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.