Author: Dan Joseph

Here’s A Plan

Over the course of my first three essays this month, I’ve offered my perspective on our new music enterprise during a tumultuous period that has pushed me to ask some pretty fundamental questions. How do we keep developing our work in the face of challenging circumstances? What kind of career options can we hope to have upon reaching mid-career? And what future is there for a composer whose drive for independence keeps his or her work outside the mainstream, institutional systems of support? It certainly is a puzzle, and this process of writing and sharing has helped me start putting some of my pieces together. In this fourth and final essay, I will try to sketch out some possible paths for continuing, and even renewing, a rewarding artistic practice for this next phase of life.

“Music is under threat, and any opportunity we have to fight back is an opportunity well worth pursuing.”

A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend, who is a jazz critic, for some advice. I was considering taking on a substantial writing project that paid almost nothing and seemed only tangentially related to the rest of my musical life. I had in fact pitched this project, but I had my doubts: Why would I want to spend hours writing a lengthy piece about a kind of music I am not directly involved with, for little to no compensation? What would I stand to gain? His response was illuminating, and I think it speaks to the conditions under which many of us, myself included, continue to labor as composers of new music. Here was the jazz critic’s response: “We are in a battle! Music is under threat, and any opportunity we have to fight back, to promote the good stuff that’s happening, is an opportunity well worth pursuing.”

Suffice it to say that I accepted the assignment, just as I continue to accept the self-assigned task of composing my own “new music” through good times and bad. With or without a proper career or support system, we must go on. The health of our culture depends on it. Among the many useful items of insight and advice to be found in Lou Harrison’s Music Primer, which the composer wrote in 1970 is this:  “As one American foundation report expressed the matter, the composer himself subsidizes the art of music. It is only common sense then for the composer to find out for himself exactly how much he can afford.” Like it or not, for many of us this observation is as true today as it was in 1970. And it would seem that, given the increasing downward mobility of the majority of our population, since at least 1970, we are able to afford less and less. What can we do?

While we can’t bring back the cheap rent, abundant loft spaces, and free time that helped us to form our own independent ensembles, we do have the internet. One of the most compelling and timely music projects to have crossed my path in recent years is composer Eve Beglarian’s A Book of Days. Though she began the project in 2001 as a kind of practice through creating a piece for each day of the year, over the last two years she has been transmitting the diverse works in this collection via email and the web to friends and subscribers. Some of the works are short, some are long. Some are electronic, others are acoustic, and some include video and imagery. While her style and approach may not appeal to everyone, the format and transmission of her work in this way seems to me an excellent, and economical, example of effectively using the tools of our time to both shape a compositional practice and transmit it to an audience. There are many other creative and compelling uses of the internet that can help serve new music, and this must continue to be a point of focus.

We have it within us to adapt and invent in miraculous ways.

Another recent project that suggests an alternative model is Craig Shepard’s On Foot. Upon moving to New York and quickly confronting the twin obstacles of lack of workspace and lack of free time, the composer came up with a novel solution. Recognizing that he spent a good deal of time every day commuting to and from work, he resolved to walk to and from work each day, thereby creating three hours of usable creative time to compose. It worked, and this routine eventually grew into a practice that formed the basis of the larger project known as On Foot that included outdoor public performances, lectures and multimedia presentations, and the publication of a book and CD. In this way, Craig responded to his circumstances and found a productive way to continue his work, despite the obstacles.

What these two examples suggest above all, is that we have it within us to adapt and invent in miraculous ways. This doesn’t mean we can’t continue to write and present according to traditional models. In fact we probably have more accomplished performers to potentially work with today than ever before. But increasingly, the expense and initiative of a major composition falls directly to the composer, who must figure out “exactly how much he can afford.” Here again we have the internet to help, with all of the fundraising tools it offers. While you didn’t learn this in music school, you can learn to be your own fundraiser, and succeed. You should try, and you should support others who use these tools. I know in the beginning of this new era I found it difficult to accept that all my friends wanted my money to help make their concert happen. But gradually I have come to accept that I must help, however I can. We are in a battle and we need to support one other more than ever. Next time you get a Kickstarter email from a colleague, pitch in a few bucks. It might make all the difference, and with luck, that support will return to you when you need it.

Music is who we are, and we must keep fighting for our right to create it.

