Uneventful Music in Eventful Times


When we refer to ‘classical’ music without geographical qualification, we mean a music that is European and mediaeval in origin. Classical music in America, as in other European colonies, was necessarily a late starter.
The basis for professional classical composition in the USA was provided by New Englanders who studied in Europe and returned to impart what they had learned: Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Horatio Parker (1863-1919). Of the same generation as these ‘highbrow’ composers was Scott Joplin (1867/8-1917), a working-class African-American from Texas. He composed two classical operas that were unperformed in his lifetime, but gained fame as the master of Ragtime, a syncopated dance genre of African origin. A predecessor was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) from New Orleans, of English Jewish and Haitian background. He made a career as a concert pianist in European salons playing such compositions as Le banjo and Bamboula. uniquely synthesising Creole elements with Lisztian bravura.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mixtur|für Orchester, Sinusgeneratoren und Ringmodulatoren|Nr. 16 1/2|kleine Besetzung (1964). Musical score, extract from ‘Tutti’ section. © 1968 by Universal Edition A.G., Wien/UE 36060 (www.universaledition.com).
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mixtur|für Orchester, Sinusgeneratoren und Ringmodulatoren|Nr. 16 1/2|kleine Besetzung (1964). Musical score, extract from ‘Tutti’ section. © 1968 by Universal Edition A.G., Wien/UE 36060 (www.universaledition.com).

Musical modernism in early 20th century Europe was partly a reaction against a venerable tradition to which it nonetheless belonged; this clearly did not apply in the USA. Charles Ives (1874-1954), the son of a New England bandleader of liberal-to-anarchic views, secured the liberty to compose as he saw fit by becoming a successful insurance executive rather than a professional musician. At ease within a variety of musical traditions, Ives developed a musical space and time that would enable their free combination and juxtaposition. This freedom and absence of hierarchy would justify the application of the term ‘experimental’ to most of Ives’s work, and to that of an entire (counter-)tradition of subsequent US composers. Ives saw himself as a Transcendentalist, in the tradition of the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). This doctrine of self-reliance beyond the corrupting norms of society, while seeming quintessentially American, had its origins in German idealism seen through the prism of British romanticism.
In 1908, the year that the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1952) broke with tonality (the key system on which Western music had been based since the 18th century) in his String Quartet No. 2, Ives composed The Unanswered Question, a short work anticipating much of the future history of advanced western music. Its three layers – a short questioning phrase repeated by solo trumpet, agitated atonal responses in woodwind, and slow tonal / modal successions of chords in the off-stage strings – are neither reconciled nor dramatically counterpointed. In its companion-piece Central Park in The Dark, static, atonal ruminations are unceremoniously interrupted by an explosive collage of ‘popular’ musical elements.
The experimental strand in American music was continued by, among others, Carl Ruggles (1876-1971), John J. Becker (1886-1961), Henry Cowell (1897-1965), George Antheil (1900-1959), and Harry Partch (1901-1974).
The title Soundpieces, adopted by Becker for a number of his works, says something about the approach to music shared by these very different composers – a concern with sound prior to expressivity or formal elaboration. Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), scored for pianos, pianolas, airplane propellers, sirens, and a wide range of percussion instruments, was a succès de scandale in Paris in 1926. Its failure the following year in New York seems to have influenced the composer’s turn to a more traditional style in later works. Cowell was one of the first composers to work with percussion ensembles; he expanded piano technique by using clusters (anticipated by Ives and Leo Ornstein) and direct intervention on the strings (The Tides of Manaunaun, Tiger, Aeolian Harp).1 The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók politely asked Cowell’s permission to use clusters in a number of his most radical works composed in the late 1920s.2
Partch was in many ways the most uncompromising experimentalist, and the only one to proclaim his total rejection of European models (although Greek scales and ancient Greek drama remained important to him). He devised his own systems of notation and tuning, and invented musical instruments such as the Chromelodeon and Quadrangularus Reversum, thus ensuring with characteristically American stubbornness that performances of his work would be few and far between.3

