Class Consciousness

Class Consciousness

I just got back from a couple of days in western Massachusetts where the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is still going strong. I wish I could have been there for the remainder of the week, but the Molotov cocktail-esque combination of my participation in the wedding of a pair of close friends, my never-ending deadlines, and a trip to the 2007 Cabrillo Festival at the end of the week forced a shortened stay.

The theme of this year’s TFCM is a bit unusual. Dubbed “The Generation of ’38,” this year’s offerings are devoted almost exclusively to the music of American composers born in the year 1938. A few composers born in 1937 and 1939 were allowed in, as were works by two significantly younger composers—Mason Bates (b. 1977) and Jason Eckhart (b. 1971)—who received commissions from the festival at the suggestion of some of the composers born in 1938.

The 1937-1939 gang is quite an interesting bunch. Unrepentant modernists like Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen are exact contemporaries of postmodernists William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, and John Harbison (who organized the festival). The programming casts an extremely wide net that also made space for music by minimalist icon Philip Glass as well as the overlooked minimalist pioneer David Borden, the late jazz iconoclast Julius Hemphill, post-conceptualists David Behrman, Alvin Curran, and Frederic Rzewski, plus neoromantics Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and David Del Tredici (although DDT was oddly represented by his pre-epiphanic twelve-tone I Hear an Army). While there are tons of household names herein (at least in my household), there have also been a few real surprises included in the festival programming, like a series of songs by John Heiss. I was particularly amazed by Olly Wilson’s totally trippy Sometimes (1976) for voice and tape which turns the African American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” into a sonic phantasmagoria that to my ears seemed equal parts Stockhausen and Funkadelic.

Beyond the music being performed this week, there’s something about the rhetoric surrounding the theme of the festival that ought to fuel an intense discussion on this page. Much was made of the fact that this was the first generation of composers to receive PhDs in composition. They are also stylistically diverse and not beholden to the dogmatic approaches that polarized earlier generations of composers in this country.

It has often been said that information will set you free. Is it possible that the additional years of schooling the composers featured in this year’s TFCM received taught them to be themselves? In our current post-“Generation of 1938” new music environment—where indeed anything can and does go—how important is a PhD in composition?

From the vantage point of 2007, can we hear commonalities in this stylistically diverse array of music that eludes the composers who created it? And if, in fact, there is stylistic common ground, are there any compositional battles left to be fought? Even with such a wide range of composers represented, some important voices from that generation got left out. A five-minute search through the NMBx birthday database turns up: jazz greats Ron Carter, Archie Shepp, McCoy Tyner, Joseph Jarman, Grachan Moncur III, and Carla Bley; electronic music pioneers Max Neuhaus, Barton McClean, Joel Chadabe, and Wendy Carlos; microtonal symphonist Gloria Coates, environmental conceptualist Annea Lockwood, master orchestrator Barbara Kolb, and Jonathan Tunick, one of Broadway’s most acclaimed orchestrators. If you open the door wider, that list could also include country legend Merle Haggard, rock instrumental pioneer Duane Eddy, and Tex Mex hero Flaco Jimenez. Admittedly no weeklong festival could encompass this much music. But still, will anyone ever be willing to open the doors wide enough for a festival that could embrace—just randomly picking four as the lottery does—John Harbison, Merle Haggard, McCoy Tyner, and Annea Lockwood?

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14 thoughts on “Class Consciousness

