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The Defeat of New Music

The Defeat of New Music

In this third post, I would like to delve into a narrative of what might have brought New Music to the serious impasse it finds itself at in the United States. Like any narrative, it is partial and incomplete. I acknowledge that there are other reasons that may have contributed to the obscuration of this type of music, but it seems to me that what I describe below had such a significant impact on the erasure of New Music that it deserves special attention.

The connection between contemporary music and academia in the U.S. is crucial in order to address New Music’s ramifications. According to Brigham Young University Professor Brian Harker, composition “found its rightful place as an intellectual proposition under the umbrella of ‘theory’ in virtually all college curricula of the early century.”[1] In this respect, “the emphasis was not on original work (…) but ‘on playing the sedulous ape’ to the best models of music literature in the attempt to know how if not what to write.”[2] Composition was thus subordinated to theory as a means to gain greater knowledge about existing music.

However, in the beginning of the second half of the last century, the relationship between theory and composition as intertwined academic disciplines was responsible for the eventual establishment of composition as a serious scholarly field in its own right. Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore, despite the fact that composition may not be easily evaluated by means of academic structures associated with scholarly disciplines such as history or physics.

Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore.

Milton Babbitt was a pivotal figure in accelerating this endeavor. With Roger Sessions, Babbitt prompted a number of young composers and theorists to explore a scientistic approach to music-making and analysis. This group would later be associated with the journal Perspectives of New Music. Harvard Ph.D. candidate Monica Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm’s two seminars in Advanced Musical Study, which took place at Princeton in 1959 and 1960, might have “paved the way for the journal Perspectives of New Music and the founding of the Ph.D. in music composition.”[3] The seminars included lectures by Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Edward T. Cone, Allen Forte, Felix Galimir, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and others. Some of the titles of these lectures (“Polyphonic Time in the Music of Stravinsky,” “Form in Music”) should point to the close relationship between theory and composition that those musicians were trying to nurse. By virtue of its relation to consistent methodology, music theory was the pretext through which composition could be relatable to scientific developments and gain a similar status to the work that a number of logical positivists in U.S. academic circles fostered after World War II. It was precisely due to this connection that composition most likely evolved into harboring its own scholarly sphere. Ultimately, it appears that Babbitt was largely responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition at Princeton.[4] And, for all we know, the justification of composition as a field that could be somehow compared to science is what led contemporary music to be embedded in U.S. academia.

My colleague Franklin Cox has described this type of “American modern music” as a form of Reductive Modernism:

Reductive Modernism (…) maintained most of the apparatus—most importantly the notion of aesthetic progressivism—of Modernism, but converted it into more testable and propagatable form, which was most easily done by functionalizing it and stripping it of all “fuzzy” residue, such as its immanent political aims, its moral pretensions, its delicately balanced tensions, its cultivation of tasteful critics and readers, and its redemptory (albeit highly conservative) aims. Often modeled on scientistic beliefs, it favored innovation as its own goal, and favored above all else technical and material innovation.[5]

The works of Babbitt and his acolytes may be processed through the lens of Reductive Modernism, since their authors did not seem to be concerned with the critique-based project of New Music that I introduced in the second essay of this series. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not their music that is Reductive, but the academic discourse that they developed surrounding that music. Without delving too much into ontology and semiotics, I would propose that the actual sounds that shape music, regardless of the particular cultural context where they were created, may be perceived and processed in a wide variety of ways. Music is a cultural artifact that cannot be isolated from its socioeconomic context: it is not recognized as such through how it solely sounds, but rather by how it has been defined according to the specific material conditions during the time of its creation, the ways that it has been interpreted throughout historical change, and by whether it conforms (and to what extent) to the prevailing state of affairs. It would be unreasonable to imagine the sounds that belong to a particular musical context separated from the social, economic, cultural, and discursive conditions that led to the realization of those sounds in the first place. The alleged “Reductive Modernist” music that Babbitt and other East Coast serialists practiced (the sounds they produced) may actually be Reductive, but it is not Reductive only as a result of the way it sounds, but rather by both how it sounds and relates to global circumstances beyond the sonic domain.

Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college.

At any rate, the intricacies surrounding U.S. modern music had an impact on the perception of academic contemporary music on behalf of future generations. Babbitt’s proposal in “Who Cares If You Listen?,”[6] which suggests that modernist composers should seek refuge in the university’s ivory tower, is a paradigmatic example of an ideology of withdrawal. Because of Babbitt and others, contemporary music gained access to academia and did find some solace, but the price of admission was nevertheless very high. By fundamentally treating contemporary music as a field of scientistic exploration, this type of music neglected most of its bonds with modernity and its emancipatory project based on self-critique. This compositional discourse, which echoes the prioritization of newness for its own sake, has considerable potential to be subsumed under a complacent cultural logic by virtue of the discourse’s indifference toward treating music holistically. By not expanding music’s critical capacities beyond its internal qualities (structure), I am afraid that the East Coast serialists helped to build, perhaps unknowingly, a musical-academic culture that is unable to act counterculturally. The recontextualization of methodologies historically associated with the natural sciences into the realm of sonic creativity resulted in a positivist music that runs the risk of validating the status quo, thus helping to support some type of emancipatory stasis—the illusion of musical (and social) progress. The musical culture that the East Coast serialists nurtured not only has the potential to be satisfied with its own conditions due to its intrinsic tendency to glorify technology and its false promise of a better future, but also it is prone to become unfit to function as a force of critique. By disengaging itself from this facet of modernity, contemporary music fostered an environment where New Music became largely residual.

At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity. Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college. Perhaps from the very beginning, the project of New Music had already been defeated, but that does not mean it is dead.

The final essay in this series will suggest some paths for contemporary music practitioners to tackle the future.

1. Brian Harker, “Milton Babbitt Encounters Academia (And Vice Versa),” American Music 26, 3 (Fall 2008): 340–341.

2. Ibid., 341.

3. Monica Hershberger, “Princeton Seminars (1959 & 1960),” Fromm Foundation,

4. Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm could have wanted Perspectives of New Music—a journal he helped establish—to “be a vehicle for the learned articles that would be the university composer’s response to the administration’s demand for the kind of articles faculty members in most fields write to get academic advancement.” (Arthur Berger, Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 142–143). In this regard, Fromm might have been indirectly responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition.

5. Franklin Cox, “Critical Modernism: Beyond Critical Composition and Uncritical Art,” in Critical Composition Today (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2006), 145.


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13 thoughts on “The Defeat of New Music

  1. Will Mason

    Mr. Pàmies drags out a number of groan-inducing (at least to this reader) tropes about music theory and music composition in the age of modernism that music scholars in the last three decades have been working tirelessly to nuance if not eradicate entirely, and it is deeply unfortunate that he appears to have been unaware of their work. To begin, I would suggest that anyone interested in reading more about the relationship between composition, music theory, and the power structures of academia in America read Patrick McCrelless’s 1997 article “Rethinking Contemporary Music Theory,” which appears in the edited collection “Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture” (eds. Schwarz, Kasabian, Siegel.) And for an account of musical modernism with a memory long enough to consider the work of Milton Babbitt alongside quattrocento efforts to found an “art/science,” consult Julian Johnson’s book “Out of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity” (2015).

  2. Michael Robinson

    Thank you for yet another fascinating piece as challenging as following a Lee Konitz improvisation. I’ve never been able to really enjoy serial music, even with giving it a chance periodically. At times in my life, I have enjoyed Webern and Babbitt, but that pleasure doesn’t appear to last for me. One suspicion I have is that Arnold Schoenberg originally took a theory Wassily Kandinsky invented for painting and somewhat speciously adopted it to music with others taking the form to greater extremes. Its difficult to ferret out the truth of this historical event. Perhaps no one really knows the true chronology. Another interesting perspective is that in adopting a form of pitch sequences, Arnold was unknowingly mirroring the form of Indian ragas even though he was obviously eschewing even a modal center.