In sum, invent! Music is who we are, and we must keep fighting for our right to create it. For my own part, I am beginning to find my way towards a new musical practice that I hope will sustain me into middle age. It’s a mix of new technologies and old ways, and is the product of a lot of listening and writing and talking about music. It’s not exactly what I imagined when I was a young composition student, and it may not be what you would call a career, but it’s my music and gives my life meaning, and right now, I can afford it.

What Keeps Us Going?

I began this series of articles by acknowledging that we are living in challenging times for new music, and I asked the question: How do we composers navigate the current conditions so as to continue growing our artistic practice? After contemplating some particular concerns of the mid-career and unaffiliated composer in the first two installments, I want to now explore an even broader question: What keeps us going? Why do composers continue to pursue marginal types of music that are so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues? I know I ask myself this question on a regular basis, and there have certainly been times when I seriously considered giving up. But like many of you, I persist.

Some of my most difficult, self-questioning moments have come about while trying to explain myself to distant relatives or new acquaintances. It goes something like this:  “What do you do?” “I’m a composer.” “Oh… like for TV and film?” “No, not really. Mostly concert music.” “Oh…what kind of music is that?” “Well, it’s kind of like ‘classical’ music, but with some more contemporary influences, sometimes with electronics, sort of experimental….” “You mean like _________?” “Yeah, kind of like that…” “Oh…wow, that’s amazing you can make a living doing that!” “Well, actually, I do have a day job.” “Oh, I see…hmm.” I’ve tried different approaches to these “what do you do” questions over the years, but it always seems to end up feeling awkward. At this point I just tell people I’m a “musician,” and that’s made things a little easier.

At this point I just tell people I’m a “musician,” and that’s made things a little easier.

And so it goes. Though I was relieved of the notion that I might earn my living making the music I make long ago, the idea still obviously dominates our culture, and as our own personal economic and social pressures grow over the years, it can be tough to stay focused on music and to continue composing. Just last month, my career reached a kind of new low, which hopefully is merely a sign of the times. I performed on one of those freeform, multi-artist bills at an underground bar in a hip part of Brooklyn. Though the audience was small, the performance went well, but as can often happen in the new music ghetto, I earned exactly $5—and I had to buy my own drinks! So it was a net loss. While this is just one anecdotal example, other performances often go much better. Still, to be a 50+-year-old composer, 20+ years into a career and be losing money playing a low-key, underground gig is a situation likely to inspire serious reflection. I know I’m not the only one in this boat, but these moments can certainly give us pause.

So why then do we continue with this? Are we insane? Probably not, but I think a lot of us can’t really help it. Again, I know I’m in good company when I admit that I’m hopelessly obsessed with music. A day without music is, quite simply, like a day without sunshine! Music is what gives my life meaning. It’s through music that I organize and comprehend the world. To quote Jacques Attali from Noise, “Music…is intuition, a path to knowledge.” For John Cage, “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” For Pauline Oliveros, “It was the ecstasy of hearing a piece of mine performed…I just wanted to have that experience again and again.” These are but merely some of the ways we become hooked, and I definitely relate to all three.

Why do we continue with this? Are we insane? Probably not, but I think a lot of us can’t really help it.

But we still need to function in the real world. How we negotiate these often conflicting needs is unique to each one of us. But continue to create we must, today more than ever. In our current period of economic, political, cultural, and ecological instability, creating our music can be a political act, one that affirms positive values and speaks truth to power. This is not to assume we all have revolutionary aspirations. But it has occurred to me that, somewhat in contrast to the prevailing narrative, all of us engaged with new music today are in some sense “mavericks,” and as we have learned from history, it is these marginal mavericks who can often have the greatest lasting impact. To return to Lou Harrison, whose essay “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse” I quoted in my last piece, “Confucius once remarked very neatly that you could tell the state of the nation from the condition of its music, and he didn’t mean the kind of thing you get on the radio.” Let us continue to make our music, the kind you don’t get on the radio, and hopefully we can help contribute to a better state of the nation.

In my fourth and final essay which will appear in two weeks, I will try to tie all these themes together and propose a kind of action plan for the unaffiliated, mid-career composer, sketching out some possible paths for continuing to grow our artistic practice in the face of challenging circumstances.

