Meditations on a Post-Literate Musical Future

Meditations on a Post-Literate Musical Future

John Halle
Photo by Kathleen Cea

Over the past decade or so, a consensus has emerged which attributes the long standing crisis in what used to be called contemporary music to a failure by composers to embrace those vernacular styles which have popular currency and economic viability. Recently the Pulitzer board decided to broaden the selection criteria for its prize in composition to include “a broader range” of musics. This was perhaps the strongest recent indication that inclusivity has become a shibboleth of the post-modern age, and was thus an occasion for celebration by the populist wing of the contemporary musical community.

Readers of NewMusicBox are aware that some of America’s most distinguished composers were in the minority who were not celebrating. But while they might have been disturbed few should have been surprised. In an era of unprecedented domination by market forces it was only a matter of time before the most prestigious musical institutions will take the favorable verdict of the commercial marketplace not as a cause for suspicion, but as an indication of legitimacy.

That many composers were disappointed should not be understood as a wholesale rejection of populist sympathies on their part. Most of them would probably admit that a degree of public acceptance has historically accompanied all music which has any claim to significance. And most would probably agree that undeniably great works in the past century have repeatedly emerged from the hyper-Darwinian conditions of American-style capitalism whether in Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building, though it is often very difficult to disentangle the PR hype from genuine achievement. In our devil-take-the-hindmost economy of the present, it is inevitable that some if not most of the best creative musical minds will channel their energies into the most commercially remunerative forms of creative music labor. Those of us who teach have had some of these creative minds as students and know that only a few of them are writing symphonies.

Furthermore, while most composers are not what cultural critic Thomas Frank would call market populists, blindly accepting the dictates of the market as expression of inherent value and popular will, composers as a group are invariably populists in a limited sense: every style of music has functioned as grist for some composer’s mill. Name a style and it is usually pretty easy to come up with a piece in which this style finds a place, whether it’s hard rock in Steven Mackey, ambient techno in Michael Gordon, or Stephen Hartke‘s brilliant synthesis of everything from blues to gamelan to organum.

Given what currently existing composers actually do as opposed to what they say, it is clearly a mistake to view “classical composition” as it currently exists as a style. It is not defined by any specific common practice, language, or performance tradition. It can no longer be identified by any particularly sound or syntax, rather, as the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross has written, it is only identifiable as:

simply whatever composers create—a long string of written-down works to which various performing traditions have become attached. It encompasses the high, the low, empire, underground, dance, prayer, silence, noise. Composers are genius parasites; they feed voraciously on the song matter of their time in order to engender something new.

Classical composition, which I will refer to here as composition, is not a style but a medium: a means for conveying musical ideas, emotions, and information. As such, it is distinct from all other musical media—whether these are elevated, debased, trivial, or distinguished—which do not transmit and convey their ideas through the means of composition, i.e. as notes on a page. It follows then that the real question about the appropriateness of the Pulitzer guidelines mandating “distinguished composition” arises not with the qualifying adjective. Most of us would be happy to accept that much mainstream music is indeed “distinguished.” The problem is with the noun “composition.” For it is a fact, albeit one that non-professionals often find surprising, that the overwhelming majority of music which is produced, broadcast, recorded, downloaded and listened to, does not exist in the form of a “composition”, i.e. as printed music on the page, and it has been many years since it has. Long forgotten are the days when, as Charles Rosen relates, Proust’s mother would receive in the mail and bring to life the newest Beethoven Sonata for the assembled family and guests on the living room piano. Also long in the past is the time when popular songs would circulate primarily through sheet music. Instead of having to master the 88 keys of the piano, those wanting to bring music into their homes need only to master the smaller number of controllers on a CD player panel or the keystrokes necessary to access the Internet sites Kazaa or iTunes.

And just as musical literacy is no longer necessary to play music, literacy has also long since ceased to be necessary to compose it. No genuinely popular songwriter of the present produces fully or generally even partially notated scores as did Rodgers, Kern, or Gershwin. As recordings have become the final form in which music is encountered a very different process now mediates how a musical idea finds its way from conception to realization. The process is one which more closely resembles filmmaking than traditional composition in that the final product is assembled from the creative contributions of a range of participants, from band members “laying down tracks” to the studio engineer’s decisions on mike placement or audio effects, to the producer’s decision to add or subtract (i.e. to punch in and out) previously recorded material to the audio “mix.” More recently, sequencing software has meant music existing as data inputted onto MIDI tracks channeled to samplers or synthesizers, sometimes augmented by “live” instruments or vocal tracks. While the latter represents something closer to the authorial control assumed in literate traditions, notes on the page play at most a minimal role in either process.

