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A Long Ride in A Complicated Machine: Who We Imitate, and Why

The consistently thought-provoking Kyle Gann has a complaint: “I think young composers might want to think about diversifying the composers they base their styles on beyond John Coolidge Adams.”   He gets a lot more promotional CDs than I do from record labels and young composers hoping to lure him out of music-critic retirement to provide that coveted Kyle Gann pull-quote for their bios.  (Can I do the heist-movie thing and say they want to get him out of retirement for “one last score”?  Too late, I already did.)  As I said, I don’t get the same recordings that Kyle gets, but let’s take him at his word and stipulate that an awful lot of the postminimalist composers out there–especially the more successful ones–are writing warmed-over John Adams.  I like John Adams as much as the next guy, and I’ve written my share of ersatz Adams, but too many composers hewing too closely to a single model could be cause for concern.  When I followed up with Kyle over e-mail, he did say that “a lot of young composers I know don’t sound like Adams at all, but they’re by far the less successful ones,” so what we’re seeing may be more of a skew in economic outcomes than a skew in total underlying populations, but that skew would also be troubling.

I wonder if part of what we’re seeing here is the wages of the stylistic tunnel-vision of the music higher-education system.  My college and grad-school music training was in most respects superb, but I got very little exposure to minimalism, and indeed one of the prevailing narratives in academia is that minimalism is a pretty narrow genre.  Several months ago a musicologist at a top-tier university actually asked me “Is really enough history there that one could actually make a career of studying minimalism?”  (I resisted the urge to ask if there is really enough history to Beethoven that one could make a career out of studying him.)

In most academic music programs these days Reich, Glass, and Adams are de rigeur, and you can’t escape In C (not that you would want to).  Even in “Music Since 1945″ type classes you’re lucky to go much beyond that territory. La Monte Young might make an appearance (I suspect the paucity of in-print recordings and the almost total absence of publicly available scores is part of the problem there).  David Lang or Michael Gordon probably show up more now than they did 10 years ago.  And Reich, Glass, and Adams rarely get the kind of in-depth treatment that a Stravinsky or and Schoenberg get–mostly you hear Music for 18 Musicians, Einstein on the Beach, and Nixon In China.  Maybe also Different Trains, Music in 12 Parts, and Short Ride In A Fast Machine or Shaker Loops.  Tenured composition faculty, even when they are receptive to postminimalist students, are unlikely to have much depth in minimalism and postminimalism.  That’s not necessarily their fault–today’s composition faculty skews modernist and neo-romantic because they were hired by faculties that skewed even more modernist and neo-romantic.  Overt discrimination against minimalism has given way to the subtler bias of disproportion in the aggregate taste of the academy.  As a result, today’s postminimalist composers have largely been trained by faculties who were more interested in other things.  But why the focus on Adams, given the relative prominence of Glass and Adams in the curriculum?  I would argue that because Adams is much closer to the neo-romantic tradition, he gets taken more seriously as a currently relevant composer, and is better liked and better understood by the academic mainstream.

So what’s a young composer to do?  It’s tempting to say that composers need to strike out on their own and discover composers they weren’t taught, but that’s easier said that done.  For one thing, the distribution infrastructure for minimalist and postminimalist music is very weak compared to that for other styles.  That problem is compounded by the fact that the standard narrative in academia implicitly holds that the narrow view of minimalism presented there is actually representative.  Reich, Glass, and Adams are held up not as the most famous examples of a broad and varied tradition, but as three of the very few minimalists worthy of mention.  In short, young composers don’t end up with the sense that there’s much exploration to be done, at least not during the critical period when they are defining their tastes and personal style.

Having dealt with some of the ways in which academia influences the development of composers, let’s turn our attention to some ways in which selection processes might be effecting outcomes.   One possible hypothesis, of course, is that composers model their work after Adams because they see Adams’s commercial success and think that writing in a similar style is a recipe for their own success. I find it a bit hard to believe that many of the kinds of composers who would choose a style on the basis of economic strategizing would end up in classical music to begin with, so let’s look at some other factors.

I suspect that most classical composers major or try to major in music in college, and the way they get treated by the faculty has a powerful influence on the opportunities they receive in college, their likelihood of continuing on to graduate school, and even their likelihood of remaining in classical music or committed to composing at all.  The composers who get the most faculty support and encouragement will frequently be the ones who are writing in styles that the faculty appreciates, understands, and respects.  If you’re an undergraduate composer you’re best off as a modernist, and at many institutions can do well as a neo-romantic as long as you build in enough dissonance to stay respectable.  A postminimalist is better off staying in the respectable territory that John Adams has staked out at the borders of neo-romanticism.  The filtering effects at the undergraduate level are nothing to the effects at the graduate level.  Undergrads can get by on the appearance of raw talent, but by the time you’re applying to grad schools the competition is much fiercer, and you’re expected to have settled into a respectable contemporary style.  Grad schools often get fifty or a hundred applicants for two or three places.  They are, understandably, going to select the composers whose music interests them the most and who have the strongest recommendations–in both cases the John Adams imitators are going to fare better than other postminimalists because of who is writing the recommendations and making the admissions decisions.

Now feed that population into the commissioning, awards, and recording systems.  Commissioning ensembles have an economic need to play it safe, and that’s especially true for orchestras.  Music modeled after John Adams is especially safe, especially in the orchestra ecosystem.  An orchestra commission is a particularly valuable calling card for a composer–an important milestone marking commercial “success.”  When I followed up with Kyle he clarified that he is not referring only to orchestral music in his complaint, but I suspect that a composer’s ability to succeed in the orchestral world is an advantage in cultivating the profile necessary for attracting other commissions and recording deals.  Awards committees are generally made up of the same types of people who I described in the section on the predilections of academics, and those awards are also significant career advantages.  By the time record companies are being presented with opportunities for projects, the field of postminimalists has been substantially thinned, and the commercial viability of the remaining population has been strongly skewed toward music that sounds like John Adams.  There are probably any number of other factors that I’m overlooking, but even if what I describe here is only partly or weakly true it could still account for the outcomes Kyle describes.

To be perfectly clear, the last thing I mean to be suggesting here is a conspiracy, bad faith, malicious intent, or corruption.  This is basically a systemic issue–a constellation of small factors that multiply against each other to create a larger effect.  The result reminds me of a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “The Matthew Effect,” after the Biblical passage Matthew 13:12 “For whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has.”  Structural inequalities give some people advantages, and those advantages set them up for more and more advantages later on.

One final thought: Some of you won’t buy this argument, for a variety of reasons.  Maybe you question the premise.  I trust Kyle’s judgment here, but maybe you don’t, and that’s fair.  Or maybe you question some of the particulars of my analysis, which is also fair.  I would love to see some empirical analysis on a number of my claims, and some of them might be wrong.  The really important thing here is the structure of the argument.  I care much more promoting this way of thinking about outcomes–about the idea that particular effects are the result of complex systemic interactions–than about persuading people about this specific outcome.  We will have much better luck changing the things that we don’t like about the industry if we approach it from a systems-oriented perspective instead of looking for single causes with silver-bullet solutions.


Comment from Brighton
Time: September 13, 2010, 12:59 pm

Too many of us are more concerned with “being known as composers” than being composers. I have struggled with this my whole life, and I’m old. Skillful imitation of famous writers, living or dead, is a sure way to impress your smart friends. It is no way to develop an original voice.

Stop thinking, just write. The process involves design, but cannot happen by design.

