My (       ) Generation

My (       ) Generation


In the fall of 1996 while I was a graduate student at Mills College, the esteemed composer Frederic Rzewski visited the music department to lecture and meet with students. At that time I already had some acquaintance with the composer and his work, having previously enrolled in a year-long seminar in 20th-century music he gave at CalArts (where he was a visiting artist and I was a student), and thus I had some sense of his style and biases as an artist and teacher. However, on this occasion, during a free-flowing discussion that followed his lecture on Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, I was caught off guard by his unambiguous contempt and disregard for the composers of my generation. Among the more discouraging points he made about us was the assertion that none of us were ultimately going to become composers. We would become bankers and lawyers or something, but not composers, and frankly, he said, “It doesn’t really matter.” Later, while driving Rzewski to his hotel in San Francisco, something I had volunteered to do prior to his arrival, we continued the conversation and it was here that he said something to the effect of “composers born between 1960 and 1980 are a sad, sad bunch.” While I confess that I don’t remember the exact years he referenced, it was clear that I and all of my fellow students were most definitely within these boundaries.

Certainly this was some tough medicine, especially coming from such a titanic figure as Frederic Rzewski, who seemed to me to represent perhaps the highest level of accomplishment and erudition an American composer could hope to attain. To say that I was crestfallen would be an understatement but, as a student with aspirations to be a composer, I found a way to ultimately ignore his disapproval and dire predictions and continue on the path to composerhood. I simply wrote off his opinions as those of a cranky, bitter man.

I ultimately did become a composer, of some description anyhow, which is to say I continue to create new works that are regularly performed, and that recordings of my work are produced, occasionally residencies and grants are awarded, and music continues to be the focus of my life. In the years following my student days, I simply ignored the assertion that my generation was a “sad, sad bunch.”

But recently I have begun to think that perhaps Rzewski had a point. For one thing, as I have continued to carve my path as a composer, it seems to be an increasingly lonely road, particularly bereft of composers my own age. I have regular contact with many older composers, and increasingly many younger ones, but apart from a few close composer friends from my student days I seem to have very few peers of my own generation. I was born in 1966 and that puts me in the era of “Generation X”. Routinely, however, it seems I attend new music concerts that include works by composers born in the ’40s, ’50s and ’80s, (and even recently the ’90s) or sometimes including some from the late 70s, but rarely performances that include works from those born in the heart of Generation X—which here we’ll define as 1963-1980. Of course, they are out there; I do actually know some of them, and no doubt readers of this column will know of numerous others. But relative to the generations before and after, it seems that there is a shortage of Gen X voices out there.

Composers, and creative people generally, are perhaps more inclined to think of their lives as unique and outside of cultural trends. That is in fact what most of us aspire to, at least in part: To be outside of trends. For much of my life, I have done my best to differentiate myself, in my life and my work, but at a certain point it started to become clear that the circumstances of my life, particularly my musical life, were part of a larger pattern that many of my peers shared. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling and insightful exploration of success, Outliers, as I did recently, helped underscore for me the extent to which our lives are shaped by larger cultural forces beyond our control. As Gladwell explains in the opening chapter, aspiring Canadian youth hockey players born earlier in the year (and therefore older, bigger, and stronger than those born later in the year) have an advantage because the league determines eligibility by year. It is a clear example of how statistical factors play into the outcomes of our lives. Exploring some of the sociological literature concerning generational patterns offers additional food for thought.


When it comes to patterns regarding Generation X, it’s worth noting that there are in fact fewer of us. The U.S. birth rate began a steady decline beginning around 1960, reaching a low point during the mid ’70s before climbing again throughout the ’80s. So this might help explain why there seems to be a paucity of composers born during this period. My generation succeeded the great Baby Boomers, the generation who enjoyed growing up in perhaps the greatest, most affluent, and most self-fulfilling era in American history, since victory in World War II led to a post-war economic expansion the likes of which the world had never seen. Boomers had great advantages and great opportunities and exploited them with great gusto, leading right up to what author Tom Wolfe described as “The Third Great Awakening,” which is essentially what the ’60s were: a time of intense social revolution and experimentation. Unfortunately for Gen X, this revolution was not so much about us. In fact, the radical changes of the ’60s, and the sexual revolution in particular, began to unfold amid the invention and eventual widespread use of the birth control pill, and with it the beginning of a dramatic increase in the divorce rate. Attitudes towards children and child rearing went through a sea change, leading to what some have described as the “neglected generation.” Remember latchkey kids?

