On Friday, Kyle Gann posted a terrific analysis of what he calls New Music: The Generation Problem. He compares his discovery of musical complexity at the age of 13 with similar discoveries being made by 18 year olds now. “Maybe I had gotten into musical complexity too early” he says, and describes how complex dissonances came to feel old hat by the time he was out of high school, leaving him ripe for the fresh attractions of minimalism. (I am summarizing rather broadly; please read his post for the full story).
But it seems to me that a more accurate comparison is between today’s 18-year-olds’ discovery of complexity and Kyle’s 18-year-old discovery of minimalism. For a young composer today, nothing about minimalism is fresh, just as we felt complex dissonances were pretty dusty thirty years ago. And we were right, and they are right, in a limited sense of the word: there is no way a young composer now can compete with his/her elders in mastering minimalist techniques. A whole generation has devoted itself to exploring simplicity. Of course there is much more to be done, but for a young composer the terrain looks pretty well trod.
And therein lies the trap of progressivism: novelty fades. As Robert Frost noted, a truth ceases to be entirely true when it’s uttered even for the second time. But, as he goes on to say, tongue in cheek, “Why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be true? Cling to it long enough and… it will turn true again, for so it goes. Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.”
If novelty fades, what should our focus be? Maybe it is time for minimalism to feel irrelevant, so it can reemerge for its great music, not for its political significance.
Beethoven’s late quartets are remarkable for their novelty, but it is a novelty that was earned through a lifetime of mastery. There are composers now who are writing minimalist, or post-minimalist. music of astounding artistic value. Are they progressive or conservative? Who cares? Shouldn’t we celebrate the works, simple or complex, that transcend their origins and continue to create new meaning over time, despite shifts in politics?
None of this, of course, is a criticism of Kyle. What he has done and continues to do for the music of our time is truly extraordinary. And he makes some points in his post that I’ve left out here, and they are really quite good. (Really, go read it now.)