April 18, 1999
Composers Mining the Music of Their Youth
a Discussion on Classical Music
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
oing to a contemporary-music concert in the 1970s to
hear new works by young Americans could often be a discombobulating
experience. The composers were baby-boomers who had grown up
with Motown, rhythm-and-blues and 60s rock. Yet from some of
the music they composed, you would have thought that they had
been living in gas-lit garrets in Vienna during the 1920s, completely
in thrall to the radical 12-tone works of Schoenberg, Webern
The source of this music was their teachers, not their childhoods.
Inevitably, some of it sounded stiff and derivative. But even
when the works by emerging Americans were technically assured
and elegant, there was an odd sense of disconnect about the music.
Why were there no traces of the rock and pop these young people
had grown up with?
One would think that the music composers were surrounded by
as youths would fix itself in their ears and seep out later in
their works. Take Haydn. His most sophisticated symphonies were
infused with elements of the folk tunes and country music he
heard and loved as a child in rural Austria, before he was shipped
off to a choir school in Vienna.
This changed after World War II, when an international style
emerged: "sleek, glossy and anonymous," in the words
of the composer Stephen Hartke, another baby-boomer, now on the
faculty of the University of Southern California. "The international
style had parallels in modern architecture," Hartke commented
recently. It won the cultural war, he added, and prevailed in
university music departments. Until, that is, the composers of
Hartke's generation finally rebelled. "We decided that it
was all right, at last, to reflect in our works the musical background
we grew up with," he said.
Of course, the influence of rock, pop and, in earlier decades,
jazz, has long been noted in the music of contemporary American
composers. In the late 60s, you were more likely to encounter
Philip Glass, Steve Reich and their Minimalist cohorts in rock
clubs than in concert halls. That's where their music, with its
repetitive rhythmic patterns spinning atop dronelike pedal tones
and slow-changing harmonies, seemed most at home, though Glass
emphasized the influence of non-Western sources, especially Indian
music on his work.
Now, finally, a generation has come to maturity whose members
seem connected to the music of their youth in as natural a way
as Haydn was to his. Some of these composers come proudly from
rock, like Steven Mackey, who was once a rock guitarist with
a compositional bent and now composes incisive, complex works
charged with rockish energy.
Michael Daugherty, who teaches at the University of Michigan,
has consciously fashioned a brash, eclectic and electrified style
inspired not only by pop music but also by pop culture in works
like "Dead Elvis" and "Motown Metal." And
there is the inventive, Michigan-born Eve Beglarian, who loved
pop music in her youth, then put it aside to attend Princeton
and Columbia. Getting her education at these most formidably
academic music departments was like sustaining a one-two punch,
Ms. Beglarian said recently. "It knocked me flat for a while."
While trying to master strict compositional techniques, Ms.
Beglarian, who is now 40, was engaged in a bit of countercultural
sabotage. "It was fun, and really useful, to get enough
chops to be able to manipulate incredibly numerical systems of
Serialism into something that partied," she explained.
Now, her work as a composer, performer and audio producer
happily takes her to clubs and lofts as well as mainstream concert
halls. Twisted Tutu, her keyboard duo with the pianist Kathleen
Supove, blends high technology with theater, and impish pop with
There are other composers from the generation born in the
1950s in whose music the traits of rock and pop are less obvious
but no less significant: Tod Machover, for one, whose opera "Resurrection"
will receive its premiere on Friday, at the Houston Grand Opera.
Machover, who is 45, comes from a highly educated, musical
family, and once played electric bass and electric cello in a
rock quartet called Hot Toddy Went West. Having completed a master's
degree at the Juilliard School, he went to Paris in the late
70s to work with Pierre Boulez at Ircam, then mission control
for the brainiest contemporary music, where Machover put rock
out of his mind.
"Yet the longer I was abroad, the more I kind of remembered
all I loved about American pop culture," he said recently.
The result was his opera "Valis," which received its
premiere in 1987. Based on a fable by the novelist Philip K.
Dick, "Valis" combines sound, theater, high-tech electronic
instruments and imagery. The ecstatic score is run through with
highly charged energy and spasms of sound that could only have
come from a composer who grew up with rock.
In the case of Hartke, whose "Gradus" will receive
its premiere Monday evening by the new-music ensemble Parnassus
at Merkin Concert Hall, the rock element has crept into his music
despite his best efforts to keep it out. In his youth the New
York-born Hartke, who is 46, was a professional boy soprano who
didn't even like rock. Jazz interested him more, and he was wild
over a record of Balinese music he came across as a teen-ager.
Still, rock obviously slipped into his consciousness.
"I was a passive receptor for the stuff," he said
recently. He refers to the "melos" that all composers
grow up with, meaning the whole background of music and noise.
Today, however, that melos has become "so loud and overpowering,"
he said, that composers really have to "concentrate hard
to find out where they are."
What specifically are the elements of rock and pop that have
influenced American composers, even, as in Hartke's case, against
Rhythm is the obvious though not the only one, and the particular
impact of rock rhythms on contemporary composers has been overstated.
How do pulsating rock rhythms differ from the blues and jazz
rhythms that influenced earlier generations of American composers?