Going it Alone

In my essay last week, the first in a four-part series, I discussed what it means to be a “mid-career” composer in today’s musical landscape. This week I am going to explore the world of “unaffiliated” composers. By unaffiliated, I mean composers who have no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions that strongly shape musical careers. New music composers have always been a tiny minority within the larger society, but merely a generation ago, the unaffiliated or the “freelance” composer was a more common phenomenon in new music. With a more reasonable cost of living in culturally active cities such as New York City or San Francisco, composers could more easily build their lives around the pursuit of their craft, while earning a modest living doing a part-time side job. Just ask Philip Glass who, reflecting back on his early career in the late ’60s and early ’70s during a 2012 Village Voice interview, said, “You could work three days a week loading a truck or driving a cab, and you’d have enough money to live off of, but that’s not true anymore.”  A look at musical life in the cities of today reveals a considerably different picture. It’s not only the rising cost of living that’s eroding our musical communities, but also the continually diminishing financial support of the arts and the increasing commercialization of all facets of cultural practice.

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers.

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers. Going back even further, one of our culture’s greatest new music traditions is that of the so-called “American Maverick”—those composers whose non-conformist temperaments lead them to shun mainstream and academic pursuits in favor of rugged individualism and often self-imposed exile. Think Conlon Nancarrow hiding away in Mexico City, or Harry Partch living the life of the wandering hobo, or Lou Harrison camped out in the coastal forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As Harrison himself observed in a 1945 essay titled “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse,” “American music, like so much other American art, is almost completely the product of amateurs. Its finest thinking and finest writing practitioners have for a long time been amateurs. And it is no disgrace to a country that its expression should arise out of a need of the private citizen.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, the fact remains that new music and the arts overall have become increasingly professionalized in America, to the point where it has become nearly unthinkable that a young composer might forego graduate studies and an eventual Ph.D. and simply go it alone. This is not to disparage academic music or film and theater composers. The problem is that professionalization is becoming the only game in town.

Given where we are today, what options actually are there for a composer with a more independent, unaffiliated profile? Here in New York City, though it is increasingly hard to locate, we do still have some vestiges of an independent new music syndicate. Small arts organizations that host new music still exist, but with ever-diminishing budgets and programming. Beyond that, an informal ecosystem of venues and spaces nurture some vibrant musical activity, though again, without meaningful resources. Nonetheless, a culture persists. But it’s a decidedly different culture than the one of previous generations. Again, here is Philip Glass:

It was very common to find a loft in the East Village . . . empty synagogues and that type of thing…You could find a loft for $150, $200 a month. Now, that’s impossible.

It was this type of environment—one with ample space that was relatively inexpensive to either own, lease, or simply book time in—that allowed Glass and others to form entire ensembles, with an extensive original repertoire, and to rehearse, weekly! Today this is mostly impossible, and thus an entire musical model—a model which incidentally, went on to largely define the new music landscape of the past fifty years—has essentially become extinct. Today’s underground landscape favors simple setups, usually solo, and lots of improvisation. Who has time and space to practice and develop actual compositions?

I’m not advocating here for a broad return to minimalist chamber ensembles in downtown lofts, but some flexibility in our capitalist, consumerist, straitjacketed landscape would surely lead to more musical experimentation and innovation, and that would be good for our musical culture.

Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts.

And yet we persist. Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts. Others delve more deeply into computers and electronic music to satisfy their artistic impulses, avoiding the more difficult challenge of finding a way to get an ensemble work or a string quartet actually performed. Still others give up composing entirely, in favor of the aforementioned freeform underground improv model. For my part, I’ve been recently involved in some of each, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Having reached mid-career, as I wrote in my essay last week, and feeling that many of my long-term compositional projects have run their course, I am desperately seeking a new and productive working model that would allow me to continue to grow as a composer and to realize some of the many latent ideas I carry within me. I’m determined to find it, as the “unaffiliated” composer that I continue to be, but I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t feeling dispirited.

Next week I will try to explain why, given all the difficulties, anyone would continue to pursue the path of composing a type of music that is so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues. It’s a question we’ve certainly asked ourselves many times over, possibly even on a daily basis, but it can become an even more poignant question upon reaching mid-career.

What Does It Mean To Be A Mid-Career Composer?

It’s a challenging time to be a new music composer. Not that it has ever been easy, but with the particular mix of economic, political, cultural, and ecological instability that’s descended upon us recently, one has to wonder how much of our national musical enterprise will survive, and for how long. How do we composers navigate the current conditions so as to continue growing our artistic practice?

