The Years of Innovation Pass On January 5, 1976

Only a few years ago the cult of the new was still in full swing, and not only among young radicals, but among older composers as well. No place was that more clear than in the written scores, almost every one of which employed newly invented notation techniques. In many cases the necessary information could have been expressed in more conventional ways, but the bizarre symbols and graphic techniques gave the music an adventurous look and appealed to everyone’s affinity for the far out.

But the substance of the music also had a lot to do with novelty. The no-holds-barred atmosphere around avant-garde jazz circles became the main statement of the music. Many other composers took their new freedom and used it to imitate music from other cultures. Others took it to junkyards to discover brand new wind and percussion instruments. Others went in a theatrical direction and looked for page-turning machines, or cueing devices, or ways of decorating trombones, or novel positions for playing the cello. ‘Complexity’ became the most hallowed term among post-Webern composers, and the main goal among them was to write music which was more complex than any other, hopefully in some new way. Others explored the endless methods of composing by chance. Others worked on rediscovering the human voice and making it sing strange sounds. Others talked a lot about ‘expanding the vocabulary’ of various instruments, and sought novel sounds inside the piano, as well as with countless new techniques for wind and stringed instruments. Often these new sounds were not very appealing, but they were innovative. That was what avant-garde audiences wanted, and the critics too generally felt obliged to give extra points when confronted with an obvious degree of originality.

Meanwhile, for those with a technological bent, there were multi-media events to be organized and synthesizers to be built. Every year new electronic devices became available, and it was not hard to find new ways of soldering them together. Even without knowing anything about electronics, one could easily take a few tape recorders and figure out some way to hook them together that had not been done before. And for those who came along too late to do one of the first multi-media pieces or build one of the first synthesizers, it was still possible to be innovative by doing the biggest multi-media piece or building the biggest synthesizer. And if bigness didn’t appeal, one could always go the other direction and be equally revolutionary with smallness, which is sort of how minimalism got going.

Minimalism was loaded with angles. One could simply write softer music than anybody else. Or one could try to write the most repetitive music that had ever been written. Or one could simply sustain drone tones longer than they had ever been sustained before. Or one could pick up where Satie’s 25-hour-long ‘Vexations’ had left off and try to write the longest piece anyone had ever heard of.

Or one could be really revolutionary, give up the traditional compositional crafts altogether, and join the growing forces of concept art. This saved a lot of time, too, because all one had to do was write down a clever brief phrase like ‘Listen to the snow fall,’ give it a title, claim it was a piece of music, send it to some underground publication, and wait for everyone to notice how original the composer was.

Of course, you had to be careful about this sort of thing. If you went too far too glibly, people would figure you were some kind of nut and wouldn’t take you seriously. And if you went a little further, then even the other novelty-seeking artists might not take you seriously, and you might blow the whole thing. But in general, anyone who kept up fairly well with the latest innovations could find something in one area or another which would seem worth doing, but hadn’t been done yet.

Of course, all these innovations had earlier roots, sometimes as far back as the ’20s, but it was the ’60s and the very early ’70s when the big push was on, and it was an exciting time. I enjoyed living through the period as much as anyone, and even a year or two ago, I could never have written about this quest for originality with the almost satiric tone that I find myself using now. But things have changed, mere newness is no longer so important, and it seems more appropriate to simply bid a light-hearted adieu to this delightful era of novelty and innovation than to write any mournful obituaries.

Meanwhile, as I sit at my desk rereading this article and wondering how to end it, I can see that many of the ideas I’ve been presenting here have also been stated before in one way or the other. But it doesn’t bother me. For critics too, originality just isn’t the major criterion anymore.