Comment from Joseph Holbrooke
Time: September 13, 2010, 3:17 pm

It seems to me that Kyle is lamenting his own tunnel vision considering the fact that the strongest work being made right now in the minimalist or post minimalist vein has little to nothing to do with academia. Maybe he just isn’t aware of the incredible vitality and diversity of the work of Dylan Carlson, Ricardo Villalobos, Konon No 1, Taylor Deupree, etc etc. I wonder if Kyle is aware of any of the act at this amazing festival I just went to:

Comment from Steve Layton
Time: September 13, 2010, 4:03 pm

Well Joseph, one thing I’m pretty sure Kyle *does* know well is the sound and style of John Coolidge Adams. If he says that quite a few of the CDs he recieves seem to show Adams imitators, I’ve got no reason to doubt it. I think the “tunnel vision” in Kyle’s post is precisely what he’s warning these composers about.

Comment from Paul H. Muller
Time: September 13, 2010, 4:23 pm

Perhaps another reason for the John C. Adams influence is the fact that he has become the go-to guy for major operatic and orchestral commissions. The big performing organizations – the ones whose endowments are worth less these days and who can’t afford failure – trust Mr. Adams to deliver the goods.

So why not emulate that sort of capability and that sort of success? It is a style that says “I’m new but I’m also reliable.”

Comment from Galen H. Brown
Time: September 13, 2010, 5:44 pm

Joseph– I suspect Kyle would agree with you that much of the most interesting minimalist and postminimalist music is happening outside of academia. I certainly would. Note that he explicitly says “a lot of young composers I know don’t sound like Adams at all, but they’re by far the less successful ones.” He’s talking about commercial success, not artistic vitality. The argument is that the academic and commercial mainstreams walk hand-in-hand to a large extent, and the homogeneity in that sphere is unfortunate in part because it crowds out the music you’re talking about.

Paul– That’s definitely one of the dynamics I have in mind. And to be clear, I actually don’t have any objection to composers optimizing their style for the marketplace, I just don’t think it tends to happen much in classical music.

Comment from Joseph Holbrooke
Time: September 13, 2010, 6:37 pm

“The argument is that the academic and commercial mainstreams walk hand-in-hand to a large extent,”

All the composers I mentioned are probably as or more commercially successful than John Adams and completely outside of or even unaware of academia. Minimalism has spread everywhere. Even mainstream hip hop hits like Lil Wayne’s A Milli (reached #6 on the charts) are clearly outer developments of obviously minimalist techniques.

Comment from Rodney Lister
Time: September 13, 2010, 7:42 pm

Maybe I missed something. If I understand correctly you’re saying that most young composers sound like Adams because their teachers don’t like minimalism so that’s all they hear? I’m not aware of there being that many modernists around in any case, so if the academy is trying to unfairly promote modernism they’re not doing a very good job of it.
And any way, if people are waiting to be told by their teachers what they should listen to and not going out on their on and listening to stuff, then I wouldn’t have much respect for them anyway.

Comment from Christian Hertzog
Time: September 13, 2010, 10:00 pm

I’m going to invoke Occam’s razor: Young composers imitate John Adams because he is one of the best American composers around. It’s that simple.

I think conscious cultivation of a style can be one of the most damaging things to a young composers. No one is without influences when they start out. Follow what you want to write, not what you think your teachers or award committees want to hear you write. After a while, you’ll discover that you either have an original voice or you don’t. It’s still possible to have a successful career if you fall into the latter group.

Comment from Djuzi
Time: September 14, 2010, 3:03 am

“Young composers imitate John Adams because he is one of the best American composers around. It’s that simple.”

That’s simple because it is EASY. Much more easy than writing 4-part strict canon in Bach’s style.
It is also easy, you don’t have to write it by hand, you get copy of Sibelius or Finale and just copy-paste your bars around. And you get fine sound by pressing “play”.

That’s easy.

Comment from david toub
Time: September 14, 2010, 9:41 am

Djuzi, your comment is not logical nor factual. I write postminimalist music and it’s hard. Really really hard. I blew it off last night in my hotel room because it’s hard and I didn’t feel like it. If you think it’s just a matter of using Finale to copy/paste ad nauseam, please try it and see if you get anything decent. I doubt it.

I’m not a fan of much of Adams’ music but like much of his earlier works, and there is nothing “simple” or “easy” about it. Have you seen one of his scores? They’re often as traditional looking as anything Copland or William Schumann wrote. It’s easy to make blanket statements that criticize. It’s much harder to create something that actually reflects one’s emotions, passions, anxieties, etc. Clearly you are not a composer. Adams is.

Comment from Christian
Time: September 14, 2010, 10:13 am


With respect, I hear a fair amount of music by young composers, and am pleased by the diversity of the offerings. Perhaps Kyle and I are being sent different CDs!

What’s more, I’m concerned by your generalizations about grad schools. Like Rodney, I would say that modernism is not nearly so fashionable at many schools as your post suggests.

Without specifics from either you or Kyle, it’s a little bit hard to substantively discuss this type of generalization. Who are all these composers who sound ‘just like John Adams?’ Who’s preventing young composers from being post-minimalists in grad school?

Shadowy allegations beget even more shadowy polemics. I’d rather see us talk about macrotrends with data, with specifics, not based on rumor and innuendo.


Any composers who are looking to go to graduate school should meet with the teachers who will be their advisors well in advance of matriculation. Make sure that the music you’re writing, and the music you want to write, is okay with the people who will be your advisors; better still, that your prospective teachers will nurture, support, and encourage your creative vision.

Otherwise, why are you planning to spend years of your life – and a great deal of money – in a program that’s a bad fit? The notion that every program can accommodate every compositional style and will nurture every kind of composer equally well is a wonderful utopian vision. Sadly, it doesn’t work well in practice.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: September 14, 2010, 12:05 pm

Well said, Christian :)

Comment from Eric Lin
Time: September 14, 2010, 4:46 pm

I want to add a few remarks to this conversation. I think it’s an interesting (if a bit stale of a) topic.

2 or 3 quick notes:

1) This is largely an American ‘problem.’ (I’m not making any judgments yet; I use problem not in a negative sense). Adams in known, but certain not as popular abroad compared to in the US.

2) How are we defining ‘modernism’? I hate that term. Are we using it in the historical sense? Or ‘everything that sounds noisy and atonal and without obviously melody?’ Or another definition? If we’re using the second (it’s a terrible definition BTW because it doesn’t really tell me much about the music, but I certainly know people who use it in that sense…Is Tom Ades a modernist? Is Michel van der Aa? Unsuk Chin?), then I can tell you there are plenty of ‘modernists’ still around. Maybe not as many in the US, but come to Europe. You might be surprised.

3) (JC) Adams’ music is hardly easy OR simple. I suspect the people who say you can imitate a JCA piece by simply cutting and copying bars of music in Finale or Sibelius haven’t listened to any of his post-Shaker Loops pieces. The harmonic interest in Naive and Sentimental Music, or the Violin Concerto, or even the latest City Noir is hardly the work of some musical novice. In fact, I’d venture to say that his mastery of a personal harmonic language is something that all composers should aspire to. In fact, that key, vital element to his music is probably where his imitators have the hardest time/most trouble in imitating. It’s the personal harmonic stamp of the composer that’s the most interesting, and it’s the hardest to imitate.

Anyway, back to the main topic.

Why are there more John C. Adams imitations by students than imitations of other styles? Because the gestures are easy to imitate and it sounds vaguely flashy and loud and ‘orchestral’. But they’re no more easier to imitate than say weird new complexity gestures, or Elliott Carter gestures. They’re less time consuming to imitate for sure, and probably less harsh on the ear, so young composers afraid of alienating performing friends and audiences are surly tempted to go in that direction. But I bet have of them don’t understand the harmonic language underneath that makes the pieces what they are. Also, the orchestration is always never as good…gotta know your Sibelius and Wagner. And if there’s anything that plagues lots of composition programs, it’s that the basics are never properly taught, and you hear it in works by young composers. It’s painful. (And more than occasionally I find myself catching up on my own on a number of fronts as well.)

