Generation of '38 (Part 2): Music is What Happens

Generation of ’38 (Part 2): Music is What Happens

At a formative time of their lives, the generation of American composers born in or near the year 1938 lived through an era of profound challenges to general beliefs about music and society.

Written By

Judith Tick

[Ed. Note: Over the course of this week, NewMusicBox is proud to be republishing this three-part essay which was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, John Harbison, director, and was originally printed in the festival’s program book. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and the Tanglewood Festival. The first part of the essay is here – FJO]


The poet Seamus Heaney has written of “that moment when the bird sings very close/To the music of what happens.” In recalling the 1960s and ’70s, many American composers born in or near the year 1938 (whose music was the focus of the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music [FCM]) use the phrases, “we were the first generation to” or “the last generation to….” These moments shape this brief overview of their coming of age as artists. What happens when so much happens?

At a formative time of their lives, these composers of the FCM generation lived through an era of profound challenges to the general belief. As they approached their thirties, they—individually and in some cases collectively—contributed to the rise of serial and atonal music, contributed to the decline of serial and atonal music; worked in electronic music centers, wrote music in traditional acoustic genres and practiced extended improvisation; switched on through the Moog, switched off through trance music or ostinato music, as minimalism was then called; idealized participation, idealized control; stayed afloat in the high tides of rock, lived uptown, lived downtown, lived underground, lived bicoastally, lived within cultural nationalism, lived counterculturally in California, lived multiculturally in Europe or through “non- Western” music. Composers that were reviled at the beginning of the ’60s by an older generation—particularly John Cage—achieved public acclaim by the early 1970s. Orthodoxies rose and fell.

Their professional training coincided with the moment when universities competed fully with conservatories. All of the FCM composers went to college, and most went to graduate school at a transitional stage in the training of American composers. Until ca. 1960, many composers entered the profession with a B.A. or its equivalent; some earned the “Master’s” which served as the terminal degree. After that point programs offering doctorates in music (Ph.D’s and D.M.A’s—Doctorate of Musical Art) became increasingly common, symbolizing the growing power of academia and the long reach of its patronage. “We were the last generation not to have to get doctorates,” David Borden notes. At a time when American universities were growing by leaps and bounds, “People could just make a phone call and you’d have a job.”

Paul Chihara
Paul Chihara

Only a few of the FCM composers have this now-required credential. In the mid-1970s Ellen Zwilich became the first woman to receive a D.M.A from Juilliard; Joan Tower, the second woman to receive the same degree from Columbia. Bolcom earned Stanford’s first D.M.A, Paul Chihara a Ph.D. from Cornell. Chihara understood how

We were the first generation to be “canonized” through doctorates. We were very much aware we were a bit of an anomaly. Babbitt was trained in the army, Schuller through the orchestra, Boulez through the Conservatoire…. It was a choice we made. We were the grandchildren of Gershwin and Porter, and Gershwin was the son of immigrants. We had the respectability of the university.

Most FCM composers have remained in the university world as teachers, some with full-time appointments and some not.

“We were a generation of highly skilled performers,” says John Harbison. “Many in the younger generation today are not.” Given the difficulties of contemporary composition, where scores of new music often got lost in translation— Wuorinen in 2002 described the prevailing norm as “very slovenly and not particularly comprehending”—several FCM composers, often using universities as launching pads, organized new ensembles. “To have composers’ groups was a novelty at the time,” Harbison recalls. “There would be no performance of their music unless they generated it. Even when [the historian] Arthur Mendel told John Heiss, ” ‘You’re at Princeton now. Put your instruments in your case. You have work to do,’ ” Heiss said, “the kids just smiled and played anyway.”

John Harbison
John Harbison

In 1962 Charles Wuorinen, Harvey Sollberger, and the cellist Joel Krosnick founded the trend-setting Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia. “Of course we were young and knew everything,” Wuorinen recalled in 2002, “so we decided that we would just reform the universe.” One of their concerts fell on October 22, 1962, the evening when President Kennedy informed the world of a “missile crisis” in Cuba—the discovery of offensive missiles surreptitiously installed in Cuba by the Soviet Union, precipitating one of the defining epochs of the Cold War. Like many people living through this historical confrontation and who therefore remember “where they were when,” as Kennedy delivered his speech on television and radio, Wuorinen was “in a taxi on my way uptown to the Macmillan Theatre [at Columbia]. “I thought, my God, we’re not going to live through another week with this.” “While the world was ending,” Harvey Sollberger said, “we were playing our little hearts out.”

