A 2005 survey by the Music Critics Association of North America reported that composers aren’t breaking new ground these days. What does that mean? From a journalist’s point of view, “breaking ground” means novelty, which translates into things that are easy to write about. Putting an unusual sound source on the stage, incorporating new technology or theatrics into performance, even using a catchy or provocative title: these are the things that journalists can grab onto, hooks that make writing a feature or a review on a tight deadline a bit more manageable. None of these things are inherently good or bad, or even inherently new or old, but they can be perceived as newsworthy.
That’s the superficial meaning of “groundbreaking,” but what of the more significant kinds of innovation? Is it true that composers are just rehashing — or to use a very unfashionable word, developing — what’s been done before?
That would be a very sad situation, wouldn’t it?
Or would it?
What does the word “groundbreaking” really mean? Everywhere I look, I see broken ground. I see peaceful meadows, teeming forests and weedy lots dug up the name of progress and growth. Growth and progress can be wonderful things, but too often they just serve as a euphemisms for greed and boredom. Ground sometimes gets torn up just to give people’s lives meaning, to mark territory, or to make room for more expensive, expansive automobiles.
These days, I find myself wanting to repair some of the ground that’s been broken, to write music that connects the dots, rather than ever more distantly scattering them. I take special pride in pieces that don’t wear their innovations on their sleeves, music that doesn’t hit you over the head with its newness. I like a piece whose novelty only becomes apparent when you try to peg it on an earlier generation and find it just doesn’t fit.
The perception that great art must be groundbreaking reminds me of the “be fruitful and multiply” dictum from the Bible. Fine, as long as there was a danger of population extinction, and there were adequate resources in the earth to feed expanding generations. At this point, it would appear that there are enough people on this planet that the best chance we have for extinction is self-destruction, so I’m for population maintenance, not growth.
In the same vein, I think we’ve broken enough ground for the time being — physically, culturally and metaphorically — to satisfy even the most severe cases of attention-deficit disorder. There is a place now in our world for composers, for artists, who can reconnect us with one another, with the past and the future — with solid ground.
Mind you, I don’t believe for a minute that there is nothing new being done, or nothing new to be done. There are so many possibilities, it’s nauseating.
I just feel that novelty is overrated. If we think like journalists, then newness is everything. If we think like artists, then truth is everything, and truth is one of the oldest things going. And it’s one of the few things that hasn’t lost any value over the years.
So if I end up breaking any ground, I’m going to make sure I’m not just marking my territory. If I break new ground, I hope it will be because I have something healthy to plant.
[First posted June 7, 2005]