We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End

The Advent of Postliteracy: Partch, Monk, Anderson, Zorn; New Patterns of Patronage

CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


There are so many composers these days, you cannot perform all the worthy music that is being written.1

William Schuman, a “Conversation” (1984)

If the amorphous “new spirit” of contemporary music has any coherence at all, it lies in its spontaneity, immediacy, its fondness for subconscious decision-making … associated in part with the demise of the composer-scribe.2

Nigel Osborne, Introduction (“editorial”) to Musical Thought at Ircam (1984)

Radios, records, and tapes allow the listener to enter and exit a composition at will. An overriding progression from beginning to end may or may not be in the music, but the listener is not captive to that completeness. We all spin the dial3

Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music (1988)

I like to say that I'm really rootless. I think that the music that my generation is doing is really rootless in a lot of ways, because we listened to a lot of different kinds of music from an early age, … and as a result we don't really have a single home.4

John Zorn, in Conversation with Cole Gagne (1991)

[We're] simplifying the pitch landscape to allow you to pay attention to something else.5

Paul Lansky, in Conversation with Kyle Gann (1997)

I remember Cage writing about [the painter] Jasper Johns, and how if Johns sees anything on his canvas that remotely resembles anything someone else has done, he destroys it. It took me a while to realize that there's just the opposite way to be an artist: to be a kind of omnivorous personality. I think Stravinsky was one, and certainly Mahler was, and Bach as well—somebody who just reached out and grabbed everything, took it all in and through his musical technique and his spiritual vision turned it into something really great.6

John Adams, in Conversation with David Gates (1999)

To say that modernism “collapsed” in the last quarter of the twentieth century would be as one-sided and misleading (and perhaps as wishful) as the old claim that tonality had collapsed in the same century's first quarter. It is worth one last reminder that all “style periods” are plural, and that the dominance of trends is never as absolute or obvious as historical accounts inevitably make them seem. At century's end, just to pick the most conspicuous examples, Milton Babbitt (aged eighty-four) and Elliott Carter (aged ninety-two) were both still impressively productive as composers (Fig. 10-1).

Karlheinz Stockhausen was still keeping up appearances as an avant-garde icon: in 1995, he made some headlines with a string quartet in which the players “phoned in” their parts from separate helicopters in which they were airborne. (The Salzburg Festival, which commissioned it, was prevented from producing it by local environmentalists.) Six years later, aged seventy-two, the composer was awarded a large prize for the work by the Deutscher Musik-verleger-Verband (the German Music Publishers’ Association). Still an enfant terrible at heart, Stockhausen made much bigger headlines later in 2001 with the remark that the terror attack that destroyed New York's World Trade Center was “the greatest work of art there has ever been.”7 Though shocking at the time, the sentiment (or fantasy) was familiar: Hans Werner Henze, in an essay of 1964, recalled Stockhausen “at the beginning of the 1950s,” looking down on Vienna through the window of an automobile and gloating, “In a few years’ time I will have progressed so far that, with single electronic bang, I'll be able to blow the whole city sky-high!”8

Chapter 10 Millennium's End

fig. 10-1 Fifty-two New York composers photographed by Bruce Davidson at the United States Customs House on 29 September 1999. Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter are the two figures closest to the camera, with George Perle at left in the second row and Paul Lansky behind Perle.

In the year 2000 another old firebrand, Pierre Boulez, was honored at the age of seventy-five with the Grawemeyer Award, the most lucrative of all classical music “purses” (which the year before had gone to the twenty-eight-year-old Thomas Adès, a model postmodernist from England), for Sur incises, an exemplary serial composition scored for three pianos, three harps, and three “mallet” percussionists. Like most Boulez compositions by that time, it was based on an earlier work; the prize was generally regarded as a well-earned “lifetime achievement” award.

These composers, all highly distinguished and quite loftily unaffected by recent trends, remained the object of the sort of critical adulation that always attends grand old men. But their ages were significant. Their styles remained modern, but they were the opposite of new. Whether serial (like Babbitt's and Boulez's) or not (like Stockhausen's and Carter's), their music identified them as senior composers, working in idioms that even their most respectful juniors had to regard as outmoded. Despite their honors, they knew that they had been marginalized, and took it hard. Carter expressed his resentment at the success of the “New Simplicity” indirectly, in titles like A Celebration of Some 100 × 150 Notes (a short orchestral piece first performed in 1987), and by—like Stravinsky—employing spokespersons, notably his pupil and biographer David Schiff, to vent his spleen at “the tyranny of the audience.”9 Babbitt, invited to comment on recent developments in the program book for the 1984 sequel to the “New Romanticism” festival described in the previous chapter, delivered himself of a self-pitying tirade, “The More Than Sounds of Music,” in which he came close to casting himself and his colleagues as victims of an esthetic mugging by unnamed (but plainly enough identified) totalitarian forces. It would be an interesting exercise to ferret out all the code words in its concluding paragraphs:

It is certain to be observed that the “music” being buried, at least in the archives, will be mourned by few, since it was loved by so few. If “good” or “worthy” is to be determined by the counting of ears (at least that is an explication of that supervenient), then let it be noted that there is a musical arena where the true cultural heroes of this people's cultural democracy hold forth, where a mere seventy-five million copies of a single record album are purchased. And if this be adjudged a rude category error, where should the category boundaries be drawn, and by whom? By those who will not or cannot offer reasons, and so only can be called unreasonable? By such a mighty computermite as condemns Brahms for his elitist, inconsiderate “just another modulation” (the very language of the condemnation reveals the sophistication of the analysis)? By those who dismiss a work by the invocation of a prioris as to what music (allegedly) has been, or never was, and therefore should be?

Perhaps music today does present a confusing, even confused picture; for all that it is a truism to remark that the world of music never before has been so pluralistic, so fragmented, with a fragmentation which has produced severe factionalization, it is nonetheless true. But not even those composers who dare to presume to attempt to make music as much as it can be rather than the minimum with which one obviously can get away with music's being under the current egalitarian dispensation would wish to have contemporary compositional variety (however skeined, stained, or—even—strained) diminished by fiat, mob rule, or verbal terrorism.10

But the rejection, this time, had been performed not by “the people,” or by journalists or concert managers or recording executives, but by the writers of tomorrow's music.


(1) Robert S. Hines, “William Schuman Interview,” College Music Symposium XXXV (1995): 138.

(2) Nigel Osborne, Introduction (“Editorial”) to Musical Thought at IRCAM, Contemporary Music Review I, part 1 (1984): i.

(3) Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music (New York: Schirmer, 1988), p. 45.

(4) Cole Gagne, Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993), p. 516.

(5) Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Schirmer, 1997), p. 274.

(6) David Gates, “Up From Minimalism,” Newsweek, 1 November 1999, p. 84.

(7) Remark made at a press conference at the Hotel Atlantic, Hamburg, on 16 September 2001 (original German as reported in the Hamburg newpaper Die Zeit on 18 September: “das großte Kunstwerk, das es je gegeben hat”).

(8) Hans Werner Henze, Music and Politics: Collected Writings 1953–81, trans. Peter Labanyi (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 39.

(9) David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (1st ed.; London: Eulenburg Books), 1983.

(10) Milton Babbitt, “The More Than the Sounds of Music,” in Horizons ’84: The New Romanticism—A Broader View (New York Philharmonic souvenir program, June 1984), pp. 11–12.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Mar. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Mar. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-010.xml