Young Composers and the New Sensitivity

Young Composers and the New Sensitivity

Having made short work last week of accusations leveled at my generation of composers from without, I’d like to issue an imputation of my own from within. I can’t speak for young composers all over the world or even in the USA, but there’s a pernicious trait that we tend, in my experience, to evince, especially in groups. Furthermore, I admit that I’m probably the worst offender among my circle of composer friends here at the University of Illinois (a non-composer friend of mine makes occasional reference to my “disdain-o-meter”). I’m speaking, of course, about snark. Although sarcasm and condescension don’t qualify as artistic weaknesses per se, they’re certainly not attractive qualities in a person.

Every time someone drops a hat, a young composer disparages another’s work. Concerts, festivals, classes, lessons—any opportunity for us to assemble is fertile soil for us to plant and cultivate the seeds of contempt. Of course, we don’t disparage everyone—most of us have at least one hero who moves us to impassioned advocacy. But if one composer’s pick for Greatest Living Composer happens to be the next composer’s punching bag, trash-talking is a foregone conclusion and escalation to blows is not beyond the realm of possibility.

I’m moved to comment on this tendency by my recent experience with a circumstance that’s uniquely positioned to maximize the scorn quotient among young composers: a competition, specifically the Salvatore Martirano Memorial Composition Award. Several talented composers from all over had their prize-winning pieces presented here last week. I’m pleased to report, however, that I was dumbstruck by my colleagues’ unprecedentedly positive reception of the award winners’ music. I doubt that this isolated incident will usher in a new era of civility, but it’s a refreshing change and encouraging evidence of our gradual collective maturation.

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4 thoughts on “Young Composers and the New Sensitivity

  1. JKG

    Fun word, eh Colin? Yes, I agree with you; those still struggling to fond their voice are inwardly intimidated by anyone close to finding theirs, particularly someone around the same age group. That is not so much a composer problem as it is a human one. While none of us like to admit the competitive nature of various aspects of our craft, we do in fact compete against one another by default. However, once an artist has adopted a voice of his/her own, then things get interesting. I have been accused of “having a huge chip on my shoulder,” which I must admit is a relevant consequence of my standing as a composer. I have found my own voice, and I love expressing with it – yet that of course is never any reason for bad manners on my part. When the scorn quotient of others approaches something of a bullying nature, then I get riled, and usually say something provocative (that’s why I have such scorn myself for those who teach but cannot create in a meaningful way). This issue has been around as long as there have been artists. It is also not only a problem of the young – the key word is mature. On top of all of thism there are honest opinions of composers towards certain writing styles which are taken as snarky remarks, when in fact there is a real issue involved pertaining to musicality on the whole – while shallow dismissal of another’s work may occur as a result one’s immaturity, there are times when an artist’s very definition of music is rattled by another’s expression. This does not mean one music is “good or bad,” but that for others said music is simply unacceptable as music. Hope this clears things up – oh, I’m being sarcastic.

  2. Rhys

    Hi Colin,

    I remember when I was in my twenties having a similar feeling to you, and it seemed to me that often when composers make disparaging remarks about their collegues’ work, it was more a reflection upon their own insecurity than anything else.

    That being said, your comment brought to mind a remark famously made by Virgil Thomson: “Composers in their twenties and thirties are politely familiar with each others work; composers over forty are politely unfamilair with each others works.”

    I’m sometimes guilty of this, alas. ;-)

    All the best,


  3. lubmus16

    The gift of cynicism
    I somewhat agree with what Colin has to say, though maybe for different reasons. Apart from my music, i think i’m an inherently cynical and sarcastic person. I’m full of dry remarks about everything going on around me, most of them not meant to be harmless. I see this same vibe in composer peers. I think what it is is that as composers, we are just people who like to look into things, pick them apart and glare at their innards. This is what causes us to go into a frenzy of comment upon hearing new works, we know what this or that technique is and we just want to talk about it. And because we are composer types, that might just natrually come off in a dry manner. But as someone said about the competition pieces, sometimes we hear works that just throw our cynicism off kilter and we go “wow…that was really cool”. So whether it be because of insecurities or personality nature…I feel that dry, critical analysis of music and life for that matter is sort of a defining charactaristic of myself and perhaps of the average composition major.

  4. lubmus16

    oops, correction

    “…most of them not meant to be harmful.” as in i make dry commentary because i’m me, not cause i want to be mean. sorry for that poignant mistake


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