  1. MarkNGrant

    The Ph.D. in Composition
    Certainly in some cases the Ph.D. may enhance musical freethinking as FJO suggests, because some can better find their own voices by sifting through manifold pedagogic influences. But in other regards the Ph.D. has simply become the de facto union card for the profession of composer, and like some other trade union shop rules, it locks out just as many as it locks in. Let’s remember, Virgil Thomson and Samuel Barber had only bachelor degrees; Copland, not even that. And while it may be that earlier in the 20th century doctoral degree programs were not always available, is there anything in the respective careers of Barber, Thomson, Copland, and their many Ph.D.-less contemporaneous colleagues to suggest that their lack of advanced degrees impeded their creative attainments? There are composers today with Ph.D.’s in academe whose creative powers are stunningly underwhelming just as there are degree-less freelancers who can write them under the table but can’t get hired by a community college. Among composing teachers I had, Gail Kubik had a masters degree and studied with Nadia Boulanger, but he told a radio interviewer that his real Ph.D. was writing quickly for hire for the NBC radio orchestra circa 1939-40, when he learned his orchestral chops by “stubbing his toe.” Another composer teacher I had, Meyer Kupferman, was entirely self-taught and without advanced degrees, yet he ran the department at Sarah Lawrence for 40 years. Today Sarah Lawrence wouldn’t hire such a degree-less person. Is that an advancement? Can one imagine a Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Carl Ruggles, or Ives as the end product of a BA-MA-Ph.D. sequence? Not to mention Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg, or Brahms and Wagner! Do we judge a novelist like Norman Mailer differently because he doesn’t have a graduate degree while Joyce Carol Oates does? Would a painter like Frank Stella or David Hockney be offered a college position because he has or hasn’t a Ph.D.? Then why do institutions of higher learning in our society evaluate composers for faculty hire only that way? There’s something terribly wrong here.

  2. william

    Allan Kozinn has a very thorough blog about the new music week at Tanglewood in the NYT. See:

    I may be wrong, but there seems to have always been a sort of Brahman character to the Boston/Tanglewood new music scene – a priest class operating a rarified cultural country club. To be fair, I can hardly think of any place that isn’t true in classical music, but Boston seems among the worst. (One example might be how Levin champions old fashioned modernists with the BSO — though I know many of the featured 38ers in the festival are not exclusively modernist.)

    On the other hand, judging from a photo I saw, it seems that about half of the student composer fellows are women – a very positive development in my view. Someone is to be commended for that.

    And as usual the emphasis seems to be coastal, with the largest number of the included composers active in the Northeast. Is there something about Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Oregon that makes composers mediocre? I don’t think so. I think the composers in the heartlands are probably on average just as good, but that they do not have the career opportunities that the Northeast offers.

    Could one say that the Northeast does not necessarily draw the best composers, but rather the most careerist composers? Would it be fair to ask when will the heartlands have their own recognized musical establishment and thus get the coastal careerists off our backs?

    Just a thought.

    William Osborne

  3. rtanaka

    I guess the big thing about academia is that they generally gear you towards writing academic music. (Duh, I guess?) Going to concerts from school to school, I’ve noticed that there are strong aesthetic similarities between composers writing music within university environments. I guess it’s the sort of culture that got developed as a result of pushing new music into the schools — is this how composers from across the country communicate to each other?

    The “track”, I’ve been told, used to be: BA->MA->Ph.D->Professor but nowadays there’s simply not enough professorships to accommodate all of the doctoral students being produced. I guess it only makes sense, in a way. So what purpose does the Ph.D serve now? For a while I bought into the idea that Ph.D in composition was a necessity for a composer to get taken seriously anywhere, but now I’m not so sure. There seems to be a pretty big gap in terms of aesthetics between the schools and the general public, anyway.

  4. philmusic

    “And if, in fact, there is stylistic common ground, are there any compositional battles left to be fought? ”

    Yes– the battle for musical excellence over personal politics.

    The Tanglewood composer list sounds like the many shades of the well conected – and their students too.”

    Phil’s Page


  5. rskendrick

    No Ph.D. no sweat
    I totally agree with what has been said regarding a Ph.D. being almost a necessity now to become a professor. I’ve got a lot of good friends that are music chairs and deans, and they told me that I’d be great for their schools, but that the committee wouldn’t consider me without a DMA/PhD. With such a supply of folks looking for jobs that already have a PhD/DMA – who can blame them for wanting that advanced degree

    I don’t think it matters a hill of beans however, if you’ve got a PhD in terms of getting performances, commissions and requests for new work. Put the shoe on the other foot if you have doubts… if you hear a marvelous violinist play, do you bother to check their pedigree to know whether you’d like to have them perform one of your pieces? In the same way, performers that hear a really good piece by a composer don’t care what training they’ve had – they just want to work with that composer. I stopped after getting an MA…and I’ve got a long list of requests for pieces by top performers in the state. I spend a lot of time networking and getting projects going too…and I’m not saying this to be vain – I just want others to know its definitely possible and easier than you might think. Just concentrate on writing good music, going to concerts, meeting players, organizing concerts, and the rest will come.

