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.