Also belonging to this experimental tradition was Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), who emigrated from France to the USA in 1915. Varèse defined music as ‘organised noise’, juxtaposing blocks of sound with a forceful rhythmic thrust but without traditional development; his 1930 Ionisation was the first work for percussion ensemble, while later pieces employed both electronic instruments and tape. Through the advocacy of Frank Zappa, Varèse acquired a somewhat improbable link to popular music.4

No account of 20th century American music is complete without reference to the teaching of Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). While her own preferences were neo-classical, the dozens of American composers who studied with her in Paris, from Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) via Aaron Copland (1900-1990) to Philip Glass (b.1937) and Elliot Carter (1908-2011) chose an eclectic range of creative paths. Just how eclectic is demonstrated by the latter two: Glass became the master of white-note music based on turning typical accompaniment figurations into the entire musical discourse, while Carter veered from neo-classicism to a complex, wholly independent atonal style often involving the superimposition of different speeds.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) was rejected as a pupil by Boulanger, Ravel, and Schoenberg, on the grounds that he had nothing to learn from them. The composer of Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Piano Concerto (1925) and An American in Paris (1928) achieved an effortless synthesis of jazz and classical elements that no European composer could match. Stravinsky feared that his own efforts in that direction would be viewed by Americans as ‘very alien corn’.5

In 1933 Henry Cowell nominated Arnold Schoenberg as ‘most likely candidate for the post of the world’s most significant composer’, and advised John Cage (1912-1992) to study with him.6 Schoenberg’s somewhat baffled assessment of Cage was that ‘he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor – of genius!’, precisely the kind of pedantic dichotomy that was irrelevant to American composers.7

Although Cage never lost a certain reverence for the austere Austrian, a decade later he discovered a more congenial European predecessor in Eric Satie (1866-1925) who was, according to Daniel Albright, an ‘expert in rejection. . . [whose] whole career is a gran rifiuto of all that is grand. Satie cast a cold eye on impressionism, on expressionism, on most of the vibrant movements of the age.’8

In 1883 Satie composed his Gymnopédies. This might be described as music ‘in which nothing happens three times’, to paraphrase Vivian Mercier on Beckett’s Godot. Each of the three pieces, written almost entirely on the white notes, consists of a slow melody over a simple chordal accompaniment; each follows the same pattern, without climax or subsidence. In his 1917 ballet Parade, a collaboration with Cocteau and Picasso, a great deal happens – but to no purpose of a traditional nature; the various episodes are simply set down one after the other, employing such ‘extra-musical’ sounds as gun-shots, factory whistles and typewriters, and the piece ends abruptly. In 1917-18 came Socrate, a 30’ ‘symphonic drama in three parts’ for soprano(s) and small orchestra in which extracts from Plato’s dialogues about the last days of Socrates, culminating in his suicide, are recounted in a manner neither symphonic nor dramatic.

In 1944 Cage arranged the first section of this work for two pianos; in 1969 he composed Cheap Imitation, a dance piece based on the rhythms of Socrate and deriving its pitches from the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes). In 1963 Cage also arranged an 18-hour performance of the 1893 keyboard piece Vexations of which Satie wrote: ‘In order to play this motif 840 times, it would be good to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the greatest silence, by means of serious immobilities.’ Cage clearly identified with the French composer’s indifference to development, form, dramatic contrast and expression, and his lack of reverence for Western traditions. Satie, who described himself as a ‘phonometrician’, was a European ‘experimental’ composer before the term had come into musical use on either side of the Atlantic.