Comment from David Salvage
Time: September 14, 2010, 8:31 pm

Christian–third-ed. Well-said.

Comment from Susan Scheid
Time: September 14, 2010, 8:37 pm

I write as a listener, not as a composer. I like John Adams very much indeed, but he is not all there is. It’s very hard for us as listeners to know how to find our way in contemporary classical music–among reviewers, there tends to be an emphasis on a few, and almost complete neglect of everyone else. (An exception is the wonderful Alex Ross.)

I had this brought home to me when I accidentally discovered the music of Welsh composer John Metcalf, which I find glorious. To think I could have missed knowing of him altogether makes me very sad indeed. Just as those who are finding their way in composing do, we, as listeners, need much better, more broad-minded guides. For those who don’t know John Metcalf’s work, here’s a place to start:

Comment from mclaren
Time: September 14, 2010, 11:32 pm

J. C. Adams remains one of the most mediocre and unimpressive American composers working today. He typically starts a composition out by marshaling impressive musical resources and then loses control of ‘em 2/3 of the way through.

Adams excels as a careerist. He hit all the right notes at exactly the right times. He melded minimalism with large orchestral resources back when minimalism was considered daring enough to provoke interest and gain attention. Around the late 80s, minimalism started to become mainstream, so Adams realized he had to shift to neoromanticism to maintain an aura of fashionable edginess. He cannily combined neoromanticism with enough minimalist tropes to bridge both worlds, bringing him even more acclaim.

J. C. Adams gets commissions and critical praise for the same reason Neil Diamond used to fill stadiums. A canny showman who incorporates just enough of a feel of being outside the envelope that he grabs the audience that would’ve gone to a Judas Priest concert but were too scared, while at the same time snagging the Partridge Family audience that’s looking for a safe cuddly experience with no uncomfortable surprises.

The list of contemporary composers 50 times better than J. C. Adams loom long:

Pamela Z., Zoe Keating, Eve Beglarian, Pauline Oliveros, Tom Johnson, Nico Muhly, Michael Gordon, Christopher Rouse, Aaron Jay Kernis, Gloria Coates, Mikel Rouse, John Luther Adams, John Harbison, Ellen Fullman, Skip LaPlante, David Rosenboom, Alexandra Gardner, Mari Kimura, Annie Gosfield, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, William Schottstaedt, Richard Karpen, Allan Schindler, David Behrman, Cindy McTee…the list goes on and on.

Any one of these composers blows J. C. Adams away. As with all contemporary composers or writers or artists, the ones who get the biggest awards and the most acclaim remain by far the least impressive and the least competent. They get those big awards because they tiptoe far enough up to the edge of doing something daring that they give the audience a self-congratulatory feeling for listening to ‘em, while never going over the brink into actual scary creativity and threatening originality — that makes audiences squirm and fidget. Actual creativity terrifies people. It breaks down stereotypes, forces people to confront the unfamiliar, alarms listeners with uncategorizable new styles and musical techniques. Much better the safe familiar easy-to-pigeonhole mediocrities.

There’s a reason why Salieri proved so much more popular than Mozart and Telemann so much more famous than Bach. J. C. Adams is the American Salieri. And who wouldn’t try to imitate success? Besides…someone like Tom Johnson can’t really be imitated. No easy-to-identify musical signatures, no readily-identifiable cliches to ape. No, young composers imitate J. C. Adams because he’s an easy target. They don’t have to stretch themselves very far. To imitate a genuinely original and profoundly talented composer like William Schottstaedt, the typical young composer would need to stretch so far that their preconceptions and cherished canards would shatter, leaving the erstwhile young composer flailing in the void of their own hopeless conventionality.

Comment from Lucy M.
Time: September 15, 2010, 12:02 am

What is it with you guys? I don’t understand why you have to attack any composer. This reminds me of the ridiculous “Is Nico Muhly Overrated?” If someone is successful does that automatically exclude them from being worthy? We should all be rejoicing instead that there are composers who can actually make a living at this, that there are composers whom audiences are eager to hear and for which folks will actually buy tickets to concerts to help support the ensembles and presentors. Are all composers created equal? No. Is there such a thing as good and bad art? Yes. Do we wish successful artists continued to take risks and explored new territory? Of course.

But does that merit attacking the artist? Do you really think that John Adam’s success is the reason no one is commissioning William Schottstaedt?

Comment from mclaren
Time: September 15, 2010, 1:07 am

Nicely done. Pointing out lack of originality and craftsmanship = “attacking the artist.” There’s a flip side to that coin, kiddo.

So let’s get down with it, yo. Want to kick the ballistics? Let’s go there.

What is it with you people? I don’t understand why you have to attack anyone who offers an informed judgment about current composers. This reminds me of that ridiculous Pet Rock from the 1970s. Anyone who criticized the worthless pointless Pet Rock got slammed as “too serious” and “unable to appreciate the frivolity of it all.” If someone offers a trenchant criticism by citing cogent reasons why one current composer exhibits more skill and more depth than another, and gives alternative examples of more talented composers, does that automatically exclude their criticism from being worthy?

We should all be rejoicing that people take the time and energy to examine and criticism contemporary composers and offer alternatives to the mindless conventional unwisdom, because lord knows, contemporary criticism of serious music has been stripped out of the major newspapers and erased even from once-fertile alternative publications like The Village Voice. So you people should be goddamn glad that anyone is taking the time and effort to engage critically with contemporary music on a level beyond the Beavis-and-Butthead rock-music scale of heh-heh-it sucks huh-huh-yeah, no, it rules, it rules!

Lucy M. offers us the anti-intellectual alternative of cool, bro, it’s all good, whatever, I gotta smoke another bowl in which informed dissent must be shot down, ohhhhhh, man, thinking is,like, hard ‘n shit. This backlash against examining our listening experience as audiences of contemporary music doubtless proves hugely popular in the slope-browed pithecanthrepoid era of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and the First Annual Catholic Conference on Geocentrism (GALILEO WAS WRONG AND THE CHURCH WAS RIGHT!)… But, you know what? Out here in the real world, where schools have slashed arts curricula to the bone and symphony orchestras across the country are shutting down due to lack of funding, the rest of us actually think it matters whether genuinely talented composers get the few remaining commission slots. And we’re not afraid speak out about it.

Are all people who offer criticism of contemporary music created equal? No, I’m no Alex Ross. Is there such a thing as good and bad music criticism? Yes, certainly — good music criticism seeks to place current composers in context both with their fellows and their historical antecedents, it strives to explicate what the composer does, and how the composer does it, and it makes a stab at evaluating how successful the composer is at that task. Do we wish daily newspapers and radio stations around America published lots of contemporary music criticism, rather than spending their resources publicizing rodeo clowns like Rush Limbaugh? Of course.

But does the fact that I’m no Richard Taruskin or Kyle Gann justify attacking me for offering an attempt at informed criticism of current composers? Do you really think that J. C. Adams’ success immunizes him from intelligent scrutiny or obviates any effort to place his work in the context of his fellow composers?

So it goes both ways, buckaroo. Turnabout’s fair play.

Since I’ve evidently riled someone up by offering some informed criticism of J. C. Adams, time to double down and get even more intensely in your face and in your space saying what you don’t want to hear in even more detail, buttressed by even more logic and evidence.

