Postclassic: Passionate Dinosaur in a Laidback World

September 2, 2013

By Kyle Gann

From Mark Edmundson's Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education:

It's his capacity for enthusiasm that sets [a favorite student he has described] apart from what I've come to think of as the reigning generational style. Whether the students are fraternity/sorority types, grunge aficionados, piercers/tattooers, black or white, rich or middle class... they are, nearly across the board, very, very self-contained. On good days they display a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there's little fire, little passion to be found.

This point came home to me a few weeks ago when I was wandering across the university grounds. There, beneath a classically cast portico, were two students, male and female, having a rip-roaring argument. They were incensed, bellowing at each other, headstrong, confident, and wild. It struck me how rarely I see this kind of full-out feeling in students anymore. Strong emotional display is forbidden. When conflicts arise, it's generally understood that one of the parties will say something sarcastically propitiating ("Whatever" often does it) and slouch away.

How did my students reach this peculiar state in which all passion seems to be spent? I think that many of them have imbibed their sense of self from consumer culture in general and from the tube in particular. They're the progeny of a hundred cable channels and videos on demand. TV, Marshall McLuhan famously said, is a cool medium. Those who play best on it are low-key and nonassertive; they blend in. Enthusiasm... quickly looks absurd. The form of character that's most appealing on TV is calmly self-interested though never greedy, attuned to the conventions, and ironic. Judicious timing is preferred to sudden self-assertion....

Most of my students seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves. (Do I have to tell you that those two students having the argument under the portico turned out to be acting in a role-playing game?) The specter of the uncool creates a subtle tyranny. It's apparently an easy standard to subscribe to, this Letterman-like, Tarantino-inflected cool, but once committed to it, you discover that matters are rather different. You're inhibited from showing emotion, stifled from trying to achieve anything original. You're made to feel that even the slightest departure from the reigning code will get you genially ostracized. This is a culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm. (pp. 7-9)

I wouldn't try to vouch for how aptly this description applies to student culture today in general; I try never to assume that Bard is typical. But it certainly explains to me for the first time why so many young composers hold it against me that I took an outspoken part in the serialism-minimalism feud of that allegedly horrible decade the 1980s. Composers in academia went on the attack against minimalism and Cagean influences, and I fought back, almost never so much against their music as against their intolerance. That my part in that fight is remembered today somewhat better than the original attacks is due to three reasons: Babbitt, Wuorinen, Davidovsky, et al attacked via scholarly journals and I was in a popular newspaper; much of their power was wielded behind the scenes via prize-giving organizations; and, since I am a better writer than they were, my words have achieved a longer shelf-life. Among the New Music America types Downtown, the situation unified a lot of us together for a glorious cause to which we were devoted. The collective feeling, the sense that we could make something exciting happen, energized and inspired us. If I had it all to do over again, I would change virtually nothing.

But the young, laid-back composers are horrified by all this. They find public argument distasteful; standing up for one's aesthetic viewpoint an embarrassing faux pas; generalization about a style or repertoire impolite. As Edmundson goes on to say,

What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality...

What they will generally not do, though, is indict the current system. They won't talk, say, about how the exigencies of capitalism lead to a reserve army of the unemployed and nearly inevitable misery. That would be getting too loud, too brash. For the pervading view is the cool, consumer perspective, where passion and strong admiration are forbidden. (p. 9)

No one has ever called me cool. A certain perennial emotiveness has been noted, also the presence of passions and enthusiasms. A total insusceptibility to peer pressure was observed in my youth, and I have never blended in. I find the current system unfair, and I'm always on call to help blow it to bits. I've always been willing to stand up publicly for what I believe, and I've always considered the willingness to do so one of the signal virtues. But I can see now from this laid-back viewpoint what an embarrassing throwback I must seem, as Edmundson, in the book, suspects he is too, with his own passions and principled stands. One is no longer allowed to believe in his or her own aesthetic path so strongly as to extol it above others. Like Robert Frost's liberals, we are too open-minded to take our own side in a quarrel. I have long known that my style of being a musician had become deeply unfashionable, but not until reading Edmundson did I grasp the process by which all of my most cherished virtues had become reinterpreted as social indelicacies.