With that as a backdrop, I have recently arrived at a kind of personal and artistic crossroads, highlighted by having recently entered my 50s and having just sent my one and only child off to college. Reaching these two major life milestones has led me to reflect in a new way on my life as a composer, reviewing what I’ve done thus far and considering where I might go from here. And, as has happened before at other major life junctures, I have a strong drive to radically reinvent myself artistically. In reaching this life moment, I am—like many of you, perhaps, whether in your past, present, or future—reflecting on and appraising my choices and accomplishments, and in these four short essays I will try to reveal as openly and honestly as I can what it looks like to be pursuing a life as a composer at this time and place, from my particular station in life. In this first essay, I want to explore what it means to be a “mid-career” composer.

Being a “mid-career” composer can be a somewhat confusing designation for many of us.

Although there doesn’t appear to be a precise age attached to it, mid-career generally seems to refer to someone who has spent a good number of years pursuing their vocation following their formal studies, but is not yet approaching old age and retirement. This can be a somewhat confusing designation for many of us who, like myself, have followed non-linear and non-traditional paths and for whom traditional career milestones have come at odd times, if at all. In my case, I didn’t start serious musical training until I was in my twenties, having already had a brief career as a rock musician, and I didn’t really begin my current career as a new music composer until I was around 30. I did enjoy a brief period of being a younger, so-called “emerging” composer, where there was tangible interest in my work and where it might go. I was offered performance opportunities, some recording deals, offers to submit proposals for festivals and commissioning programs, and overall seemed to possibly have a career on the rise. But alas, a true “career” never did materialize—that is to say, my musical profile never developed to a point where it could actually support me financially and fill my calendar with engagements. The musical output of my emerging years certainly grew and developed, and to a large extent I reached a degree of artistic fulfillment, but in a professional sense, I never fully emerged. So now I find myself in my early 50s, at mid-career, having pursued many musical threads to their logical conclusion, and am now wondering: what next?

One of the more vexing questions for me has to do with the fact that, for the most part, I feel that artistically I have achieved much of what I would have hoped to by my early 50s. I’ve developed a coherent body of work, my music has been performed consistently, there have been several recordings released of my music, and I’ve accumulated press clippings. And yet, there it sits, 20 years worth of work going largely unnoticed. Is it merely a matter of timing? And if I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, will an actual career eventually develop? Or is it that my work to date is just not interesting or marketable enough to build a career around? Or, alternately, is the notion of a true “career” in new music even a realistic thing? Obviously in some cases it is, but these success stories seem more the exception than the rule. This is, I think, a key conundrum for many of us:  Do we keep plugging away with a defined style and identity in hopes of finding some form of conventional success, or do we keep exploring new ideas and interests without regard for being noticed or recognized? Having a consistent style and profile can, over time, help establish a career, but as an artist, it can be frustrating and limiting.

When you’re younger, the tension between artistic pursuits and tangible outcomes matters much less.

When you’re younger, this tension between artistic pursuits and tangible outcomes matters much less. After all, you have your whole life ahead of you, so you can experiment as much as you like. But at mid-life, the future is not all still ahead of you. Given your somewhat limited time remaining, what is the best use of the time you spend on artistic pursuits? Can you even afford to keep making music without a successful career? And, perhaps most importantly, do you have anything to say about the vital musical-artistic questions of the moment?

I’m not sure I have the answers, at least not yet, but over these next few essays I hope to arrive at some form of resolution to some of these questions. In the next piece I’m going to explore what it means to be an unaffiliated composer, one who has no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions, a freelancer, a DIY-er, a “maverick”—in short, a composer who seemingly answers only to his or her own muse.

fallen leaves on a series of steps

Thank You For Your Reply

Area blocked off by masking tape with the words "Polite Line"

Polite Line – Outpost Project – Art from the streets – Cockatoo Island Sydney. CC Photo by Neerav Bhatt via Flickr.

It’s becoming a common refrain to hear of the decline of civility, etiquette, and good manners in our culture. Good social habits have seemingly been in decline for years, and the rise of the internet, with its volume and speed, has only diluted what remains of traditional proper conduct. We are all aware of this, right?
But until recently I never felt a lack of civility to be a major problem in the various music communities I have participated in. Music people have, in general, always seemed different to me—people who possess a higher level of character and integrity in pursuit of a particular calling.
In recent months, however, I’ve been stung repeatedly by a sense of indifference and sometimes even rudeness during interactions with colleagues in a way that I am not accustomed to. It seems that now, even in the new music world where we are all essentially in the same (sinking) boat, so-called professional courtesy is no longer a given.

