History hangs heavy over the head of the modern composer. Few other art forms feel the weight of the past so distinctly; rock musicians measure themselves against the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones – a tall order certainly, but still nominally plausible. To some degree, painters face a similar dilemma: imagine wrestling the shades of Picasso or Matisse every time you sat down in front of a blank canvas. But something about the departed greats of classical music has a certain gravitas, a lofty, unflinching seriousness lacking in the raffish legacy of idiosyncratic artistes or louche rock’n’rollers. (Writers have their own special set of language-specific problems, which is all I’m going to say about that.)
Simply put, it’s hard to compete with Beethoven or Mozart, especially when hundreds of years have turned their examples into ossified monuments. To some critics and listeners, the act of composing a modern piece of classical music seems at best kind of pointless, and at worst an act of colossal temerity. Who are we, in this debased age, to match our feeble stabs at profundity against the timeless opuses of the august gray-haired titans?
In a recent article, New York Magazine dealt with the large spate of up-and-coming, largely Big-Apple-based new-music composers. In it, the critic Justin Davidson resurrects a milder form of this argument, alleging that the unprecedented freedom offered by the Internet era has led to essentially toothless work that, while “genial” or “pleasantly varied,” lacks the “violent awe” of Messiaen and his canonized ilk. While I don’t have anything against Messiaen’s cerebral epiphanies, using him as a cudgel with which to keep the kids in their place doesn’t do either party any favors. Davidson’s article focuses on a slew of young prospects: TYONDAI BRAXTON [pictured top], MISSY MAZZOLI, BORA YOON, JUDD GREENSTEIN, and others, all of whom draw from a dizzyingly wide range of influences and genres, and many of whom use electronics in a supplemental or primary sense. There’s certainly no denying that the work of any of these could be mistaken for Mahler, and Davidson’s on to something when he notices a distrust of forceful gestures and a lack of affect in their techniques. But here’s the thing: though music is maybe the least material of the arts, it’s still a response to the world as experienced by the artists. To summon the fanatic rapture of Messiaen in our era of crowd-sourcing and digital dwelling would not only be nonsensical, it might even be kinda unhealthy.
If Davidson’s article had been written 10 years ago (and aside from the details, it could have been), and if I were at the same stage in my musical tastes at that time, much of it would have been beyond me. I’ve only been seriously listening to modern classical works for a little less than a year, which means 2001-me would have only had the time and money to discover a few of the major artists in this area, piecing together knowledge through diligent reading of obscure magazines, clunky, questionably informed websites, and costly CDs received from mail-order firms based in gross basements in third-tier cities. Reading Davidson’s article today, I’d not only heard of all the principals, I’d heard a lot their music, knew some of their personal facts, had seen some of their work performed live, and formed strong opinions on their various hairstyles. Some of this is because I now live in New York, where most of the crew is based, but more so because I spend about an hour on the Internet every day. Thanks to specialty Internet-only radio stations like New York’s estimable Q2, I could discover an artist, hear a wide selection of his or her work, and be directed to a community of like-minded artists and fans… all in the space of a slow workday afternoon. Davidson addresses this point, citing the “virtually infinite thrift store of influences” offered by the Web, but does purely in curmudgeon mode: “A century ago, Bartok had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds.” This is certainly true, and it does have hefty aesthetic ramifications, but Davidson restricts himself to the grandfatherly “walked uphill both ways” argument: kids today have it too dad-gummed easy.
If, instead of yearning for the difficult slogs of analog yesteryear, Davidson were to consider just what it means to have instant access to everything, to compose music in a world where music is a fluid, often ephemeral commodity and not a hard-won treasure, I think he’d begin to take his critique somewhere more interesting. The cult of the lonely master, heroically battling the banal conventions of his time – full of “heaving Romantic angst,” in Davidson’s words – has been completely drained of meaning. How can anyone work in isolation when instant connection is only a decent wireless connection away? While this accessibility certainly has resulted in a more tight-knit and supportive community of artists and listeners, it also has a down side; it’s hard to think of yourself as blazingly original when a quick Web search will turn up any number of unknown influences and obscure contemporaries.
I would argue that today’s composers suffer plenty of angst – it’s just not the kind that Davidson is used to hearing. Take, for instance, ARCO, a large-scale immersive symphony by BORA YOON [pictured above], PAUL FOWLER, and PAUL HAAS, which Davidson dismisses as an oddball trifle. A mash-up of sorts – of Beethoven, Arvo Part, and others, as Davidson notes – it’s the sort of conceptually daring, collaborative piece that could only be written in today’s technological climate. While Davidson correctly observes that ARCO is born of techniques that “bypass history and geography,” he fails to see that it’s exactly that lack of context giving the piece resonance, and makes sense of its combination of massive, echoing sound and resolute lack of a dominating voice. ARCO relentlessly surrounds, even submerges you, but lacks a center – it consists of a myriad variety of parts, forming a constantly mutating, impossible-to-pin-down whole. Where Davidson hears something “pleasantly varied” yet extremely “weird,” I hear a surging mass of data and noise, aching to achieve simultaneity, yet also somehow anxious for perspective, a hive mind searching for authority and definition in a world where authority is ceaselessly being undermined and presence is being redefined.
You can hear this post-industrial anxiety in all of the young artists Davidson mentions, from the self-lacerating formalism of JEFFERSON FRIEDMAN to the lunatic experimentation of Braxton or the avant-rock-inflections of MISSY MAZZOLI [pictured above]. These composers, and many whom Davidson doesn’t mention, such as CALEB BURHANS or GABRIEL KEHANE, find meaning and inspiration in the bewildering flux of the information age. We can analyze how this shapes, enhances, and mars their work, but we shouldn’t make judgments according to the standards of a dead era, even if the ghosts of that vanished time are just a click away.