In 1949 Cage met the French composer Pierre Boulez and the two formed an unlikely friendship. In due course both Boulez (Piano Sonata III) and Stockhausen (Klavierstück XI) were inspired by Cage to incorporate aleatoric (involving chance and choice) elements into their music. However, each saw fit to ‘Europeanise’ these innovations by devising elaborate rules to integrate them into their music’s mathematical rigour. Cage participated in the Darmstadt Courses (a seminal institution of the European avant-garde) in 1958, at which he lectured on Composition as Process and Indeterminacy; in turn, Stockhausen lectured on Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra there in 1959. By the 1960s, the flow of influence was crossing the Atlantic in both directions: American experimentalists like Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown were having a major impact on European composers, and Minimalism announced itself via Terry Riley and Steve Reich.


Here, according to a celebrated 1998 article by the American composer and author Kyle Gann, is a different perspective on this ‘flow of influence’:

It is difficult to remember at this point that, prior to World War II, America had a thriving compositional community with its own distinctly non-European aesthetic, spearheaded by Henry Cowell, John Becker, Carl Ruggles, George Antheil. As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, composers like Schoenberg, Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Krenek, and Weill made a bee-line to America, along with hundreds of lesser-known musical emigrés. The burgeoning American scene was forced underground by the avalanche of famous Europeans, and the post-war era from 1946 to 1960 was a period of intense absorption of continental aesthetics. Composers like Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions became more European than the Europeans, and insisted that great American music could only be a continuation of the European tradition – primarily, the 12-tone tradition.9

These composers gained ‘a vice-like grip on the sources and venues of new-music funding and performance’. In particular, they cornered the market in big lucrative prizes: ‘The Pulitzer and Grauwemeyer (sic) define an extremely narrow slice of the current new-music spectrum. Excluded from that slice are minimalism, postminimalism, totalism, conceptualism, free jazz, improvisation, computer music, performance art, DJ collage, and most other trends in current music.’

Edgar Varèse, Iannis Xenakis and Le Corbusier: Poéme Electronique (1958). Brochure for the Philip’s Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair 1958. Thin-shelled concrete and asbestos structure, synchronised electronic recordings, projected lights and film.
Edgar Varèse, Iannis Xenakis and Le Corbusier: Poéme Electronique (1958). Brochure for the Philip’s Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair 1958. Thin-shelled concrete and asbestos structure, synchronised electronic recordings, projected lights and film.

Undoubtedly Gann pinpointed an injustice in the distribution of awards and funding, which at that time tended to be reserved for a specific aesthetic which he describes as follows:

Uptown composers. . . believed in notated music of considerable complexity. . . If they weren’t writing intricate serialist-style structures, they were writing splashy orchestral scores full of big brass climaxes and tensely competing sonorities. The argument they cultivated was that between Stravinsky and Schoenberg, or between neoclassicism and 12-tone music, or between a highly impersonal contrapuntal tonality and an increasingly fragmented form of atonality.

Of course the phenomenon of a stereotyped ‘prizewinning music’ (or literature or visual art) is a perennial one, not confined to the USA. The Nobel Prize for literature, like that for peace, only exceptionally goes to genuinely anti-establishment figures. However, Gann overstated his case dramatically, positing a nativism that is almost racial. His ‘Downtown’ composers, themselves of white European background, ‘distance [themselves] from traditional forms. . . in order to escape the influence of past and inevitably foreign personalities.’

In order to construct this narrative, Gann has to resort to considerable exaggeration bordering on falsification. He refers to ‘American composers who had insisted on independence from Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s – Henry Cowell, George Antheil, Leo Ornstein, Carl Ruggles’ who ‘fell into serious decline as the neo-Europeans took over.’ Of these composers, Ornstein (1893-2002[!]) was born in Ukraine and appears to have chosen his idiosyncratic path independently of any ‘takeover’ by fellow Europeans. Antheil composed his most radical works in Europe under the influence of Dada, a European movement, becoming relatively conservative after his return to the USA. Ruggles changed his first name from Charles to Carl because of his admiration for German composers. His most characteristic works could easily fit ‘between a highly impersonal contrapuntal tonality and an increasingly fragmented form of atonality’, in Gann’s phrase. As for the Irish-American Henry Cowell, the ‘serious decline’ of his career would appear to have been due less to a putative neo-European takeover than to his 1936 arrest and imprisonment for four years on a largely trumped up ‘morals’ charge.10

