The Generalization Generation

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Every few months, it seems like another eminent composer expresses dismay about what young composers are doing today. I am already a little nostalgic for 2013, when John Adams accused younger composers of “writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.” Recently, Kevin Volans was the latest to jump into this one-sided intergenerational fray, asserting that “the standard of composition in the 21st century amongst the young is far lower than that of the 20th century.” But they are by no means the only proponents of this viewpoint. I can detect hints of this attitude in a few recent articles here at NewMusicBox, for example. The symptoms vary somewhat, but the diagnosis seems to be the same: things just aren’t what they used to be.

Where does this attitude come from? If so many seasoned composers feel this way, could there be something to it? I’d argue that what we actually have is a generational bias against young composers that is consistent across aesthetic boundaries and preferences. I’d like to talk about this phenomenon as a whole, speculate about some possible causes of it, and describe how this attitude hurts everyone in new music, not just young composers.


Not everything in Volans’s speech is completely execrable, and he has some thoughts worth considering about presentation, education, and what happens to composers when they turn 40. But it’s largely poisoned by this contempt for young composers. The thing that makes this kind of contemptuous perspective so seductively persuasive is, paradoxically, the thing that makes it impossible to prove or disprove. One thing all the arguments about young composers have in common is that their authors are careful not to name any specific examples of the mediocrity they see all around them. Part of this is likely due to civility, but it also makes their arguments conveniently elusive. Literally everyone can conjure up examples of mediocre musical experiences they’ve had, and it doesn’t even matter if they’re thinking of the same examples—the point is already proven, or rather, the bias is already confirmed.