A Place at the Table for Post-Tonal Music

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.

-Robert Gross

11 thoughts on “A Place at the Table for Post-Tonal Music

  1. I would say “debunking” is too strong a word. I would say “tweaking” describes these articles at best. Regarding the Halle, his response amounts to calling into question who qualifies for what aesthetic-technical regime under Straus’s metric. Okay, but this does little to challenge Straus’s central point, which is that the onus is on those *making the claim* that the time period in question amounted to a serial tyranny, and nobody has ever provided hard numbers or anything like a sociological study supporting that claim. That’s a fact. The meme of “serial tyranny” persists without one person offering hard evidence to support the meme. Whatever issue we want to take with Straus’s calibrations of technical and aesthetic regimes— which admittedly are quite thorny— it redounds to Straus’s credit to observe that he is the *only* person who has ever come remotely close to attempting to address the question with something resembling hard evidence.

    The Rochberg quote is cute, but it’s just one person’s very jaded recollection of events. It’s anecdotal evidence, and therefore does not come anywhere near touching Straus’s hard numbers. Rochberg also famously said and did different things. He talked a good game, but when it came to the crunch, he was loathe to abandon post-tonal techniques in his music well after the famous Third Quartet. He even deploys post-tonal techniques *in* the Third Quartet which was supposed to be the revolution back to tonality. I invite you to read “Rochberg the Progressive Revisited” in the pages of Perspectives of New Music, an article by yours truly.

    Regarding the Tommasini, I must be reading a different article than you. While Tommasini has “reservations,” he calls the Straus article overall “instructive” and “important.” His objections to the article also, predictably, amount to so much anecdotal evidence. And that is an ongoing problem we see in intellectual life— people stubbornly refuse to make adjustments to their biases when their one or two pieces of anecdotal evidence fly in the face of presented hard evidence. How many times have we tried to tell conservatives that the vast majority of welfare recipients are rural whites? How stubbornly do they cling to their pieces of anecdotal evidence that say the recipients of welfare are urban blacks? That’s what Tommasini is doing here.

    Thank you for your feedback, though, and I hope you will keep reading. If you are in the mood for something highly more critical of Prof. Straus, read this:


    -Robert Gross


  2. Joseph Straus aside, this post is brilliant. The main point of is that certain worthwhile, non-pandering composers and students are not getting the support they deserve. Whether or not tonal university composers were bullied in the 60’s is a side issue.
    PS. Don’t forget the adjective “crafty” that always seems to come up around triangulators.


  3. I enjoyed your article. As one of those terrible baby-boomer listeners, may I suggest an alternative way to look at the mid-20th C phenomenon? That is, whether or not there is statistical support for a widespread serialist tyranny in that period, the anecdotal information is valid and valuable, as it represents the lived experiences of composers who did not share the view of their professors and struggled to make their own voices heard, often without success. What seems to have happened as a result (and I acknowledge this is also anecdotal, arising out of my own observations), as I discover now so many voices that were lost to us in that period, is that it is difficult to impossible to revive interest in their work. (One who springs to mind is George Walker, whose 90th birthday went by virtually unnoticed, so very different from the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez.) Similarly, your own experience, while, at least from what I see here, seems also anecdotal, is equally valid in the sense that your own compositional voice, and those of other composers whose authentic musical voice is similar, seems to be threatened with not being heard, and that’s a shame.


  4. A couple things:

    “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?”

    Gee, you’re really disproving the marginalization of certain styles …I’m completely convinced now. But really, even if you’re aphoristically trying to nail down these styles, “noodle around on it for fifteen minutes” just makes you look like an ass and undermines your point. I think the scholars at the *two* conferences on minimalism that are going on simultaneously right now might disagree that their careers and anything they’re presenting on comes close to just examining ‘noodling around.’ You’re either aggressively ignoring what’s compelling about the music or you haven’t investigated it in any meaningful way. To say nothing of the number of minimalists that have employed (and continue to) use demonstrably borrowed methods of developing process(es) that post-tonal, experimentalists, and any number of other styles also use. As for the inherent assumption in “complex” music, that everything else isn’t; give me a break.

    “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.”

    Your experience is your own, I’ve heard few baby boomer composers or others say “Thank god we can write tonal music now”. The sentiment that I’ve heard is something more along the lines of “Thank god that composing in tonal music styles aren’t marginalized the way they used to be.” and that’s entirely supportable. And of those who say that, they always did write the music of their convictions and were demonstrably marginalized for it (primarily by academia).

    Is experimental post-tonal music marginalized in academia now? No way. If anything professors are falling all over themselves to ‘not judge’ what styles their students embrace. Is it less popular with performing ensembles? Maybe, but I’d argue that new ensembles have cropped up and others have faded away. Some of them are performing along specific aesthetic lines and others aren’t. I’d entirely agree that ensembles performing experimental and post-tonal music less often is a trend. But then you can point to a packed concert in Brooklyn (the center of hipster cool and popular) where amplified distorted violins and dot matrix printer chorus are beautifully assaulting audience ears. If it’s happening there, it’s happening in San Francisco, Kansas City, Berlin and Tokyo. No “place at the table?” Eh…

    Taking minimalism as a particular example, as a step-child of the art world minimalism started and flourished outside the confines of academic oversight and musicologists didn’t really begin to study this music until more than two decades after its start. Straus’ assertion is pretty easily set aside (Besides his ignorant/irresponsible list of composers. Jacob Druckman and Henry Cowell as tonal composers? Omitting Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Harry Partch?) by merely doing a metadata search of RILM and JSTOR to look at general publishing trends on the topic of minimalism. As you could see, it’s not until the mid-80s that more than a handful of articles are written. The same can’t be said of post-tonal music. Articles and scholarship were prolific and briskly contemporaneous of the music being produced. According to Patrick McCreless a survey of paper topics submitted to the Society for Music Theory revealed the most frequently cited composer of all periods to be Webern with Schoenberg a fairly distant second. Not conclusive, but emblematic of where attention has been focused in the last 100 years.