    1. Michael Robinson

      What has charmed me the most about Milton Babbit’s music is the seamless melding of modern jazz elements into his compositional milieu, particularly the angularly jumping melodic guises, sometimes playful. Mel Powell spoke of Babbitt as if he was a god, his eyes misting over. Johannes Brahms was an earlier composer Powell admired, and there was frequent mention of his teacher, Paul Hindemith.

  3. Antonio Celaya

    Does anyone really take Babbitt and Petspectives on New Muzak as anything other than an odd fashion? In the 1970s in provincial schools, such as the one I attended, nobody took such academic stuff seriously. Perhaps the effect is confined to certain schools in which the faculty think they are more important than the remainder of the musical world. Is it necessary to continue this battle of exhausted irrelevancies?

  4. Nick Norton

    So wait…the most recent dates in this article are in the 1970s, and the author is considering this the state of new music? I’d strongly suggest he open his ears and eyes to what seems to be happening just about everywhere. Creative music is healthier than it’s ever been, and in my admittedly limited experience in academia (yes, I’m a doctoral candidate), the only people who seem unaware of that are those who are spending more time complaining about the state of composition in the university than they are composing.

    Fuck the university. Go to concerts. Put on events and make records.

    That said, universities can be great, fruitful places for improving skills, meeting colleagues, being inspired, etc., but thinking they’re the heart of creative art making in America and that their status is somehow an indicator of the health of the music scene is a deeply flawed assumption people make when they don’t think critically about how their art might fit into the world, or when they blindly accept that what their teachers have done is the most logical artistic career path for them.

  5. Carolyn Bremer

    “At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity.”

    Please come visit the Bob Cole Conservatory at CSULB. It is one of many, many institutions in U.S. academia which will proudly show this to be untrue.

  6. Dan Welcher

    I’m with Carolyn Bremer. This article could have been written in the late 70s. Anyone attending most new music concerts at American universities and conservatories today would find these observations to be obsolete. Having taught composition at the University of Texas (Butler School of Music) for the last 37 years, and also at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Louisville School of Music, I’ve seen the study and teaching of composition trending away from super-academic formalism and back toward audiences for a good long time now. (This is not the case in Britain and France, I hasten to add, which explains why so much new American music is pooh-poohed across the pond.) Yes, when I was in grad school we all had to serialize. Samuel Adler once published a very astute article called “Does He Or Doesn’t He?” about the necessary benchmark of being a serialist as a prerequisite for getting a job, a grant, a prize. But, except for a few hidebound institutions where entrenched faculty keep that flickering flame alive, there are precious few restrictions on young composers to conform to any isms or schools of practice. Most, if not all, choose their own paths now—and often, those eclectic paths are influenced by film music, popular music, video game music, jazz, and world music…the opposite of a “scientific” approach.

  7. Rob Haskins

    The real question is, Why does NewMusicBox publish material like this and not seek out music scholars who are informed about new music (including the period under discussion) and have genuinely new and interesting things to say?

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      NewMusicBox seeks to give voice to people in the field and we welcome dialogue and even disagreement. Rob, if you would like to respond and debate on the substance of the article, we encourage you to do that.

    2. Larry Rubin

      Very, very well said Rob. Totally un-new “new music” criticism. Title is perfectly ironic: this never-ending return to 20th century issues is exactly what keeps us stuck in the mud.

  8. Ana- maria avram

    Certainly true. Situation is actually the same in Europe’ s music Academies, like CNSMP or disseminated by insitutions such as Darmstadt music summercourses, and makes larger everyday the gap between true adventurous nowadays music and those academic aquariums for sheet scribblers


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