By the end of the 1960s, the model of the Group for Contemporary Music was replicated by other FCM composers. Joan Tower, an original member of the GCM, was a founding member of the Da Capo Players in New York. In Boston John Harbison helped transform Emmanuel Church into an innovative space for making music. In cities outside of New York, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, the New York model was emulated, and even funded by private foundations.

Many FCM composers sought out the composer-leaders of the postwar European avant garde. During the 1960s almost all FCM composers made their way abroad on proliferating fellowships and grants from private foundations and the federal government, as well as through Europe on $5 a day—a famous guidebook of the era. In the postwar decades, Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Dallapiccola, and Berio were reinventing Western European modernism through their music and their aesthetic fiats, interrogating the reception of previous icons like Schoenberg and Stravinsky in order to make room for their own emerging voices. Some FCM composers attended the famous summer courses in contemporary music at Darmstadt, West Germany, among them Richard Teitelbaum and Rzewski. At different points Charles Fussell, John Harbison, and David Borden studied with Boris Blacher in West Berlin. In Paris Philip Glass studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Both Bolcom and Rzewski played in Boulez’s ensemble Domaine Musicale.

New music was rising from the ashes of war, from “almost still smoking, destroyed cities throughout Europe,” as Curran (in 2000) remembered his first visit to Europe in 1957; not all that much had changed in 1965 in Berlin, when his mentor Elliott Carter brought him over through a Ford Foundation program.1 Charles Fussell spoke of the anxiety of getting to East Berlin by going through “Checkpoint Charlie,”—the security apparatus surrounding the political zones of a then politically divided city. Bolcom said, “The trauma of the War [in Paris in the early ’60s] was still in evidence.” There as well for one year, ca. 1962-63, David Chaitkin recalls the political climate in the waning years of the French-Algerian War. Chaitkin heard Boulez mix music with politics in his Domaine Musicale concerts at Place l’Odeon. “Every day Boulez would make a statement damning the government policy on Algeria.”

At home the atmosphere was heady in different ways, perhaps because more was at stake. The FCM composers were the first generation to learn—or at least have the option of learning—systematic twelve-tone composition as it evolved within second-wave American modernism, that is to say, postwar American serialism as practiced by what has come to be known as the Princeton School led by Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. They belonged to the first generation of American composers to be told, as Babbitt wrote, that a “foundational discourse [in theory] was a “precondition of musical citizenship.”2 What kind of musical polis required its composers to carry passports of musical theory?

Let us remind ourselves of the experiences the FCM generation brought to this moment. They had grown up with Home Front “Americana,” as the music of Copland, Harris, and Thomson is frequently labeled. They understood the vernacular imperatives of jazz. Moreover, the debate between neoclassicism and twelve-tone music (one of the historic debates of 20th-century music) had also marked their youth. As Heiss remarked, “We were born into the Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg dilemma as young people.” However, by the time the FCM generation entered graduate school in the early 1960s, the dilemma had been “resolved” so to speak in favor of Schoenberg, or at least it had abated for several reasons.

Already in the early 1950s both Stravinsky and Copland had broadened their purviews, using twelve-tone practice in their compositions during that decade. Furthermore, in the 1960s it became increasingly clear that the mainstream music of “Americana had run its course,” as David Del Tredici stated. Both Copland and Barber suffered public failures at the premieres of works written to celebrate the opening of the orchestra and the opera at the newly constructed cultural complex, Lincoln Center. A few years later, Copland told John Corigliano, “When I had a premiere, all the younger composers came to hear it. Now they don’t.” (“He said this matter-of-factly,” Del Tredici relates.) Del Tredici, who spent a year at Princeton in 1962, also recalled how “it was enormously exciting to abandon tonality. It was irresistible. Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, I loved their music.”