In 1998 Gann concluded that ‘the experimental tradition. . . cannot be repressed forever. Like a field of intransigent daisies, it is breaking up through the concrete of the Euro-classical establishment.’ The really good news was that ‘the Uptown good old boys are ageing, power is slipping from their hands.’ This is the same vengeful message that the composer Tom Johnson conveyed in a speech delivered at the November 2012 Béal Festival in Dublin: the Uptown composers used to get all the funds, but we fought back, power changed hands, and we ended up with all the loot! Neither Gann nor Johnson seems to recognise that the ‘power’ in question is ultimately not in the hands of composers but in those of the state and/or its constituent corporations. Of course composers may become its instruments, beneficiaries, and victims, a state of affairs likely to continue as long as we live in a society ruled by the profit principle.

In a Personal Commentary On American and European Cultural Funding in 2004, the American composer William Osborne maintained that ‘the rise of neo-liberalism as a cultural paradigm’ in the USA ‘would suggest that cultural expression that doesn’t fit in the marketplace doesn’t belong at all. For the arts, the alternative has been to maintain a relatively marginalized existence supported by gifts from corporations, foundations and the wealthy.’ He opposes this ‘to the tradition of large public cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.’11
Narrating the development of crossover in the USA via the influential ensemble Bang on a Can All Stars (Bang on a Can is an organisation described by the San Francisco Chronicle as America’s ‘most important vehicle for contemporary music’), Osborne claimed that ‘Europeans rejected most attempts in their own societies to merge commercial and classical music. Their cultures are not dominated by the mass media as in America, and they do not have the same innate relationship to pop… And above all, they continued to view forms of culture associated with the American mass media and corporatism as hegemonistic. . .’

This was written at a time when Osborne thought he could diagnose ‘the increasing political division of Europe and America’. This was premature, as with the bust of the boom that was then in progress the two limping superpowers began to huddle together for warmth, a process that has subsequently led to the EU becoming little more than an appendage of the USA. Recently the Irish Minister for Culture has been ominously promoting an enhanced role for ‘philanthropy’ as a panacea for relieving his government of the burden of arts funding, in accordance with his former colleague Mary Harney’s dictum that ‘spiritually we are… closer to Boston than Berlin. . .’12

The rejection of attempts ‘to merge commercial and classical music’ is also a thing of the past. Perhaps, however, Osborne oversimplifies matters by seeing crossover itself, rather than some of its manifestations, as regressive. The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno suggested that the culture industry, ultimately the target of Osborne’s polemic, ‘forces together the spheres of high and low art, separated for thousands of years, to the detriment of both. The seriousness of high art is destroyed in speculation about its efficacy; that of the lower perishes with the civilizational constraints imposed on the rebellious resistance inherent within it as long as social control was not yet total.’13 The terms ‘high/low’ are no longer acceptable, but the critique of what we now call crossover remains suggestive.


The notion of ‘stasis’ entered Western music a decade before Satie’s Gymnopédies when, in Parsifal, Richard Wagner had Gurnemanz intone the famous words ‘here time becomes space’. Close to death, when he had belatedly resolved to devote himself henceforth to symphonic music, Wagner told Liszt that ‘[w]hen we write symphonies. . . the one thing we must avoid is thematic contrast. . . but must spin a melodic thread until it has spun itself out. But above all no drama.’14

The prohibition of drama and the transformation of time into space, of dynamism into stasis, would become dogmas, spoken or unspoken, of experimental music and Minimalism, including European ‘holy’ Minimalism. It has now, I believe, become the dominant trend of contemporary classical music. Probably anyone who has recently been involved in adjudication (of competitions or open submission concerts) will be able to confirm the preponderance of works imprisoned in the premises I am outlining here: ranging from chirpy US-style minimalism, either on the white notes or bearing key signatures, to po-faced European irony with a measure of crossover and meaningless but knowing monosyllabic titles.