The context for J. C. Adams’ career is the collapse of high modernism. Adams has written about his misery at Harvard analyzing serial compositions to find tone rows. However, unlike his more talented contemporaries, Adams chose to play it safe. He didn’t break out out of high modernism by dynamiting the prison walls like Michael Gordon, or Eve Beglarian, who essentially took the rhythmic techniques of 14th century Ars Nova and raised them a notch, adding contemporary harmonic language for good measure. Nor did Adams subvert modernism by tunneling under its prison walls like Philip Glass, who essentially took Erik Satie’s Vexations and raised it to a whole new paradigm of composition. Nor did Adams use contemporary technology to create interactive computer program code as David Behrman or the League of Automatic Composers did in 1976 (back when their KIM-1 boards had a whopping 4096 bytes of memory to run real-time interactive program code). Adams wasn’t that original or that technogically sophisticated. Nor did Adams get a skylift by helicopter out of the modernist prison by using new intonations, the way Ivor Darreg and Lou Harrison did. Adams didn’t have sufficiently good ears for that.

Instead, J.C. Adams took the quick and dirty route out of the modernist prison by becoming a trustee — he slapped out mediocre pieces like Phrygian Gates and Shaker Loops that appropriated the most easy-to-imitate elements of the real major talents in contemporary music, like Philip Glass and Terry Riley, while predigesting the difficult aspects of their music (no just intonation in a J. C. Adams minimalist knockoff, thank you! No 5-hour-long J. C. Adams operas featuring weird scenes like Abraham Lincoln next to a spaceship to scare those somnolent 50-something audiences!) to avoid alarming the henna-haired ladies in the concert halls.

Let’s talk about compositional technique. Kyle Gann has written a canon for two pianos inthe ratio of 25:24 (The Convent at Tenochtitlan). You won’t find that in J. C. Adams’ compositions. He doesn’t have the compositional craftsmanship for it. Michael Gordon has written an orchestral piece in which he stacks up 12 simultaneous time signatures (Four Kings Fight Five). You won’t find that in a J. C. Adams orchestral piece, he isn’t skilled enough as a composer. Teri Hron and Zoe Keating have built up live loops of sophisticated polymetric hocketing but you won’t find that in a J. C. Adams composition — he doesn’t have the compositional or performance chops.

Let’s talk about opera. Robert Ashley and Mikel Rouse remain the giants of contemporary opera, and by comparison J. C. Adams has the stature of a pinworm. Ashley broke new ground by incorporating electronic methodologies like vocoding into opera, while Rouse has incorporated the rhythmic sophisticated of composers like Rhys Chatham into his operas. By comparison, what has Adams introduced?

Cheap political controversy. Given the choice between breaking new musical ground and grabbing headlines with a cheap controversy, Adams always goes for the cheap popular headline. His opera The Death of Klinghoffer was a guaranteed concert-hall-filler because it pressed the easy buttons of Jews-vs-Palestinians.

Given Adams’ penchant for cheap and easy publicity, it’s a real surprise he didn’t write an opera about 9/11. That would’ve really packed ‘em in. Better yet, he could pen an opera about the Natalee Holloway murder, or the O. J. court case. Wait — there’s yet time. Adams will lower himself to that level yet. Just wait a while. And they’ll give him a Pulitzer for it.

When we compare J. C. Adams with his contemporaries like Christopher Rouse and Aaron Jay Kernis we see a weak third-rate composer lacking in craftsmanship who, upon getting the commission to write the opera “Doctor Atomic,” remarked “Now I have to go channel Edgard Varese.”

How about channeling John Coolidge Adams, big guy? How about that?

Well, he can’t — because the lights are out and there’s nobody home.

Other composers like Richard Karpen and William Schottsteadt dealt with the collapse of high modernism by taking the technological high road; yet other composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley dealt with high modernism’s trainwreck by taking the low road of radically simplifying their musical language. Yet other composers like Zoe Keating and Pamela Z. dealt with the death of modernism by using tech to lift live performance to a new level of rhythmic and timbral sophistication, while composeres like Michael Gordon and Mikel Rouse dealt with the death of high modernism by finding a language of unprecedent rhythmic complexity which remains nonetheless easy to understand because its sophisticated emerges from the complex interaction of simple parts. Yet other composers dealt with the collapse of high modernism by exploring the possibilities of emergent order inherent in live interaction computer systems (David Behrman,the Leageu of Automatic Composers) while yet other composers bypassed the collapse of high modernism entirely by takinga hyperspace bypass into entirely non-Western intonations (Lou Harrison, Kyle Gann, Skip laPlante, Johnny Reinhard).

Adams chose none of these. He preferred the soft easy path with no sudden turns and no surprises, the road to musical mediocrity in which he splits the difference between these other far more talented composers and the leaden conventional style of do-nothing no-talents like Mario Davidovsky.

How successful is J. C. Adams, musically speaking? He’s done two competent pieces that actually work: Short Ride In A Fast Machine and the second movement of Naive and Sentimental Music. All the rest of his compositions start out promisingly and then…you can hear Adams saying to himself, Gotta pull it back here, it’s getting too daring, mustn’t scare the blue-haired ladies in the concert hall…

You want to know “what is it with you guys?”

You can’t handle “what it is with us guys.” We’re tired of seeing arts programs getting cut to build more prisons, we’re sick of seeing drunk-driving C students getting elected to the Oval Office not just once but twice in a row, and we’re god-damned not going to sit around and be told that informed commentary on contemporary composers represents some form of treason in an age rapidly submerging anti-intellectualism and willful ignorance.

Comment from David Ocker
Time: September 15, 2010, 4:16 am

mclaren – I think it’s only fair to ask: What is it with YOU? Such an explosive self-important cascade of vituperative opinion makes me curious about how anyone could sink into such an ugly, unrealistic place over the subject of contemporary music.

Comment from Aaron
Time: September 15, 2010, 6:13 am

“For one thing, the distribution infrastructure for minimalist and postminimalist music is very weak compared to that for other styles.”

I’m sorry, but that is just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read on this site (and it has some fairly stiff competition). It has absolutely no basis in any musical economic reality that I’m aware of, and indeed seems to be exactly the _opposite_ of the the truth.

Comment from Robert
Time: September 15, 2010, 9:37 am


I have things to do, music to write, and ya know what, some wonderful John Adams to listen to, and I’m gonna attempt not to buy into the “SOMEBODY IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET!” lifestyle.

But let me put this out here:

“But does the fact that I’m no Richard Taruskin or Kyle Gann justify attacking me for offering an attempt at informed criticism of current composers?”

MacLaren, I served with Kyle Gann, I know Kyle Gann, Kyle Gann is a friend of mine., You’re no Kyle Gann.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: September 15, 2010, 9:45 am

“So you people should be goddamn glad that anyone is taking the time and effort to engage critically with contemporary music on a level beyond the Beavis-and-Butthead rock-music scale of heh-heh-it sucks huh-huh-yeah, no, it rules, it rules!”

What do you mean “you people”?

Comment from Christian
Time: September 15, 2010, 9:58 am

Kyle Gann posted this today:

It’s great that folks are commenting on Galen’s post, but it’d be nice if we kept it civil. As Chris nicely points out above, hyperbolic language devolves all too quickly …

Comment from Eric Lin
Time: September 15, 2010, 12:51 pm

Can I invoke Poe’s Law here?

I know we’re not talking about religion, but mclaren’s rant is so ridiculous–(i know people who dislike Adams [or any number of other composers] and make no secret about it, and/or are extremely vocal about it, but this is as if Adams killed mclaren’s pet puppy or something)–that I wanna call foul. Please tell me it’s a parody? PLEASE?

Comment from Eric Lin
Time: September 15, 2010, 12:56 pm

Can I invoke Poe’s Law here? I know we’re not talking fundamentalist religion and regarding Adams’ music, I know plenty of people who don’t have much love for it, and they could be pretty vocal about it, but mclaren’s rant just takes it to an entirely new level. It’s as if Adams personally strangled mclaren’s puppy or something and now mclaren is waging vendetta against Adams or something. Please tell me it’s a parody? PLEASE?