The revolution of course, ran its course, and while there was great and important social change and growth-in-awareness, the America of our childhood was also somewhat of an impoverished land of broken dreams and broken families. As a result of this sequence of rather wild cultural swings, Gen X’ers are almost equally rooted both in the utopian impulse that defines our parents’ adulthood, and also its almost equally spectacular failure. We were thus brought up in a world of lowered expectations and downward mobility, the first generation to do worse than its parents, or so it has been said. Not too much later, with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, a new conservative era was about to begin, largely closing the books on the “Great Awakening” and its aftermath, and it is in this gap, this wrinkle, that the broader Gen X identity was forged, that of the self-absorbed, underachieving slacker. While there may be some truth in this stereotype, what the classic Gen X personality is arguably really expressing is a kind of indifference, to both radical rebellion and to traditional roles and paths. The prototypical Gen X’er is skeptical, cynical, and self-effacing and not surprisingly, many of this generation have followed unusual, non-linear paths in life, often without attracting much notice. This would seem to fit the broader profile of Gen X composers whom, I have suggested, appear to be missing.

But are we really that different from the generations before and after us? While admittedly the very idea of a “generation” is somewhat problematic, as it is both difficult to establish clear boundaries as well as to identify a common experience among its members, I would say yes, in both cases, it has been different. As the writer Jeff Gordinier argues in his influential 2008 Gen X manifesto X Saves the World, Gen X rebelled strongly against the grandiosity and super-achieving zeal of the Boomers, as well as to our own rather downbeat circumstances, by identifying more with the fringe and the low profile. The Milennials, or Generation Y in turn rebelled against this under-the-radar, disengaged, alternative ethos of the X-ers by returning to, and even one-upping, the Boomer ethos of high achievement and seeking the limelight. While sharing many personality traits with the Boomers, this generation is also a statistically big generation, much bigger than X, and they are sometimes called “echo-Boomers.” Given this larger context, is it surprising that we don’t hear much about Gen X composers?


It isn’t just a matter of our personality differences and smaller demographic profile that has kept Gen X composers out of view, it is also an issue of timing. Looking at, for example, the trajectory of minimalism can perhaps encapsulate in microcosm, the larger Gen X experience. Minimalism has been the dominant musical movement of the past fifty years. It began with composers of the so-called Silent Generation – all of the major originators, Riley, Glass, Reich and Young having been born in the 1930s. If you were in Lower Manhattan during the late 60s and early seventies you might have been aware of this exciting new development, but most everyone else only caught on later. Boomer composers like John Adams (b. 1947) or Paul Dresher (b. 1951) emerged from music school just in time to catch the wave and develop a spin on this emerging language while it was still new. Soon afterward another wave took shape as exemplified by the Bang on a Can composers, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, all of them younger Boomers (b. 1956, 1957 and 1958 respectively) who also adopted minimalism as their own, emerging in the 80s as the idiom was beginning to reach mainstream audiences and widespread critical acceptance, reaping perhaps the final harvest of this once revolutionary seed. But as Generation X emerged on the scene throughout the 90s, this movement had grown stale, and composers who were still kicking minimalist ideas around were seen as, well, just not that interesting.

In this way our story echoes another chapter from Gladwell’s Outliers that explores the rise of the high-tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and others, all of whom were born on or around 1955. In this story timing is everything and Gladwell concludes that all of these success stories were at least in part the result of having been born at the right time to take full advantage of an emerging technology. Sure, there were some high-tech success stories that followed, even some from Gen X like Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Yahoo’s David Filo, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But just as with composers, particularly those associated with minimalism and its offshoots, as the Gen X years arrive we see fewer success stories, and those that do succeed are far less prominent and newsworthy than their Boomer predecessors. Once again, they are out there, but somehow their voices are either absent from the public sphere, or just plain muted.

