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Young, stodgy composers

Written: April 5, 2004

Some time ago, I attended a concert featuring music all by composers more or less of my generation (in their 20s, I would say). I had been looking forward to hearing what other compoers my age were up to, hoping to hear something fresh and fun…and for the most part, I was disappointed. What I heard was stale and stodgy, without personality; the product of a school of composition rather than a composer, safe and inoffensive.  A friend of mine even called it ‘timid’.

I must admit that I have something of a vested interest in finding fault with the music of my contemporaries, as they are in some sense my competitors; as such, my assessment is fundamentally suspect.

I spoke about this with someone who had a hand in choosing the music for this concert; he replied that it’s very rare to find a young composer who has ‘found their voice’, that young composers generally imitate the styles of the music they admire before discovering their own way. (Some never get around to that second part).

Even so, I’ve heard more adventurous and engaging works from young composers (and in some cases, from some of the composers who were featured) than those I listened to on this concert. (Not that originality and newness are necessarily a worthy goals in and of themselves; rather, they’re the consequence of a worthwhile artistic vision.) Maybe it’s just something about music schools in the Boston area, many of which I consider to be overly traditional.

Anyway, the fellow’s claim is probably true to a great extent. When I look closely at the composers I admire most, none wrote music I dig before around their mid-30s or so…though it’s generally hard to find recordings of the music they wrote while younger. Then again, that may be because no one thinks it’s worth recording…including the composer.

How does a composer finally ‘figure it out’? Does it just happen suddenly, like flicking on a light switch? Is it a matter of conscious effort on the composer’s part, or does it just come as a consequence of constantly writing music? Is it the result of some sort of epiphany, a serendipitous encounter with something mindblowing? Who the hell knows?

Unsurprisingly, I believe my own music, while obviously influenced by the music I like, stands on its own as unique, clearly mine.  Unfortunately, I also realize that I have neither perspective nor objectivity (nor can I) when I try to judge the originality of my own work; I imagine that the composer whose music I disliked felt similarly about their own pieces.

In the end, the upshot is that composers generally don’t even have a chance to be taken seriously until we’re in our late 30s and early 40s.  It’s, mildly put, frustrating.