If that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out

Justin Davidson has an article in the latest New York taking a look at what he calls “the new New York School,” those Gotham-based twenty- and (barely) thirty-something composers of fairly entrepreneurial bent dedicated to digital life, stylistic liberty, and the pursuit of a kind of grand, thoughtful eclecticism. (It’s a little bit indicative of the atmosphere Davidson is sampling that most of the composers he mentions have first-name recognition: Judd, Nico, Missy, Timo, Tyondai.) Anyway, here’s the money quote:

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.

Chalk up another datum of proof of the ubiquity of the materialist conception of history! When I first read that, my left-Hegelian happy place lit up like a Christmas tree. I tend to regard music history as pretty Hegelian, not in the constant-historical-progress way, but in that it tends to shift about dialectically; and I certainly have more sympathy towards left-Hegelian interpretation—as troublesome as his philosophy can be, I tend to think that Marx got closer to the Way Things Are than Hegel ever did. But I confess that I found this article to be a little cognitively dissonant. That benchmark of a revolutionary shredding of previous conventions, of a necessity for conflict and constraint, is, itself, a leftover convention, and one that the new eclecticists haven’t needed to shred. They’ve just moved beyond it.

When we think dialectic, we tend to think of the old thesis-antithesis-synthesis model (which was Fichte’s, not Hegel’s). Marx equated the historical dialectic with struggle, and, politically and economically, anyways, history bears him out. But the dialectic is not necessarily a conflict. Hegel’s conception was that the dialectic expands understanding in such a way that what once seemed like conflicting information is revealed as just too limited a perspective. A few years back, I tried applying this idea to big-picture music history—one of my better meanderings, I think. Apply it to the new New York School, and what’s the conflict they’re rendering moot? I think you could make a plausible case that it’s the very idea that aesthetic conflict is a necessary flag for generations to rally around.

This is not 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. (Here’s an example of that happening to my critical self—to my ears, you put “Kontakte” on a program, most everything else is going to sound a little bit wan.) 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.

Why am I going on and on about this? Well, it touched a nerve. Thinking about that article got me thinking about my own fairly unglorious career as a composer. It was about five years ago that I gave up trying to be a professional composer. I mean, I still compose—there’s always something I’m tinkering with—and I still tend to engage music with a composer’s brain. But I was pretty lousy at making a living at it, for two reasons. The first: you might not know it from my online persona, but I am very shy. If you ever see me having an extended conversation with anyone up to the level of casual acquaintance—listening, eye contact, the whole megilla—I am either a) enjoying at least my second drink, or b) working very, very hard. At the time I was trying to get some career traction, I was my own worst enemy. I remember going to new-music concerts and spending the entire first half in stomach-knot dread of intermission, when I would either screw up my courage and go network with all the other new-music types in the audience and then feel miserable because I was so graceless and awful at it, or I would stay safely in my seat and then feel miserable for not doing my job.

But the second reason is a little more interesting. I’m starting to think that I was, inadvertently, part of a kind of compositional lost generation. I didn’t notice this until I was out at Tanglewood last summer, reviewing the Festival of Contemporary Music. This one was intended as a complete survey of Tanglewood’s 70-year history. There was not a single composer born—like I was—in the 1970s. And I realized—of course there wouldn’t be. We were all trained to be the next generation of academics and gatekeepers, but the previous generation of academics and gatekeepers were still around, holding ever tighter to those positions. That sense of aesthetic conflict—always dubious to begin with—was now, even worse, just going-through-the-motions office politics. And I found myself casting about for scraps. I was constantly second-guessing my own eclecticism (every call for scores I responded to, I always felt like Paul Newman trying to bribe his way into the poker game in The Sting: “That will get you first alternate, sir”). I began to resent when contemporaries had success (a truly squalid experience). I began to see opportunities as more important than the actual music. Finally, an opportunity came along, a last-minute concert for an ensemble I didn’t have a piece for, so I threw something together. It was far too difficult, and a pretty terrible piece to boot, and it was cancelled on the eve of the concert. I was pissed and depressed—I mean even more so—for several weeks, until I finally wondered just why I was doing this to myself. So I quit. I was immediately a happier person. I have never regretted it.

Maybe I could have figured it all out, but I didn’t, and I found other things to figure out that were better suited to me anyway. But I guess that’s why, 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.


  1. Man, this post hits me close to home! I wish I was nearly as articulate and clear about this as you are. Thanks for the great read!

  2. This is a brilliant piece. When I read the Davidson article, I felt keenly he'd somehow got it wrong, but didn't think I had sufficient musical knowledge to enter the debate. All I know for sure is that, as a listener, I'm enormously grateful to these composers for what they've done so far and want only for them to get on with it without any sense of constraint. Thank you for so eloquently making the case.

  3. There is a larger point to the Davidson piece which he doesn't really explicitly address: the major part of what is perceived to be the musical “zeitgeist” at any given place and time is due to what music gets the most attention in critical discussion. One might think in this age of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and declining readership of traditional print media, that things would be fragmented, diversified enough that a predominant “meme” of compositional practice would not emerge as it once might have. And true, many people say today, “ah, composers are all over the place compared to fifty or seventy years ago.” But to me, Davidson's more valid point was not that composers should be struggling against some rules or boundaries, but that many of the most noted NY composers don't actually sound all that different from each other as they might fancy, that all the eclecticism contains its own type of “sameness.”

    And what Davidson doesn't really say, but I will, is that in spite of the fragmentation and diversification of music coverage, a certain compositional ethos does get perhaps more attention than others in this time, no different really from what we saw in the NY press in each of the last few decades. Some of that is due to the entrepreneurial savvy of this “New NY School;” there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But there are other composers, who might be less media savvy or who might just be doing something a little bit more “against the grain”—not aesthetic conflict for its own sake, but just against the grain as defined by what gets the most attention these days among under-35 composers. These lesser-knowns may also be “writing exactly what they want to write.” To me the lesson from Davidson's piece is, hey there's a dominant ethos at work in this New NY School but maybe if we are going to truly celebrate stylistic eclecticism, before we go too far in anointing this particular generation as the “voice of their time” let's maybe look into the corners and find some of the people who don't fit into these categories so neatly. One may agree or disagree with Davidson's take on this or that composer, but these composers are going to have to bear up under critical scrutiny no less than anybody else has before them. I'm glad these composers are out there doing what they're doing, but I'm glad Davidson wrote this piece, too.

  4. You are one of my favorite writers about music in the world and for all I know one of the great turn-of-the-20th/21st=century music composers. Keep writing, words and music, please. And though I've never read Marx or Hegel, and haven't really heard a convincing definition of “dialectic,” your thrill in those ideas is infectious. Thanks for all the work, and sorry for the serious shyness, which vanishes in your cartoons, by the way.

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