    That’s not to say that nothing was written about minimalism during its initial period of development. Since fellow composers were keenly aware of what was going on, it was they that first started writing about other composers and themselves since they were ignored by academia. Composers such as John Luther Adams, John Adams, Charles Amirkhanian, Cornelius Cardew, William Duckworth, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, and Roger Reynolds all wrote extensively about other composers and themselves. Michael Nyman’s book, Experimental Music (written in 1974) was the first to mention ‘minimal music’, as he called it, in any meaningful way and dedicated an entire chapter discussing its origins and development. This tradition of group-driven scholarship in minimalism has continued into contemporary study, although the ‘real’ scholars are much more dominant at the current time. Another aspect of minimalism’s initial marginalization in the academic realm lead to journalistic criticism as scholarship. Kyle can vouch for that since he and Tom Johnson did so for decades at the Village Voice.

    As far as your overall point, post-tonal music does have “a place at the table”. Is it at the head of the table? No, but you’d be hard pressed to say that any particular style is at the head of our (now metaphorically-stressed) table. Personally, in extensively attending concerts and listening to new recordings over the last 15 years, I see a round table where styles increasingly blur together. If you want to decry that this music doesn’t have “a place at the table”, that’s on you.


  5. It’s dueling anecdotal evidence, Scott Unrein, but my deep impression is that the triangulators and neo-Romantics (particularly Type 2) I describe in the article are firmly at the head of the table. What I mean by “a place at the table” is “reliably and consistently supported by the concert music establishment and by academia.” Of course post-tonal music still exists, and of course there are younger composers still writing it. What I’m complaining about is that they are not getting *the institutional support* that composers of other aesthetics are getting. What I am asserting is that there is an institutional backlash against younger post-tonal composers because Pierre Boulez was a jerk in the 1960s, and that’s really, really unfair. That’s *not* on them. If you don’t perceive this backlash, then you’re living in a better world than I’m living in, and I wish I lived in your world.

    I checked out your music, by the way, and I quite like it, for what it’s worth.


  6. What disturbs me about this article is the idea that composers focus so much on their “product,” adding a little dissonance here or there, or a little of something else to “give the appearance” of a particular category of composing. I wonder what “place” there is in the author’s mind for composers who write from an inner integrity, from a necessity to express whatever is in their hearts and imaginations, without regard to how it will “appear” – whether or not it will be experimental, or whether or not it belongs to some methodology or school of composing.

    Three successful composers whose first teacher was my late husband, Ernst Bacon, are (or were) Carlisle Floyd, Donald Martino, and Jake Heggie. Ernst’s advice to all of them was: “Find your own voice.” Although Martino’s voice turned out to be quite different from Bacon’s, they kept in touch through the years, and his widow told me that Don kept a photo of Ernst on his mantle throughout his life. Carlisle and Jake also have expressed gratitude for Ernst’s encouragement to look within for inspiration.

    As for Bacon’s own voice, here is a quote from an article by Berkeley composer, Matthew Owens:
    “In 1917 Ernst Bacon, at the age of 19, published a precocious article in a philosophical journal, The Monist, in which he proposed that, contrary to the popular perception that Wagner had depleted all of diatonic harmony’s possibilities, harmony was not an exhausted system. To demonstrate his assertion, Bacon, using the semi tone as a basis, tabulated all possible harmonies, 350 in all, as well as 1,400 scales. The result of this article, coming at a time when music was becoming the ground for an increasingly mathematical approach, was that Bacon was taken up as a musical redical with a big future. It is highly probable that had Bacon chosen this direction, he would have become a darling of the American avant-garde, securing a great name and position. Instead, he rejected the implications of his own research, turning rather to the pursuit of a profound simplicity, informed by his discoveries. For Bacon, the merely mechantical held no truly musical thought.” (from “Ernst Bacon: An End-of-Century Perspective,” by Matthew Owens)

    Ernst was not one to be intimidated by the tyranny of the serialists, as were many younger than he. Nevertheless he felt daunted by the “stiff East wind” of the avant-garde and more or less went underground, pursuing his own path in his last 3+ decades. Virgil Thomson considered him “one of America’s best composers” (New York Herald Tribune, March 4, 1946) , but the avant-garde saw to it that Ernst would be forgotten. Since his death in 1990 at age 91, his music has begun to be revived, and cellist Joel Krosnick wrote in the Juilliard Journal (Dec. 2007), “Gil (Kalish) and I feel strongly that Ernst Bacon has not received his due recognition for the eloquent master he is.”


    1. Ellen, lovely point about integrity vs. than style-category orthodoxy/politics, and of course I am in that boat of writing from internal expressive impulse, not calculating trend-driven intellectual override to score points. I like “find your voice.” I did that long ago but am also still rediscovering it (or being surprised to discover it in something I wrote a while ago and haven’t looked at for a while.)


  7. Sorry this is a little late. I was just made aware of this excellent essay. I second David Brighton’s words & add that whenever anyone tries to make the point that Robert Gross is making here, the usual suspects, the personal agenda mongers, are there like so many gargoyles to detract from the huge, wonderful architecture they’re sitting atop. For me, the basis of Robert’s thesis, or another way of stating it, is this: music (or any art) history is not linear or “corrective” as it is in science; it is CUMULATIVE. The result is that composers have available an ever expanding shared toolbox that’s five continents wide and two millennia deep & getting deeper.


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