Sonic Youth

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Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 is a classical composer.

He has many accolades, such as the ASCAP Young Composer Award. He has received fellowships to the Bowdoin International Music Festival and the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. His compositions have been performed at the Green Room in San Francisco, Lincoln Center in New York, and in cities across the globe.

But he wants something more. He wants to put on shows he describes as “popular.”

“I want to put my music in a show and have the audience totally excited and surrounded,” Feigenbaum said. “I want performances of my music to be like Cirque du Soleil or the Blue Man Group, but instead of being about dance or drumming, be about classical music.”

But isn’t classical music old men sitting around, sipping their scotch and listening to Bach – NOT collegiate 20-somethings at a rave that happens to include violin? What about classical music makes it “classical”?

Classical music used to be pop(ular) music.


Get in your tiniest nutshell and take out something to write with.

The Greeks had the world’s first one-name wonder – like Cher and Prince, but more old and blind. His name was Homer. The Romans had Latin textbooks and not much else. When the barbarians arrived, almost all music from before 476 was lost. That is what happens when you write your music on toenail clippings and leaves.

As the monks were waiting for someone to come plow them out of the last snowstorm, Pope Gregory invented Gregorian Chant. It made for great church services, but was terrible for frat parties because you couldn’t dance to it no matter how hard you tried.

In the 1200s, some dudes at Notre Dame figured out how to make a mash-up — by writing melodic lines around old chants — and thereby invented harmony. They were so good that someone bothered to record their names: Perotin, Leonin, Melanin.

But the first real rockstar was Guillaume de Machaut, who wrote music with discernible, unifying rhythmic motifs. According to the venerable Wikipedia, one of Machaut’s pieces is called “Bone Pastor/Bone Pastor/Bone Pastor.” This is also the name of my Brooklyn-based noise-band.

The Renaissance was an exciting time for a lot of people because they got to play the sackbut, and because they got to say things like “infrastructure” and “printing press” and “sackbut.” Composers like Josquin won fame all-around for sacred and secular masterpieces.

Support for music started shifting in the Baroque from the church to individual wealthy patrons. The Baroque also saw a new wave of comic operas written in the vernacular that threatened to drive established old-timers like Handel out of business.

The Viennese Classical era was witness to the rise of pan-European celebrity composers like Haydn and Mozart. In those times, many Europeans saw music as a necessary adornment to life. You could not get a job as a waitress at Höoters without playing the sackbut for the manager.

The composers of the following era, Romanticism, benefited from both patronage and a paying public that was willing to sit through six-hour concerts and Harry Potter matinees. Beethoven, for instance, had no shortage of fame in his own lifetime.

Schumann, Brahms and many of the rest of Beethoven’s successors made their living conducting privately owned city orchestras (a 19th-century invention) and in the halls of academe. They too achieved mainstream success.

But by the death of Brahms in 1897, two tectonic plates were drifting apart.

The one was an emerging avant-garde in classical concert music. Wagner had started stretching, or at least massaging, conventional harmony back in the 1860s. After World War I, some composers felt that opportunities for innovation in tonal music had been exhausted; on top of that, tonality had come to be associated with the world before the war. It was a fossil. To them, the majority of tonal music sounded propagandistic or martial. A sentiment that new music would have to be “ugly” was starting to take hold.

And so Arnold Schönberg invented the twelve-tone system, a means of organizing the notes in a scale into thematic units without regard for the old chordal structures. This was antisocial music; it is and always has been for a niche audience. There were other types of antisocial music, too — Charles Ives, for instance, who studied at Yale, wrote polytonal pieces in multiple keys inspired by childhood memories of marching bands playing at opposite ends of town.

The other was the beginnings of popular music. In Europe, an operetta tradition had already begun to carve out new audiences from a previously more-or-less homogeneous hunk of listeners. In America, African-American traditions evolved into jazz — the first kind of music that only young people listened to. Immigrants from Germany brought the operetta tradition to America, where it mingled with jazz and gave rise to the Great American Songbook.

Classical music survived the innovations of its Schönbergs in large part due to composers like Prokofiev and Copland who took off where Romanticism had left off, and those like Gershwin who were happy to incorporate popular influences very early on. In the 1950s, minimalism emerged as an alternative to romanticism and freak-ness. (My high school physics teacher once described minimalism as music that “has only one note.” This is not an accurate description.) The minimalists — Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass — were not afraid to mate with the rock and alternative lineages of popular music. Indeed, pop music has mated back with minimalism to create such creatures as Brian Eno. So the plates came together again; our last generation of composers have made their home along the resulting mountain range.