  6. davidcoll

    These phD’s really show that you can teach, not that you can compose. and as for the quality of music, the diversity of what each department considers the “most strong composer” only places more emphasis on your teaching. If you want to be a professor in composition you have to accept this, that you’re the supply of a demand that has nothing to do w/your composing…

    and its a good gig, from what i hear…

    as for the careerists on the east coast, i’m sickened by it really is a problem.

  7. SonicRuins

    “These phD’s really show that you can teach, not that you can compose.”

    Which goes to show that ALL college professors with PhD’s are fantastic teachers right?

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but having a PhD hardly means that it makes one a better teacher than one who doesn’t have the degree.

  8. davidcoll

    good point
    you have a point, though i didn’t mean to say that they’re all good teachers, nor to say that others can’t teach- but its just that these people have already taught classes in university settings, so they know what they’re getting into..and i might go beyond a bit to say that it is unfortunate that whether or not they’re good teachers at theory is criteria for being selected as a composition teacher.

  9. Kyle Gann

    A doctorate (and I’ve got one) guarantees nothing more than that the person had the money/patience/free time to hang out in the grad student office for two to ten years. Some of the most brilliant, proficient, scholarly musicians I know have no degrees at all. Some of the feebs I’ve seen finish their doctorates I wouldn’t trust to teach major scales to my son. On academic search committees, I take that piece of paper into account only insofar as I think how hard I’d have to fight to get a candidate past the administration and get them tenured down the road.

  10. william

    Continental Europe does not offer doctorates in composition. They argue that such degrees are absurd since composition is not an academic subject. I think this non-academic approach sets the creation and reception of European new music apart from its American counterpart.

    During the 60s and 70s the music department at the University of Pennsylvania refused to establish a Ph.D. program with the same argument. The faculty felt that Ph.D.s were absurd since composition is not academic – even though they had one of the most conservatively oriented curriculums in the country. (The faculty at the time was George Rochberg, George Crumb, and Richard Wernick.) George Crumb told me he thought composers who stayed away from academia would likely be very different than those within it. It was an interesting experiment because Penn is one of the largest, richest, and most prestigious of the Ivy League schools.

    Sometime in the 80s (I forget the exact year) Penn established a Ph.D. program, since it became clear that many of their students were not be able to get college jobs without them. It might be interesting to do a musicological study of those Penn grads who did not get Ph.D.s and see if they did indeed end up with careers and aesthetics that are different.

    William Osborne

  11. rtanaka

    Which goes to show that ALL college professors with PhD’s are fantastic teachers right? Sorry for the sarcasm, but having a PhD hardly means that it makes one a better teacher than one who doesn’t have the degree.

    There’s also the aspect of reputation to consider — most schools tend to like to have “reputable” people on board as a way to draw in more applicants and improve their prestige. This may or may not correlate to their ability to teach.

  12. Marc

    Does a PhD guarantee a great historian? No. Does a PhD guarantee a great composer? Of course not. It’s simply a credential, and a credential that says “This person has met the criteria established by a bunch of other smart people to determine who’s smart.” Once you’ve got the PhD, you’re expected to be able to pass along what you’ve learned, in whatever field, to those seeking that same knowledge. I’m all in favor of autodidacticism, kinky as it sounds, but universities were set up to disseminate and add to an established body of knowledge. That’s it. If they end up adding to the world’s store of great music, that’s a bonus. If you want to be a lone ranger and a genius, that’s great, but the university will never recognize you. At least not for a while.

  13. amc654

    “I may be wrong, but there seems to have always been a sort of Brahman character to the Boston/Tanglewood new music ”

    Well said, William. Though I think you’re perhaps just a bit too kind and cautious.

    The Boston new music scene is one of the most insular in the country, and the hiring practices of its institutions and, much more disturbingly, the graduates of its institutions, are downright incestuous.

    To wit, two examples:

    My previous employer ran two composition faculty searches in two years. Of the nine candidates invited for interviews, seven were graduates of Boston institutions. (Though, to be fair, the person they hired in the end was not.) And I find it a rather striking coincidence that 3 of the 4 search committee members have degrees from Boston institutions.

    Or, one might also have a look at the faculty at UC-Davis, where an overwhelming majority of the composition faculty have connections to Boston (primarily as graduates of Brandeis).


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