The medium by which contemporary music tends to be transmitted has radically altered the range of skills expected of musicians to function professionally. While generally highly technically proficient as instrumentalists, fluent improvisers, and often extremely knowledgeable in both the practice and theory of electronic music, most contemporary musicians are usually, in a strict sense of the term musically illiterate, unable to negotiate musical notation except in the most rudimentary way. Only a few read music on the level required to function on a professional level within a symphony orchestra, a Broadway pit, or in a jazz big band. Most would not be able to decipher a score of more than minimal complexity at the piano or can even follow along with one.

I want to stress that by stating this fact, I am not judging the quality of the music which is produced through non-notated means. Clearly, elaborate, comprehensive, and elegant notation is not a guarantee of artistic value—if it were, the Darmstadt school would have long since overtaken J.S. Bach at the pinnacle of compositional achievement. Conversely, the existence of partly or wholly non-notated masterpieces ranging from Motown, to gamelan, to Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians—a work that did not exist as a conventional score until the edition prepared for Boosey & Hawkes in collaboration with composer Marc Mellits—is beyond dispute. There are, in my opinion, certain qualities which are unique to what we might call “literate” music, and I’ll discuss some of these momentarily. But whether or not that is that case, the conclusion that we are witnessing a shift not merely in style but, more fundamentally, a shift in the medium by which music is communicated seems to be unavoidable.


Among those who recognize that a profound shift has occurred is the musicologist Richard Taruskin whose recently completed monumental history of western music is partly motivated by his recognition that:

the very basis of . . . literate music is being steadily eroded. . .I’m writing this book when the end of that tradition can be perceived, for many reasons . . .the end of print culture, for instance. There is so much music now that could never be notated but can nevertheless be synthesized and controlled by the composer. So I’m writing in a sense the complete history of the literate tradition in Western music.

Taruskin is certainly correct that the decline of the millennium-long tradition of print culture has real consequences for musicology. But the more troubling and important question Taruskin leaves untouched: where does the death of print music culture, of which the change in the Pulitzer guidelines is one indication, leave those of us whose business it is to write notes?

Before addressing the question it’s worth clarifying what Taruskin has in mind by the “end of print culture.” Obviously, Taruskin doesn’t mean that music has altogether stopped circulating by means of the published score, or that composers have stopped producing written scores. Conservatories continue to reliably produce soloists, chamber, and symphonic musicians most of whom can be counted on to deliver at least competent and sometimes inspired performances of traditionally notated scores. (It should be noted, however, that the extent to which functional musical literacy is winked at in even the most prestigious conservatories can come as a surprise.) Significant audiences, albeit diminishing ones, exist for the finite number of print music warhorses.

Taruskin is making a more limited observation that print music culture appears to be incapable of further growth, renewal, or development. The evidence for this is, if not conclusive, at least by this point more than a little familiar. Most conspicuous is the fact that the great majority of “composed” music which is regularly performed, whether operatic, symphonic, chamber, choral, or solo, is drawn from a small geographic area around central Europe within a narrow historical period. Only a vanishingly small fraction of new works, including those premiered with much fanfare by orchestras, trumpeted by publicists, and hyped by some critics, have managed to gain a place on the carousel which defines the standard repertoire of literate musical culture.

Also familiar are the explanations for the inability of the “literate musical tradition” to make itself relevant to the wider artistic and intellectual culture. These, which have themselves become a permanent fixture of critical commentary, generally conclude by fixing responsibility (or blame) on composers incapable of producing music which engages concert audiences or on the widespread and increasing musical illiteracy of audiences themselves. The result, according to John Harbison, has been a widespread inability to comprehend any musical utterance more sophisticated than “gesture at its most generalized and inarticulate” and, with this, a predictably impoverished climate for the diffusion and acceptance of literate music.

While I will not exclude either of these explanations, I will suggest a more charitable one here which is to note that the prevalence of aurally transmitted music and the widespread appreciation of its virtues has meant that both audiences and composers have expectations which can’t be met by music transmitted from composer to performer via the print medium. It is not possible to achieve the frenzies of activity, the extremes of density, nor the near-optimal matching of musical material to instrumental capabilities inherent in the process of trial and error, improvisation, and recording studio cutting and pasting which defines the creation of most contemporary music. Nor, as Taruskin suggests, are the unlimited sonic resources, the absolute rhythmic precision, and extremes of speed, frequency, and amplitude possible within the digital realm accessible to composers working within the print music medium.

