...The connection between contemporary music and academia in the U.S. is crucial in order to address New Music’s ramifications. According to Brigham Young University Professor Brian Harker, composition “found its rightful place as an intellectual proposition under the umbrella of ‘theory’ in virtually all college curricula of the early century.” In this respect, “the emphasis was not on original work (…) but ‘on playing the sedulous ape’ to the best models of music literature in the attempt to know how if not what to write.” Composition was thus subordinated to theory as a means to gain greater knowledge about existing music.
However, in the beginning of the second half of the last century, the relationship between theory and composition as intertwined academic disciplines was responsible for the eventual establishment of composition as a serious scholarly field in its own right. Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore, despite the fact that composition may not be easily evaluated by means of academic structures associated with scholarly disciplines such as history or physics.
Milton Babbitt was a pivotal figure in accelerating this endeavor. With Roger Sessions, Babbitt prompted a number of young composers and theorists to explore a scientistic approach to music-making and analysis. ...
The works of Babbitt and his acolytes may be processed through the lens of Reductive Modernism, since their authors did not seem to be concerned with the critique-based project of New Music that I introduced in the second essay of this series. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not their music that is Reductive, but the academic discourse that they developed surrounding that music.
Because of Babbitt and others, contemporary music gained access to academia and did find some solace, but the price of admission was nevertheless very high. By fundamentally treating contemporary music as a field of scientistic exploration, this type of music neglected most of its bonds with modernity and its emancipatory project based on self-critique. This compositional discourse, which echoes the prioritization of newness for its own sake, has considerable potential to be subsumed under a complacent cultural logic by virtue of the discourse’s indifference toward treating music holistically. By not expanding music’s critical capacities beyond its internal qualities (structure), I am afraid that the East Coast serialists helped to build, perhaps unknowingly, a musical-academic culture that is unable to act counterculturally.
At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity. Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college.
For those of us who say that all the arts, by definition, are the activity of leisure and that all vocational artists are by definition members of a leisure class, it's tough to take a composer who does so vocationally as having the best platform for talking about how academia in the U.S. has made "new music" such a hot house flower. I do desire to be polemical, the academic culture of music and musicology in the United States has become toxic to the extent that popular musical styles like blues and jazz are not regarded as part of the Western canon, even within the United States, while "new music" remains in some sense required study.
The worry that music from the New Music scene is incapable of acting counterculturally ... why would academic music in the United States, even in the early 21st century, necessarily have a shot at serving the aims of Marxists? Not that there aren't plenty of academics and artists within academia who are Marxist to some degree or another. Far from it.
But academic music and musicology in an imperialist context can only ever be imperialists if Marxists keep their dogma caps on. Why should anyone expect the Pope to write like Martin Luther? Why should a Marxist expect an American academic composer to write anything but imperialist music, even if the composer were a Marxist? This can be where folks forget the class warfare narrative too readily. :) Then again, it's not always clear that there's a narrative BEYOND the class war narrative. What culture will exist when the great revolution comes (i.e. what fundamentalist Protestants in America would call the Rapture)?
The Marxist and the fundamentalist Christian in America are both awaiting a revolution of a kind. Postmillenialists in the United States had a Manifest Destiny to pursue. Cultural revolutionaries have a revolution they want to bring about but these are still just empires.
But there's much that can be agreed with in J.A.P's assessment if we put it this way, New Music of the Sessions/Babbitt variety has always been, relative to the musical communities of other styles, been of a kind that has survived on a life support system. It's a musical culture that can be likened to a prematurely born baby that has only survived by being placed in an incubator and kept on a life support machine. Where as in a non-Cold War context such music might have been stillborn, the ideological battles of the Cold War permitted certain styles of music that have never been popular on the whole to survive and have the self-perception of significance within a narrative that would have its mythmakers leaving history ahead.
This was from J.A.P's part 2. We'll get to part 3. Part 1 didn't have anything I felt like commenting about.