Of Infertile Soil

Dan Albertson

[May 2019.]

[A modest return to the American subject. This essay is my reply to the various people over the years who have asked me to write about American composers and American music, but also a farewell of several sorts. New shores beckon, and far off. Thanks to all who help, knowingly or otherwise, to inspire this direction.]

If, following the supposition that the state of a nation is reflected in the values that its cultural output, for better or worse, currently espouses, who among us would argue that the USA is in a state of ascendancy, or even stable prominence?

Setting aside larger issues, which I would leave to the so-called musicologists if they cared more about the challenges and pleasures in equal measure that music can offer or to the critics were their goal not to befriend and to share vicariously in the successes of their supposed friends, contemporary music here is in parlous form, not because it lacks variety, but rather on the whole because it lacks quality.

One cannot hear everything yet one can hear much and wage an extrapolation, be it valid or otherwise, about the whole. Here I make one such gambit. Whether my experience makes me a reasonable holder of these opinions is not for me to decide.

The lack of a prominent middle generation of American composers, by which I mean those whose music I would feel comfortable sharing with acquaintances internationally, is shocking. Those over 50 can fend for themselves and I would defend few of them. Those under 30 are, as usual, preoccupied with finding their way in a field crowded as much by colleagues-cum-competitors as by stylistic options. Therefore, for me, the truest test of the health of a nation’s musical culture is whether those in the middle, too old to be emerging and too young to be established, offer on a consistent basis works that could stand on their own, without any defending or justifying, asterisks or parentheses, free from the interference or intercession of their erstwhile teachers.

The audible evidence suggests that the USA is not conducive to producing and promoting composers capable of international stature. Consider the most prominent representatives, if one judges based on performances alone, in the 30-to-50 age range, namely Ted Hearne, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, Caroline Shaw and Nina C. Young.

Hearne’s style is direct and its success is not hard to understand, but it also relies on a rather limited technique and its expressive gamut is narrow. The overall impression is of a glorified, colorless pop music, with the concomitant attention span and/or lasting value. One could easily imagine him a future Muzio Clementi.

Mazzoli writes a modified background music, ideal for occasions when nothing too intrusive is required. This music will never upset, never dismay, never cajole, never inspire; its lifelessness is its sole reason for existence. Languor is appreciated best, it seems, when coupled with a sense of tension, an inkling that the placid waves could be called forth into a tempest. She prefers to chill.

Norman, more vivacious by contrast, has a more obvious facility for writing that shows a pulse, pun intended. It is, however, a style that points to nothing more than its own essential lack of essence: vibrant, bright, unabashed in its directness, lacking any melodic charm or rhythmic ingenuity. Pleasant and agreeable, no doubt: Vapidity reigns.

Shaw, like Hearne, seems encumbered by a bag of tricks that has not expanded beyond rudiments. How tiring to listen to such music, and to hear and read sycophantic reactions to it, that was done to stronger effect by better minds decades ago. Simple does not need to mean stupid, but here it does.

Young is a watered-down spectralist without anything urgent, and perhaps nothing at all, to convey, more proof that what was once a blazing path in Europe will end up recycled on American shores a few decades too late for the party.

What links these five, apart from nationality? It is, I would argue, the effects of the reactionary forces at the heart of American music. The USA is a land that encourages silly empty-headedness in its music, and the figureheads here are unequivocally Philip Glass and Steve Reich (and their successors led by David Lang and Julia Wolfe, whose influence is considerable, no matter what they pretend, in the same way that those once at the margins never admit not only their entry into a world that they once detested but even more having become the epitome of what they detested), neither of whom is an intellectual and neither of whom writes music with any goal other than to amuse, to groove, to engage with the most primitive of our instincts. Pop music can achieve this effect with greater efficacy, and without any pretense to being something elevated.

This nation has for too long suffered from an anti-elitism and a pro-populism (whatever we as a people do, we must not be forced to think!) that have not only effaced boundaries between musical types, and helped to erase definitions of high and low or even of good and bad, but have also given rise to generations, at least two of them now, without a solid and well-rounded musical steeping. I fail to be persuaded that an ignorance of classical music, make of the term what one will, is a promising start to a career in, yes, classical music.

Other musics exist, and the rupture of clear distinctions, in different circumstances, is no bane. Here it is one, however, as music becomes purely a means to a commercial end – and the audiences, and benefactors, of our time are not the same ones whose fancies Mozart and Schubert cranked out dances to tickle. Today’s fake bohemians are often children of elites, collect prizes as if they verged on extinction and write pleasantries so that some of the 1% may reward their earnestness with a tax write-off.

I eschew the word “education” here, because it is not a lack of “education” in its most literal sense that is the issue. It is instead the reality, sobering and undeniable, that one could be a master or a doctor in the compositional field while still displaying such a dearth of erudition and a dearth of imagination.

A figure whose posthumous rehabilitation has spanned several years now, Julius Eastman, shows that this trend is not new. His life story intrigues, but unlike Claude Vivier, the music is no match: Apart from Gay Guerrilla, whose strength is the Bach that underpins it, several pieces strike me as insipid if not downright stupid.

Among the survivors it is Glass but especially Reich who deserve scorn, since the degree of veneration that the latter receives, even in academic circles, boggles the mind; the flaws of the former are obvious enough to be a res ipsa loquitur. A composer who, even 50 years on, complains that serialism limited his options only to go on and create a kind of music in which a composer has even fewer options than if he had been working from a tone row is now viewed almost in heroic terms: Phasing is not the work of a genius, and the harmonic and melodic similarity of what results quickly wears out its welcome, not that he adjusts his durations accordingly. Once a reactionary, always a reactionary. For three decades he has not hesitated to profit from associating himself with emotional subjects, from trains bound for death camps to 9/11, all in the form of bad taste and bad music. Condemning art is one matter, and subjective, but condemning opportunism is quite another and much more objective. Why will no one call him out for it?

Also worthy of a mention here is Chaya Czernowin, who, in a very different way, has polluted American music in her dogmatism and unrelenting conceptualism at the expense of any real music. If Reich represents one wrong, Czernowin represents another.

The only American composer in this age range whose music has impressed me at multiple times and for multiple reasons is Jeffrey Holmes. He will get his own article in due time. He plies his trade quietly in California, and does what he wants musically, unattached and unapologetic. The fact that someone of his caliber and skill goes mostly unheralded while the equivalent of spoiled children lead the parade points to the tried-and-true maxim that one can be an artist or be famous, but not both.

There are doubtless others, and the point here is not to sound a death knell for a culture whose tastes have always tended toward more frolics than nourishment. It is more an observation of a culture that has devolved to crassness and mindlessness. The priority of contemporary American composers, whatever their stylistic outlook, and there are many neo-romantics and arch-experimentalists among them too, seems to be to write a music that is relevant, to use a fashionable term, by which in translation means only tuneful or pleasant, or on a good day, at least not atonal. Drones on one end, decrepit melodies on the other; deeper ideas not need apply.

I have no reason to doubt that now, as ever, the USA gets the music that it deserves and demands – no more. The appeal and power of the populace are endemic. In the end only a few of us care about this niche, I am well aware, and there are always grander issues to solve (and not by musicians), yet I cannot completely write off an art form that, when harnessed to suitable ends, transforms and transfixes like no other.

[Three Flags by Jasper Johns, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Retrieved from]

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