Over the years, I have remained active as a composer, performer, presenter, and writer as well as an avid concert-goer. As a regularly engaged participant wearing many hats in the wider new music community, I have any number of active music-related conversational threads—about concert ideas, proposals, applications—going on at any given time. While some of these threads are part of large-scale processes that don’t always guarantee a response (like job searches or competitions for grants and residencies), many are much more local and personal, involving colleagues and friends I have had ongoing relationships with over many years. It’s one thing if the brass at Lincoln Center doesn’t respond to your unsolicited concert proposal. It’s quite another when a friend who runs a concert series invites you to make a proposal, and then when you do so completely ignores it.

Or when an organization that you’ve worked with off and on for years in various capacities has a major job opening and you apply. Now we all know how tough the market is these days and we never expect to land the job. But isn’t it reasonable to expect that at least your interest would be acknowledged? You are, after all, a friend and colleague, an integral part of the community. But apparently this is no longer the norm.

There are hierarchies, both social and economic, and one way power is too often reinforced is by ignoring those beneath you. But the power equation is not always what you might perceive it to be. So far I’ve talked about the insensitivity of organizations to artists seeking opportunities, but as a presenter, coordinator, or administrator, I’ve encountered artists being similarly insensitive or indifferent to the attention and support they have received from an organization if they feel that organization is less important than they are. When an organization takes an interest in your work, you should at least acknowledge it even if you aren’t able to act on it right away, rather than just ignore or reject it.

Why should we all care about this? Why, for example, should important organizations with busy schedules and high-profile happenings be concerned about random artists that they aren’t currently interested in? Why should artists respond to queries from smaller organizations that might have presented them in the past even if they’re busy or have moved on to bigger venues? Well for one thing, it reflects well on you when you appear accessible, even if technically you aren’t. Most of us in new music are as much a part of the audience as we are the talent, and so it behooves us to be respectful to everyone on all sides.

But also, things can change. When in the role of a presenter and someone approaches me unsolicited, I may not have the time or the inclination to really explore their work right away, but I might the following week (or the following year). Or I might have some false perception about an artist that, through some unexpected turn of events, might completely change. You never know. So I always respond and at least acknowledge that I received their proposal. And as an artist, when I approach someone out of the blue, it’s understood that they might not have any interest in me or my work, and if that’s the case, I can handle it! But if I never hear anything back from them, I’ll never know. If anything, being ignored will turn me off to them as a potential audience member and interested party in the wider community, and that means something.

So what can we do? I know we are all busy busy busy and we all get a thousand emails a day, but it seems to me that responding to your colleagues should be a top priority, regardless of the circumstances. The health of the art and the artists and institutions that pursue it depend in large part on open channels of communication and information. When these exchanges go dark, I am reminded of a story I read about the writer Anne Beattie who, at the very beginning of her career, submitted over a dozen stories to The New Yorker before eventually having one accepted for publication. Now we may not all eventually succeed in our pursuits as she did, but imagine if you were to make a proposal to an organization over a dozen times and they actually responded every time! That would be some useful information, right? Comparing a new music organization with The New Yorker may not be fair, but it’s worth noting that such a prominent institution makes it a priority to respond, as a matter of policy.

There are those in the music world who share this value, and I commend them. As often as I am disappointed by the silence I meet, I am also sometimes pleasantly surprised by the warmth of a response. I only wish it were more often. We live in an age of “signals,” where clicks, likes, opens, views, and plays are monitored and analyzed obsessively. But unfortunately we seem to have stopped sending the most important signal of all—our actual, personal attention. I think we can do better. In the same way that, in the internet age, I have come to embrace the mantra that “it’s better to like than to lurk,” I have embraced the idea that it’s better to respond than to ignore. I invite you to join me.

***

DanJoseph
Dan Joseph is a composer based in New York City. For the past fifteen years, the hammer dulcimer has been the primary vehicle for his music and he is active as a performer with his own chamber ensemble, The Dan Joseph Ensemble, as well as in various improvisational collaborations and as an ocassional soloist. He is also the producer and curator of the monthly music and sound series Musical Ecologies at The Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Are You Putting Me On?

thinkingmen

Image courtesy of Bigstock.

