chess game
The Generalization Generation

The Generalization Generation

Every few months, it seems like another eminent composer expresses dismay about what young composers are doing today. I am already a little nostalgic for 2013, when John Adams accused younger composers of “writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.” Recently, Kevin Volans was the latest to jump into this one-sided intergenerational fray, asserting that “the standard of composition in the 21st century amongst the young is far lower than that of the 20th century.” But they are by no means the only proponents of this viewpoint. I can detect hints of this attitude in a few recent articles here at NewMusicBox, for example. The symptoms vary somewhat, but the diagnosis seems to be the same: things just aren’t what they used to be.

Where does this attitude come from? If so many seasoned composers feel this way, could there be something to it? I’d argue that what we actually have is a generational bias against young composers that is consistent across aesthetic boundaries and preferences. I’d like to talk about this phenomenon as a whole, speculate about some possible causes of it, and describe how this attitude hurts everyone in new music, not just young composers.

ur doin it wrong
There’s literally no way to win this game.

Not everything in Volans’s speech is completely execrable, and he has some thoughts worth considering about presentation, education, and what happens to composers when they turn 40. But it’s largely poisoned by this contempt for young composers. The thing that makes this kind of contemptuous perspective so seductively persuasive is, paradoxically, the thing that makes it impossible to prove or disprove. One thing all the arguments about young composers have in common is that their authors are careful not to name any specific examples of the mediocrity they see all around them. Part of this is likely due to civility, but it also makes their arguments conveniently elusive. Literally everyone can conjure up examples of mediocre musical experiences they’ve had, and it doesn’t even matter if they’re thinking of the same examples—the point is already proven, or rather, the bias is already confirmed.

And zooming out a bit, in making this argument, composers often seem to criticize contradictory things: the structure’s not clear, the structure’s too simple, there’s too much emphasis on pitch, there’s not enough emphasis on pitch, the pieces are too short, the pieces are too long and meandering, it’s too commercial, it’s too opaque, etc. There’s literally no way to win this game.

kids these days

It’s tempting to dismiss this issue as a subset of the generic intergenerational animosity that currently exists between Baby Boomers and Millennials, but this isn’t a very satisfying explanation. The complaints generally leveled against young composers don’t seem to be the usual Millennial-bashing epithets about work ethic and so on. There may be a tinge of this, but in general it seems like we’re dealing with a more complex cocktail of criticism.

It wasn’t enough for them to rebel against their parents; now they have to rebel against their children.

These criticisms do, however, sound suspiciously like the criticisms leveled against them when they were young, as others have pointed out. Their work was considered too commercial, too crass, self-indulgent, unchallenging, you get the idea. It’s true that this took place in a different era, when anything that wasn’t twelve-tone music was considered heresy. I didn’t live through the ascendancy of serialism, but as a student, I heard countless tales about what a suffocating environment it was, how difficult it was to create under such conditions, how necessary it was to break free from those confines, and how much better things were now. Perhaps reflexively, these composers now seem determined to revisit this trauma on the next generation. Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t enough for them to rebel against their parents; now they have to rebel against their children.

I wonder if this is an outgrowth of what I like to call Underdog Syndrome, where composers feel the need to imagine themselves operating in resistance to a prevailing aesthetic that, when examined, is not actually a prevailing aesthetic. I have come under the spell of this condition myself from time to time, and it is incredibly appealing. It gives your work meaning and purpose to believe you are attacking some kind of established order, even if it makes you willfully oblivious to your own role within that established order. Maybe this is why so many great composers seem to be terribly wrongheaded about certain things. Maybe they need to be wrong in order to create.

It’s curious too that so many of these arguments are couched in the language of craft, when they actually seem to be about aesthetics. When Volans opines that we should pursue “the art of composition” and not audiences, it’s hard to fault such a lofty ideal. But when he rattles off his list of composers who successfully pursued this ideal—“Boulez, Cage, Feldman, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ligeti”—this concept of “the art of composition” becomes depressingly narrow. Just to choose a couple fairly arbitrary examples, there seems to be no room here for a Duke Ellington, whose widely popular jazz had a very different relationship with audience and commerce, or a Pauline Oliveros, whose Deep Listening presents an alternative notion of craft. In fact, I’d argue that when composers criticize craft, they are often failing to recognize a kind of craft that is different from their own.