If literate music is to survive, composers, performers, critics, and audiences need to recognize that notation, like any other medium, has limits as to what it is able to communicate. Perhaps these limits are arbitrary historical relics of a pre-mechanical age. If so, there is no significant aesthetic benefit to be gained from the substantial investment in time, money, and education required to maintain an infrastructure supporting “literate” music. And, if this is the case, we are indeed at the end of an epoch. While, as Schoenberg famously suggested, there may be numerous tunes in C major remaining to be created, perhaps there are no more tunes to be written in C major.


But if Taruskin is right, it needs to be understood that the shift which we are now witnessing is something quite radical and possibly unprecedented. The collapse of “print culture”, after all, entails much more than the passing of a musical style: it entails the extinction of a musical medium. Styles, even the most sophisticated, productive, and refined, have a natural lifespan, and their demise is not necessarily something to mourn. The extinction of a musical medium—a means for transmitting musical ideas within a variety of styles—is something far more significant and we need to recognize that when this occurs it will usher in a very different musical world to that which we are accustomed.

The demise of musical literacy does not mean a non-musical future but rather an intensified form of certain musical realities which we are experiencing now, and for this reason, the general outline of a non-literate future will be familiar. One aspect, however, will be conspicuous to some of us, at least: the absence of a corps of musically literate instrumentalists capable of producing minimally acceptable renditions of composed works. With the decimation of the educational and organizational infrastructure necessary to produce and sustain these forces, the eventual disappearance of European canonic works from the concert stage will become inevitable.

Whether we mourn, celebrate, or are apathetic to the prospect of the absence of the style of music associated with literacy, namely what tends to be called “classical” music, this is, conceptually at least, a separate question from the future of the literate tradition. To draw a partially relevant analogy, the demise of the epic poem, the sonnet, or the audience for serialized fiction did not mean the end of literacy; when these and other forms of literary expression have gone into eclipse, literacy itself continued to flourish and even expand within other literary forms. Those periods in which literacy itself went into eclipse most notably in parts of Europe during the Middle Ages and more recently during the Taliban era in Afghanistan are understood to constitute cultural catastrophes, resulting in profound constriction of intellectual life and rational discourse.

The demise of musical literacy, while not a cultural catastrophe, nevertheless constitutes a significant cultural loss. The eventual disappearance from public life of compositions from Josquin to Ligeti—surely intellectual achievements of the highest order comparable to those in other disciplines—by any reasonable standard, amounts to cultural impoverishment, more or less analogous to the closing of several of the world’s major museums. But perhaps more significant than the disappearance of an entire class of works, the demise of musical literacy will deprive us of the means for examining musical thought, both within literate music traditions and also, through transcriptions, in non-literate musical media. Notation provides us with a language with which to describe musical structure, to identify specific locations within pieces, and to characterize precisely the compositional techniques on which they are based. Within composed works, scores and sketches make it possible to track the trajectory of a compositional idea from its inception to completion and thereby provide a window into the mind of the composer which is unique in the arts. The end of a print music culture means the end of what has for centuries constituted serious discourse surrounding artistic creation.

While the decreasing level of musical literacy among those attempting careers in musical scholarship is a cause of some concern, there is little controversy on the utility of musical notation as a scholarly tool or a means to communicate music of the past. What has increasingly come into question is the viability of musical literacy as the means, or a means, for communicating contemporary musical ideas. As noted, only a vanishingly small fraction of contemporary musical expression is in written form and what remains no longer retains the prestige it once had in relation to mainstream traditions.

All of this seems to require that we ask why composers continue to engage in an activity which Alex Ross, in a recent New Yorker piece, described as a form of “insanity,” an insanity which becomes more pronounced as opportunities for composers inside and outside the academy further decline and the prestige attached to musical literacy is further undermined. I will mention two reasons, with the caveat that other composers are likely to contribute many others. The first justification is that we are invested, both as composers and listeners, in what we see as a unique value of the musical experience which is at the core of composed music. This value inheres in the shifting relationships which one can develop to a composition, from performance to performance, from listening to listening, from increased familiarity with the work, or attention to or lack of attention to one or another aspect of the piece’s underlying structure. It is this dimensionality which we are aware of as possible to achieve, and much of our work goes into creating musical structures whose underlying logic will be musically experienced in this way. Clearly, not all composed pieces can sustain an intense engagement I’m attempting to describe; also, non-composed piece can, at times, have manifest this quality. At their best, however, the composed works provide a type of engagement which, we believe, is not just valuable but uniquely valuable and pretty much unachievable in other media.