The minimalists, who are still around today, have never presented themselves as brainy intellectuals on the fringe of society. They don’t even pretend that classical music is an outsiders’ game. “The Who” wrote an affectionate tribute to Terry Riley. Steve Reich makes a point of wearing a baseball cap at public appearances. And Philip Glass composed the soundtrack for The Truman Show.


If the three young Yale composers we spoke with are any indication, the immediate future of classical music will be an amplified version of its immediate past. These composers draw from a wide variety of influences (Verdi, Shostakovich, Ke$ha) and they share a belief in the importance of reaching a large audience.

And when they say they want to reach a large audience, they mean it. The three of them have sleek websites with bios, résumés, and glamorous press photos. This is not unusual. Two of them, Feigenbaum and Timothy Andres ’07 MUS ‘09, won the Music Department’s top junior composition prize; of the ten other students since 2005 who have won that prize, six have similar websites. One of them, belonging to Eric Nathan ‘06, even has embedded links to his Facebook and Twitter.

They seem to have no interest in presenting themselves as bohemians or recluses. Indeed, you’d sort of expect to find them at the career fair, alongside aspiring hedge fund managers and consultants, before you’d find them in a Parisian attic. Perhaps its fairer to say they’ve taken a cue from good ol’ Philip Glass.

Nathan Prillaman ’14 describes himself on his website as a “composer, performer and producer of classical, jazz and rock music.” We asked him and our other specimens whether they would prefer to have a large and populous audience or a small, devoted group of connoisseurs.

Prillaman said he favors the “communicative” over the “introspective” side of composition. “There are usually three people,” he said, “who I think have to like my music — my performers, my audience, and my mother. After that, I’m allowed to like a piece.”

Andres, one of the students who won the composition prize, is well on his way to a career. His works have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his first album got an ecstatic review from the New Yorker’s Alex Ross – who had already profiled him when he was just a freshman at Yale.

“Our job is basically to write music that people want to listen to or that makes them think,” he said. “If you’re writing a bunch of music in your bedroom and you don’t play it for anyone, did it really happen?”

Feigenbaum agrees.

“If you’re in this, you’re in it because you want to reach people,” he said. “Reaching five people isn’t worth it, but reaching millions of people is, and if there is a way to do that, I want to do it.”


Ezra Laderman called us in the middle of dinner and spent the first few minutes of our conversation eviscerating the previous day’s joke issue of the News (“Do they have to use the f-word ten times in every article? It’s not even funny!”). Laderman is a composer at the School of Music who has found a voice in many idioms, including twelve-tone, over his long career. Much of his music resembles a mind contemplating the manifold tragedies of the past century. When we finally got a word in edgewise, I read him Prillaman’s quote — the one about his performers, his audience, and his mother.

“Well, I can tell you this,” Laderman said, with a chuckle. And then he got serious. “The composer must compose for himself.”

A composer spends most of his time alone in a quiet world, Laderman explained. “That quiet world,” he said, “must be a world I am happy with. Otherwise there is no point.”

And yes, the music he composes in his quiet room does really happen.

Now we bump up against that question that has vexed critics since they first came out with that story about how Homer was blind. What matters more, the audience or the artist? Can good art be made by well-adjusted people, or only outsiders? Or better, what is the artist’s role in society?

Music is especially susceptible to these questions. When it is bad — unlike, say, poetry — it actually becomes not-music. It becomes noise (to everyone except for John Cage, who found musicality in the sounds of traffic). A notable exception in the case of poetry is Gertrude Stein, whose work has attracted hostility from many critics. And that is because her poetry ventured into the musical, and because they hear it as noise.

But consumers of art are not particularly concerned with all this. They consume what they like and sometimes, as critics or scholars, they consume what they don’t. We have come to a consensus (poor Socrates!) that the value of art is not objective. Nor is art the necessary adornment of the Viennese. But it’s not an unnecessary adornment either. We had better fund it, right? And especially the good art.

Clearly, we’re a little confused. Would you be upset if I lugged out that old saw — “God is dead”? Do you follow, or should I compromise my artistic integrity and explain it a little more carefully? We’ll let Ingram Marshall and David Lang, two professional composers at the school of music, do the talking.

Marshall writes plangent, architectonic music whose layers move like the mechanical arms of one of Theo Jansen’s beach-dwelling automata. Lang’s music reminds me of the novels of Samuel Beckett. Witty and often unnerving, it rocks back and forth like a cold person sitting by a fire.

Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for The Little Match Girl Passion and is a co-founder of Bang on a Can, an effort to energize and broaden the audience for contemporary classical music.

Marshall was more sympathetic than Laderman to Prillaman’s quote. “It’s a balancing act,” he said. “You really do write for yourself first and foremost, but if you forget about the audience you’re really in trouble. That’s the kind of thing we’ve learned in the postwar era, as we’ve come to grips with the esoteric versus the popular.”

Lang agreed. He thinks it’s healthy that composers have recognized the importance of an audience; he just worries about what could happen when composers want to “discover something about themselves musically” that their audience might not want to receive.

“You might get to the point with a piece of music where you’ve found what interests you but know it will interest only five other people,” Lang said. “You can think of a way to change it so it interests a thousand people, and that’s very dangerous.”


In their quest for an audience, student composers are looking for inspiration outside the familiar canon of Western classical music.

Department of Music DUS Patrick McCreless says that new technology for creating music has been a major force for innovation. The composition student of today, he says, must master the digital production of sound. He or she could leave Yale knowing as much about computer imaging and animation as a beginning programmer. Such a composer is fully in charge of every element of his or her presentation.

Combining traditional instruments, advanced sound technology and visual media is the mission of SIC InC, a student musical ensemble at Yale that aims to broaden the audience for contemporary classical music. Co-founded by Feigenbaum, SIC Inc “has consistently played to sold-out venues,” according to its website. “The first show sold out all four of its performances,” the website boasts. “Later, the group performed in a joint concert with the Yale Symphony Orchestra that entertained more than 2,500 cheering students in Yale’s Woolsey Hall.” Apparently, composers at Yale who want to write music with a broad appeal have the audience to receive them.

Another place to look for inspiration is the canon of Eastern classical music. Listening to pop and traditional music from Japan, India and Saudi Arabia became hip at the end of the twentieth century. The Yale School of Music has embraced and expanded the influence of such world music by incorporating it into its classical composition curriculum.

Composers at the School of Music use a “broadly eclectic musical language,” said Michael Friedmann, a professor of musicology there. One important element of this eclecticism is “the influence of polyethnic music.”


But this doesn’t help us understand why young composers have come to feel so strongly that classical music should be popular.

One explanation might have something to do with the increasing cross-pollination between pop music and classical music over the last few decades.

“There has been this whole infiltration from the indie rock world,” Professor Marshall said. “You see a lot of groups now that call themselves ‘bands’ and you don’t know if they are pop or classical.”

As the lines between genres of music blur, so have the ways the artists behind these movements think of themselves and of their relationship to their craft.

Take the internationally acclaimed pianist and wannabe rockstar Lang Lang. The biography on his website begins with a reference to a New York Times piece naming him “the hottest artist on the classical music planet.” His abundant glamour shots showcase his diva hair and dramatic poses. This guy knows he’s somebody. He performs with serious orchestras and his talent speaks for itself, but he sells his image as if he’s Lady Gaga.

Another explanation might have something to do with social media. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have transformed approval — as a marketing tool and in our personal lives — into something quantifiable: how many views, how many “likes,” how many followers. The appreciation of five devoted connoisseurs starts to feel like a lot less love next to a YouTube video with twenty-two million hits.

There may be an unexpected bonus to this new focus on the social dimensions of art. Composers want to connect with an audience, but they also want to connect with each other. Professor Lang explained what he sees as one of the main developments in the music world from the past several decades.

“There is something really amazing going on in the world now,” he said, “and I think Yale has been a part of it: young composers are nice to each other. When I was a student, composers were led to believe that there was one good gig in the world and your job was to kill all your neighbors so you could get that gig. But now you can see a real camaraderie and enthusiasm about what these people are doing.”

As orchestras and opera companies fail or nearly fail one after another, it’s starting to look like a joint curiosity in the needs of listeners and in the projects of other artists might be just what the doctor ordered. However you feel about “artistic integrity,” it’s undeniable that the audience decides which movements are going to survive.

And there may also be an artistic explanation. As composers figure out what classical music will look like over the next century, the listener has become a kind of canon unto himself. The continual shedding of artistic conventions — simple tonality, the twelve-tone technique and even the idea of avant-garde — has left a void. Right now, it seems the listener is filling that void as an artistic constraint. Sooner or later, the gap between the people and the music may once again close.

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