Comment from Paul H. Muller
Time: September 15, 2010, 1:19 pm

Well I suppose it was inevitable that this thread would morph into a critique of John C. Adams and his music. I actually have some sympathy for the guy – when he sits down to write something he has to balance all kinds of competing priorities and he does not have the luxury of failing. mclaren is entitled to his opinions – however incendiary – but I think this is more a comment on the state of the current commissioning paradigm and the misplaced importance we grant it as the way to get new music heard. Are 19th century performing platforms – the opera and the symphony – really the way forward?

Comment from Chris Hertzog
Time: September 15, 2010, 3:37 pm

Richard Karpen? William Schottsteadt? Ivor Darreg? Bitter hatred of John Adams. I’m going to make an educated guess that Mclaren is a University of California, San Diego alumnus, obviously studied computer music there. I’m guessing late 1970s/early 1980s.

At least Richard Taruskin and Kyle Gann and Alex Ross sign their names to their opinions. So does John C. Adams. If you read Hallelujah Junction, you’ll see that composing in order to further his career was the farthest thing on his mind. His career happened, as do most careers, because he was in the right place at the right time, and he had (and still does) talent.

Flinging epithets behind the safety of a pseudonym–how careerist is that? Afraid you won’t get a commission if you offend the wrong people?

Comment from Galen H. Brown
Time: September 15, 2010, 3:44 pm

I don’t have time for a detailed response to all of the things I’d like to respond to, but I need to make a few quick points.

1. I never said that academia is all modernism all the time. There’s a strong current of neo-romanticism in many places, and a lot of composers are doing a sort of modernist-neo-romantic hybrid. Nor am I claiming that there are no composers who work in and around postminimalism who have faculty jobs. Paul Lansky has been at Princeton for decades, and David Lang currently teaches at the Yale School of Music. I used the terms “modernist” and “neo-romantic” as a way of avoiding the controversial Manhattan geography metaphor, but it’s actually quite useful in dealing with a situation like this where we have disagreements about the definition and boundaries of “modernism.” What I’m saying is that the bulk of academia lives uptown and in midtown.

2. I think arguing about which composers are better than which other composers kind of misses the point in this context. I love a lot of Adams, and mclaren and others are certainly entitled to hate him. But arguments that amount to “a lot of people are doing X because a lot of people have bad taste” don’t strike me as particularly illuminating. If it’s a question of taste, I’m much more interested in why people have the taste they do. I would also be cautious about attributing differences between artworks to differences in skill or talent when they might be better attributed to differences in taste or priorities.

3. It’s true that all of my data is anecdotal, and that better data would be nice. But until we have good empirical data, I think my anecdotal data is at least pointing me in the right directions.

4. The Pet Rock was a brilliant piece of consumerist conceptual art, interrogating our assumptions about the nature of commercial value, brand identity, conspicuous consumption, and the limits of anthropomorphism.

Comment from mclaren
Time: September 15, 2010, 11:27 pm

Shorter David Ocker:
“I can’t come up with any logic or evidence to parry the specific criticisms of J. C. Adams’ work, so instead I’m going to fling vacuous epithets and employ empty ad hominem insults.”

Shorter Robert:
“I can’t even come up with ad hominem name-calling, so I’m going to fall back on a lame 20-year-old sound bite from a 1980s presidential debate.”

Shorter Eric Lin:
“Instead of dealing with the substance of the criticism of Adams’ music, I’m going to whimper and whine.”

Shorter Chris Hertzog:
“I’m going to make an educated guess that Mclaren is a University of California, San Diego alumnus…”


… obviously studied computer music there.


I’m guessing late 1970s/early 1980s.

Wrong. Utterly wrong. Totally wrong. No connection with reality. So much for the ‘education’ behind your guess.

The remainder of Chris Hertzog’s post boils down to the usual name-calling and personal attacks.

The responses here aptly encapsulate the infantile level of discussion we find about contemporary music, especially from the self-styled cogniscenti.

How many people have attempted to deal with my criticism that Adams’ music lacks innovation, lacks rhythmic sophistication, lacks intonational subtlety, and lacks formal sophistication (especially in embarrassingly crude pieces like the second and third movements of Naive and Sentimental Music, which exhibit a rudimentary ABA arch form would prove too trite for even a freshman undergraduate)?

None. No one. Not one person.

How many people have even tried to rebut my point that Adams substitutes cheap populist political button-pushing (as inThe Death of Klinghoffer) for solid craftsmanship and formal and rhythmic innovation in modern opera of the kind we find in much better composers like Mikel Rouse?

None. Not one person has even deigned to engage with this point.

How many people have grappled with my criticism that Adams constantly trims his sails and tries to split the difference twixt prestigious elite styles favored by the awards committees and the faddish “hot” trends that percolate up from downtown music, doing justice to neither?

None. No one. Total silence.

How many people have dealt with my criticism that Adams is a “hollow man” who spends time channeling other composers but has hardly ever bothered to actually forge his own path?

None. No one. No effort to deal with this issue, no discussion, nothing.

Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. Faced with some substantive and pointed criticisms of a prominent contemporary composer, you’ve managed to dissolve into hysteria, soil yourselves, and fling poo in all directions…without ever uttering a word of coherent rebuttal.

Now that’s serious contemporary music!

That’s the cream of western culture… a bunch of people screaming mindless insults to cover up their total lack of ability to deal with pointed specific criticisms of a prominent American composer.

Shorter Sequenza 21:
“”Anyone who has not felt — I do not say understand — but FELT the necessity of John Coolidge Adams’ musical language is USELESS. “

Comment from Sparky P.
Time: September 16, 2010, 12:05 am

…he said, then rapidly drank a glass of water
(e e cummings)

Comment from david toub
Time: September 16, 2010, 12:29 am

Holy shit. I leave this page for a bit, thinking there’s a reasonable, courteous conclusion in Eric Lin’s post, and a veritable shitstorm takes place. Do I weigh in against my better judgment or stay away and get back with my life?

Oh hell, I’ll weigh in.

mcclaren: personally, I agree that much of the recent Adams works to be utter crap. However, music is all subjective. Many folks would find my music to be utter crap as well, and I’d defend their right to hold that opinion. In the end, one person’s crap is another person’s Pulitzer. Whatever. I love Adams’ earlier music, think that he has an amazing talent for orchestration that few others have, and believe overall that his motivations are genuine. Certainly I don’t think he’s any more commercially focused than Reich or Glass. I remember driving Glass to a concert I helped arrange at our mutual alma mater back in the 80’s and all Glass could do was speak about how important it is to maintain business control of his music. He was very focused on commercial success. Reich is as well, just in different ways. Remember, these are professional composers. This is how they earn their living. That’s their right, and in the end, they should have at least some expectation of earning revenue. Adams is no different.

To be honest, the Klinghoffer opera is not discussed very much. I can’t see how that made him particularly prominent or popular-if anything, his perceived sympathies towards the Palestinians made him persona non grata in many circles, so from a business perspective, that might have been a bad move. I think he wrote it because he wanted to, not because he was pandering. So I don’t agree with you.

As I’ve said before, it’s one thing to dislike a composer’s music. That’s fair. It’s another matter, though, to disrespect him or her. I don’t like Carter’s music, and it’s no secret. But at no time have I, nor would I, ever suggest that Carter is a bit player or a sham. He’s significant-I just don’t get moved by his stuff. I agree that much of Adams’ music is crap, at least to me. But to say he’s mediocre and imply that he’s essentially a hack and a fraud is disingenuous and just plain rude. On what basis is he a fraud? Because he’s popular? I might wish that many other composers, some of whom you listed, had the same level of prominence. But that’s reality. Nancarrow was neglected for much of his life. Feldman-same. Partch-forget it. Cage was laughed at then and still is. Shapey, asshole that he might have been, was treated shabbily by many in the “official” compositional circles like academia and the Pulitzer committee.

