Grisey, and the Canadian Claude Vivier are particularly popular at the moment. Despite a time lag of twenty or thirty years, this Eurocentric vision of new music still exerts a strong pull in American universities, especially in the northeast and at certain California schools. For composers in this vein, and indeed others, it is common to engage East European orchestras in order to put out recordings, which can be done at a fraction of the price of using American orchestras.

On the other hand, it should also be noted that the ubiquity of music-producing software such as Garage Band (included for free with any Macintosh laptop) or Logic (now owned by Apple) has encouraged thousands of teenagers to begin making their own electronically produced music without the benefit of any formal musical training. Many of these teenagers come into college making music at a relatively high level of technical sophistication, though motivated more by their experience with house music, rap, and electronic dance music than by their knowledge of what we here would consider the recent history of music. Many of them find themselves reinventing the wheel in terms of basic musicianship, and many of them balk at learning conventional music theory or history.

But if there is anything that recent reception history has taught us, it is that audiences are not particularly concerned with where new music fits into the context of history. These young composers, if they decide to make a career outside the commercial field of pop music, are as likely to find an audience via the internet as anyone else. We are still too early in this process to have learned what forces the ubiquity of relatively cheap musical technology has unleashed on the music world. (My son, who is a 28-year-old, classically trained guitarist in a black metal band, claims that he is too old to be able to negotiate electronic software as fluently as the kids do that he hears these days.) It is entirely possible that the most famous young American composers of 2030 will be people who had virtually no institutional musical training, and who possess no traditional skills (such as orchestration, counterpoint, or playing an instrument).

I myself have noticed a strange trend among some of my students. Some of them see a tremendous prestige in writing classical music in European genres even though they don't listen to that music.

Aside from these categories I've outlined, it is fairly impossible to generalize further. American composers write for Javanese gamelan with or without orchestral instruments and electric guitars (Evan Ziporyn has been active in this area); perform music from their laptops; create sophisticated MIDI versions of orchestral music; subvert pop-music conventions (a specialty of Mikel Rouse); or base their music in Balkan vocal techniques. While many composers make an ambitious bid for social relevance, many, many others are content to accept their marginalization in American culture in return for total autonomy. One thing we all grow slowly more aware of is our increasing disadvantage, as individual low-subsidy artists, in terms of technological sound production compared to the massive resources of corporate film and popular music. Wealth brings a sonic sophistication that the autonomous sound-experimenter can only envy.

I want to close with a few audio examples by composers from the generation after my own - not at all because they are typical (and there can be no "typical" example of American music), but because they represent a strain in American music that I think could probably come from no other country, and that happens in response to our particular set of political pressures. One is by Corey Dargel, the songwriter I mentioned before, who was born in 1977, and who studied with Pauline Oliveros and John Luther Adams at Oberlin. The next is by William Brittelle, who was born in 1976, who attended Vanderbilt University and dropped out of grad school at the City University of New York because they wouldn't allow the kind of music he wanted to write. The last is a piece titled Change by Judd Greenstein, which he's packaged as a compelling music video.

In recent years it has become very clear that the traditional line separating corporations from government has dissolved in the U.S., and that as a result, over the last thirty years, our musical life is not as rich and spontaneous as some of us remember it being before the Reagan years. We have a strong sense of keeping musical creativity alive in the shadows and the periphery, and grabbing funding and resources where we can. Nevertheless, musical creativity continues at a high level in the United States, pursued under a troubling and sometimes debilitating set of circumstances. At one end is the corporate world of commercial music with its untold riches and aesthetic co-optation; at the other end, the rarified air of the unpublic career subsidized by academia. In between are thousands of composers trying to strategize an artistically fulfilling career in a capitalist society run amok, poisoned by money and ruled for the benefit of the richest 0.1 percent. We are well aware that whatever political statement we can make will be dwarfed in its effect by a similar gesture from any well-known pop musician. In short, we are all, every one of us, trying to discern what kind of music it might be satisfying, meaningful, and/or socially useful to make in a corporate-controlled oligarchy. The answers are myriad, the pros and cons of each still unproven. We maintain our idealism and do the best we can.

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