Paul A. Epstein says: Isn't it just the inevitable loss of urgency that goes along with everything being permissible? Some years ago the Times published an item of mine in the Metropolitan Diary (I actually won a bottle of champagne for it) that went something like this:
Modernist manifesto: MORE MANIFESTOS! Postmodernist manifesto: NO MORE MANIFESTOS!
KG stutters: But - given that everything is permissible - which is a good thing - doesn't one then have to *choose* what one is going to do, and shouldn't one be able and proud to defend that choice?
Your formulation is a more succinct way of saying what I have sometimes said myself. I wonder if part of my own personal difference is the process, perhaps an unusual one, that I went through to decide what kind of music to write. I nearly did a double major in philosophy in college - decided at the last minute not to go through all the necessary paperwork - but I read widely in the history of aesthetics, from all of Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's Poetics through Santayana, Langer, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Wilde, Nelson Goodman, and many others, sometimes in classes and tutorials. And from all that I pieced together what I thought was an ethically sound and creatively fulfilling course for my own music. I didn't just intuitively fall into it, or let teachers influence me. In my chapter on the Epilogue of Ives's Essays Before a Sonata, I've had to retrace some of that material. Ives, I think, does a circuitous but magnificent job of explaining why he wrote the music he did, and I think I could back up my own choices with historical argument, not just because I fell into what I liked doing.

Paul A. Epstein says: I agree that on balance total permissiveness is a good thing, and yes, one should be able and proud to defend one's choices. I remember wonderful arguments at SCI conferences: "Why do you always have to have a steady pulse? What's with all the repetition?" The problem is that those abstract and theoretical arguments may no longer seem to have much relevance when one is "trying to strategize an artistically fulfilling career in a capitalist society run amok."
KG replies: I'm sure you've been asked those very questions, and I would find it so much more interesting to ask *why* someone would ask those questions than I would find the answers themselves. Because most music has had a steady pulse? Because repetition is the simplest way to draw the listener in? It would be far more fascinating to learn why someone would want to scrupulously avoid such sure-fire effective devices.

Paul A. Epstein says: Those are in fact some of the questions I asked. The answers were usually defensive and unresponsive. The point is that in the course of the discussion my own ideas became better defined and more secure. This was at a time when I was operating largely intuitively, without benefit of a support community such as exists today.

perkustooth says: For what it's worth I think you're pretty cool actually. Now that's coming from a proud new music nerd so take it in that context.
KG replies: Thanks, Allan, I've always appreciated your support.

Nac says: Just as a footnote to the Edmundson, you might find it interesting that McLuhan initially made his hot/cool media dichotomy based on how "engaging" he thought the medium was; a "hot" medium was one that was so information-dense that it left little room for dialogue; the audience was just there to "absorb" the medium, rather than really engage with it. A "cool" medium, OTOH, was one that invited the audience's participation. McLuhan thought cinema was "hot", since the enormous screen and darkened theater overwhelmed its viewers, while TV was "cool" because its smaller, grainier images required viewers to sort of play along/"suspend disbelief", and because it was viewed in the home, a more intimate setting.
Then some other people countered that, well, actually, cinema is "cool" since it encourages a more critical view, whereas television is "hot" since it's totally indifferent to its viewers. The debate is more complicated than that, but I read all this a while ago... (while trying to come up with something to say about Ashley's television operas)

David D. McIntire says; I actually tried to instigate an argument among a class of comp students a couple of years ago, just to see what or whom they cared about passionately. Or at least find out whose music they utterly despised. Total bust; they refused to argue. "Whatev's. man" was the basic response. I am not expecting any manifestos from this bunch.

Stefan Kac says: During the one semester I spent in the CalArts Graduate Composers forum, negative comments were expressly forbidden by the instructor. I'm not kidding. Also, don't try leaving a negative comment at New Music Box, as they "reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate," which apparently includes extending Professor Gann's restaurant analogy to include the infamously unhealthy ingredients that make restaurant food so darn tasty, thus explaining its enviably wide appeal.
Speaking as an early-vintage Millennial, that's not all that smells here. I mean, wasn't it our parents' generation who militantly insisted on deconstructing individual subjectivity to the point that having an opinion got you labeled a fascist?