In fact, most of us new music composers are neglected (hell, you didn’t even include me in your list!). When just a few of us actually get recognized, I think that’s a good thing and should be celebrated. I still remember when Reich and Glass were pretty much unknown except among us new music freaks in the early 70’s. When they finally started getting more widespread performances and recordings, I was delighted. And the same was true of Adams at that time. We still should be happy when one of us makes it. It amazes me how incredibly political, small and backbiting the new music community is. I thought some of my physician colleagues ate their own, but us surgical types have nothing on some in the new music community who seem to take pleasure in knocking down anyone who is doing better in some form.

I recall, not too long ago, sitting in a bar in Brooklyn with another composer who started bitching about Reich, Bang on a Can, and a composer who is occasionally on this site of whom I happen to think very highly. All of these people, according to that guy, have unfair advantages and make tons of money. It was like some weird conspiratorial theory, as if their success was holding him back. I was pretty offended, and remain so to this day.

So yes, I’m not a fan of much of Adams’ music and sure, he’s become somewhat commercial. But mcclaren, let’s stop this meme of constantly taking down composers who are commercially successful. All of us don’t win by folks like Adams losing. Rather, we win by our own efforts in writing really compelling, honest music. I could care less if Adams, Reich or anyone else is successful, and am even pleased by their success since it only helps build acceptance of new music. Constantly bitching about other composers in a derogatory fashion that impugns their talents brings us all down. It accomplishes nothing, and just makes many of us look small. Please stop.

Comment from David Ocker
Time: September 16, 2010, 3:57 am

mclaren – in everything you’ve written I can agree with only one point: what I said about you was ad hominem. True enough. Through your angry anonymous railings you have turned this thread into a discussion about you. Probably that’s your intention.

You seem like an unhappy guy (I assume you’re male, please feel free to inform us of the incorrectness of that point) who has forgotten to take his meds. I see myself in you (twenty years ago before I realized I was a failure as a composer). Get a life before you hurt yourself. Meditate. Listen to some New Age Relaxation tracks. Find a sense of proportion.

John Adams, both the person and his music, needs no defense against your arguments. Music itself is impervious to your ranting because music is not the competitive blood sport which you are making of it. I’m pretty sure you and I are not going to be friends. How’s that for ad hominem?

(P.S. In your successive posts you have both praised and dissed the second movement of Naive & Sentimental. Dude, which is it? You may be irrational but you seem smart enough to avoid being inconsistent.)

Comment from Matt Marks
Time: September 16, 2010, 9:14 am

Please don’t feed the trolls. Homeboy has successfully derailed this thread quite effectively.

Comment from Nate
Time: September 16, 2010, 11:01 am

I find Adam’s work fascinating, as well as other “minimalists,” because of the common interest in the beat generation. Honestly, I only really like listening to Shaker Loops if I’m high on acid. Its no secret that Adams, Young, and Riley openly admit to having used LSD maybe even still do, I think Glass and Reich are less willing to talk about it. Warhol called Young “the best drug hookup in the city.” For me, to have such a strict tradition/art dive into psychedelic freak outs is a revelation. To have such composers respect traditions but yet politely break selected rules is inspiring. I think these composers speak for a lot of people who were tired with having to play or mimic German/French music but who respect the traditional at the same time. America has a groove to it, a definate accent on the 2s and 4s. Sample Reich and put it over a hip hop beat and it fits perfectly.

Comment from Nathan (Nate) Clark
Time: September 16, 2010, 11:22 am

/\ people seem to sign their full names. /\

Comment from Charlie
Time: September 17, 2010, 8:41 pm

Galen’s point about composition course syllabuses being dominated by modernists and neo-romantics reminds me a bit of the old rule in humanities departments against basing dissertations on the work of living authors. The logic of that rule was that we can’t objectively assess the place of a writer in literary history until after he is dead – after whatever cult of personality there was around him has dissipated, and after the publishing company PR propagandists have gone away. I think the same goes for living composers. Reich, Glass, and Riley may very well be seen as classics 50 or 100 years from now, but while they are still with us, we need to maintain a proper sense of skepticism with regards to their legacies. Cage and Feldman, on the other hand, should be just about due for canonization.

Comment from mclaren
Time: September 18, 2010, 2:59 am

More rebuttals:

First, my statement that J. C. Adams is a mediocre composer of undistinguished musical skill is entirely uncontroversial. It’s widely accepted as reality. There’s nothing unusual or exotic about such a statement. So the frantic efforts to portray this casual remark that Emperor Adams has no clothes as “ranting” represents just another failed and futile attempt to remove the topic of the discussion from Adams’ music to personal attacks on anyone who cites inconvenient facts and uses uncomfortable logic. That’s an unsuccessful debating tactic, as well as being intellectually and musically bankrupt.

The evidence that J. C. Adams is a mediocre and undistignuished composer is clear. Consider, by way of example, the article “The Opera’s New Clothes: Why I Walked Out Of Doctor Atomic” by Ron Rosenbaum, 24 October 2008.

Can you name another major composer on whose latest work a music reviewer walked out in disgust?

There comes a point when even the most ardent lickspittle must give up the effort and walk away. Beyond a certain point, the effort to ennoble mediocrity grows comical.

Now various bootlickers will rush forward to assure us that the problem with Doctor Atomic involves the libretto, not the music. In rebuttal, it suffices to point to three recent monuments of American opera: Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives (1978), Laurie Anderson’s United States (1980), and Mikel Rouse’s Failing Kansas (2002). In each case, the composer wrote the libretto. This did not prevent each of these operas from becoming a recognized classic of contemporary music. But when it came time for Adams to write his opera, his librettist having backed out, the text got pumped out by Peter Sellars and the results remain embarrassingly bad. There’s strong forensic evidence for this conclusion: J. C. Adams released the music for Doctor Atomic… but as an orchestral suite, not as the original opera — a tacit admission of the disastrous failure of this work as an opera.

So it’s entirely clear that pointing out Adams’ mediocrity as a composer is wholly uncontroversial. It’s tantamount to noting Stravinsky’s fondness for agogic accents or Olivier Messian’s obsession with the octatonic scale.

Second: David Taub claims “To be honest, the Klinghoffer opera is not discussed very much. I can’t see how that made him particularly prominent or popular…”

On the contrary: the evidence shows clearly that the Klinghoffer opera is discussed a great deal, and it made Adams a bete sacre. Once again, let’s consider the evidence: Richard Taruskin devoted not just one column, but two, to discussing The Death of Klinghoffer. In his second column he condemned the opera for its alleged “anti-Semitism,” an ideal gift to any contemporary composer. As Bela Lugosi remarked when word of his drug addiction leaked to the press, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” When the most prominent living musicologist discusses your composition, you can bet that focuses attention on you as a composer. If that wasn’t Adams’ intent, it certainly proved suspiciously convenient for his career.

And we have more evidence that the Klinghoffer opera continues to spark controversy and garner attention, contrary to Toub’s assertion. For example, from Alex Ross’s review of the opera Doctor Atomic, this passage:

His second Adams collaboration, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” ventured into the even riskier territory of Israeli-Palestinian relations and international terrorism.

Whenever Adams gets mentioned in the critical press, which of his compositions invariably gets mentioned? Why, Klinghoffer, of course…along with the inevitable comment on its “riskiness” and “daring.”

A composer could hardly hope to do a better job of self-promotion.

So much for the failed and provably false claim that Klinghoffer did not make Adams a succes du scandal.