There have indeed been a great number of John Cage concerts, festivals, articles, and discussions throughout the world in 2012 in celebration of his centennial and I can certainly relate to experiencing a bit of Cage fatigue, especially here in New York where the din of Cagean noise has approached a veritable roar. However, what I have a difficult time relating to is the completely cynical rejection of Cage and his legacy that the composer Daniel Asia conveys in his article “The Put on of the Century, or the Cage Centenary” published on January 3 in The Huffington Post. In this rather mean-spirited piece, which begins by noting that this year (2013) marks the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Asia repeats many of the standard criticisms of Cage’s music that have been made from the beginning: that it is non-developmental, it lacks form and structure, it lacks meaningful pitch relations, it lacks tension and release, etc. He also asks the question: “While Cage is being feted this year among my musical colleagues almost as much as Stravinsky, why should this be so, and what does it mean?” The author goes on to recapitulate a bit of 20th-century music history in making the antiquated case for the supremacy of “the tonal enterprise” (i.e.: harmony and counterpoint), seemingly dismissing the entirety of modernism in the process.
I am no proselytizer for modernism, but at least I accept that it happened and that our music and culture have been forever altered by it. Nothing is essentially wrong with the “tonal enterprise,” but most of us acknowledge that in the aftermath of the tumultuous 20th-century, we live in a dramatically expanded field of possibilities. Not only do we now have a range of idioms and languages such as atonality, aperiodicity, serialism, jazz, heavy metal, gamelan, gagaku, Chinese opera, punk rock, mountain music, electronic and computer music, sound art, field recordings, noise, balloons, bird songs, sirens, mechanical instruments, MIDI controllers, free music…you name it, but we also have a whole universe of approaches to form and structure. To rely only on the traditional recipe of hierarchical relationships, the play of consonance against dissonance and the ultimate resolution of expectations, is to live in the past.

Which brings us to Cage: I believe I am in good company when I assert that John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker. It would take much more time and space for me to fully make that case, but suffice it to say that Cage revolutionized music in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to make any music they imagine. His example of openness and acceptance of diversity has inspired many to become involved in music, and perhaps most importantly, through both his own work and his proselytizing on behalf of a great many neglected or unknown composers, he essentially defined our understanding of a distinctly American musical identity. While we here on these shores are undoubtedly rooted in Western civilization, we are a decidedly multi-cultural and free-thinking nation, and as we have come to recognize, many of us identify as much with the East, the Americas, Africa, and “other” as with European ideals. Our homegrown musical culture makes this clear by its vast diversity. To ignore the complexity of our situation is foolish.

Now I don’t expect everyone to endorse or emulate Cage and his aesthetic, although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work! (Check out Maro Ajemian’s 1951 recording first issued on Dial Records and later by CRI. Wow!) It would in fact be in keeping with his very ethic of openness and acceptance of diversity to follow your own path (he often said as much). But I do expect composers working today, especially in America, to have at least an understanding of what Cage means and why he is important. How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure is, well, surprising. The bigger question for me is why this should be so and what does it mean?

My (       ) Generation

clock

In the fall of 1996 while I was a graduate student at Mills College, the esteemed composer Frederic Rzewski visited the music department to lecture and meet with students. At that time I already had some acquaintance with the composer and his work, having previously enrolled in a year-long seminar in 20th-century music he gave at CalArts (where he was a visiting artist and I was a student), and thus I had some sense of his style and biases as an artist and teacher. However, on this occasion, during a free-flowing discussion that followed his lecture on Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, I was caught off guard by his unambiguous contempt and disregard for the composers of my generation. Among the more discouraging points he made about us was the assertion that none of us were ultimately going to become composers. We would become bankers and lawyers or something, but not composers, and frankly, he said, “It doesn’t really matter.” Later, while driving Rzewski to his hotel in San Francisco, something I had volunteered to do prior to his arrival, we continued the conversation and it was here that he said something to the effect of “composers born between 1960 and 1980 are a sad, sad bunch.” While I confess that I don’t remember the exact years he referenced, it was clear that I and all of my fellow students were most definitely within these boundaries.

Certainly this was some tough medicine, especially coming from such a titanic figure as Frederic Rzewski, who seemed to me to represent perhaps the highest level of accomplishment and erudition an American composer could hope to attain. To say that I was crestfallen would be an understatement but, as a student with aspirations to be a composer, I found a way to ultimately ignore his disapproval and dire predictions and continue on the path to composerhood. I simply wrote off his opinions as those of a cranky, bitter man.

