Age Matters

Age Matters

A while back I got all worked up when Rufus Wainwright mused that he longed to seek refuge in the realm of classical music where it was O.K. to be old, fat, and ugly. I still find his remarks offensive, but now I’m starting to wonder if classical music has brought this impression on itself.

It’s amazing that in the year 2006 most classical music recordings still prominently print the composer’s birth year on the back tray card, right next to his or her name, as if it were an extension of it. And this happens on independent label releases as much as it does on the majors. Information vultures—and I know because I’m one of them—will want to know this stuff, but couldn’t it be buried inside in the program notes instead? What other genre of music advertises the age of its creators so blatantly? What does this ultimately accomplish?

But the record companies are not the only ones obsessing over dates. One of the chief selling points that publishers use to hawk their wares to orchestra program directors is to remind them that it’s a certain composer’s centenary or, worse, the 50th anniversary of that composer’s death. And if you’re one of the lucky composers who happens to still be alive, they’ll try to guilt the orchestra into doing your music as part of a 65th, 70th, 75th, or 80th birthday celebration. This anniversary approach is a prominent part of many publisher’s ads and winds up being a prominent part of season brochures for any institution that eventually performs this music.

Then, of course, there’s the flip side: the quest to find the next child prodigy. The latest example of this is Sony/BMG’s new CD of music by Jay Greenberg, who was born in 1991 according to the tag that appears next to his name on the CDs tray card. Unfortunately, both the record company’s publicity and the critical response to it are all about his age and not about his music. And no matter how deserved or well-intentioned, such a momentary pendulum shift to youth, like composer competitions that you can only apply to if you are under a certain age, can seem to a skeptic like an 11th-hour corrective to a musical culture that focuses mostly on antiques.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t honor composers on major anniversaries or create viable ways to nurture the next generation of composers. But being so fixated on age seems a counterintuitive way to promulgate music which is simultaneously being touted as timeless.

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7 thoughts on “Age Matters

  1. JKG

    Unfortunately, many in the music realm have so little talent and such huge egos, that such superficial and banal facts are pretty much all they can handle. That includes almost all your record company executives (especially the likes of Sony) and most definitely anyone involved in the marketing of serious music. I do feel sorry for Jay, as his being propelled through Julliard is obviously a PR stunt for that prestigious school, plus he cannot help but represent an extension of his parents’ obvious (gigantic) egos.

    Seems like I recall Beethoven’s drunk father…

  2. coreydargel

    I’ve always wondered why “emerging composer” awards have that arbitrary cutoff age (i.e. you can’t apply if you’re over 30). What about people who didn’t start writing music until later in their lives? Aren’t they “emerging” as well? Not according to the guidelines. It’s impossible!

    Who cares how old you are!? People of all ages can write fresh and original music. And people of all ages can write stale and stodgy music.

    On the other hand, this seems a little unfair to me, and you can let me know if I’m being hypocritical: The last time I looked up who was on the review panel for one of those emerging/young composer awards, the panelists were all at least 45 years old.

  3. atimin

    Birth dates following names identifies contemporary composers with dead composers. Marking time is a tool for memorializing an event, so that keeping track of age and anniversaries artificially projects a person or event into the past, or history. This must be part of the larger “dead” effect in classical music. Most presenters note anniversaries primarily to justify programming, or to lend a sense of cohesion to a series. Presenters and record companies would both do well to get new ideas about how to communicate the significance of their artists’ projects.

  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I actually did a rant about this myself just a month ago.

    Age is the last remaining “benign” discrimination in music, a discrimination we encourage and inflict on our own ability to be effective. (We composers inflict a lot on ourselves. We’re sometimes a sorry crew.)


  5. JKG

    I can’t help but add another thought to this thread – it hits too close to home. Regardless of how earnest those in power within the ranks of music authority may deem to be, no amount of contrivance or simplistic catagorization (including age discrimination) is going to help them reveal for all those works which might otherwise have been overlooked. There are too many built-in biases, quite a few of them flat out related to a bottom line.

    Fact is, there are numerous really good co0mposers nationwide whose music has never been performed by an orchestra, let along recorded by one, but who remain all the while entirely devoted to their art and the furtherance of both tradition and ingenuity. Some of them do indeed have academic credentials, but there are quite a few who do not. All of them are terribly serious practitioners of the art, regardless of where they stand with regard to recognition.

    The playing field is being leveled, however – now a composer can market his/her work on the internet, using the same sampling technology used to produce mock-ups for film scores. The resulting audioscores are pretty good likenesses of what the music actually sounds like, particularly if the composer has taken the time to invest in the art of orchestration.

    These individuals pose a direct threat to the previously well-guarded institutional world of academic music, in that those composers now have to have actual talent in order to compete (whereas before those with little if any talent had access to both ensemble performance and “laurels” via their sheepskin). To the young composer who seeks and questions, I quote St. Exupery: “He who questions, is seeking primarily the abyss.”

  6. dalgas

    I like it. in my MP3 player’s info, I fill in birth (and death) dates for just about every “classical” composer & musician, and I do it for every “jazz”, “pop”, “ethnic” & other if I run across it. Of course it’s not essential; neither is the title of a piece, really, or the date it was made, or who’s playing, where it was premiered, recorded, etc.

    But for me, each evokes aspects of this big cultural object, relates it against some map or continuum, reinforces some things, skews others… There’s a kind of complementary “art” that’s created there, that I find attractive. Somebody else doesn’t? Great, take what you need to make you happy, don’t sweat the rest.

  7. JKG

    Standing corrected…
    I found out that Jay Greenberg’s parents aren’t to be blamed for the PR histronics via Julliard in the least. That he no longer takes classes there betokens that someone has had some sense regarding the boy, under the circumstances. A few of his teachers no doubt would like to “bask in the glow” of Jay’s alleged nouveau Mozart fame, yet that says much more about their insecurities than Jay’s apparently very gifted talent. And honestly, can one blame Sony? Why should they ever seek to market some unknown, struggling composer whose music happens to be stupendous, when they have a built-in marketing plot regarding Jay’s tender age? Less work equals more money, right?


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