Toub goes on to fall into a serious logical error when he urges “…let’s stop this meme of constantly taking down composers who are commercially successful.”


How so?

Show us the evidence that commercially successful compsoers are “constantly” getting “taken down” on Sequenza 21. Where is it? Let us see it. Please cite post counts and specific passages from individual authors.

Quite a number of contemporary American composers are commercially successful today — Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, Nico Muhly, among many others. I’ve had nothing but praise for these people. They deserve every bit of their acclaim and every one of their commissions and appointments. The criticism here doesn’t center around success. If you want someone who goes that route, you’re going to look at someone like Peter Garland, who I think falls into the trap of condemning just about anyone who gets an academic gig or wins a prominent award.

So if Peter Garland had signed these remarks about J. C. Adams, you’d have a point. But it’s absurd to claim that I “constantly” condemn American composers who are successful. In fact, I’ve consistently written in comments on this site that America currently boasts an extraordinarily long list of talented contemporary composers. If anything, I’ve been guilty of overenthusiasm about contemporary American composers, not the reverse.

No, the evidence clearly shows that my criticism centers on one particular composer: J. C. Adams, and it involves his undistinguished musical skills. Formally and technologically, in terms of innovation or craftsmanship, Adams simply falls somewhere around the middle of the pack. Not bad, not great — just undistinguished. In the realm of opera, for example, Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson and Mikel Rouse loom above Adams like Mount Rushmore above an anthill. This is uncontroversial. It’s a truism so obvious and so widely recognized that it hardly seems worth reiterating, but for the crazed hysteria that greeted the statement of this well known common wisdom on this forum.

Matt Marks represents the lowest level yet, reducing himself to l33t-speak name-calling. Anyone who offers a cogent criticsm of a contemporary composer is apparently now a “troll.” Presumably this represents the wave of music criticism of the future: we’ll probably see reviews of new composers like “STFU u retard FOAD LOL!!!” Such, such are the joys of the smartphone texting generation…

Nate makes the odd claim that we apparently can’t appreciate minimalist music without doing drugs. Even for the low level of critical reasoning we’ve encountered in the above commentary, this seems inadequate. If that were true, presumably Reich and Glass and Young’s music wouldn’t be popular anymore since use of psychedelic drugs has largely died out since the 60s. Yet Reich and Glass are now extremely popular and are starting to get taught in contemporary music courses. (It takes several decades for any innovation to make its way into the music classroom. Once again, this is an uncontroversial statement.)

David Ocker returns to rail against me and my alleged emotional state and just about anything but the substantive points I’ve raised. He claims “John Adams, both the person and his music, needs no defense against your arguments.” This is clearly and provably false, given the 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, yes 14 people who rushed out of the shower to do precisely that, howling at the sky with soap on their faces and shower caps akimbo.

Lastly, Ocker shows us once again his inability to parse even the simplest syllogism when he remarks that In your successive posts you have both praised and dissed the second movement of Naive & Sentimental. Dude, which is it? You may be irrational but you seem smart enough to avoid being inconsistent.

Why can someone not both praise and critcisize a particular movement of a particular piece of music? What is inconsistent about that? In what way is that “irrational” (more name0-calling sans evidence to back it up)? Mendelssohn’s symphonies are admirably well constructed but their orchestration is indifferent and trite. Scriabin composed some fine music but his writings reveal someone who frankly was a hairsbreath away from being a nutjob. Shostakovich wrote the best Russian symphonies of the Stalinist period but his big public orchestral works nonetheless suffered from Zhadanov’s oppressive diktats, whereas Shostakovich’s chamber music (particularly his piano music and string quartets) really shine, probably because the Stalinist state censors didn’t pay as much attention to them. It is not only possible but often necessary to praise certain aspects of a piece of music, while criticizing others. No composition is perfect. Part of the job of making clear the context and structure and overall place of a composition in its historical era involves pointing out flaws as well as praising excellences. The fact that Ocker fails to draw such rudimentary distinctions raises real questions about the adequacy of the education of the Sequenza 21 commentariat.

Charlie goes on to make the most bizarre argument of all. Essentially, he claims that we can’t (and shouldn’t) attempt to critically discuss living composers. This is simply weird. It contradicts the entire 2500-year history of music criticism. Indeed, it contravenes the entire purpose of music criticism.

The entire point of trying to grapple with music by analyzing and evaluating it is to place it in its proper context and draw comparison with other similar composers as well as contrasts with composers who come from opposing musical traditions. Music criticism remains vital precisely because it’s an ongoing discussion. We grapple with the flux of history anew with each generation. New events and new musical trends cast the work of older composers in a new light, just as the traditions begun by long-dead composers illuminate the work of brand-new composers and brand-new compositions.

Stripping new music out of music criticism by declaring it “off limits” destroys the entire point of music criticism. What’s the point of discussing composers only when they’re safely dead and buried? That’s not just cowardly, it’s a death blow to contemporary music… Because it assures us that current music and current composers must be walled off from the rest of everyday life, rendered untouchable, made into icons that can never be discussed until long after their direct relevance has faded.

As Charles Babbage was rumored to have said, “I am not rightly able to apprehend the confusion of ideas which would lead to such an [assertion].”

Some general remarks:

The gross inadequacy of the reasoning exhibited by the responses of the Sequenza 21 commentariat proves shocking. We don’t expect Socratic brilliance, but for people with PhDs and tenured teaching positions, the utter lack of even rudimentary debating skills here really tells us something alarming about American higher eduction in the early twenty first century.

People with graduate degrees ought to be able to tell the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. People with masters and doctorates ought to be able to parse simple distinctions, like is vs ought, or logical contradictions vs. criticism which points out flaws as well as praising virtues. People in tenure-track academic positions ought to be able to offer something better than unsubstantiated name-calling and ad hominem insults when dealing with substantive music criticism that reaches conclusions which make them uneasy.

Above all, we would expect that people who have presumably written doctoral theses would be able to read plain English sentences and parse them without reading comprehension problems.

We’re not seeing that here. That’s deeply disturbing.

What we observe in the response to some mild and uncontroversial criticism of a contemporary American composer is a great deal of shoddy logic (“let’s not say anything bad about current composers” — a better way to render contemporary music wholly irrelevant to contemporary life could hardly be imagined; and this is not my point, it’s one that Richard Taruskin has made repeatedly), a huge amount of misreading of basic English sentences (I have repeatedly described J. C. Adams as mediocre and pointed out that his work is undistinguished, though a couple of his pieces prove well-crafted and fun — but in response we get wild and absurdly dyslexic cries that this means “you hate John Adams” and “constantly bitch[ing] about other composers in a derogatory fashion.” Hey! People! READ WHAT I WROTE. Can you do that? Is that too much to ask of people with earned PhDs? Your bizarre shrieks and barbaric yawps simply don’t have any connection to what I actually said. Namely, that Adams remains a mediocre composer, generally listenable, not great, not bad, who has done a few good pieces, who overall lacks the craftsmanship and daring and innovation and talent of much better composers like Robert Ashley and Mikel Rouse and Michael Gordon and Aaron Jay Kernis and Joan Tower and William Schottstaedt and Richard Karpen and John Chowning and Cindy McTee.)

We observe the most gross kind of failures of basic reasoning here. Again and again, for instance, we hear the Sequenza 21 commentariat urging that no one say anything less than adulatory about a contemporary composer. Seriously, people, in what other field of life do we ever encounter such a bizarre injunction? Can you people not show even the smallest scintilla of self-awareness and ask yourselves, “What would happen if we applied this dictum to movie reviewing?” Imagine if no movie reviewer was ever able to say “This movie stinks.” Or consider if a restaurant reviewer was not allowed to say “Don’t eat at this restaurant, the food was overpriced and indifferently prepared.” Imagine if no discussion of American foreign policy were ever able to start with the premise “Our policy in Afghanistan isn’t working, and we should get out.”