Morton Feldman: New Directions in Music 2 (1959). Vinyl LP cover. Columbia Records (Columbia Masterworks). Cover image: Philip Guston: Head – Double View (1958 sic). Ink on paper.
Morton Feldman: New Directions in Music 2 (1959). Vinyl LP cover. Columbia Records (Columbia Masterworks). Cover image: Philip Guston: Head – Double View (1958 sic). Ink on paper.

Of course stasis is a condition that can only be metaphorically attributed to music. A train stopped in a station is static, but as soon as it moves this ceases to be the case. The notion of musical stasis arose as a reaction against ‘development’, a concept essential to the evolution of Sonata form in the second half of the 18th century whereby two contrasting ‘subjects’ are exposed, developed by means of dramatic interplay, and recapitulated. This became linked to the dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis attributed to Hegel, and thence to a concept of history as teleology: the overcoming of contradictions to arrive at a new condition of society.

Many early modernist works evoked stasis by avoiding contrast and development and by shunning such climaxes as arise from the friction of contrasts. A few examples: Debussy’s prelude Voiles (but not its pentatonic central section), many of Scriabin’s late piano pieces, the third of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces. Stasis, however, was but one dimension of these composers’ styles. It was only when modernism gave way to postmodernism that musical language purported to become wholly static. Here Satie was the precursor, as Cage clearly recognised. However, given the preponderance in his era of a discourse of historical evolution and progress, Satie’s formal insouciance had a radical dimension. Like no subsequent composer, he was revolutionary and postmodernist all at once (and described himself as a Bolshevik!).

Postmodernism was defined in 1979 by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’.15 Such metanarratives include universals of any kind, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment, Marxism, or indeed any linkage of events within the horizon of a telos, an aim or meaning. In the case of music, this might mean a rejection of any over-arching system such as tonality or atonality. It might view musical history as a pile of aural debris from which we can extract and re-combine anything we wish in any way we desire. The American musicologist Susan McClary, writing of the multi-genre composer John Zorn, has referred to ‘hellzapoppin’ nihilism, revelling in the rubble of Western civilization.’16 The same phrase could just as well be applied to certain works by Satie, composed at a time when such rubble was still invested with a powerful aura that rendered the revels genuinely subversive.

In the case of postmodernist contemporary music, the transformation of time into space often entails an analogy with the static art of painting. The American critic Art Lange writes of Morton Feldman that ‘[t]he painted canvas. . . is its own metaphor; so is the poem on the printed page. To find metaphors for music. . . we use other arts. Feldman himself chose painting. . .’ Feldman’s ‘method of scoring, listening, and adjusting is similar to that of Piet Mondrian. . .’ Feldman may have composed nothing ‘flatter’ than Violin & String Quartet ‘in the sense of the abstract flatness, the lack of perspective and depth, the rigorous attitude, that Clement Greenberg found so desirous (sic) in Abstract Expressionist paintings. . .’ Significantly, Lange concedes that ‘[t]his may be . . . an illusion, but one rooted in the same rejection of multi-dimensionality that Mondrian spoke of. . .’17 (Perhaps Feldman needs to be rescued from Lange: particularly in his final phase, he was a far more complex and interesting composer than this painterly reductionism – and indeed Feldman’s own writings – would suggest.)

George Antheil: Ballet Méchanique (1924), Artcraft reconstruction of original pianola version (1991). Section of pianola roll (Roll III). Image courtesy of L. Douglas Henderson.
George Antheil: Ballet Méchanique (1924), Artcraft reconstruction of original pianola version (1991). Section of pianola roll (Roll III). Image courtesy of L. Douglas Henderson.