The second reason has to do with the capacity of literate music to survive in a way in which non-literate music cannot. Resurrections in performance of classics of the non-literate media, whether performances of transcribed improvisations by Charlie Parker or “cover” renditions of Beatles songs tend to be exercises in nostalgia, adding little to the definitive experience of the original artist’s work as it exists on recording. When mediated by performers of insight and originality, compositions retain their immediacy even at the distance of many centuries. This is not to say that composers write with an expectation that our works will survive us—rather our motivation stems from a gut level feeling that a score which expresses our musical intentions feels permanent in a way that the artifacts of non-literate music—recordings or live performances—feel ephemeral. Related to this is the general recognition among composers that our generation should leave musical artifacts in a form in which they can be resurrected and brought to life in the ways in which numerous masterpieces (and even non-masterpieces) of the last four centuries routinely are. The possibility that our works might be among those few is sufficient for us to participate in the high-stakes compositional lottery in the hope that our number will be called. The richness of future musical culture has always rested on our illusions not being punctured in this respect—that many of us engage in the struggle and that at least some of us successfully compete in the musical variant of Harold Bloom‘s literary agon.

I reiterate here that while I find these and other arguments in defense of musical literacy convincing, I recognize that many will not. Among those unconvinced will be those who have become disenchanted with the literate medium or were never attracted to it in the first place. Within this category will be composers who have found that their expressive goals are not served by traditional separation of musical labors between a composer writing the music and a performer who plays it. John Cage‘s aphorism that he never found “the composer telling other people what to do to be a good way of getting things done” is perhaps the best-known expression of skepticism, one that would be very influential on at least three generations of composers.

More commonly, those who will find these arguments unconvincing will not be composers but will be those in the great majority whose musical experience is defined by non-literate musics, whether these are mainstream commercial musics or commercially marginal forms such as jazz. These will include, for example, the noted cultural critic Greil Marcus who is on record as doubting whether any useful distinction should be made between Jerry Lee Lewis and Mozart. They will include David Hajdu whose elegant and perceptive articles in the New York Review of Books on non-literate musics including Motown, Elvis Presley, and jazz have begun to displace general interest articles by Joseph Kerman and Alfred Brendel on canonic (i.e. literate) European music. The list of skeptics will also include respected musicologists such as Susan McClary, Robert Walser, and Robert Fink, the latter of whom has argued for a “post-canonic” musical epoch in which literate music “is only one style among many, and by no means the most prestigious.” These and other highly reputable scholars provide academic reinforcement for the position taken by the Pulitzer board that “distinguished musical achievement” in the post-modern period is no longer the exclusive province of literate music but is just as likely to be found within the non-literate mainstream.

There are, as I hope I have made clear above, good reasons for accepting what has become a conventional wisdom in this regard. Granting this point, however, does not constitute an argument that musical literacy should cede its role within our musical culture or that institutions such as the Pulitzer should allow this to happen. In fact, the appreciation of the unique virtues of mainstream music make the differences between it and the literate medium even more pronounced. And it is the uniqueness of the literate music tradition which should be stressed, and which makes the strongest argument for an institutional commitment to protect it from the invisible hand of the marketplace of late capitalism and the its inevitable homogenizing tendencies. In this respect, musical literacy should be equated and granted the same status as any other endangered artistic traditions or cultural rituals—whether these are nearly extinct native American languages, the royal Cambodian court dance tradition, or Australian aboriginal kinship systems.

It may seem a bit odd that the preservation of an artistic media in a living form, one which has provided the foundation for five centuries of musical masterpieces, requires the battery of arguments given above. That it does may be due to the widespread assumption that we are living in conservative times which, one might expect, would place inordinate value on traditions, artistic and otherwise. In fact, right wing corporatist ideology is notable for its contempt towards the past, something manifest in Henry Ford‘s notorious description of history as “bunk”. More than a century and a half ago, Marx noted that the domination of markets and market ideology results in eternal verities routinely “”melting into thin air.” Within this climate, the defense of traditions becomes an objectively radical and transgressive act, and while many of us may not feel comfortable with our being called on to assume simultaneously a radical and conservative aesthetic stance, this discomfort may constitute the price to be paid for intellectual and artistic integrity in the current age.


John Halle is an assistant professor of music at Yale University and a member of the Common Sense Composers Collective. He has studied with Fred Lerdahl at Columbia, Andrew Imbrie at UC Berkeley, and at the University of Michigan with William Bolcom and William Albright. He has also studied privately with John Harbison. An occasional writer on music, Halle has published collaborative work with Fred Lerdahl on the relationship of musical and linguistic generative grammars. He is currently working with Edward Harsh on “Themes and Provocations” a selection of interviews with and essays about younger composers.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.