Somehow, only in music criticism are we supposed to avoid the kind of routine everyday discussion of flaws and drawbacks that we accept as part of every other area of discussion in life. In physics, in historical studies, in economics, in literary criticism, in every other field the critic is always allowed to say “This doesn’t work. It’s basically wrong. It’s inadequate. There are some fundamental problems here, and the whole approach is mistaken. We can do better.”

I leave it to the Sequenza 21 commentariat to deduce where physics would be if any criticism of a failed physics theory were met with a storm of condemnation for allegedly “bitching about other [physicists] in a derogatory fashion.” The obviously ludicrous and unworkable results of such a crazy belief system require little discussion,and less ridicule: the entire silly notion satirizes itself.

The larger point here involves the gross failure of American higher education at the highest levels. To put it bluntly, in the catastrophic failure of the Sequenza 21 commentariat to raise even a ghost of a credible objection to the mildest and most uncontroversial criticisms of a contemporary composer, we observe something truly remarkable. Namely, a wholesale breakdown in critical thinking among the educated elite. Either people getting PhDs nowadays never learned how to reason from logic and evidence, or they weren’t taught.

Moreover, this intellectual rot doesn’t seem confined to music PhDs. We have witnessed the same catastrophic breakdown in basic reasoning ability among the educated elite in economics, in foreign policy, in physics, in political discourse, in social policy — across the board. We’re seeing highly educated people say the most appallingly ridiculous things, and exhibiting the kind of circular reasoning and tautological arguments and incoherent basic logical errors that would embarrass even a fifth grader.

Consider: economists praised economic voodoo like the Laffer Curve and Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics nonsense for 30 years, until the entire world economy melted down and collapsed. Paul Krugman has written extensively about this. Highly trained PhDs in economics, according to Krugman, have failed to exhibit even the most rudimentary knowledge of basic macroeconomics. These PhDs have forgotten essentially everything learned about economics since 1936.

In foreign policy, we’ve witnessed people with PhDs making the same ridiculous failed tautological arguments about Afghanistan (viz., the “ink blot” strategy that was tried and failed in Vietnam in 1971; absurd Islamic Domino Theory claims that if Afghanistan falls, Kabul in Pakistan is next and a week later New York will go up in a mushroom cloud, the exact same Domino Theory nonsense people spouted back in 1967 about Vietnam, whose fall would allegedly lead to all of Asia going communist and soon Paris and Germany falling to the Khmer Rouge and Red Chinese troops supposedly pouring across the border into America from Tijuana).

In physics, we’ve witnessed thirty years of vacuous numerology on a superstring theory which has not managed to make one single testable scientific prediction — yet which continues to garner praise and funding and support.

In political discourse, we have people with PhDs (Newt Gingrich) making ludicrous statements about president Obama’s alleged “Kenyan anticolonialist” mindset. In social policy, we have crackpots with PhDs urging discredit and long-failed absurdities like Social Darwinism under the guide of IQ testing (Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve”) and patently nonsensical policies like increasing the penalties for marijuana possession to “cut off the Mexican cartel’s source of funds.” (Attorney General Holder’s latest brilliant suggestion.)

In just about every area of contemporary life, we observe highly educated PhDs spouting the kind of foolish gibberish that brings to mind terms like “gross ignorance” and “appalling incompetence.” Paul Krugman has called it The Great Ignorance in contemporary economics, while various science writers today have referred to the “Great Endarkenment”… a wholesale reversal of the Great Enlightenment, in which commonly-recognized realities like evolution and geocentrism have come under attack, and basic laws of economics like Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) are now being derided and ridiculed by contemporary economists using the same failed and faulty arguments as Herbert Hoover’s secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon used in 1930.

When Paul Krugman talks about the rediscovery of old fallacies presented as though they were deep insights, this really rings a bell — particularly when we find ourselves confronted by the kind of wholesale inability to reason or form a coherent argument we observe here on Sequenza 21. You have to wonder if the term “The Great Endarkenment” shouldn’t be applied across the board to just about everyone with advanced degrees today. The American system of higher education seems to have shifted into reverse, destroying valid knowledge in PhD students, damaging their ability to comprehend what they read, and wrecking their capacity to think critically and express reasoned arguments based on logic and evidence… As opposed to arguments from authority, name-calling, vacuous tautologies, or absurdly long-debunked fallacies like the fallacy of the straw man argument, or the false argument of the excluded middle, or the slippery slope argument (all of which have been hurled aplenty at my mild and uncontroversial remarks).

When we read study after study demonstrating clearly that American doctors persist in prescribing treatments that don’t work, even though the doctors know that studies show the treatments don’t work, what are we to conclude?

Something seems to have gone terribly wrong with American higher education. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why…but I do know that when a PhD opens hi/r mouth nowadays, there’s a better than even chance that the result will be something so foolish and so long since debunked (usually during the 18th or 19th century) and so mindless and so ridiculously contrary to observed reality, that it really makes you wonder if the Dilbert comics and The Peter Principle aren’t documentary sociology texts, rather than absurdist satire.

Comment from I’m not a PhD
Time: September 18, 2010, 11:11 pm


Comment from zeno
Time: September 20, 2010, 10:21 am

“Can you name another major composer on whose latest work a music reviewer walked out in disgust?”

How about major composers and their early works, and non-music reviewers?

I recall that SF Opera GD Terence McEwen walked out on an early reading of Adams’s ‘Nixon in China’ at the Herbst Theater in SF.

And Benjamin Britten (and Peter Pears) walked out on the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Punch and Judy’.

Comment from I’m not a PhD
Time: September 20, 2010, 11:31 pm

ZENO-DON’T FEED THE MONKEY. Do we really need a certain person/troll/miscreant/(fill in the blanks) to continue his ridiculously long litany about how we all are idiots? Stop the madness…

Comment from I like feeding monkeys
Time: September 21, 2010, 12:11 pm

Yes Mclaren (Malcolm Mclaren?), you are correct. You should be annointed king of the peoples’ opinion. All hail Mclaren! All hail Mclaren! We all deeply desire and enjoyed reading the comment/essay you’ve posted that is larger than the original article. Being a distinguished music scholar is so important to everyone! Paul Simon and other highly influential artists who cannot read music would agree! Truly being able to find flaws in art must be the end goal for everyone, enjoying the short flawed ride is totally useless! Music must be a highly intellectual affair and all other people who do not see that way will be destroyed! Flaws are unnacceptable. We all must be corrected by Mclaren and fall in line! No one will dance or enjoy any part of any music unless is granted acknowledgement from a reliable source, such as you o wise and venerable Mclaren. Music (or any PhD) has absolutely nothing to do with feeling or intution at ALL! and everything to do with technical minutia that mere plebians do not notice or care about. That’s why we need people like you!

Comment from Patrick
Time: September 22, 2010, 5:04 pm

What exactly is Brian McLaren missing in his discussion of Adams? Actual analysis. You may or may not like the music, but a technical discussion ought to notice that Nixon in China, for example, works on several levels. There are subtle metric shifts, long-term and short-term harmonic progressions working together like clockwork, the vocal lines are melodies that make good singers sound great, he uses parody and citation (f. ex. patriotic songs in Nixon’s opening aria) in a rich but never obvious fashion, and the orchestration and choral writing is more than technically competent, it is stunning. At the very least, Nixon is an opera that works in an opera house technically and is an effective evening, so effective that Adams is able to carry off a third act that is entirely static and reflective and turn it into a triumph withthe steady stream of revivals and new productions showing how strong an opera it is.

Adams is also a very good conductor.