Such notions quickly crossed the Atlantic. Referring in Lange-like terms to the music of Gerald Barry, Vincent Deane claimed he was ‘always intensely antipathetic to the illusion of depth and perspective that typified much of the New Music of the last few decades. . .’18 Again referring to Barry, the critic Ivan Hewett suggested that ‘[f]rom Stockhausen he took the idea that music instead of being divided neatly into foreground and background, theme and accompaniment, could all be foreground’, which involves ‘ignoring most of the craft of music, which is precisely to do with things like. . . the setting up of a neat hierarchy of foreground and background.’19 Kevin Volans added that ‘[t]he music is non-developmental, there is no climax, no pivotal point, no resolution, no dialectic.’20

But are ‘depth and perspective’ in music necessarily an illusion? While in painting perspective is indeed a kind of trick, in music this is not the case: separate planes may be embodied, not simulated, by separate voices and dynamic levels. Hewett’s ‘neat hierarchy’ is no characterisation of musical polyphony, which entails genuine multi-dimensionality: there is no foreground or background in a fugue, or if there is, it is a purely temporary relationship that may be dissolved and reconstituted in the course of the musical (dialectical) argument. One might even suggest that the deployment of timbrally diverse instruments and/or voices in a homogeneous manner is itself illusionistic – and why not? Art and illusion are bedfellows.

The exclusion of depth, perspective, dialectic and multi-dimensionality is entirely a product of will and style rather than principle, although it is not free from ideology. There can be no objection to composers engaging in such speculations and making such choices, but problems arise when inclination becomes hegemony and ‘abstract flatness. . . lack of perspective and depth’ become mandatory, with accompanying prohibitions. If the revelling in rubble precludes these dimensions, then the resultant equilibrium neutralises multiplicity into homogeneity.
Postmodernist music, whether American or European, excludes confrontation, disruption, interruption, catastrophe – in short, as Wagner instructed, drama. This music is predictable because although we don’t always know what to expect, we certainly know what not to expect – an event. Regardless of the velocity of this music – and much of the Bang on a Can repertoire is notoriously brisk – its uneventful character renders it static.

An event is defined by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek variously as ‘the effect that seems to exceed its causes’, ‘an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons’, ‘the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme’, and, most radically, ‘a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it.’21

A work like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) is extended, colourful, variegated, and strongly cumulative – but once it has set out its premises there are no fundamental changes throughout its considerable duration that ‘undermine [its] stable scheme’ or ‘change. . . the very frame’ through which we engage with it. This is busy but uneventful music, and as such is ideally suited to a postmodern age that has supposedly put history behind it. But if history is over, as Francis Fukuyama famously maintained (in the process denying the eventual reality of any number of social and political upheavals), what we have is the status quo – neo-liberal capitalism; which is where we rejoin William Osborne’s analysis.22


In 2012 Kyle Gann looked back on his earlier article and rejoiced in the rout of the Uptown ‘old boys’. He defined this triumph as a liberation from rules and prohibitions:

The more trained a composer is, the more prohibitions he (sic) tends to carry around in his (sic) head. . . It is sad when an artist becomes an artist by internalizing a long list of prohibitions. . . Every composition becomes a chain of evasions, an ungenerous process of withholding from the listener anything he (sic) might naturally expect, an embarrassment about anything too easily understood.23

But surely this works both ways. What happens when the composer is trained to carry around a long list of prohibitions against depth, perspective, dialectic, drama, multi-dimensionality, and indeed the use of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, apparently deemed too suggestive of potential tensions for the not-so-brave new world of white-note music? Is Downtown music not itself ‘a chain of evasions’, ungenerously embarrassed about anything not too easily understood? And does this generous catering to the supposed expectations of the listener really do justice to the tradition of radicalism invoked by Gann, and sketched in the first part of this essay? How often in concert programmes on either side of the Atlantic will we find music by the likes of Ives, Ruggles and Cowell, not to mention Becker and Ornstein?

