Anger is Not the Only Form of Zeal

Anger is Not the Only Form of Zeal

The title of this post is taken from an eloquent blog post by Matthew Guerrieri, in response to this essay by Justin Davidson about the “New New York School” of composers. In a nutshell, Davidson complains that for all the talent evident in the bustling New York City new music scene, the actual music written by composers represented in current festivals such as Tully Scope, the Tune-In Festival, and the Ecstatic Music Festival is “shockingly tame.” Davidson points to the lack of “a machine to rage against” as a primary cause. Guerrieri makes the point that “rage and constraint are aesthetic choices, not aesthetic necessities, and, like any aesthetic choice, it’s what you make of the choice, not the choice alone.”

Although it is certainly true that rage and rebellion can result in life-changing works of art, it is by no means the only impetus for artists to create great things. One of the reasons I am drawn to a lot of this music (among many types of music) is precisely because anger is not necessarily the motivating force behind it. Nor is blinding cheer in many cases—there is music inspired by loss, heartache, darkness, philosophy, poetry, politics, and yes, sometimes even wide-eyed joy. How exactly is that a problem?

It is assumed that many of the composers in this group have blithely shrugged off what it means—in a traditional sense—to be a composer, and what sort of music a composer like that creates (as if there were only one answer!). They have thrown open the genre floodgates and allowed multiple universes of music to come streaming in for random appropriation. Although notions of “the what” and of “the how” are definitely being challenged, this change of priorities has involved careful thought, deep study, extensive conversation, and deliberate action. It has by no means occurred in a vacuum, or on a whim. The result is an incredibly articulate community of composers and performers who ardently believe in and support the creation and proliferation of this music. Some composers and/or listeners out there who find change uncomfortable may feel that there is nothing left to relate to in the work, but for others, doors and windows are opening that shed completely new light on the field of contemporary music. Anger and suffering may bind people together, but in and of themselves they don’t necessarily build lasting change, and I think we can all agree that change and adaptation is needed in order to survive.

That concert halls are packed to the gills for performances of, for example, Feldman, Cage, or William Brittelle seems an overwhelmingly positive sign for contemporary music. That the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, traditionally drawing the most conservative of Washington, D.C., classical music audiences was recently filled with the youngest audience I’ve ever seen, one that jumped to its feet at the conclusion of Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market, is mind-bogglingly wonderful. And it’s not just about this group of New Yorkers—change is afoot around the country, in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, and beyond.

These composers of the “New New York School” are, as Guerrieri states, “making a go of it,” which last time I checked was what most composers strive for, and that is working out well. I for one am glad and proud, and I believe that they are ultimately helping all of us by spreading their musical wings into new realms, and inspiring others to do the same.

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5 thoughts on “Anger is Not the Only Form of Zeal

  1. Matt Marks

    I, for one, am glad to see the days of ‘mandatory rebellion’ pass. They had such a juvenile flavor to them. There has been amazing art created from rejecting what has come before, but when that rejection becomes dogma then that rebellion becomes somewhat meaningless, and the rejection more of a ritual than anything else.

    JD seems to be more bothered by the subsequent rejection of that ritual more than anything else, which is a rather conservative stance in my opinion.

  2. gilbertgalindo

    This hits on what has been swirling in my head the past few months or maybe even a year. Why does music, contemporary concert music in this case, have to break some “new” ground that rejects the past or reacts to an opposing aesthetic? Why must it be avant-garde? Why must it not be? Music evolves naturally, just as anything else, so why force it?

    Why can’t music just be music that is enjoyed by others (besides the composer and his/her colleagues)?

    It is a ridiculous notion to think that music should be one way or another. Music is an expression of human experience, whether we realize it or not – and our life experiences are nowhere near limited. It’s absurd to think that music should only be pretty and absurd to think that music must contain angst. On the contrary rather, it may as well be the thing to write music that is honest and genuine – to one’s self as a composer – which can reach out to the listener in whatever way the listener feels connected to it.

    Music just needs to be music. Enough of what it should be or not be. Enough. I’m starting to think that some of the classical/art/concert (have your pick, argue about terms – it’s no matter, you know what I’m talking about) music of the 20th Century lost its focus on being music.

    It’s a new century and new musics are emerging. I think it’s about time we concentrate on making music rather than proving a point, adhering to an aesthetic dogma, or ignoring the possibility of reaching out to more listeners.

    Some composers are already on board with this thinking – and you can hear it.

  3. Elena

    I completely agree, Alexandra. The thing that is beautiful about those “rebellious” works is that the composers were creating what they felt instead of what their society wanted them to feel. In the case of the successful works of this time, the composers just let their emotions flow and it happened to be untamed compared to the rest of the music world. This method of free form, liberating composition is still happening constantly and will never die, but it is not always going to be “raging against the machine.” Composers shouldn’t have to feel like they have to rebel–wouldn’t that be an oxymoron? Conforming to the rebellion?

    Anyways, great post, and I hope composers just do what they please, because that is always when the best music is created.


  4. Chris Becker

    “What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”

    Some random thoughts from a former New Yawker now in Houston (thanks for the shout out Alexandra):

    I think many of the composers named in the New York Magazine article (as well as the people marketing the music) are intentionally pushing the idea that what New Yorkers are witnessing is a “movement” in music, and to some degree that’s actually true. But PR isn’t music, and NYC is the center of PR as well as B.S. With that in mind, if you get past these labels like “indie classical” or “urban” or “mandatory rebellion,” you’re stuck with the music and the issue of whether or not it is resonating with you. Listen without prejudice, and you can accept each individual piece for what it is. And if you aren’t “feeling” the music, that’s okay too. We composers have to accept that.

    There are a lot of musicians –active musicians – not named in the article who offer in their works comparatively very different stylistic and no less innovative approaches to music. Improvisation, African American idioms, and the more extreme edges of experimental rock and roll are represented in the work of Matana Roberts, Mike Pride, Okkyung Lee, Eyal Maoz, Jamie Saft, Jeremiah Cymerman, and Eyvind Kang (to name just a handful) in ways that I haven’t heard in what I’ve heard from the roster of New Amsterdam. And yes, Matana’s music resonates with me much more than Nico Muhly’s. But so what? That’s not a slight on Nico, you know what I’m saying? I’m just speaking as to what moves me as a person and informs me as an artist. I don’t think JD succeeded in doing this in his writing.

    The music we create is informed by everything we hear, even if what we do is a reaction against what we are hearing elsewhere. I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about that, as long as the composers and musicians try to keep their minds and ears open.

  5. philmusic

    I agree that composers must have freedom to create their works. It also follows that the listener must have the freedom to create their own perceptions about said works.

    Past the initial moment it is impossible for a composer to control how their work is perceived.

    Phil’s Puff Page


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