Contemporary composers blossom late

Among the 20- to 25-year olds, the ones who initially produce the most
professional-sounding music will often be the least original – their
technical polish may be evidence more of a mimetic ability than an
original vision. The more “out there” a composer’s personal vision is,
the more awkward his or her early works will probably sound, and the
longer it will take his or her compositional language to crystallize
into something eloquent and communicative.

The early idioms of many composers testify to this. For instance,
Nancarrow didn’t discover his instrument until age 36, and took another
8 or 10 years to master it. Partch, having an even wider range of
unconventional elements to integrate, was nearly 50 when his style
started to feel compelling. Varése wrote romantic music that he later
abandoned, and struggled to bring his style into focus at just shy of
40. Feldman’s music seemed like a cute adjunct to Cage’s philosophy
until his ambitions suddenly blossomed at age 44. Elliott Carter wrote
an undistinguished neoclassicism into his 40s, and didn’t find what we
recognize as a Carterian idiom until age 43. Rzewski wrote some
charming minimalist works in his early 30s, but didn’t create his own
style until he was 37, with The People United. Robert Ashley was involved in the avant-garde all along, but didn’t begin to stand out until he wrote Perfect Lives at 48. Giacinto Scelsi was 54 when he found what he had been looking for in his 4 pezzi su una nota sola.

Here are my previous posts on age and achievement.


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