New Music is Academic Music

New Music is Academic Music


Though new music’s project isn’t essentially academic, it lives the life of an academic organism. Its funding comes from academic sources or sources built for academics (grants, stipends, fellowships). Even its population looks, by and large, academic (perhaps especially those professors who most prominently bemoan musical academicization). Its housing is academic, its residencies are academic, and it often speaks in academic language. But most of all, new music’s attitude towards matters of quality is distinctly academic.

I was taught (in subtext) that Schoenberg initialized the academic turn. New music strode into the university once its increasingly complex material required a scholarly lens. The same conservatory whispers told me that post-war Darmstadt sealed the deal of new music’s tenureship. Here, composers turned their back on the audience, writing music more akin to jargon than art. Of course, Milton Babbitt’s over-referenced “Who Cares if You Listen” (a product of heavy editorial intervention) evidenced a project characterized by the insularity and elitism born of hyper-specialization.

Let me invert this narrative in economic terms. Essentially, two attitudes towards capitalism divided the 20th century.* The former Fordist regime was typified by considerable state regulation, mass production, a burst in organized labor, and a type of progress-driven modernism (surviving largely on economic racism and sexism). Neoliberalism, the second model, characterizes the last 40+ years—globalization, outsourcing, enormous financial institutions, and above all, privatization and deregulation. As I mentioned last week, neoliberalism still exhorts objectivity—its theoretical underpinnings rely on a hypostatized, ideal market.

Think of the early musical avant-garde in a Fordist light, as part of a social movement oriented towards standardization, progress, and nationalism. New music strode into the academy to serve a political function, to conduct state-sponsored research. In the institution, musical quality meant something very specific and objective—the degree to which the thing in question accomplished scientific or cultural progress.

Fordism’s state and university sponsorships eventually evaporated. Neoliberalism annexed the academy. Academia became a type of behavior, a different way of acting neoliberal, a coping mechanism. New music’s confident stride into academia had turned into a retreat. After all—where else could it go? As far as new music is concerned, especially in America, the state practically doesn’t exist. Similarly, new music has no market; it practices academic economics.  When a composer talks about the market, they reference a theoretical market, an aesthetics of the market. Resourceless, new music adopts capitalism and behaves as a university would within it. In place of a market, new music has a facsimile thereof, borrowed from academia—a trading post of social capital.

As I mentioned in my previous article, neoliberalism has a strange attitude towards quality. First, it dismisses it out of hand—I mentioned the techniques of “it’s a matter of taste” and “go about your own business” last week. Further, though, it creates economic conditions threatening to critical conversations. New music’s academics have lost their tenure-track jobs, or are entering a world in which such jobs absolutely do not exist. Job security demands verbal (and oftentimes musical) silence about matters of quality. Further, the constant need to publish pervades every level of academic life—at all costs, the academic composer must produce. Finally, neoliberalism quietly reintroduces objective metrics of quality compatible with academic overproduction. A para-language of quality—quality weighed in terms of social capital, quality as a type of potential energy. Can we organize a conference about this? Will this proposal win grants? Will this piece of music garner social media attention for this institution? Yes or no?

What about the enclave of “stylistically academic” music? Its changing values are not dissociable from neoliberal social norms, despite this genre’s commendably protective outlook. Against our economic introversion, my generation’s music often indulges in compositional self-promotion (our sometimes-insincere collective turn to vector graphics software, or our embrace of impressive electronics arrays). At a higher pay grade, Fordist remnants persist. Much of the older academic-style music does rely on a tacit collective colonialism: “this aesthetic best contributes to the progress of music.” This genre’s tenureships are perhaps the hardest to find—cautious professionalism every bit as requisite for survival. Both listless silence and eager networking cannot help but infiltrate any applicant class of composers, and I certainly can’t begrudge them for it.

If one wants new music to remain in the academy, how does one help to make it hospitable? How do we take its social behavior and make it contrarian, vital? How can we combat the characteristically academic forms of racism, sexism, and other discriminating obstacles to thought and speech? What economic models are permissive to tenure, or propose models of employment less threatening to critical discourse? Within our extant system, how can we re-establish safe spaces to talk about quality? Though this might require a radical change in the economies involved, I think this last stage is somehow the least impossible. If enough people agree that institutional dangers impinge upon the quality of their work, perhaps some momentum can gather. Though clubs and small social organizations have the danger of elitism, they can be great places for composers to share opinions and strategies. I also encourage any of you with composition students to use your studios in this way. I learn the most when I’m empowered to air my thoughts and pressed to explain them.

However, if one wants to find contemporary music a new home, where can it go? I would hate to watch new music proudly immerse itself in the market. (Personally, I hope that art can remain a space in which one can at least pretend to listen or look or learn from something in a way that escapes capitalist modes of entrainment.) Because I believe in human agency, though, I do also believe in margins—the frayed limits of the market, the zones not completely under its control. If new music must find a new home, it needs to do something incredibly extreme.