I ultimately did become a composer, of some description anyhow, which is to say I continue to create new works that are regularly performed, and that recordings of my work are produced, occasionally residencies and grants are awarded, and music continues to be the focus of my life. In the years following my student days, I simply ignored the assertion that my generation was a “sad, sad bunch.”

But recently I have begun to think that perhaps Rzewski had a point. For one thing, as I have continued to carve my path as a composer, it seems to be an increasingly lonely road, particularly bereft of composers my own age. I have regular contact with many older composers, and increasingly many younger ones, but apart from a few close composer friends from my student days I seem to have very few peers of my own generation. I was born in 1966 and that puts me in the era of “Generation X”. Routinely, however, it seems I attend new music concerts that include works by composers born in the ’40s, ’50s and ’80s, (and even recently the ’90s) or sometimes including some from the late 70s, but rarely performances that include works from those born in the heart of Generation X—which here we’ll define as 1963-1980. Of course, they are out there; I do actually know some of them, and no doubt readers of this column will know of numerous others. But relative to the generations before and after, it seems that there is a shortage of Gen X voices out there.

Composers, and creative people generally, are perhaps more inclined to think of their lives as unique and outside of cultural trends. That is in fact what most of us aspire to, at least in part: To be outside of trends. For much of my life, I have done my best to differentiate myself, in my life and my work, but at a certain point it started to become clear that the circumstances of my life, particularly my musical life, were part of a larger pattern that many of my peers shared. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling and insightful exploration of success, Outliers, as I did recently, helped underscore for me the extent to which our lives are shaped by larger cultural forces beyond our control. As Gladwell explains in the opening chapter, aspiring Canadian youth hockey players born earlier in the year (and therefore older, bigger, and stronger than those born later in the year) have an advantage because the league determines eligibility by year. It is a clear example of how statistical factors play into the outcomes of our lives. Exploring some of the sociological literature concerning generational patterns offers additional food for thought.

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When it comes to patterns regarding Generation X, it’s worth noting that there are in fact fewer of us. The U.S. birth rate began a steady decline beginning around 1960, reaching a low point during the mid ’70s before climbing again throughout the ’80s. So this might help explain why there seems to be a paucity of composers born during this period. My generation succeeded the great Baby Boomers, the generation who enjoyed growing up in perhaps the greatest, most affluent, and most self-fulfilling era in American history, since victory in World War II led to a post-war economic expansion the likes of which the world had never seen. Boomers had great advantages and great opportunities and exploited them with great gusto, leading right up to what author Tom Wolfe described as “The Third Great Awakening,” which is essentially what the ’60s were: a time of intense social revolution and experimentation. Unfortunately for Gen X, this revolution was not so much about us. In fact, the radical changes of the ’60s, and the sexual revolution in particular, began to unfold amid the invention and eventual widespread use of the birth control pill, and with it the beginning of a dramatic increase in the divorce rate. Attitudes towards children and child rearing went through a sea change, leading to what some have described as the “neglected generation.” Remember latchkey kids?

The revolution of course, ran its course, and while there was great and important social change and growth-in-awareness, the America of our childhood was also somewhat of an impoverished land of broken dreams and broken families. As a result of this sequence of rather wild cultural swings, Gen X’ers are almost equally rooted both in the utopian impulse that defines our parents’ adulthood, and also its almost equally spectacular failure. We were thus brought up in a world of lowered expectations and downward mobility, the first generation to do worse than its parents, or so it has been said. Not too much later, with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, a new conservative era was about to begin, largely closing the books on the “Great Awakening” and its aftermath, and it is in this gap, this wrinkle, that the broader Gen X identity was forged, that of the self-absorbed, underachieving slacker. While there may be some truth in this stereotype, what the classic Gen X personality is arguably really expressing is a kind of indifference, to both radical rebellion and to traditional roles and paths. The prototypical Gen X’er is skeptical, cynical, and self-effacing and not surprisingly, many of this generation have followed unusual, non-linear paths in life, often without attracting much notice. This would seem to fit the broader profile of Gen X composers whom, I have suggested, appear to be missing.