Too many bros
This kind of gatekeeping doesn’t just hurt young composers, it also shuts out other potential voices, marginalized voices, voices that could bring new life to new music.

This is where these attitudes start to become actively harmful. When we elevate a certain kind of craft and its formal concerns above all else, this kind of gatekeeping doesn’t just hurt young composers, it also shuts out other potential voices, marginalized voices, voices that could bring new life to new music. It is completely inimical to the spirit of creativity that should animate and drive us. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, in an increasingly diverse society, new music has remained astonishingly insular, especially when compared to most other creative fields.

For his part, it seems as though Volans would like it to remain insular. In a 1992 interview with ethnomusicologist Timothy Taylor, Volans argues:

There’s a real case for being a complete and utter and total elitist… we’ve got to shut the media out of our lives and we should have private concerts and no press should be allowed and no non-musicians should be allowed. And no televisions should be allowed in our homes. It’s a good argument, because what’s happening is the intrusion of press and media and television and those media are totally debilitating everybody with their mindlessness.

This kind of barbarians-at-the-gates mentality is ultimately self-defeating, because there is no end to it. It shuts out the possibility of any unsanctioned influences, and allows no room for growth or change. It effectively deletes the “new” from new music.

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19 thoughts on “The Generalization Generation

  1. Jay Derderian

    Thank you Isaac, this is great.

    “There’s a real case for being a complete and utter and total elitist… we’ve got to shut the media out of our lives and we should have private concerts and no press should be allowed and no non-musicians should be allowed…”

    Volans is starting to sound a bit like Schoenberg here.

  2. Mafoo

    > The thing that makes this kind of contemptuous perspective so seductively persuasive is, paradoxically, the thing that makes it impossible to prove or disprove. One thing all the arguments about young composers have in common is that their authors are careful not to name any specific examples of the mediocrity they see all around them. Part of this is likely due to civility, but it also makes their arguments conveniently elusive.

    Great point, and this is what makes these vague blanket denunciations so insidious: rather than potentially offending a specific composer or two, I believe they’re sowing a general paranoia amongst younger composers. Nobody is quite certain what these “music lite” compositions are, but we sure don’t want to write them. Are they specifically more repetitive than Music in Similar Motion? More tonal than Proverb? More simple than Schoenberg’s Op. 19 for piano? There’s no answer, and we’re just left with a general sense that more complexity and more obfuscation is safer. I believe many composers whose compositional voices may slightly resemble this specter are discouraged against writing what they truly wish to write, or are discouraged against writing at all.

  3. David Biedenbender

    Thank you, Isaac. Very interesting article.

    “It’s curious too that so many of these arguments are couched in the language of craft, when they actually seem to be about aesthetics.”
    This reminded me of a great post by Ted Hearne (01.28.16 DON’T STOP TALKING ABOUT IT; TALK ABOUT IT BETTER) that I think is quite germane to the conversation.

    He is specifically talking about the relationship between genre and craft, but I think he makes some really cogent points that relate to your last few paragraphs but from a slightly different angle (he also doesn’t shy away from using specific examples):

    The idea that an artist should start their work with good craft — “first and foremost, craft!” an old composition teacher used to say — is even more dangerous. It’s founded, I think, on the assumption that “good” craft is static, neutral and unbiased, rather than dynamic and subject to interpretation like any other socially-defined concept. In that way, genre and craft are two sides of the same coin: both moving targets mistaken as fixed standards, both sets of restrictions imposed upon present artists that are modeled from boundary-breaking innovations made by past artists, both enemies of invention when taken too seriously.

    Craft is a word that used to mean power or force. (Kraft still means that in German.)

    I laughed when this hit me, because I’ve long associated exhaustive conversations about craft with composers who don’t have an interest in questioning or subverting the power dynamics of their own musical community. Composers who love their own prestigious teaching positions and residencies. Composers who have no personal incentive to cast a critical eye toward the audience assembled to listen to their music. Of course they would love power. (Not that I haven’t talked craft with lots of other composers too, but somehow it’s never the most memorable takeaway.)

    And it’s definitely true that if you compose with what powerful people agree is excellent craft, you have the highest likelihood of being folded into the established order. Accepting and adopting those standards without scrutiny clears the easiest path toward your own success in the field. (Not just limited to the Classical crowd here. The only established genres this is not true for are those which make no money — what up, Vaporwave?! I see you out there!)

    But how authentic can your expression really be if your syntax has been determined for you?

    Genre comes from gender. This was a word that described grammatical differences before it was adapted into a word used to separate all human beings into two discrete categories of men and women. Today, genres herd different works of art into single categories based on any number of possible attribute filters. Who determines which filters are relevant is also a matter of power.

    I recently took a job at a rather traditional Classical Music institution, where conversations about how to achieve the best compositional craft are constantly taking place, but questions about what “craft” might mean in different disciplines and styles, who exactly set those goalposts, or why we are perfecting our craft in the first place, are sometimes lacking. Tunnel vision.

    But I don’t blame the institution, I blame the genre. The culture of Classical Music is infected with the ethos that it is the most sophisticated, the most refined, the most subtle, the most expressive, the most “eternal” of all the Musics. (Then comes Jazz! Then everything else.) Most of us see this is completely and obviously untrue, but it’s helping to keep the genre of Classical Music, and by extension the people it represents or at least the people that pay for it, isolated and segregated.

    Genre is culture.

    Our divisions and alliances, our segregations and minglings, our power dynamics, our setbacks and progresses — they are all traceable in our musical decisions, and in the ways we choose to classify them. People identify with music that reflects some part of themselves. The apparatus that harnesses these identifications together into labels with cultural import, and (usually) with monetary value, is genre.

  4. Phil

    This constant all or nothing thinking does a terrible disservice to composers. It is based on the lie that style is the only issue that defines us. How many times do we have to hear the lie that folks were forced to compose 12 tone music or silenced blah blah blah. That content, the how, is interchangeable with style and so training is irrelevant. Ok people prefer the untrained voice. Some people prefer the untrained musician. But not the unrehearsed.* Training and rehearsal is not privilege it’s work. Right now we are fighting for scraps and trying to earn a living. jobs are scarce and the economics of the profession has changed. Sadly. But when considering the comments and ideas of composers please note the difference between the successful ones and those who lead.

  5. Sean Doyle

    1 – What exactly is the age (in years) that demarcates between old and biased vs. young and slighted? Just in case any NMBx readers are coming up on a milestone birthday and what to know which party line to tow…

    2- Regardless of that undoubtedly arbitrary boundary, what’s to be said for young composers who, rather than hold the “unfashionable” opinions of older composers in contempt, actually agree with some of these sentiments? How can the bias be generational when some composers in the early stages of their careers observe the new music culture they arrive in and come to the same conclusions with regard to craft, quality, values? Are they doing new music wrong? Are they still young composers or should they bench their compositional livelihoods until they reach retirement age, since that’s where their artistic sentiments apparently belong? Should they bother to express themselves according to creative values that have been assigned an expiration date – values which, in effect, simply urge the creative mind to never stop exploring and to pursue the development of a craft with attendant self-awareness and self-honesty? Is this not a laudable attitude for those who aspire to a lifetime of music-making, or would it be better to set these misguided young artists right, before their careers stagnate as a result of their creative “Benjamin Button”-hood? How exactly did they get this way?

    3- If one kind of craft is tantamount to some form of gatekeeping, wouldn’t all crafts do that in their own ways? Isn’t the very notion of craft inherently selective in its course of decision-making on the part of the creator and, therefore, exclusive to some degree? If so – if all crafts run the risk of being “inimical to the spirit of creativity” – then do we eschew craft of any kind, in the guise of fairness and a true spirit of plurality? And – as a subsequent necessity – abolish the study of composition, whether in collegiate music programs or tutelage independent of a university framework?

    I have more than a few undergraduates who wonder about these things, all the time. When I was a doctoral student (not too long ago) many of my peers struggled with these challenges as part of their artistic maturation. I myself encounter this conflict on a routine basis, more so lately given the wake of “Volans-gate”, and I’m not yet at the age where I’m ordering off the back page of the Denny’s menu.

    This is not a generational issue.

  6. A.J. McCaffrey

    Hey Isaac! Great piece. I will say, though, having just read through the Volans, that I find that piece *very* different philosophically from Adams’ grumpy-old-man comments. I strongly encourage folks to read the Volans article in its entirety – especially young composers! I might not agree with everything he says but a lot of it resonates with me.

  7. Jon Corelis

    I just don’t understand these kids nowadays. They have no respect for their elders, they dress like bums, and their music — it’s just a lot of noise!

  8. Lasson

    Out of curiosity, I went to listen to Mr. Volan’s music with an open mind, finding it predictable and unremarkable. The initial sound is interesting, but it goes nowhere fast. He’s basking in a sea of conformity, completely out of touch with quality.

  9. Kevin

    In addition to the substance of this article, I enjoy the memes that you littered throughout it. Good stuff, and I agree with what you have to say, and much of this resonates with me, as a composer still currently in college. It’s great that as a member of 7 ensembles, both choral and instrumental, I get a wide variety of performance experiences, from Mozart to Britten to Malcolm Binney. And then we have jazz- being in a vocal jazz ensemble at my college gives me a GREAT experience with jazz, and adding that color. And the listening experiences I get from going to my school’s big band concerts and other concerts (and then on my own I listen to indie rock, because that stuff is excellent). I like classical music of all eras and think it’s so important to get a wide variety of listening experiences from which you can color your musical palette, unlike the narrowness of Volans’ view of who has grasped “the art of composition”- a lot more than just those names have composed great works, and we should not limit ourselves.

  10. Jeff Winslow

    From my position overseeing concert selection committees for Cascadia Composers in the Pacific NW for several years, I can’t say I’ve seen any blatant evidence that our young members are less concerned about craft than our old ones. They may not be quite as slick at it on average, but that’s a different phenomenon and is to be expected. There are the aesthetic differences of course, but that’s a good thing — we like to keep our audiences guessing.

    Some of them do have this strange desire to listen to compressed dynamic range music through surface noise on big, fragile disks though….

  11. Richard Derby

    I’m not sure discouragement at shallow content is necessarily generational. I remember being dismayed at a lot of new music when I was a graduate student in my 20s . Some of that shallow music is still being written by the same composers now that they are of an advanced age. When I was teaching at university I would occasionally run across the attitude “it isn’t necessary to study music as long as you are expressing what you feel” – which is not entirely true. Having the courage to insist on analytic thought (or even to point out that a specific, popular emperor has no clothes) may occasionally be beneficial.

  12. Alden Jenks

    I think we all know when a composer has abandoned the muse and given in to the desire for fame or success. It doesn’t have to sound like Stockhausen, Heaven forbid. The problem, in the author’s mind, is that Mr. Volans posits a hierarchy. And that is no longer allowed. Everything is equal. It is undemocratic to say otherwise. Elitist. Snobbery.
    I think this is a moral black hole from which none returns. Everything is everything, hey, it’s all a movie, nothing matters. I too have dabbled in world music and art. If you play the raga wrong, you’re mistaken. If you arrange the flowers wrong, it’s not Ikebana. If you move notes around at random, or you do nothing at all, or do the same thing over and over — it’s just not music. Purcell is said to have written about another composer, “He just doesn’t know how we do it”. Everything is, indeed, everything. But it’s not music, it’s not our music, that deep-rooted flower, drawing its food from far below. I say, join the dance.

  13. Stephen Lockjwood

    Thanks Isaac,
    In the early days of jazz, media wasn’t what it is today, certainly. Things were bound to be more insular, probably creating an atmosphere of elitism easily enough. But as the voice of the music grew through growing media, the “classical elitism” (twelve tone/serial music, abstract expressionism) began to lose interest in the public, and the public in it. There and then, the music world began to look to America for what was “new”. Listening became a different experience. John Adams touched on it, “writing down to a cultural level which is very vacuous and very, very superficial”. Yes, i certainly can’t argue with it, but since the enhanced role of media, composers don’t isolate themselves as creators of an aesthetic, but seek to identify themselves as members of one. A change of emphasis. Superficial? Yes, but composers create in the world they live in. Through the media the world brings us so much input, (unless you throw your TV out the window to become elitist) that you change your emphasis as a matter of necessity. Or, ignore it, throw out the TV, and who listens to you?

  14. Patricia Morehead

    Dear Issac,

    I am so pleased to read your article. I am an older composer who started composing music at the age of 39. I
    have classical training as an oboist and also the great fortune of studying with great oboists and composers.

    We have arrived at a point in time where all music styles are in play. With the younger generation, I see them bringing
    their favorite music, that they listened to and also performed in bands perhaps, as they matured and studied composition
    more formally into the art music/contemporary music scene. I actually find this really exciting and a fusion that can only
    enrich the new music scene in many ways. They bring a new generation to concerts in new and different ways, and not
    necessarily the conventional concert hall.

    One tends to forget that Haydn used the popular songs of his day and brought them into his music, which for me is
    perhaps why I find Haydn always intriguing and experimental. He lived in a more settled time stylistically, but also he
    could compose what he wanted and yet had to please the nobility for whom he worked. I see the younger generation
    as fusing what they know and love into the contemporary music world in ever exciting and intriguing ways.

    Patricia Morehead

  15. Jeremy Jennings

    So I thought there were some valuable things said in Volans’ piece, but that he was usually misplacing the blame. If he was getting the same amount of instruction a week as graduate students (in what I’m assuming is his program) are getting a year, that’s on the teachers, not the students. Clearly his teacher was pretty dedicated. When I was in grad school it was a fight (that I often lost) to get even an hour of lesson time a week, let alone 14. He’s not wrong that the state of affairs are unevenly deplorable, but blaming young composers for it is to pin the blame on the powerless.

    Jeremy Jennings

  16. Kevin Raftery

    It’s very easy, isn’t it, to brush off criticism from an older person by saying “they simply hate young people”. But how about addressing what they’re actually saying?

    If John Adams says that certain composers are “writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial” then that’s really saying something, because by the standards of his predecessors, HIS music was considered vacuous and superficial. You’d better do some honest thinking about yourself, if a proponent of dumbing-down is saying that you have dumbed-down too much. I don’t see that you have anywhere rebutted his argument.

    You’d better get educated, too, about what was “serial” and what wasn’t. If you think that Xenakis or Ligeti or Cage or Feldman was following some orthodox technique laid down by other people, your ignorance is woeful. Every one of them was breaking free in his own way from orthodoxy. (Boulez and Stockhausen did too, pretty quickly.)

    What is your point about Duke Ellington? Yes, his music was popular with audiences and was a commercial success… so? Shall we say that all Top 40 music is worth a composer’s close attention to the same extent as Bach and Bartok? Was Ellington’s craft more admirable than the latest rapper, or someone writing background music for TV? Would you criticize the craft of someone expertly cranking out elevator music? Is your music better than theirs?

    Why not answer your own question: If so many seasoned composers feel this way, could there be something to it?

  17. Phil

    “if John Adams says .. because by the standards of his predecessors, HIS music was considered vacuous and superficial…”


    As you see every generation says the exact same things. Those who say them are either lacking in imagination or indulging in gamesmanship.
    Though teachers will praise their own students remember that public composers don’t give away freebees.
    So no. The kids are alright.

    Phil Fried, no sonic prejudice

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