But “loving this music” was not enough. At the same time that the sonic ideals of atonal music—be it electronic or acoustic—permeated the American soundscape of the avant garde, the debate over the relevance of science and theory raged as well at large in the culture as a whole. As American theorists like Milton Babbitt, Alan Forte, and George Perle accelerated the production of discourse about music, they enacted this conflict as well in their own separate spheres of influence. In his now-classic metatheoretical articles about compositional practice with twelve tones, Babbitt shifted the intellectual paradigm for musical communication away from humanistic philosophy to science and analytic positivism. He established a new language and a rationale for the language at the same time, propelling “discourse about music” onto the center stage of American compositional training. The expansion of Schoenberg’s legacy through the theoretical virtuosity of Milton Babbitt characterizes postwar American serialism at the height of its influence in the early 1960s.

Several FCM composers studied at Princeton, Columbia and Yale where they were exposed to an intellectual sobriety and a new theoretical vocabulary which has since become standard in the field (e.g. “set,” “pitch class,” “combinatoriality”). New journals such as Perspectives of New Music published at Princeton and the Journal of Music Theory published at Yale set the tone for wider dissemination of revisionist thought.

Alvin Curran
Alvin Curran

What was it like to be there? The FCM composers display their differences from one another in considering this question. Alvin Curran said, “It all hit me with the force of a tornado. I was suddenly immersed in twelve-tone theory with Allen Forte, and then from his own perspective, Elliott Carter, his own creations…. Those who were informed so much so carried on mock battles. The Princeton-Columbia axis was no joke. You were in it or you were not. Now we can look back lovingly, but not then.” Recalling his own “culture shock” when he moved from the University of Iowa to Columbia, Sollberger recalled the struggle to establish serial music, so to speak, undertaken by his mentors. He thinks that in that particular musical environment outside of academia, his teachers and friends Babbitt and Carter were underrated, indeed neglected. Charges of a “serial tyranny” seem like a “Stalinist rewriting of history.” On record in many places, Wuorinen staunchly opposes notions of serial “power,” as a self-serving myth. Borden believes that “Our generation was the one who broke away from the serial school. We felt it was sort of imposed on us.” Del Tredici did not “do atonality because he was forced to in any way. Atonality was exciting for me.” Zwilich thinks that the evaluation of serialism should not be “so strict…. Don’t overdo the serial domination thing. After all in the ’60s we had David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Alan Hovhaness, and Terry Riley.”

Today this fascinating moment stands between memory and history. It is already filled with ideological tensions framed as critical debates in language that recalls charges of “imperialism” in the 1960s or even the Cold War. Did the rise of entertainment and rock deafen ears to other messages? In the absence of a substantive scholarly literature offering fresh syntheses, we live with fragmented testimony bearing witness to the need for historical interpretation. The few comments from FCM composers presented here stand as a particular kind of “narrative truth,” their experience of the past as remembered from the perspective of its own future. “What happened” remains especially problematic in that the music offering clues remains insufficiently assimilated through the experience of a wider public.

Still there is no doubt it could be tough. Heiss reported that an atonal composer said to him, “Atonal or tonal. Decide. You’d better make the right choice. Your career will depend on this.” Did it? Perhaps the careers of FCM composers depended on exactly the reverse—not believing in “the right choice.” Not deciding.


1Alvin Curran, OHAM interview, 2000.

2Milton Babbitt, “The Structure and Function of Music Theory,” as cited by Martin Brody, ” ‘Music for the Masses’: Milton Babbitt’s Cold War Music Theory,” Musical Quarterly 77/2 (summer 1993): 166.


Judith Tick
Judith Tick

Judith Tick, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Music at Northeastern University in Boston, specializes in American 20th-century music and Women’s Studies in music. As the author of articles and books about Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, she has won two ASCAP Deems Taylor awards and two awards for outstanding scholarship from the Society for American Music. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and serves on the editorial board of Musical Quarterly. Her forthcoming book, Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, with Paul Beaudoin as Assistant Editor, is due out from Oxford University Press in 2008. She was recently appointed to the Board of Advisors for the revision of The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. She served as Consulting Scholar and Guest Speaker for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.