John Adams Rolls His Eyes at “Kids These Days”

John Adams had some pretty nasty things to say about young composers in a recent New York Times article:

“We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said.

[...]

On the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, Mr. Adams said, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”

Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of composers in their 20s and 30s writing complex, dissonant, modernist-y music, what I find particularly weird about these remarks is that composers a generation older than Adams used to say the exact same thing about people like him.  Check this out:

“What we have is the quick fix, the need for instant self-gratification. And that accounts for this utterly unchallenging, unprovocative kind of music. [...] “These days it’s a question of how many clap the longest and loudest. Nothing is being asked of the creator or the recipient.”

That’s Charles Wuorinen in 1989, talking about minimalism.

And here’s Adams’s response, from the very same 1989 article:

“In fact, I couldn’t be happier to answer Charles and his criticisms,” says Adams. “It’s something I’ve never had the chance to do before. Frankly, (pause) I think he’s a square.

“To make arbitrary divisions between what is serious and what is outside the worthwhile realm is just too simplistic.

[...]

He hastens to add that his own music was intended to have entertainment value–”so did Mozart and Ravel acknowledge it, as well as all the great composers did, until these self-appointed guardians of theory came into existence.” But he finds “the dour, grim attitude behind art for art’s sake to be phony.”

According to a recent tweet from Will Robin, who wrote the recent New York Times article, Adams is well aware that he’s reduplicating the rhetoric of his old critics:  “I know that I sound like what Elliott Carter sounded like when he talked about me.”  But apparently that’s not enough to make him stop and say, “Wait, maybe I’m missing something here.”

This isn’t my first encounter with Adams’s “kids these days” rhetoric.   A few years ago he came to Northwestern, and he spent pretty much the entire time he was there talking about how young American composers have no attention span and don’t want to engage with difficult texts.   He then
a) criticized a student piece for not having enough “pizzazz” on the first page, and
b) made a comment about how Walter Benjamin had bemoaned the loss of the mystical “aura” surrounding works of art — which fits nicely into Adams’s own it’s-all-downhill-from-here worldview, but is exactly the opposite of what Benjamin actually said. When I asked him about it, he said “Oh, I didn’t actually finish reading the article.”

*eyeroll* Elders these days…

At the time, I figured that he was on the defensive because he was in a university setting, that he felt a need to prove his seriousness precisely because people like Carter and Wuorinen had accused him of being unserious.  But I can’t imagine that he’d feel defensive talking to the New York Times, which is generally very friendly to post-minimalists. All I can conclude is that he really does think the Youth of Today have reached unprecedented levels of shallowness.  To which I’d respond: if you think an entire genre, style, era or generation of music is shallow, take some time to consider whether you’re listening to it shallowly.

Let’s make a pact.  If I ever become famous, and then use that fame to trash young composers rather than to support and encourage them, please just stop playing my music.

 

Edited to add: Darcy James Argue just made a similar argument on Facebook using a very vivid analogy. Worth a read.

6 Comments

  1. Posted September 19, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Great post! I’ve had a few “elders these days” experiences, and it is frustrating when an established composer – who I assume has MUCH positive advice and experience to share that would help us young ‘uns – instead uses his/her time to just trash current music and the upcoming generation.

  2. Benjamin Love
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    that depends on which modern composers your talking about.my music combines modern harmonic diversity with traditional melodic melodies.my music draws inspiration from the ancient music of the renaisance to bartok,schoenberg and many in between.my music is very organized but intensely emotional at the same time

  3. Tom
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Being a huge proponent of Adams and his work and having read his autobiography, I can say that I believe his intentions were to encourage young composers to consider what it means to develop their own musical language, rather than taking dictation from others and from the norms of society. The fact is, having been in the university system for 6 years myself, I have heard and played many student compositions, and when I read what Adams said it really does hit home. I have played some of the shallowest and most under-thought compositions of my life while in the university system. When the conductors discard the works, then you know that the piece lacks constructive processes and depth. The university system seems to enable people who have little to no artistic depth to falsely believe that they are and should be composers, and that a piece of paper will validate their music. This is simply not reality. I wonder what Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, or Berlioz might say about that? Perhaps the most performed living American composer (Adams) does know a thing or two about composing and about communicating depth to an audience…

  4. Posted September 19, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Tom,

    I’ve been in the university system for ten years myself, including teaching a composition-for-non-majors course twice. And sure, during that time I’ve heard plenty of under-thought pieces. But I’ve also heard some strange, brilliant, fascinating, inventive and ambitious ones. And on the flip side, I’ve heard plenty of lazy, under-thought pieces by established professionals. Shallowness isn’t a generational problem; it’s a human problem.

    This xkcd strip is one of the most succinct summaries I’ve seen of how prejudice works:

    It seems like Adams is doing something similar: when he hears a piece by one of his contemporaries that he perceives as lacking depth, he says “Wow, you’re shallow,” and when he hears a piece by someone a generation younger than him that he perceives as lacking depth, he says “Wow, this generation is shallow.”

    He also seems to suggest that only “simple” and “user-friendly” pieces lack depth, but I’ve heard plenty of dense, complex, difficult pieces that struck me as having no real ideas or meaning beneath their arcane surfaces. OK, so maybe Adams is advocating a middle ground; his own music does seem to suggest that. But I’ve also heard plenty of middle-ground, populist-but-not-really-poppy orchestra pieces that struck me as all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    I don’t see how a conductor rejecting a score means that the piece lacks depth. It could also mean that it would take too much rehearsal time to put together, or that it would cost too much to put on, or that the conductor doesn’t think it will appeal to the orchestra’s audience, or that the conductor made a hasty judgment, or that the conductor doesn’t like pieces in that particular style or language. (For more, Google “argument from authority.”)

    And if you want to talk about not taking dictation from the norms of society, I’ll just point out that kneejerk condescension toward the young is about as socially normative as it gets.

  5. Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    This must be a defect of getting older. Physiological even. Its like when my parents complained about my rap music and their parents complained about rock singing etc etc. Which reminds me, why is music nowadays such crap!?

  6. Posted October 1, 2013 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    Jeff — I don’t think it’s physiological, except in the sense that everything brains do is physiological. I know plenty of older people who are very open-minded about new culture, including my own parents. Fundamentally, I think the kids-these-days attitude is a mix of nostalgia, selective memory, lack of knowledge of the broad spectrum of contemporary culture, plain old prejudice.

    (I think the “lack of access to the broad spectrum” part is really important. A lot of people who talk about how pop music has gone downhill are comparing a tiny slice of the contemporary ultra-mainstream to their favorite examples of a huge variety of styles from whatever period they’re idealizing. John Fugelsang recently tweeted: “If Mama Cass came back and heard Miley Cyrus music she’d ask for another ham sandwich.” As if everything in the 60s was the Mamas and the Papas, rather than, say, a group of cartoon characters singing “I just can’t believe the loveliness of loving you.”)

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  1. [...] UPDATED: Here’s a link to a great essay on the subject by composer Alex Temple, who has quite a few examples of what exactly Adams said: alextemplemusic.com/2013/09/john-adams-rolls-his-eyes [...]

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