Here is your American concert music landscape for living composers.
First, you have your functionally tonal composers. They are often called Neo-Romantics. You could confuse their music with Brahms. They are actually quite few and far between, since it has been awhile since the days of Brahms, and we have accumulated a certain amount of baggage since then that is difficult to ignore. But they do exist, and they do persist, stubbornly, in their willful disregard of everything that occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries. My anecdotal impression is that composers like this are more prominent in the American southeast in fairly conservative institutions of higher learning, and in churches.
Next, you have your non-functionally tonal composers. They too are often called Neo-Romantics. You also could not confuse their music with Brahms because they are using a pinch of dissonance here and a pinch of advanced orchestrational techniques there in order to let you know that, yes, they were aware of things that went on in the 20th and 21st centuries— but they didn’t really like it very much.
Then you have the triangulators. Their music is “just enough” of everything to please everyone. It deploys just enough tonality and flashy orchestrational techniques to be accessible to most audiences. It deploys just enough post-tonal detritus— and flashy orchestrational techniques— to appear to be smart to the composer’s academic colleagues. It deploys just enough technical challenge to keep the performers engaged, but not so much so that they balk at the attempt. This music features lots of octatonic scales. And lots of crotales. Lots and lots of crotales.
Next up, the minimalists. Now, I have to admit, this is a music that I thought would have gone away by now, since it is predicated on an idea that is, well, very— minimalist. But it’s not going away, which is fine. I like a certain amount of it myself. What seems to be occurring quite frequently is the “minimalist textures plus something else” idea— where we take the harmonic language from one of these other columns and superimpose minimalist textures upon it. What if we didn’t just use a major triad and noodle around on it for fifteen minutes, but rather a 6-Z29 hexachord? Sure, why not?
Then we have the experimentalists. They aren’t really invited to the establishment concert music scene, but that’s okay, because they don’t really want to be. They’re happier in black box theaters doing their thing. I love these situations. I love to go to a black box and share a risky, experimentalist piece intimately with six to forty-five other people. We all sign on to the proposition that the piece may actually not work very well, and that’s part of the excitement. Little wonder, then, that the establishment concert music commissioning bodies will not program this music very much. Their loss, in my estimation.
Then there are the electroacoustic composers, who are on the cutting edge of every facet of technology available. Right now, as we speak, there is probably a performer in Perth, Australia who is playing the clarinet into a microphone being manipulated by someone using MAX in Belfast, all of it recorded for youtube posterity in St. Paul, Minnesota. These composers are smartly bypassing the concert music establishment altogether gambling on the premise that social media is going to be the new concert music establishment. I honestly wouldn’t bet against them.
“World” music comes next. Why the scare quotes? Because it seems to me that the terms “world” and “ethnomusicology” are used to denote an othering of anything that is nonwhite. White (usually male) concert music is the norm; anything else is “world” or “ethno.” John Corigliano is normal; Tan Dun is “ethno.” Never mind that we’re living in a global economic climate and that white people are going to be a numerical minority in America quite soon. It seems to me that what is called “world” or “ethno” is going to be the prevailing norm in short order and that we will need an othering term to describe what white composers are doing.
Finally, we come to the unapologetic complex hard-hitting post-tonal (UCHHPT) composers. These composers are usually grey-haired eminences and are merely tolerated out of respect. They are commissioned because they were commissioned in the past, and because the commissioning agencies know what they will get. They may not like what they will get very much, but they at least know what they’re getting. They can claim to be doing their part to be nominally progressive, and then commission thirty triangulators or neo-Romantics or world music composers to make up for having commissioned one of these UCHHPT pieces. And that’s fine.
But woe be to you if you are under the age of fifty and wish to write UCHHPT music. You will not be commissioned. You will not be supported.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by the baby boomer generation of composers how lucky— lucky!— composers of my generation are, because we are allowed to write tonal music again. To hear composers of the over-fifty crowd tell it, they really suffered under the tyrannical regime of academic serialism in the 50s, 60s and 70s. They wrote miserable music, they were miserable doing it, they made audiences miserable, and come hell or high water, we’re not going back.
And in a climate of nervous concert music commissioning bodies, in a climate where you can’t sneeze without someone saying “bless you, classical music is dying,” baby boomer composers and baby boomers in commissioning agencies are teaming up proactively to discourage younger composers from experimenting with UCHHPT music. At least in some academic circles, as has been my experience. It is almost as though every triangulator composition professor had a poster in his or her office of Nancy Reagan saying “Just Say No to Post-Tonal Music.” After all, the twelve-tone technique is a gateway to pan-serialism. And then you have twelve-tone composers needing twelve-step programs.
I am not advocating for me and mine here, necessarily. Some of my music is UCHHPT; some of it isn’t (some of it is neo-Romantic, triangulating and experimentalist). I just have this crazy idea that we are supposed to live in a democracy and a marketplace of ideas, and that everyone should have a place at the table. Perhaps not even an equal place at the table; if the market has determined that octatonic crotales concertos are what the people really, really, really like, so be it.
But what I am saying is that the time has come for composers and concert music commissioning bodies with people above a certain age to stop perpetuating the narrative of a past serialist tyranny. For one thing, as Joseph Straus documents, it isn’t actually true. Facts matter. Second, this narrative allows composers to avoid taking responsibility for their own culpability in creating the serial tyranny— accepting for the sake of argument that it ever was true. Nobody was throwing tonal composers into gulags. If you did not have the courage of your convictions to write the music you really stood for, I’m sorry, but that’s on you. Do not turn around and then pooh-pooh some younger composer who shows an interest in what for you might have been the “bad old days” just because of your baggage. It’s not their problem.
I don’t pretend that my writing this little article is going to make much difference. All I can suggest is that we support younger composers who write unapologetic complex hard-hitting post-tonal music too, because this is an important music that deserves a place at the table.
To do this, I thoroughly recommend a weekly radio-and-internet program run by Jacob Gotlib, where you will hear composers under fifty who are writing UCHHPT music, not to mention everything else that could be deemed progressive (that would be experimentalism, “world” music and electroacoustic music mostly). It is called Muddle Instead of Music, and it never disappoints. I should add that this is a program that makes a point of giving abundant airtime to women composers and composers of color. There are plenty of places where you can hear neo-Romantics and triangulators; Meet the Composer and New Music Box are all too happy to help you with that. But if you want to hear exciting, fresh new voices that are writing unapologetic complex hard-hitting post-tonal music, then this is the place for you.