Over at Dial “M,” Phil picks up the coveted “Getting Dissed by Robert Christgau” Webelos pin. I’m hot and cold on “I was there, man” testimony—a valuable source of emotional evidence, but usually insufferable as an argument-killer. As an adolescent of the 80s, I find it especially eye-rolling coming from representatives of the 60s: you’re patronizing me on behalf of a cohort that ended up contributing to a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan? I’ll let you know when I start to envy that intellectual journey.
The thing is, I’m fascinated by the upheavals of the 60s, but more as a window into the human capacity for optimistic folly rather than a narrative of youthful triumph. (One could argue that the revolutionaries of the 60s might have made more of a lasting impact if they had considered the history of their 19th-century predecessors as the rueful comedy it was rather than the heroic tragedy they wanted it to be.) And one particular aspect of the 60s has really jazzed me ever since I first read one of my favorite “popular” histories, David Halberstam’s deceptively breezy survey The Fifties. Halberstam’s argument was that much, if not all, of the intellectual cast of the 60s actually began percolating in that previous decade. The caricature of the 60s is that the revolutionary movement was forged in the crucible of the Vietnam War, but what if the war was merely the peg around which all of those already existing currents coalesced? The intellectual tail wagging the historical dog, as it were? Unwittingly, perhaps—although anyone who knew their Lenin would have seen the parallel with his seizure of the Great War’s opportunity.
I was thinking about this yesterday, after the following question popped into my head: when did the idea of composing tonal music as an act of rebellion first originate? I’ve had a vague sense of this trope resurfacing in the past few weeks, the attitude that writing triadic “classical” music is somehow sticking it to the atonal/academic man. I’ve never subscribed to that motivation, although I have sympathy for it—an awful lot of my favorite composers wrote great music because they had something to prove. But what’s interesting to me is that such a stance almost certainly developed in the 1960s; it was only then that atonality would have acquired anywhere near the institutional and establishment credentials to make it worth rebelling against.
My gut reaction would be that it originated with the minimalists, but that seems too easy, especially in light of the genre’s 1950s precursors (Young, Nancarrow, Partch, Cage, &c., and yes, to use Phil’s term, I’m lumping and not splitting, but my sense is that the minimalist movement drew energy and inspiration from all those exemplars)—those composers were far more interested in forging independent paths than confronting the status quo head-on. It’s also important to remember that plenty of establishment composers continued on writing tonal music as atonality took root in America—Barber, Shapero, Ward, to name a few—perhaps the more radically experimental aspects of minimalism lent the accompanying tonality revolutionary credentials. Or again, maybe it was just a historical opportunity, that anything novel in the late 60s could easily claim the countercultural mantle, that it wasn’t a motivation at all, but just a post hoc political-historical framework for music that was going to be created anyway.
Just to be clear, I don’t know which, if any, of those scenarios might be more or less likely—this is something that’s taken up residence on my research-to-do list, and for now, I’m just spouting impressions off the top of my head, because, well, I’m a blogger, and we do have a certain irresponsible reputation to maintain, don’t we? But I'm going to start that research not with the minimalists, but with another, early signpost of bad-boy tonality—Leonard Bernstein's October 24, 1965 rhymed New York Times justification for the composition of Chichester Psalms, as he put it, "Certain to sicken a stout John Cager/With its tonics and triads in E-flat major." Sicken? Probably not. But, of course, that was an integral part of Bernstein's artistic personality: considering everything he did to be some sort of radical break with something. In the process, Bernstein pushed the origin of "the 60s" back even further; it was 1967 when he pronounced that Mahler's time had, indeed, come. The 60s did have their origin in the 50s—the 1850s. (Give or take a couple of decades.) Nobody left to make an "I was there" objection to that theory.