I probably saw something about it on Twitter, but I didn’t look into the recent NPR/Q2 poll to determine the nation’s favorite composers under the age of 40 until a colleague pointed me in its direction. The poll’s NPR page features the following sweeping exordium:
We admit, 40 is a pretty arbitrary (if nicely round) number, but it’s as good as any a place to start a conversation about a group of creative minds born into a world in which Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” was already washing over the sonic landscape, synth pop was starting to rule the airwaves, “Rapper’s Delight” created a revolution, and American homes increasingly had not just a chicken in every pot, but a computer on every desk—all elements that fed into pop culture and made their imprints on everyone, including those immersed in classical music.
As it happens, I’m right in the middle of an extended speculation on the impact of suburban culture on American composers born between 1975 and 1985 that hinges not only on the geographic disposition of the tract house and the shopping mall but also on the ubiquity of mass media and telecommunications technology, so these issues are front and center in my mind at the moment. One of the decisions I made early on in my study was to work with a relatively strict definition of the word “composer”; this constraint enabled me to contrast various contemporary cultural forms and practices with the “anachronistic” (to borrow from Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s barn-burning first interview question) model of written composition. Q2’s definition of “composer” is much looser:
Composer = a self-designated (or applied by consensus) term that denotes those who create music, whether notated, improvised, solo, ensemble, instrumental, vocal, however you like it!
Under this rubric, a composer is basically just the person whose name goes at the top of a musical product, and the affordances of that product will naturally channel the consumer’s desires in more or less efficient ways—in other words, a composer whose name regularly appears on CDs, in blogs, or on marquees in hip places will, one expects, out-perform a composer whose name appears on scores, festival programs, and syllabi. And judging by the comments attached to the NPR and Q2 posts, that’s exactly what happened.
I’m not making this fairly obvious statement so that we can all wring our hands and fret about the downfall of the Western classical tradition. Rather, I’m pointing out that as “crossover” artists continue to take advantage of their unique position, one in which two distinct kinds of cultural capital—the “Western composer” kind and the “hip creative person” kind—are abundantly available in a society that recognizes no inherent contradiction between them, the terms and conditions of production will change for all of us. In the past “composer” had a normative meaning of “person who is commissioned to produce scores that are then interpreted by performers,” and deviations from that model (like Glass’s ensemble) were seen as “unofficial” end-runs or circumventions of a conventional mode of working. Now, however, “official” definitions of “composer” have emerged that consider notation wholly optional. What’s important about the present moment isn’t that high culture and mass culture are so interpenetrated as to render the distinction between them obsolete; that’s been the case for some time. What’s important now is that this situation obtains with, to quote Andrew Ross, “official impunity.”