Virginia Anderson says: I particularly empathise with this: 'Composers in academia went on the attack against minimalism and Cagean influences, and I fought back, almost never so much against their music as against their intolerance'. Students find it hard to argue here in Britain, too.
But there is a strain of argument that has arisen here that I can't really abide. It is more like pestering (in the sense of little kids wanting a new toy). I've had to close down a number of email exchanges with younger composers simply because they just keep on asking the same questions. I think they hope to get validation for their work as the 'grandchildren of Cage'. Since I don't buy into the kind of social Darwinian inheritance thing, I can never give them the answer they want, and they interpret my answer as a rejection of their work. It's very tiring.

scott mc laughlin (@mugloch) says: To be honest, speaking as a "young" (I'm 38...) composer, as much as I love and live music, if I'm going to spend energy in an argument, it's going to be about politics, not music: notwithstanding threats against music itself or the musical ecosystem, but that's still a political argument really.
I think the problem here is the subject positions. I, personally, can and do passionately argue for my music, for why I write what I write, my reasoning, but I don't see any point in arguing against composer X writing what they write. It's fun these days in a "kinda dumb" way to poke holes in other aesthetics, but it's pointless: the Darmstadt game of booing (concealing schoolyard giggles) and macho-tribalism, no-one takes it seriously these days do they? If there's any throwbacking here it's that such arguments are based in a conceptualisation of music as a knowable objective form: as though there's some objective music that me and my friends (luckily) are the ones to be writing, the one true music. To defend one's music implies that it's under attack, that its very being is threatened, and why? because someone else doesn't like it and has constructed some argument against it? an argument based on what objectivity, it's an argument built on sand.
I don't need to defend my aesthetic because no-one can take it away from me. What is there to defend? I do what I do, I love it, you might too. If you don't love it then I'm open to passionately explaining why and how it works for me, maybe you just didn't have way in to the music, but I'm certainly not going to to try and change your mind, that's silly. It's like watching people argue on the internet about religion or sports, sure, it's dumb fun, but that's it. Besides, once you scrape the surface of these arguments they're usually actually about power/class/money/integrity/authenticity/identity/etc., all of which things music can be an avatar for, but it's not an argument about "music".
Of course it may be true that me saying this is a dishonour to those who fought for music that I now consider to be normal. I'm not saying that there haven't been times when these fights did have to happen: there truly have been times when the pluralism I espouse was just not possible. It's been a long slog out of the common-practice era, but now I think it's fair to say "we won!", it's cool, anyone can do what they like, and the tools are out there for anyone disseminate the work and build audiences, there's sure to be people out there who are into what any of us do, it's up to us to connecting with them, to make the new audiences.
It's cool, we're all in ghettos now, I'll take that over hegemonic practices and alleged existential threats to my music anyday.

mclaren says: The white heat of a magnesium thermal lance burning at 8000 degrees Fahrenheit pales before the hatred of a typical American for enthusiasm and imagination.
In America, a former Klansman can admit having refused to rent to blacks and will eventually be forgiven. In America, a former sex offender can admit having had a threesome with the babysitter and will eventually get some understanding. But in America, a creative person who displays enthusiasm has passed beyond the pale. Such a person's name can never be spoken in public; they have become anathema, denied fire, water, food or shelter within 500 miles of our nation's borders.
The motto of 21st century America has become: "Those who stand out must be hammered down."
But there's nothing new or startling about my observation: de Tocqueville remarked on it in the 1830s:
"I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." -- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America, 1830.
Sociologists have also quantified America's hatred for independent and enthusiastic and imaginative citizens:
For many years now, researchers worldwide have been conducting surveys to compare the values of people in different countries. And when it comes to questions about how much the respondents value the individual against the collective -- that is, how much they give priority to individual interest over the demand of groups, or personal conscience over the orders of authority -- Americans consistently answer in a way that favors the group over the individual. In fact, we are more likely to favor the group than Europeans are.
Surprising as it may sound, Americans are much more likely than Europeans to say that employees should follow a boss's orders even if the boss is wrong; to say that children `must' love their parents; and to believe that parents have a duty to sacrifice themselves for their children. We are more likely to defer to church leaders and to insist on abiding by the law.
Source: "Sweet land of... conformity? Americans aren't the rugged individuals we think we are," The Boston Globe, 6 June 2010.

Gavin Borchert says: Funny that Edmundson would cite Tarantino as an exemplar of the problem: When you see him on talk shows or read interviews with him, he's so infectiously besotted with movies, such a geekily, unabashedly enthusiastic fanboy, in exactly the way I wish people would talk publicly about classical music . . .
KG replies: I have to admit, I didn't quite think the name fit.

Copyright 2013 by Kyle Gann

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