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Gen Why Composition

nothing to say and We Are not saying it

I propose the use of the term community composition to describe a large amount of current activity that is group centered in nature as well as the techniques employed by the participants in this work to assimilate to their community in question. These events (venue or theme specific group compositions) are frequently coupled with strategies of language and cooperation that allow one to minimize commitment to an æsthetic stance while deflecting criticism of any stance prior to its occurrence in much the same way members of the so-called “millennial” generation in general society interact with one another. It is my observation that the conformity of thought and activity present among composers today, independent of the degree to which it exists, occurs in a different way than that of the prior generation. A shift has occurred from vehemently adherent camps among various schools of thought to a less explicit though equally present herd mentality lead or exemplified by no particular central figures. It is my further observation that these conditions mirror in a general way our newest composers and members of society.

To provide a simple (perhaps overly so) explanation of a sociological shift whose implications are not yet fully established and difficult to quantify, it is a common assumption that those fitting into the Gen Y category (“millennials”) are born in the early 80s, have a high proficiency with and affinity for technology, are very brand conscious, trust authority figures such as parents and government to a greater degree than their predecessors, and avoid commitment to potentially controversial statements via several verbal techniques to be addressed. Sound like any composers you know? Let’s take a look at a few similarities.

Take the use of crutch words to lessen the degree of commitment to any statement made: “I’m like a Jew/Democrat/Lakers Fan or whatever.” While the speaker indicates a position, it is lessened in its finality and only provided with an exit strategy. A similar technique used by many composers is the “fortress bio”, a term coined by Kyle Gann in reference to a particular composer whose bio read in short “…received degrees from… prizes from…” The bio in question went on to indicate that one could go elsewhere for a “complete” list of prizes, awards and fellowships after presenting an extensive list that was apparently insufficient. Gann equated the technique with that of academic composers of the previous generation who resorted to lengthy descriptions in program performance notes of precompositional technique rather than statements of æsthetic desire or intent. These statements are less informative than positional. Rather than present a view for potential reproach, why not state the numerous reasons (credentials or techniques employed) why one is beyond reproach. A demonstration of the authority of one who presents a viewpoint is similar to and often coupled with a watering down of any views actually presented.

Shortly after reading the comments in question I attended the International Computer Music Conference in Miami and decided to look at the composer bios and performance notes to see how many fit this formation. Not surprisingly the result was nearly 100%. I am continually amazed that given the opportunity to describe their artistic intents, many squander the chance instead to discuss a technical procedure employed or to notify me of what schools they have attended and the fact that they have slept in a New Hampshire hotel for two weeks upon invitation. One need not, however, read the composers words to determine absence of an artistic goal when the situation is so clearly audible without external reinforcement. Similar sentiments abounded during each panel discussion I attended in much the same manner as has been my experience elsewhere, to the extent that I see little value in participating further in any such conferences.

Another phenomenon that exemplifies a groupthink mentality among composers is the theme or group composition event. Sixty second pieces, surf music, music on a theme of power, about Ben Franklin, on this theme, that theme, following this æsthetic goal, fitting this venue, etc. On an almost daily basis I receive a notification of one or another composition “event” requesting work to fulfill a particular venue or specific programmatic agenda, usually preceded by several explanatory paragraphs indicating why such music is “necessary” at this point. I must see a connection with a generational group mentality, “fortress” bio, and group compositional events. One seeks not to make a definite individual statement but to lessen the degree of commitment to any statement by diversion or verbal technique while presenting evidence that were one to actually decide to take a stance, it would be incontestable. While themed events are nothing new by any means, their increased proliferation signals a shift towards a social networking aspect of the creative process in much the same way that individuals interact with one another through devices (facebook, myspace, etc.) which facilitate group centered interaction on a large scale.

Our situation is an odd one in which many — when confronting the near social irrelevance of their pursuits — feel the need to establish presence in a group or community to the extent that acceptance by a group of those similarly inclined exceeds the importance of the goals which one presumes to accomplish. I have had personal conversations with many composers indicating that they “needed” to participate in an activity of some kind for one or another professional development opportunity even though they were lukewarm to or entirely disinterested in the project. (The number of individuals who have indicated this stance to me regarding wind ensemble music alone likely fills a substantial portion of this repertoire.) Such a stance is similar to the toddler who states he will not play with his sister because of a fight with her imaginary friend. There is no friend and there is no profession. A manufactured sense of belonging will not remove the absence of something to which one belongs, nor will it remove the negative impact of actions necessary to achieve inclusion.

While it would not be productive to return to a time when those presenting opposing views have those views and themselves deemed “worthless,” it would certainly be a benefit to have an individual present some view, any at all in fact. (At this point and previously I have implied verbal statements as well as — and more importantly — musical results indicative of such sentiments.) The practical difficulties, which may arise in implementing an æsthetic viewpoint independent of a like-minded peer group, are far preferable to participating under circumstances in which a preferred implementation is hindered. A DIY approach has certainly proved effective for those who have attempted it in the past (Reich, for example) compared with those who passively wait for an opportunity to determine what they wish to involve themselves with. In a conversation with a friend who asked if I would be submitting anything to what I’ll refer to as composition event x, I said, “Sure, the same thing I send to all of them.” Upon asking what it was I responded, “A text score.” He asked what the content was. I told him, “An index card reads ‘Write the damn piece yourself.’” which is my response to any organizer who wishes to receive specific material from composers exclusively for their event.

Most of the individuals participating in the activities I mention are not literally members of the millennial generation although their work anticipates a similar influence, a rare instance in which contemporary music is actually forward looking! Having moved past the need to affiliate with a dictatorial (however benevolent) proponent of one or another camp is one of the great benefits of our current compositional environment. Replacing these central figures with a community of individuals is not.

Other Articles by the Author

“Review of Imagine 2 Festival.” Journal SEAMUS 16/2 (Fall/Winter 2001). [Also available online to SEAMUS members at]

“Getting Started with Csound: Suggestions for Beginners Learning Independently.” Csound Magazine (Winter 2002). Online. Last accessed 22 May 2008.

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