By Peter Gilbert
The blog responses to Justin Davidson’s provocative piece, “The New New York School” from March 20, 2011 in New York Magazine—an appraisal of the music of several young New York composers—are so far coming down almost unanimously against Davidson’s thesis that our contemporary inclusiveness gives young composers nothing to rebel against, leaving their energies scattered and ultimately diluted, no matter how much energy the pieces exude on their surfaces. He is called out as being an old school modernist, entrenched in a decrepit idea—that making something new requires rejecting the formerly new.
More mixed is the response to the assertion that much of the music from the New York composers in their thirties, which he dubs the “New New York School”, ultimately sounds the same. Depite challenges to Davidson’s ability to evaluate this sameness, I think it can be said that determining a salience of similarity is more of a statement of personal perspective than literal fact. All composers and pieces are obviously literally different, but generally they can also (eventually, at some reductive level) be seen as similar too. In Davidson’s case he’s interested in the similarities of the music of this particular scene. And one similarity he hears is a neither-here-nor-there absence of motivational direction. He says, “[the] composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal.”
He then connects this personal reaction to a conundrum in our current lives: we have access to and openness towards everything, which is sometimes like having everything but sometimes like having nothing. He says this group of composers “seems disoriented by its own open-mindedness“ and that the results of their “nonsectarianism” are “shockingly tame.”
Critics are supposed to connect dots to a bigger story and if Davidson feels that something is missing in the musical zeitgeist of this time he is supposed to point it out. Of course the composers are supposed to refute and ultimately ignore this. But the critic’s assessment is not based upon the composers’ opinions, or even their intentions, but rather his or her experience. In his follow up comments, Davidson admits he was expecting to write a ringing endorsement but he actually, as a listener, found the music somewhat lacking. It may not be your feeling, but it was/is his.
The one line that probably sparked the biggest reaction was the last: “What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.” And the blogosphere heaves an eye-rolled sigh, exclaiming rhetorically, “Aren’t we past this kind of thinking?”
The blowback from this, I think, interestingly highlights a significant cultural paradigm shift. The thirty-somethings of today (of which I am one) are the second generation of the everything’s-okay, no-style-can-hold-us ethos. For us this thinking is more normal than revolutionary, though we don’t take it for granted—I think we still own our omnivorous tastes with (probably unnecessary) pride and even a sort of left-over fervor that our parents’ generation has relaxed on. If the next generation ends up taking it for granted, it will be because the core ideal of nonsectarianism has almost complete ascendency now, even in the stodgy, unfashionable halls of academe.
My undergraduate composition teacher, David Vayo, told us that when he was in school the composition students would get together and do their own thing away from the presumably close-minded gazes of their teachers. I think he was disappointed when he found out we weren’t secretly meeting in such cabals, developing our own rebellious faction. But how could we? He was leading us in improvisational games where people crawled around on the floor and blustered lip-raspberries into the wrong end of a euphonium. There was nothing off the table left to be secret about.
His mild disappointment in our lack of conspiritoriality somehow lines up with Davidson’s thesis in my mind. I’m sure that David’s experience of the bond between young composers having to strongly and vividly assert their view point was a powerful experience. Whatever conflicts (real or imagined) existed to them must have helped sharpen their focus and redouble their conviction. Ironically the power of their vision led to the open-minded future they wanted and subsequently (unintentionally) denied their students the opportunity to similarly respond.
There is something different about this world where everything goes. We, the thirty-somethings, seem to largely be ardent believers of the new order and we readily shoot down dissent, but, as with anything relatively new, there are aspects and consequences of the changes in culture that we can’t yet fully anticipate or understand.
In his follow up comments, Davidson says that today is, “one of those scary and exciting transitional periods when conventions have fallen away and are difficult to replace.” In other words, the last ardent rigor (which one was that now?) has dissolved into transition. And Judd Greenstein, one of the composers under discussion, couldn’t be happier to agree in his response. He sees no problem in this dissolution and in fact welcomes the end of this historical narrative which perhaps never really existed in the first place. Greenstein’s blog and others as well form a kind of chorus of agreement: “We don’t need to invoke a separate Other in order to define ourselves.”
This is, as I was saying, the essential reasoning of our generation and I, for one, can’t fault it. But I can also appreciate that resistance and conflict can be a powerful crucible not only in helping one define oneself, but also in inspiring urgency in that self-discovery. I think becoming the best composer you can be is, to some degree, a process of uncovering yourself and maybe it’s true,to an extent, that it’s hard to get as deep inside yourself as you want to go without some external pressures to reckon with.