Bang on a Can Festival: 12 Hours of New Music (1987). Poster. Image courtesy of Papo Colo.
Bang on a Can Festival: 12 Hours of New Music (1987). Poster. Image courtesy of Papo Colo.

Perhaps the disappearance one by one of the giants of the European avant-garde – Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio, Xenakis, Kagel, Grisey, Lutoslawski – has left the old continent feeling disinherited and uncritically receptive to an aesthetic that defines itself precisely in opposition to those composers, and in the name of egalitarianism excludes what was radical and exciting in their work alongside what may have been academic and exclusive. It is a sign of the times that March 2015’s ‘New Music Dublin’ festival has been renamed ‘David Lang’s Festival of Music’, its curator being the composer of that name who co-founded Bang On A Can. While there is some ambiguity as to whether Bang On A Can is ‘really’ Downtown, Lang contextualises it thus in the video explaining ‘his thoughts behind the programming of the festival’.23 When in 2002 John Schaefer of WYNC Radio in New York, a tireless advocate of Downtown music, visited Dublin he complained that too much music was of a kind ‘prevalent in European universities in the 1960s’, but concluded that there were ‘some lone voices in the wilderness’ and that ‘the Irish musical scene as a whole is still fermenting’.24 That process would seem to have matured, turning Dublin into a corner of downtown New York.

Meanwhile, in a country in which most of the radical European 20th century operas have yet to be staged (Wozzeck, Lulu, Moses und Aron, Die Soldaten, etc.), and in which numerous contemporary Irish operas still await staging, we have recently been treated to André Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Kevin Puts’s Silent Night. These neo-romantic American operas are highly ‘European’ in the most traditional sense. They are full-blown pastiche, adopting the harmonic structure and temporality of European late-romantic music. There are ‘events’ in this music, but they are always already familiar ones, hence accessible to us according to the conventional model of accessibility.

Heggie and Puts, incidentally, are Pulitzer prizewinners and John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer-prizewinning status is advertised in the programme for David Lang’s Festival of Music. John Adams (the one without the ‘Luther’) and Steve Reich have both won the Pulitzer, so while that prize continues to ‘define an extremely narrow slice of the current new-music spectrum’ (Gann), it would appear that downtown and neo-European composers are now comfortably sharing that slice.

At a time when our politicians are telling us that ‘there is no alternative’ to the monetisation of every aspect of existence, it is significant that this Americanisation of our musical life is taking on such proportions. However, it is important not merely to invert Gann’s terms and rail against ‘the influence of. . . inevitably foreign personalities’, in this case meaning US-Americans. Downtown music needs to be heard and absorbed just as do all the many other strands that make up the fabric of contemporary music. I have personally chosen for performance, and indeed sometimes myself perform, music that I would categorise as ‘uneventful’, and indeed I am fond of much of it. My critique is directed against a deepening cultural and ideological hegemony, not against individual composers.
Nor am I proposing an oversimplified answer to Fredric Jameson’s question ‘whether, if you prefer modernism, it is conceivable, let alone possible, to go back to the modern as such, after its dissolution into full postmodernity.’25 What I am suggesting is that Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ should also be extended towards those of postmodernism. Are there possible points of escape from the postmodern prison-house? Certainly not if we are unaware that we are imprisoned in the first place; still less so if we believe our imprisonment is already a liberation.

If we look at the world in the second decade of this millennium, at the massacres perpetrated by the USA and Israel, by high-school kids in the USA and by Anders Breivik in Norway, by Boko Haram and the Islamic State, at the occupations, strikes and demonstrations staged worldwide by the deprived 99%, at the natural disasters and epidemics that seem linked to dominant economic policies, and see in all this no events with the potential to change the world for good or ill, then we are truly blinded by ideology. If the music that we compose within such a world insists on maintaining a flat surface, a neutral equilibrium that leaves no room for disruption, catastrophe, even annihilation or perhaps (whisper it) emancipation, then we may well be accused of banging on a can while the world burns.