"One could argue that the rhythmic content of today's
composers is actually simpler, in general, than the driving,
jittery, syncopated rhythms of Leonard Bernstein's generation,
or even William Schuman's," suggested the composer Scott
Wheeler, the musical director of Dinosaur Annex, a Boston-based
True enough. The spiky rhythms of the rigorously Serial compositions
by Milton Babbitt, who earned money as a young man playing show
tunes on the piano in nightclubs, are jazzier than, say, the
neo-Romantic music of Aaron Jay Kernis, who is only 38.
Yet motoric, repetitive rhythm is a defining characteristic
of rock and the contemporary compositions influenced by it. Ms.
Beglarian especially emphasizes the role of meter, the grouping
of beats in regular (or sometimes irregular) units (or measures).
"Coming out of an academic Serialist thing," she
said, "what I was most dissatisfied with was not being able
to play with meter. That sort of Serialist music, as practiced
in the late 1970s, was basically orienting toward obscuring any
metrical sense, all that cool stuff that comes from pop. But
you can get away with using any notes you want, even the most
complex, if you have metrical patterns happening that people
can hang on to." A lot of rock, pop and punk functions just
The aspect of rock that has had a pervasive, even when subliminal,
effect on most younger American composers has to do with the
particular way it is recorded and, therefore, conceived: in multitracks,
or layered elements. For American composers born in the 50s,
this layering, Wheeler suggests, has become almost the equivalent
of imitative counterpoint (the practice of writing music in multiple,
intermingling individual lines).
"Very few American orchestral pieces these days are put
together with a sense of traditional counterpoint," Wheeler
said. "More likely they are layered in the manner of a pop
recording, track upon track." How does this work? You get
a basic rhythm section going, add a tune, then a couple of little
midlevel riffs, plus a high string line floating atop everything
else. "It's too much to say this is four layers of counterpoint,"
Wheeler said. "It's four tracks. Composers like Messiaen
did similar things. But younger Americans probably got the technique
from the Supremes."
Hartke agrees. "No one is terribly interested in imitative
counterpoint anymore," he said. Most composers today use
a harmonic language that Hartke describes as "dissonated
diatonicism," meaning a language spiked with dissonance
yet hewing close to major and minor keys. If you start writing
fugues with such a language, he added, the music begins to sound
like Hindemith in his ponderous Neo-Classical mode. "And
the last thing anybody wants to sound like today is Hindemith,"
Hartke said. For Americans, apparently, that German composer
and pedagogue has become, to quote the Beatles, "a real
A great deal of today's recording technology, including multitracking,
was specifically developed for rock and pop. "The very sound
of that studio-recorded music has had a huge effect on composers
today," Ms. Beglarian said. She is particularly interested
in the "artificially fabulous and precise effects"
you can get in rhythm-and-blues, Motown and, now, techno rock.
"That's to me where the most interesting sonic ideas
are coming from," she added. "It's way different from
the guitar-hero stuff that people like Steven Mackey are into.
Jimi Hendrix was great, but I'm more interested in stealing from
Wu Tan Clan," she said, referring to a hiphop group.
Machover admits to similar thefts. "It's hard to get
that rocklike punch in instrumental music today without somehow
enhancing the bass line with a percussion keyboard or adding
extra electronic elements," he said. And as a faculty member
at MIT, Machover has unrivaled access to cutting-edge equipment.
Of course, in Machover's music, it's not just boosted bass
lines that come from rock but also the wholesale amassing of
sound. Rock has always been unabashedly loud.
"The electric guitar exists in country-western music,"
Wheeler explained. "But to use an electric guitar with feedback
to get noise, that really wasn't done until Hendrix." Composers
today routinely turn to electronic instruments and amplified
vocalists to create raucous, brash dins.
There is a whole new audience of listeners who were raised
on rock, are accustomed to sonic blasts and are not put off when
the Bang on a Can concerts assemble a stageful of digital keyboards,
hovering microphones and people-size speakers.
Along with the big sound of rock came the big statement, which
actually connected rock composers to 19th-century giants like
Beethoven and Wagner, who never shied from tackling grand themes
in oversize symphonies and operas. At a time when academically
trained composers were producing elitist, formalist chamber works,
rockers were preaching peace and love as an antidote to alienation
and powerlessness ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"),
and advocating enlightenment through hallucinogenic substances
Works like Daugherty's raucous "Metropolis Symphony,"
an ode to the crass vitality of popular culture, and Machover's
"Valis," which, in his own words, concerns the "obsessive
search for unifying principles of human experience," are
close cousins to concept albums like the Police's "Synchronicity"
and the Talking Heads' "Speaking in Tongues."
Now that American composers who emerged in the 1970s have
re-embraced (or stopped censoring) the melos they grew up in,
the presence of rock and pop in their music should come through
naturally, much as Haydn's use of folk tunes and dances permeated
On the other hand, Machover wonders whether he and his colleagues
may finally have got rock "out of their systems." Moreover,
he is keenly disappointed with the rock and pop of the last decade.
"It's lost its edge, and is seldom risky," he said.
"Everything is simplified and saccharine."
Hmmm. Machover sounds suspiciously like his own teachers,
who disdained the rock and pop of his youth. He freely admits
to having missed "the whole punk thing and whatever"
when he was abroad.
His students didn't, he knows. Just as Machover was once inspired
by the Beatles, today's student composers are charged up by white
hiphop groups like the Beastie Boys. Ready or not, here they