Of course not all Gen X composers were or are writing in a minimalist idiom, but if we were to take an informal survey of some of the more prominent composers of this age group, what I think we would find is somewhat of a muddle of conflicting influences and styles with no real significant innovations or discoveries. There is no signature movement or style of this group as there is with the Boomers, which, as I have suggested, is really a second phase of minimalism, or post-minimalism. The Millenials, I would argue, have coalesced around a new style that fuses classical and contemporary pop music in new ways that might be characterized as “post-classical” or “indie-garde.” Sure, there are interesting, talented and accomplished figures among them, but as a group, Gen X composers seem caught in the same wrinkle of ambivalence, between rebellion and tradition, that characterizes their generation as a whole. I might posit the Gen X sound as “a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular.” Is this part of the reason for our absence, the fact that we have no distinctive sound of our own? Is ours’ the sound of “a sad, sad bunch”?

Maybe I am in denial, but I for one am not ready to accept such a blunt and dour assessment of me and my fellow Gen X composers. While clearly we have our challenges–we’re downwardly mobile, there aren’t many of us, we are skeptical, ambivalent and self-effacing and our timing is off–and as a group remain a dim presence, we are now entering middle-age and perhaps our star may yet rise. We could be late bloomers about to finally make a lasting mark. Maybe. But another view has it that–and this again echoes that of Gordinier in X Saves The World–without even knowing it, we have been having an important influence on our culture all along, we just haven’t made a big deal about it. I don’t know if this is true, and maybe time will tell. Perhaps you, the readers, know some important Gen X composers out there that the rest of us have overlooked. I would love to learn about them.


Dan Joseph

Dan Joseph is a free-lance composer based in New York City. For the past fifteen years, the hammer dulcimer has been the primary vehicle for his music and he is active as a performer with his own chamber ensemble, The Dan Joseph Ensemble, as well as in various improvisational collaborations and as an ocassional soloist. He is also the producer and curator of the monthly music and sound series Musical Ecologies at The Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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.

21 thoughts on “My (       ) Generation

  1. Antonio Celaya

    Mr. Joseph:

    Perhaps you need to tell the ghost of Frederic Rzewski who is haunting the back of your consciousness to Piss Off and take his cigars and predictions for the future the hell back to some comfy highly intellectual European hideaway. Rzewski is no more skilled in the role of Cassandra than the rest of us. You don;t have to tell off the real Rzewski, just the one that remains in your head. Perhaps he was looking nostalgically back at his youth and feeling like the great rebel in the autumn of life. Every generation doesn’t have to live in a constant state of revolutionary fervor. As a baby boomer I can tell you that the advantages available remained a matter of social class even in the days when the US economy had few competitors.

  2. Smooke

    Dear Dan,

    I’m sorry, but your basic premise just doesn’t pass the smell test. Our Gen X composers are just now beginning to come into their own as mature artists, no longer part of young composer programming, but every bit as important as any other generation. We boast a Pulitzer Prize winner (Kevin Puts (and Jennifer Higdon won the previous Pulitzer but was born in 1962, so is one year removed from your above generational definition)), some of the most programmed and commissioned orchestral (Augusta Read Thomas, Chris Theofanidis, Pierre Jalbert) and band (John Mackey, Joel Puckett) composers, and genre bending experimental composers building extraordinary reputations in their wildly divergent aesthetics (Erin Gee, Ken Ueno, Jason Eckardt, Du Yun, Michael Hersch, Marcos Balter, Amy Kirsten, Caleb Burhans). Perhaps these names are unfamiliar to you, but I assure you that they fill many concert programs and are incredibly important composers.


  3. Dan Joseph

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your comment and certainly you have a good point, one which I acknowledge in my article – there are indeed accomplished composers among Generation X. However, what should be clear is that my field of view is somewhat broader than the academic classical establishment that your list seems to represent. While undoubtedly our generation has a place among the ranks of university music departments and orchestral programs (although it would be interesting to see the stats on that), in terms of a broader cultural context, I frankly see an absence. But regardless of the context, my argument is not quantitative so much as it is qualitative and it seems to me the character and profile of our generation of composers seems is somewhat muted and muddled. Just as in the analogy I offered about high-tech success stories, there are billionaires and there are BILLIONAIRES!!!!

    Best regards, Dan

    1. JHigdon


      Sorry to be so late in responding, but the thought occurs to me that maybe you need to get out of NYC. 99.9% of all new music performances are occurring outside of NYC. This country is filled with lots of passionate, skilled, and exciting new music concerts and events. Just because it isn’t covered in the NY Times doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. It is.

      And I probably fit into your Gen X category…I was a mere 3 hours short of having 1963 as my birth year.

      Do not be discouraged, and for goodness sakes, whatever you do, do not let Rzewski influence you in any way. His statement says everything about him and nothing about a group of composers (of any generation).

      Make the best art you can. The world will be grateful.
      warm regards, Jennifer

      1. Dan Joseph

        Dear Jennifer,

        Thank you for your comment, and I certainly appreciate the spirit of your message. I have no doubt that there is passionately wonderful new music happening all over the country, and I too aspire to make the best art that I can. However, my article is neither a critique of the greater new music culture nor a personal plea for encouragement. Rather, it is an exploration of the character and profile of a particular age group of composers.

        Whether one agrees with my assertions about Generation X composers, it seems a fair and relevant set of questions to ask, and it was my hope in writing the piece that a healthy discussion would follow. I am all for having that discussion and testing out my thesis, but I would hope we could stay closer to the actual points: Are Gen X composers, in relative terms, missing? Have the larger cultural-political changes during their formative years affected the quality and character of their music? Are they in fact different in character from the generations on either side of them? These are the questions I am asking.

        Finally, I understand that there are many active and accomplished composers such as yourself from the Gen X age group, and I congratulate you on your success and accomplishments, heaven knows it is not an easy path, for any age group! But I stand fairly firm that there is something to this sense I have of our generation. Perhaps I am wrong, or merely overdrawing, but I hope we can all continue to discuss the actual questions and see where it leads.

        Sincerely, Dan

        1. JHigdon

          Dear Dan,

          I appreciate your clarification on the questions at hand. I apologize now for the long-windedness in this response. I feel I am much better with notes than with words, and thus my examining these questions in such manner…

          I must admit that I truly believe that trends in music, hallmarks of style, advances in our art, are not really ever clear and apparent until a significant amount of time has passed (far beyond where we currently stand for examining Gen X). And I tend to find that artists may not be the best judge of this sort of thing. And why should they be? Our job is to make the art.

          Thinking back on the work that my colleagues have done, I was reminded of my undergrad days, when Evan Chambers (this month’s Featured Profile) and I were in school together, both as performance majors. We had discussed adding a double major (composition) to our schooling tracks. There was push back from the administration, for various reasons. Neither of us decided to continue the fight to add composition to our studies, and for me, this decision came about because of the amount of pressure to conform to the writing style that was so prevalent at that time (much more systematic and strict…that’s a whole other discussion). Something about it just didn’t feel right and truthful…I was learning so much about composition from my flute teacher that I realized I was already on a path to being a composer. But to this day, I still flinch when a student comes up to me and says that they feel pressured to conform to a style.

          This memory made me realize that the hallmark of the Gen X composers is (which I’m not sure you can ever make an across-the-board-statement about any group of people…but if I were going to, it would be…) that this group helped to bring about the acceptability of a huge variety of styles in composing. My perspective comes from those undergrad days and from graduate studies where I was constantly being told that the music I was writing wasn’t in the proper language of systems touted at that time (and they were right…it was quite different than what most of my colleagues and teachers were doing). Fortunately for me, I come from a family of artists, who from as far back as I can remember, constantly told me to find my own voice. My parents taught me to question everything, no matter the level of authority, and to find the answers for myself. This made the journey much easier for me (the idea of following my own path, despite teachers not being pleased), and in a sense, gave me the freedom to write in a different language than my teachers would have preferred. Ironically, I have works in many different languages (tonal and atonal; predictable and experimental; electronic and acoustical; off-the-wall and along-the-wall), but I feel that the permission that carried me through a lot of “battering” in school, was given to me by parents who were of the opinion that trying as many different things as possible made a person a stronger artist.

          If you look at the list that David Smooke put together in his response, you’ll see a wide variety of styles present. That stepping beyond what was expected (and strictly so) is a large hallmark of that generation. Evan Chambers and I have both created very different sound worlds in our compositions. In my class at Penn, we had kind of an explosion of styles develop. 2 of my colleagues, Pierre Jalbert and Osvaldo Golijov, write music that is quite different from mine. But it became apparent while I was in grad school that the young composers were itching to move beyond one particular aesthetic. And I am happy that it has done so.

          Truth to one’s own voice is the most important thing that an artist can achieve. For a long time, that wasn’t the predominant thought. But now, it is. This allows us to have the richest possible tapestry with which to speak to the world.

          The question isn’t whether you’ve started a movement, or are part of a movement. The question is, are you writing the music you want, in your own voice, and does that piece speak to someone (even if it’s just yourself). That is the definition of success. Not the Pulitzer, not a Grammy, not flame and gory (my favorite description of fame and glory).

          So returning to your questions…Are Gen X composers missing? No…we’re busy. Have the larger cultural-political changes during formative years affected the quality and character of the music? Yes. All artists are affected by the cultural-political changes…we won’t truly know the extent of those “results” until decades have passed. Are they in fact different in character from the generations on either side of them? Yes…everyone is different from the group that came before and the group that comes after. BUT, we all have a tremendous amount of shared experience and overlap.

          Let history decide what is a “trend” and what is a “movement”. Only time will tell. But the truth is, it doesn’t even matter what history will eventually single out or mark as important steps in long-term development…the only thing that matters is what you make today. That should be the focus.

          There is now something for everyone and everyone can write something for someone.

          Finally, I would like to point out that in your article, you mentioned that Rzewski said that “…none of us [the students] were ultimately going to become composers.” Guess what? You’re a composer…he was wrong.

          But thank you for asking these questions. I am keenly appreciative of the thought and effort, and most encouraged by what I see and hear around this vast country. Brilliance abounds.

          Sincerely, Jennifer

          1. Dan Joseph

            Dear Jennifer,

            Thank you again for your comments and I certainly don’t disagree with any of your thoughts here. In fact I would strongly agree that eclecticism has been a hallmark of our generation – we certainly came of age during the heyday of “Postmodernism,” for better or worse. And I also appreciate your definition of success and its shadow of “flame and gory”! This is perfectly in line with this Gen X’er! I know it’s difficult to generalize so broadly, but in doing so with this article, it seems that a healthy discussion has been stimulated, and I appreciate your participation in that.

            Best regards, Dan

  4. Phil Fried

    Trying to reconcile an individual composer’s experience with their generation, or with their generation of composers, experience is a life long search.

    Every composers experience is unique.

  5. Jeff Harrington

    The elephant in the room is that there is no ongoing analysis of the real musical worth of what’s been produced in the past 50 years. The glut, the careerism, the cliques, continually prevent this type of assessment, and without a quality assessment, we have no culture. It’s not just Kyle Gann’s St. Matthews’ effect in progress or curmudgeonly bitterness, it’s a situation that serves as a continuing process of dismissal and functions ultimately as a cancer on our cultural society, preventing the real truth of our collective cross-generational achievements from shining through.

    1. Antonio Celaya

      Jeff, all that is left for each of us to do is to determine what we value in music and try to write music that pursues those values. While I would not wish to indulge in Ezra Pound’s obsession with authenticity (or his hideous politics) he makes a point that is useful for one composing in a time when there is no strong artistic center. “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross … What thou lovest well is thy true heritage” Other eras may seem glamourous. Incessant revolution is tiresome, destructive and distracting. We can only write something that we feel says something of value – hopefully something other than “I am so clever” or “Look how cerebrally my music is assembled, so admire me.” In our era there is no market for anything other than mass produced pop. If a few people really listen and get something of value from your music, then you have accomplished something of great value. Just don’t expect to make money from it or to become part of the canon.

  6. Tim Rutherford-Johnson

    Among the more discouraging points he made about us was the assertion that none of us were ultimately going to become composers.

    What did Rzewski mean by “composer” here? It seems important to understanding his point.

    Did he mean it in its most straightforward sense, as used by Dan in his article? That is, someone who writes music, and gets it regularly performed. Or was he referring to something different – a capital-c Composer – whose title isn’t defined by their production throughput, but by a more intangible relationship to creativity and society (or some such …)? So under these terms Mozart, Beethoven, Stockhausen were Composers, and, I dunno, Hummel(?) was just a composer.

  7. Armando Bayolo

    (Sigh) Dan, you need to stop listening to Fred Rzweski. He’s a fine composer and pianist, but he’s such a discouraging man! Listen, instead, to Louis Andriessen, John Adams, Jennifer Higdon and David Lang, four of the most encouraging and generous voices I know. Or any other encouraging voice of your choosing. Curmodgeonliness is to be fought at all costs!

    Also, throw away “Outliers.” Gladwell’s full of hot air. That whole book strikes me as an exercise in generational self-aggrandizement. Clearly, it’s done your own thought no favors. Throw it out!

    Please, please, PLEASE, do yourself the greatest favor you can and disavow yourself of the notion that “innovation” equals “success” or “importance” as a composer. By that standard, a composer like J.S. Bach is not a “capital c” Composer.

    Listen to Jennifer, above, and get out of New York every now and then. It’s a great town, with a great and enviable new music scene, but it’s a big country out there with lots of opportunities for performance. Head down I-95 to D.C. any time you like. We’ve got a growing and increasingly vibrant scene down here. Stop in Baltimore along the way and you’ll encounter another growing and vibrant new music scene with loads to offer. Or head to Chicago, which is simply EXPLODING with new music (and is developing a musical personality that’s very different from anywhere else in the U.S.).

    Stop worrying about labels, man! This “indie-garde” thing? That’s not a thing. It’s all music. And it’s not a generational divide, either. There are certainly Gen-X composers who have embraced rock and pop tropes in their music while resisting the “alt-classical” or “indi-garde” or any other label. It’s just influence, that’s all.

    Finally, relax and write the best music you can and continue to seek relationships with committed and passionate performers, regardless of age. And don’t be too proud to learn from other composers, particularly those who are YOUNGER than you. Don’t dismiss millenials like Fred dismisses Gen-X. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favors that way.

    1. Matt Marks

      Please, please, PLEASE, do yourself the greatest favor you can and disavow yourself of the notion that “innovation” equals “success” or “importance” as a composer”




    2. Dan Joseph

      Dear Armando,

      Thank you very much for your comment, and in the same way I responded to Jennifer, my article was not meant as a plea for help, although I certainly appreciate all the positive and encouraging viewpoints being offered. I agree wholeheartedly that ultimately nothing really matters but the music, whatever the style, and I certainly live by this in my own work. But it does seem to me that, at least in my orbit, most of which admittedly revolves around New York and San Francisco, there is a absence of generational peers. The themes I took up in the article where merely speculations as to how or why this might be.

      But more importantly, I also hoped in writing this article, to discover voices of my generation I was not aware of, and this has certainly been the case and I thank you and everyone else who has commented!

      Best regards, Dan

  8. Mary Jane Leach

    Well, to be a little contrarian here – while Rzewski can be a curmudgeon, I also recognize a tactic used by one of my theatre teachers in his remark about not becoming composers. My teacher would be at times discouraging and throw up obstacles. His figuring was that if you could be so easily discouraged, that you had no business trying to make a career in theatre. Same goes with composing – perhaps you refused to be so easily discouraged and instead became determined to prove him wrong.

    I also remember an incident with John Hawkes, who taught at Brown, and whose books and plays I really liked. He gave a reading at UVM, where I was going to school. Afterwards, at a party, he was acting really strange and it was uncomfortable. Only much later was I informed that he was actually acting out a short story that my boyfriend had written, and that he was trying to prove how false some of what he’d written came off. And he was right. Maybe that’s how some artists who travel around keep themselves from getting bored – stirring up the young artists that they meet, even if by being negative.

    1. Dan Joseph

      Hi Mary Jane,

      Thank you for your comment and this may certainly have been part of the dynamic. However, while I don’t want to make too much of this sub-story – it was merely intended as an entry point – I think he was truly appalled by the changes in the culture, musical and otherwise, by the increasing encroachment of popular idioms and pluralistic influences on serious music, as well as the wider erosion of the classical education. Another anecdote from that time: When asked if he also felt similar disappointment in our generational counterparts in Europe he replied “at least they still read Shakespeare.” But this is perhaps a whole ‘nother can of worms!


  9. Jonathan Elliott

    I often ask the same questions about my generation (born in 1962 here). When considering the high modernist style of my teachers and their peers, I often feel caught in a peculiar position, between an age when clearly delineated camps (high modernism of Babbitt, Carter, Shapey or the “American” school (Diamond, Bernstein, Copland) prevailed, and today’s (younger generation’s) vastly more democratic situation–in which so many approaches coexist that it is very difficult to point to a dominant aesthetic. Add to this the influence of social media, the importance of strategic self-promotion (which is a gift that some possess and some lack) in a world where it seems everyone is screaming, and I have decided that the thing to do is keep my head down, write the music I hear, and hope for the best performances possible. My generation sits in a peculiar place and we can choose how to engage.

  10. Jeff Myers

    I just came across this article. I remember talking to my colleagues in grad school (2005?) about how we knew a lot of young composers (students or recent grads) and a lot of old composers (established composers and teachers) but not too many in middle region, ostensibly those born in the Gen X range you describe. I was recently looking a program at a concert and I also noticed that there were several older composers (born 1940-1960) and a lot of younger ones (1977-1980s). Oddly, a lot of 1977s and 1980s but very few from 1960s-1977. I don’t know what this all means, but in my own personal experience, (I started undergrad in 1995), it seems like I started studying right as a shift began. I started out thinking and being taught that tonal compositions were unfit for art and should be relegated to commercial work. In my first lesson, I asked if I should write tonal or atonal music and the answer was “atonal.” I secretly wrote tonal pieces for myself while writing atonal pieces for lessons. In about 5 years, I noticed that a lot of tonal-esque music was becoming much more accepted in school. In grad school at Eastman and U of Michigan, it was quite alright to do so. So I was kind of confused. I spent my undergrad developing a portfolio of music which was very atonal and experimental (to be very vague) all the while discreetly inserting little tonal, melodic ideas. I really embraced a polystylistic stance at the time, trying to mix together an eclectic pot of influences. At that time (1999-2001) it really seemed like there was no predominant style. What this all boils down to: I think that composers’ formative years really influence their career path and stylistic ethos. It’s a little bit like being a ‘recovering Catholic’ I suppose (which I am). And it seems to me like the composers who studied in the 1980s-90s developed in some kind of transitional era. It makes me think of the composers from the 1750s and 60s. Bach’s kids. Too late for the Baroque and too early for the Classical style. I understand that these labels and time markers are really sloppy and generalist, but I think there is some kind of truth there. I know that I have a little frowny teacher sitting on my shoulder every time I write something tonal and pretty saying “Shame on you” while just about all my current friends and collaborators and saying “Yes, more of that!” I don’t really have a thesis here, but I think there is something to your article. I get that there are prominent composers from the Gen X category, and that we should follow our inner voice, but larger trends and age seem to be important as well. There is a generational momentum–and if many of the composers of a generation are very mixed up and disillusioned, such as Gen X, then maybe it reduces the ability for those composers to collaborate, resonate with each other’s ideas and create more of a presence.

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