But, just to take one example, in today’s composition teaching, everyone that I know teaches toward the student’s core individual aesthetic and not towards a single, universal aesthetic. As a teacher, the goals of  challenging students to grow while simultaneously  being receptive to whatever it is they are trying to do (whether you like it or not) aren’t contradictory, but sometimes there is some tricky balancing. The point is that teachers today work hard to reach around significant aesthetic differences with their students rather than lean into them.
That’s not going to change soon and I personally wouldn’t want it to. And I don’t think Davidson is advocating that either, but his central point—that composers of my generation haven’t met with substantial resistance in terms of defining their voice—still has a ring of truth to me.
I think the push-back assumes that Davidson is advocating some kind of reactionary return to days when teachers forced students to write a certain way and powers-that-be shut out promising young artists. But I don’t read his article that way. I see him starting from his experience in recent concerts and extrapolating to a larger question about how we arrive a vital sense of who we are such that we can powerfully express that sense of self in today’s new cultural environment. Granted this could have been done more circumspectly, but he wasn’t writing a book: he was wrapping up a 1000 word column filled mostly with review-type specifics. And beyond being a passive Chamber of Commerce-like spokesperson or assuming a sort of patronizing role as interpreter between a supposedly inarticulate artist and a supposedly unimaginative public, what is the critic to do other than speculate broadly about things that point to larger cultural issues?
I could be wrong, but I prefer to assert my own version of reality and read his text in a way that makes sense with my world vision. Let’s chalk it up to my generation’s mandate to be both self-absorbed and radically inclusive.
In adding my voice to the online response to Justin Davidson’s, “The New New York School” I considered his suggestion that composers face new challenges in the recently evolved paradigm that he calls nonsectarianism—the oppression of too much freedom. My initial (conditioned?) response of disagreement was in-step with other writers, but further reflection led me to feel that the issue isn’t entirely obvious and there was at least sufficient reason to pose the question. After all, as I asserted in closing, posing challenging, provocative broad cultural questions would seem to be a critic’s most important job.
But I think critics get into trouble when they move from assessing into advising, and Davidson’s closing line about artists needing a machine to rage against reads to a composer like unwanted advice, whether or not it was intended that way. At the Musik der Jahrhunderte festival in 2009 in a public panel, my wife, composer Karola Obermueller, got into it with a critic regarding collaboration in contemporary opera. The critic had constructed a narrative that said that “real” collaborative opera would look radically different from what we see today and that no one was actually doing what he thought should be done (which he then tried to specify). But I would assert that laying out blueprints for the future is the wrong approach for a critic. He envisions some kind of magical “newness” and wants to be the forward-thinking guy who predicted it would happen before it did, leading the artists by the hand to the pot at the end of the rainbow.
But if anything that’s antagonistic to the creative process. Creators have to stumble onto things on their own. Otherwise they can’t totally own it. So we can critically access all we want, but if there is a problem in the musical culture it’s up to the musicians to fix it, to find a way through. They’re the ones who have to imagine, write and perform us into the future. And they’ll have to do it on their own time as it comes.
As a composer I feel I can’t legislate innovative pieces out of myself any more than I can promise myself I’ll write great masterworks. I have to write the piece in front of me and see what happens. I’m not saying that the composer is without any agency at all, but I do think composers (at an artistic level) are largely powerless to determine the cultural relevance and impact of their work. The one aspect of control I think a composer has is her ambition. But ambition isn’t at all synonymous with progressivism or experimentalism or grandiosity or really much of anything, I guess, other than work ethic, determination and bravery. I think the composer has to write her passion with wild unashamed intensity and let the chips fall where they may.
As an audience member I feel like I don’t ever expect the “next great thing” to happen out of a new piece, but I’m hoping it might happen anyway. I’ll not be surprised when I feel like a piece is only okay, or that it’s like other stuff I’ve heard before. I’ll not be surprised if it’s muffled or lacking zeal. But there is always the opportunity for remarkable things, lovely things, audacious things to burst through, often in fits and starts, sometimes even a whole piece front-to-back. And the possibility for the extraordinary remains tantalizing. I’ll bet Justin Davidson feels the same way.
Photography by Tom Hayes | www.tom-hayes.com