But are we really that different from the generations before and after us? While admittedly the very idea of a “generation” is somewhat problematic, as it is both difficult to establish clear boundaries as well as to identify a common experience among its members, I would say yes, in both cases, it has been different. As the writer Jeff Gordinier argues in his influential 2008 Gen X manifesto X Saves the World, Gen X rebelled strongly against the grandiosity and super-achieving zeal of the Boomers, as well as to our own rather downbeat circumstances, by identifying more with the fringe and the low profile. The Milennials, or Generation Y in turn rebelled against this under-the-radar, disengaged, alternative ethos of the X-ers by returning to, and even one-upping, the Boomer ethos of high achievement and seeking the limelight. While sharing many personality traits with the Boomers, this generation is also a statistically big generation, much bigger than X, and they are sometimes called “echo-Boomers.” Given this larger context, is it surprising that we don’t hear much about Gen X composers?

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It isn’t just a matter of our personality differences and smaller demographic profile that has kept Gen X composers out of view, it is also an issue of timing. Looking at, for example, the trajectory of minimalism can perhaps encapsulate in microcosm, the larger Gen X experience. Minimalism has been the dominant musical movement of the past fifty years. It began with composers of the so-called Silent Generation – all of the major originators, Riley, Glass, Reich and Young having been born in the 1930s. If you were in Lower Manhattan during the late 60s and early seventies you might have been aware of this exciting new development, but most everyone else only caught on later. Boomer composers like John Adams (b. 1947) or Paul Dresher (b. 1951) emerged from music school just in time to catch the wave and develop a spin on this emerging language while it was still new. Soon afterward another wave took shape as exemplified by the Bang on a Can composers, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, all of them younger Boomers (b. 1956, 1957 and 1958 respectively) who also adopted minimalism as their own, emerging in the 80s as the idiom was beginning to reach mainstream audiences and widespread critical acceptance, reaping perhaps the final harvest of this once revolutionary seed. But as Generation X emerged on the scene throughout the 90s, this movement had grown stale, and composers who were still kicking minimalist ideas around were seen as, well, just not that interesting.

In this way our story echoes another chapter from Gladwell’s Outliers that explores the rise of the high-tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and others, all of whom were born on or around 1955. In this story timing is everything and Gladwell concludes that all of these success stories were at least in part the result of having been born at the right time to take full advantage of an emerging technology. Sure, there were some high-tech success stories that followed, even some from Gen X like Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Yahoo’s David Filo, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But just as with composers, particularly those associated with minimalism and its offshoots, as the Gen X years arrive we see fewer success stories, and those that do succeed are far less prominent and newsworthy than their Boomer predecessors. Once again, they are out there, but somehow their voices are either absent from the public sphere, or just plain muted.

Of course not all Gen X composers were or are writing in a minimalist idiom, but if we were to take an informal survey of some of the more prominent composers of this age group, what I think we would find is somewhat of a muddle of conflicting influences and styles with no real significant innovations or discoveries. There is no signature movement or style of this group as there is with the Boomers, which, as I have suggested, is really a second phase of minimalism, or post-minimalism. The Millenials, I would argue, have coalesced around a new style that fuses classical and contemporary pop music in new ways that might be characterized as “post-classical” or “indie-garde.” Sure, there are interesting, talented and accomplished figures among them, but as a group, Gen X composers seem caught in the same wrinkle of ambivalence, between rebellion and tradition, that characterizes their generation as a whole. I might posit the Gen X sound as “a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular.” Is this part of the reason for our absence, the fact that we have no distinctive sound of our own? Is ours’ the sound of “a sad, sad bunch”?

Maybe I am in denial, but I for one am not ready to accept such a blunt and dour assessment of me and my fellow Gen X composers. While clearly we have our challenges–we’re downwardly mobile, there aren’t many of us, we are skeptical, ambivalent and self-effacing and our timing is off–and as a group remain a dim presence, we are now entering middle-age and perhaps our star may yet rise. We could be late bloomers about to finally make a lasting mark. Maybe. But another view has it that–and this again echoes that of Gordinier in X Saves The World–without even knowing it, we have been having an important influence on our culture all along, we just haven’t made a big deal about it. I don’t know if this is true, and maybe time will tell. Perhaps you, the readers, know some important Gen X composers out there that the rest of us have overlooked. I would love to learn about them.

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Dan Joseph

Dan Joseph is a free-lance composer based in New York City. For the past fifteen years, the hammer dulcimer has been the primary vehicle for his music and he is active as a performer with his own chamber ensemble, The Dan Joseph Ensemble, as well as in various improvisational collaborations and as an ocassional soloist. He is also the producer and curator of the monthly music and sound series Musical Ecologies at The Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn.