17 April 2011

Like a Splinter in Your Mind: Gen-Xer and Nexter Composers, Emergence, Joy

Fineberg bookJ ustin Davidson published an essay in New York magazine a couple of weeks ago, about the perennial difficulty of trying to make a living as a composer and about the differences he sees between Milliennials (those born after about 1975) and the previous generations.

T he piece has precipitated considerable comment and interest within the U.S., where public-sector support for new music and new composers is scanty and where it has for generations been very hard to make serious music your life’s work unless you have a secure position in academia, in a standing orchestra, or have private wealth and do not depend on music for a livelihood.

O ne of Davidson’s points—and possibly the one that has garnered the most comment so far—is that composers who are Millennials seem to be faring better than their predecessors.

F rom those who I’ve met and corresponded with, I think that—if the difference that Davidson cites is a real and generationally characteristic one—it does not come from any underlying ‘deficiency’ but instead has to do with Millennial composers’ fascination with ‘emergence’... live in the present... see what happens... value whatever happens.

Y ou are only a prisoner if you consider yourself to be a prisoner and have expectancies that conflict with prevailing constraints on what you can do and where you can go. If you have specific goals and if your sense of worth is conditioned upon achieving those and only those goals, then your worldview holds great risk of disappointment. By contrast, many Millennials renounce the notion of setting goals, and they cheerfully ignore most of the constraints.

I  was recently reading Ian Hacking’s 10-year-old book ‘The Social Construction of What?’ (link below) where he disputes the claims of postmodernists who try to fight oppression by showing that race, gender, sexuality, and ‘generation’—far from being legitimate bases for discrimination—are hardly real at all and are instead merely social constructs that can be disposed of at will. Hacking looks at how this kind of argument works, and at social phenomena like child abuse where the constructionist argument undermines a clear sense of what reality is. Is the ghetto-ization of composing in the U.S. a problem that could be dispelled in a moment, like in that quintessential Millennial film ‘The Matrix’? Is this in fact what cheerful composers who are Millennials have done?

C   ypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? ... [Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.”
  — The Matrix.
P aul Ricoeur’s insights... the internal relations between recalling and forgetting, and how this dynamic becomes problematic in light of events once present but now past...

A   gent Brown: Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.”
  — The Matrix.
F urther, a number of the composer Millennials Davidson refers to are also Minimalists. Their chosen expressive musical idioms don’t compel them to have ‘narrative’ aims, only, um, ‘sculptural’ aims. I realize that there are theories of sculpture that hold that sculpture is—or can be—discursive, and that sculpture, specifically in the wake of Minimal sculpture and the artworks inscribed by that category in art critical discourse, relies on an imperative or a corporeal view/interpreter and that significant relations regarding the notion of sculpture are therefore ‘externalities’. But—how convenient!—these Millennials don’t buy those theories. Organic cheerful action-scissors cut theory-paper every time.

S   poon Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the Truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon Boy: Then you’ll see... that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
  — The Matrix.
M aybe the previous generation(s) were just less-generously endowed with the means to get their stuff ‘out there’, in the epoch before the long-tail of the internets, before iTunes and P2P and InstantEncore and everything—and that lesser endowment made their survival more precarious than it is for Millennials? Millennials can take root in far more places and subsist or even thrive, with lower cost and risk than previous generations have faced.

A   gent Smith: I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another type of organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a viral plague, and we are the cure.”
  — The Matrix.
M aybe Millennials are just succeeding, for now, in asserting that they are different...

R   hineheart: You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe you are ‘special’. You believe that, somehow, the rules do not apply to you. Obviously, you are mistaken.”
  — The Matrix.
W hereas many of the previous generation were abraded and ground-down until they were used up...

C    ypher: I’m tired, Trinity. Tired of this war, tired of fighting... I’m tired of the [serious music] ship, tired of being cold, tired of eating the same goddamn goop everyday...”
  — The Matrix.
M aybe the deal was that serious music needn’t be part of any socially-sanctioned ‘movement’, referencing externalities and depending on external exchange-economy financing. No doubt effective music creates an entirely self-contained world, whose meanings emerge in the performer or audience member. But maybe now the composer must be outside the economy [must be self-financed by other means, private means] and only (a) write what she/he feels she/he must write, because it’s inside and blazing to come out, or (b) must be entirely internal/capitalistic and write what she/he can sell in whatever opportunistic ways possible—or some ad hoc mixture of (a) and (b). That, naturally, is the view of conservative politicians in the U.S., who try to reduce public support for the arts to the tiniest size possible, in a bathtub, and then drown it...

