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.