Personally, I’m conflicted. Though being an academic is the most comfortable way for me to “be capitalist” (a behavior in which I am often completely complicit), I look at my prospects for employment with great anxiety. The tremulous instability looming over my future makes me question the sustainability of my practice. Certainly the structure of new music must change drastically, re-evaluating its kinship with academic-capitalist behavior. Frankly, I think new music ought to remodel itself into art, taking the shape of a social organism whose funding comes in spurts from fringe and diverse places. I value the new music created out of small constellations of people, from long-term and close-knit partnerships, the new music whose instruments and raw materials reflect intimacy and care with their arrangement. New music needs a relevance borne of its own intrinsic, immanent urgency—a social structure powered by the need, not the professional compulsion, to make things. As a friend told me last week, one might even define quality as these conditions of production itself. I propose my definition of quality here: Quality means both a social environment conducive to the expression of immanent musical necessity and the discourse of this immanence itself. Quality judgment means social criticism and the affirmation of its preconditions.

I am building something. In my first post, I presented a dire situation. Here, I’ve drawn a fork in the road. My next two posts will deal exclusively with quality. In the first, I’ll talk about performance, etiquette, and resensitizing oneself to music. In the second, I’ll talk about “making the air heavy,” magic-eye puzzles, “believing that music isn’t an exercise,” and other ways I talk about quality with my friends and peers.


* For more in-depth analysis, check out David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Stanley Fish’s New York Times opinion column “Neoliberalism and Higher Education” relates this specifically to academia. I also can’t recommend anything higher than Elizabeth Grosz’s essay collection Time Travels, alongside the compendium New Materialisms (ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost)—both of which transformed my understanding of agency within a neoliberal world.

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.

10 thoughts on “New Music is Academic Music

  1. Paul H. Muller

    “Certainly the structure of new music must change drastically, re-evaluating its kinship with academic-capitalist behavior. ”

    Well one radical option is to disengage new music from capitalism altogether. The Internet provides the means for artists to communicate with those of a like mind and a way to distribute one’s music at little or no cost.

    Give your music away and treat it as art, instead of as a commodity whose worth is determined by what others are willing to pay for it. That leaves open the question of earning a living – but this is increasingly problematic for musicians in any case ( even academics), and especially those involved in new music.

    1. william osborne

      It’s true that the Internet’s anarchic, free-market, borderless character allows for new forms of marketing, and new forms for the distribution of information and viewpoints that were earlier not accessible to the disempowered. (Just ask the Vienna Philharmonic.)

      On the other hand, digital communities often gravitate toward norms that leave members little to do except preach to the choir. Those who are different are relegated to smaller, more specialized groups where their concerns are ghettoized. This creates a kind of tribal uniformity that can silence or ghettoize those who are different.

      This tribal uniformity can lead to forms of orthodoxy that stifle and marginalize critical views of quality in the arts.

      Another problem is that when the Internet became commercialized its concepts of anarchy were easily subsumed by free-market ideologies. In the Internet’s wired, Darwinistic virtual world, the ruling status quo, as represented by the financial and media interests of society, were given powerful new tools to shape cultural values on a global scale. The Internet is now a powerful tool for social engineering. This might further marginalize art forms that exist outside the marketplace.

      I discuss these ideas about neo-liberalism, the Internet, and narrowed views in the arts (a lack of critical dissent) in this 2001 article – though the viewpoint is mostly feminist:

  2. william osborne

    If I understand you correctly, quality is determined by relevance born of need (“immanent musical necessity.”) You also phrase this as a “social structure powered by the need, not the professional compulsion, to make things.”

    You also suggest that the discourse created by filling these needs insures quality. Just as in the market, demand is shaped by “quality judgment” — an open market where quality can be confirmed and motivated through social criticism.

    Isn’t this concept of quality as defined by fulfilling needs similar to the supply and demand arguments of neo-liberalism – or most any market philosophy? Even if you are talking about composers fulfilling the needs of their own small market, isn’t this a market oriented argument?
    Fringe markets are quickly saturated, which pushes composers once again back to the subsidized confines of academia. Regardless of how immanent our musical necessities might be, how do with eat without a *paying* market for our work? Or are composers actually involved in the subsidized education business — the academic Fordism taking in tuition and state funding to crank out composers on conveyor belts?

    That takes us back to the capitalist antipode of neo-liberalism, the Keynesian model of mixed economies best represented by Europe’s social democracies. That trap door of rejection built into the market’s stage floor is opened and we fall right back into Darmstadt – or a job at Turdville State U..

    If it seems worth it, perhaps you can clarify for us some of your terms and thoughts and distinguish them from the usual concepts of the marketplace. Anyway, I’ve probably just misunderstood what you’re saying.

  3. andy costello

    Great work, Marek — I’m loving the first two articles.

    I am wondering about your personal history. Since you are currently a PhD candidate at Harvard, I deeply value your thoughts on Academia from the inside out. But, I am curious to know what your personal history is outside of Academia, and if your experience with fringe art, for example, is also from the inside out, or outside in.

    One major problem I find with Academia, which is a by-product of pressure to over-produce, is to embody the voice of a marginalized community, and unrightly so. Non-Academia is no less guilty — they tend to write off any work done in universities as out-of-touch ivory tower masturbation, which is also unfair and untrue. We cannot represent that which we don’t embody, I find.

    I can only speak for myself here, and can only say that I find the nature of conference- and publication-driven discourse a bit baffling. You’re very courageous for challenging this institutional norm.

  4. Marie Cutrie

    This is an interesting piece but it seems confused about the registers in which it wants to speak about neoliberalism. David Harvey’s work tells a rich story about how neoliberal economic policy took shape in the 1980s and the role those policies played in the production of New York (and other cities) as a creative center that was also business friendly. What this essay lacks is a robust engagement with how neoliberal policy has, in that last two decades, come to be lived in and as a series of moral and ethical coordinates that valorize hyper-individualism, self-responsibility and self-management. (Harvey is not great on this; Lauren Berlant is.) For the musically inclined, this often takes shape as intense, meticulously curated ‘taste’ and overcooked claims about ‘quality.’ What is interesting, in a thinking of neoliberalism and / with music is precisely how the economic and the moral intersect. This piece too often allows them to become indistinguishable. If we want to talk about ‘job security’ in the academy, the issue at play is NOT primarily “silence on the matter of quality,” but rather the increased contingency and precarity of academic workers, more broadly. (grad student labor, post-docs, adjunct labor and new administrative approaches to what the tenure track means). You view is myopic here, which is surprising since the casualization of labor is a hallmark of the neoliberal university.

    1. william osborne

      Marek’s view does not strike me as myopic. Neo-liberlaism believes that the market is the ultimate arbiter of virtually all human endeavor. It is thus a moral and aesthetic philosophy. Governments, for example, are not to intervene in issues like poverty or wealth re-distribution. The market is the judge of the best art which reinforces the aesthetics of mass appeal.

      This only made it harder for artists to live in urban areas, where public funding was reduced and living costs increased by the boom in the financial industries. In addition, when excessively confined to market ideals, the range of creativity is narrowed.

      Faculty spend years in the tenure process where they have to be careful about what they say on a range of topics, including views about musical quality. Individualists given to speaking unpleasant truths are often filtered out. Adjunct faculty (now more common due to neo-liberal market efficiency) can be dismissed at semester’s end which puts them in a similar position.

      So it seems to me that Marek touches on a number of issues accurately related to neo-liberalism.

  5. Phil Fried

    “.. that Schoenberg initialized the academic turn… composers turned their back on the audience, writing music more akin to jargon … Babbitt’s … evidenced a project characterized by the insularity and elitism …”

    I do appreciate, at last, the mention of composers in your essays. That said your comments, or perhaps not your comments ( you imply that someone else told you this), are sadly, in line with many of the disparages of these composers. Sigh.

    Perhaps its ironic that many of the folks who say they reject Babbitt’s approach to composition, fully embrace Babbitt’s prose style to explain their own work.

    No sonic prejudice

    Phil Fried

    1. Warren

      This entirely. I grow weary of people insisting that it was serial composers who were pidgeonholed into academicism during the post-war years, when the majority of composers who held academic positions were, in fact, not particularly serial. Babbitt’s essay is, unfortunately, a good example for what Marek uses it for.

      I must admit I’m a bit skeptical about this whole essay stream. As of yet, it’s not actually discussed quality, merely said philosophical, inflammatory things that are mostly opinion and poorly-cited. Further than that, I’ve yet to be convinced that quality is anything more than personal opinion, especially considering that “quality” is most often considered from a historical perspective, which we obviously do not yet have on music written less than ten (or even twenty) years ago.

      1. william osborne

        He’s addressing quality, but his idea is rather intangible. It seems to have something to do with creating a new kind of community that that would allow for truthfulness that moves us toward higher standards.

        This is indeed a problem in academia and in our rather cronyistic composer collectives where there is too often an incentive to be less than fully honest. If I’m reading him correctly, what would this new kind of community be that moves composers toward greater truthfulness? What sort of community would create a clearer sense of one’s actual level of artistry? Is such a community possible? Or is truth in art so elusive that that it cannot be furthered by any sort of social structure?

  6. Micah Silver

    A+! New Music has a terrific history of alternative economic models and strategies for decoupling qualia, bucks, and social capital. Post-Cagean anarchocommunism could be reglorified. Hakim Bey suggested TAZs long ago and remains a reasoned response to the economy. Nancarrow left. But options for a noncapitalist-ish life are universally challenging and not unique to new music or visual art or radical politics or for committed comic book heads or daydreamers.. Everyone involved with life outside a few lucrative fields in a handful of wealthy countries are precariously dancing around dreams of the globalized middle class life (the problem).

    Perhaps the question being subliminally asked is whether one is willing to accept a lesser lifestyle or cultural position in order to be in a position to make or be a part of the music community desired, whatever it is? Otherwise we are talking about competition for resources, or forging new ones without addressing the complexity of our own desires and life-imaginings.

    So perhaps solving the New Music quality question is not done directly but through metabolizing ones own lifestyle desire into something else, a vision that can be accepted and embraced in the absence of even the slightest glimmer of magical thinking about the location of New Music’s or Art’s importance?

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