N o, I think the difference among composers who are Millennials has more to do with a generational preference for ‘emergence’—with the freedom and responsibility to actively discover whatever meanings there may be in what happens—and for ‘joy’. Those are characteristic, defining features... as opposed to copping to the spectator sport of observing constraint and letting rage against social forces define you. Millennials are clearly power-aware—they could fight—but they won’t. They are, many of them, simply opting not to be antagonism-driven.

F    or decades, New York has been a composers’ playground—or is it battleground? Modernists, hunkered in uptown music departments, developed early electronic tools. Minimalists sat on the floors of downtown lofts and attracted a patient public. Later, Bang on a Can renegades plundered and played for both camps. Now comes a roving band of entrepreneurial composer-performers who go merrily dumpster-diving in styles of the past and of distant parts. Three recent, overlapping festivals—Ecstatic Music at Merkin Concert Hall, Tune-In at the Park Avenue Armory, and Tully Scope at Lincoln Center—offered a portrait of a new New York School, high on amped-up minimalism, percussion-heavy beats, shimmering textures, loops, drones, and washes of electronic color. These composers in their Thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. They are not monkish craftsmen assembling 6-minute miniatures, half an agonizing second at a time. Instead they churn out somber symphonies, wry pop songs, laptop meditations, filigreed chamber works, endearing études, and occasional film scores. This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom... We idolize the radical who shreds the previous generation’s conventions, but every aesthetic revolution begets an ardent rigor of its own. The new New York School has a healthy distaste for tired conflicts and old campaigns. Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, its composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal. What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”
  — Justin Davidson, New York Magazine.
N   ot to say that constraint and/or rage can’t produce great music. An awful lot of the music I love seems to be coming from that place—a sort of punk-ish, in-your-face energy—and it can sometimes buzz the mind to the extent that calmer music fades... But, then again, I’ve heard plenty of music in which having something to prove was a curse, not a charge—all kinds of barely-warmed-over fake Copland that seemed to regard the mere act of having a tonal center as some sort of artistic triumph. Rage and constraint are aesthetic choices, not aesthetic necessities, and, like any aesthetic choice, it’s what you make of the choice, not the choice alone. Anger is not the only kind of zeal there is—and it seems to me that the music Davidson is talking about has plenty of zeal, be it blinding cheer (Tyondai Braxton’s Carl-Stalling-on-a-Skittles-bender ‘Central Market’) or quiet certainty (the scratched-negative vistas of Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Death Valley Junction’). It’s generous, not defiant. Maybe that seems a little weird nowadays. ... When I look at this new New York School, whether I like the musical output or not (though most of it I do), I don’t see a group of composers who are lost, or tentative, or in need of a good old-school chip on their shoulder. I see a bunch of composers writing exactly what they want to write, building their own community of support, and making a go of it. In other words, in at least some partial way, they figured something out that I never did. I’m old enough that I can be happy about that. Because, both dialectically and practically, that’s progress.”
  —  Matthew Guerrieri, SohoTheDog.
O    ne of the reasons I am drawn to a lot of this music (among many types of music) is precisely because anger is not necessarily the motivating force behind it. Nor is blinding cheer in many cases—there is music inspired by loss, heartache, darkness, philosophy, poetry, politics, and yes, sometimes even wide-eyed joy. How exactly is that a problem? It is assumed that many of the composers in this group have blithely shrugged off what it means—in a traditional sense—to be a composer, and what sort of music a composer like that creates (as if there were only one answer!). ... Anger and suffering may bind people together, but in and of themselves they don’t necessarily build lasting change, and I think we can all agree that change and adaptation is needed in order to survive. That concert halls are packed to the gills for performances of, for example, Feldman, Cage, or William Brittelle seems an overwhelmingly positive sign for contemporary music. That the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, traditionally drawing the most conservative of Washington, D.C., classical music audiences was recently filled with the youngest audience I’ve ever seen, one that jumped to its feet at the conclusion of Tyondai Braxton’s ‘Central Market’, is mind-bogglingly wonderful. And it’s not just about this group of New Yorkers—change is afoot around the country, in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, and beyond... I for one am glad and proud, and I believe that they are ultimately helping all of us by spreading their musical wings into new realms, and inspiring others to do the same.”
  — Alexandra Gardner, NewMusicBox.
Minati emergence book



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