The “Me” Generation: Kevin Volans and Privilege in New Music

Not pictured: Kevin Volans.

There are few things that get under my skin more than the popular stereotype of the millennial. You know the one: lazy, entitled, constantly staring at the screen to see if they can find trigger warnings in their politically correct Facebooks. It’s a lazy, facile, and (frankly) unbelievably stupid characterization of a vague collection of individuals that, when examined more closely, doesn’t really exist. And yet it’s pervasive in our culture here and internationally, mostly perpetuated by relevance trolls or writers who have literally nothing else to write about but often easily seen in social networks and casual conversation, even among millennials themselves. If you are a millennial (like me), you see it in boldface all around you. You’re too sensitive. You’re lazy and coddled. You’re entitled. 

Monday was a red-letter day; my frustration with this stereotypical garbage finally intersected with the new music community. South African composer Kevin Volans gave a speech, entitled “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You.”, at the international conference for the Contemporary Music Centre. At just over 3500 words it’s a long-ish read, so if you’re pressed for time, skip to about the second half for the really juicy bits. That’s where Kevin argues essentially that you cannot successfully wield composition as an artform unless you 1) undertake serious unilateral study for a period of years, 2) avoid any sort of economic consideration in choosing your projects, 3) create works whose currency for profundity and impact is the amount of time they take, and 4) assert editorial control over presentation, lighting, and programming considerations.

He casually dismisses the next generation of composers for their lack of ambition…

…it is my opinion that the standard of composition in the 21st Century amongst the young, is far lower than that of the 20th Century. If you don’t agree, you at least have to agree that composers are far less ambitious.

…their shallowness…

I get the impression that there is little or no professional training for composers these days… More important than official study is the time spent talking and listening to other composers. Years of time, spent in a compositional community.

…their greed…

I have had students in their 20’s moaning that they haven’t any commissions, and are consequently not writing anything! So much for composition as an art. Serious composition is not a business. It is a vocation. A career is a side effect of this vocation.

…their laziness…

And anyone with a vocation does not need to be spoon fed… I had survived by copying scores, making (unpaid) field trips recording African music and then writing well-paid broadcast scripts. Being assistant to Stockhausen and later to Mauricio Kagel. Teaching composition. I took any work I could find that revolved around composition.

…and of course, their failure to be Kevin Volans’ age.

And these were the norms for New Music Concerts in the heyday of the 70’s and 80’s, when concerts of New Music were on the whole far superior and better attended. So now you ’emerging’ composers… these were the rules that were drummed into us in the 70’s.

Reactions to Volans’ keynote have ranged from lambasting to “well, he kind of has a point if you squint.” When my good buddy Evan Ware shared it with me, the first word to leave my lips was “entitlement”: a buzzword so often levied at people my age to indicate a belief that we merit special treatment or consideration. Maybe more appropriate is the word “privilege.” Volans assumes that the same avenues for performance, opportunity and revenue exist that did when he was growing up and that the younger generation is willfully ignoring them, and he never questions how those variables have changed in the last 30 years.

This is where Volans’ privilege is most evident: he has a narrow-minded and self-important view of what it takes to be a serious composer. Volans’s artistic world is a utopian image of composition which ignores the roadblocks to serious music study that people outside the upper-middle class (and, too often, the white majority) encounter. He buys into the ageless fallacy that classical music is fading into obscurity, not like in his day when new music concerts were packed to the gills with ravenous audiences; but he argues that the death of music is not because of issues of access or affordability or a lack of cultural resonance, but because of some shortfall in quality.

If you’ve not got enough school, says Volans, you’re not a real composer. Why can’t young composers just do more school? Never mind that a Bachelor’s+Master’s in music from Trinity College, Dublin (where he gave the speech) will stick an EU student with a $70,000 USD tuition bill (his degree, from the University of the Witwatersrand, costs a South African student about $20,000 USD today – he got his for about $9000 USD).

If you’re expecting to be paid for your work, says Volans, you’re not a real artist. Why take commissions when you can subsist on the boundless music copy work, research abroad grants, and radio writing gigs that he enjoyed? Never mind that the lion’s share of equivalent opportunities for today’s young composers have been either eliminated by budget cuts or converted into unpaid internships. Or, for that matter, that the average four-year degree holder owes upwards of $25,000 in loans.

And if you don’t write long, “serious” works, says Volans, it’s because you’re not ambitious enough. Not because of an explosion in the number of composers worldwide, or a reduction in the funding or frequency of new music opportunities.

Add to all of this that Volans is evidently stuck in the world of the ONCE group, Fluxus, and the early days of Intercontemporain: the world in which composers have executive control over things like presentation, lighting, and programming considerations. Neglect (read: lose control over) these things, he seems to suggest, and you’ve lost the ballgame.

This is the world of his upbringing, when composers like Stockhausen (who, as he mentions, enjoyed substantial public funding) could design and execute his own concert experience from top to bottom. It’s not the modern world. Maybe collectives like Sleeping Giant are trying to return to those roots, but he says it himself — new music productions are expensive. Where’s that money come from? Grants? Good luck. Institutional funding? Have a great four years. Outside of a few really lucky young composers, the way to put on a show like the one in Kevin’s mind is to be independently wealthy enough to make it happen.

With that, we pivot to the undercurrent running through all of this: Kevin Volans takes for granted and accepts that new music and its practice are the province of the privileged upper class without ever questioning whether that’s right or even good for the music. He then (at length) chastises millennials, who may not share his complacence in that level of privileged participation (I sure as hell don’t), for not doing more with less.

This mindset is outdated, it’s ill-informed, and it’s damaging. A better way forward considers all classical music to be at its best when it’s democratic and allows participation across class and other divisions. It works toward a vision not of self-indulgent new music soirees with lots of affluent supporters in attendance, but one where the music onstage is (whatever the language) representative of the stories and lives of those in the audience. That audience, by the way, is not factioned by economic station; neither are the composers, musicians, and producers charged with creating the art.

That’s my vision, anyway. So here’s my call to action: advocate for school music funding. Engage parts of the community with your music and your presence you wouldn’t otherwise think of. Ally yourself with minority and LGBTQ artists. Create concerts and performances that invite and welcome discussion and storytelling, from composers and musicians and audience members alike. And don’t get hung up on how long your pieces are.

And you know what, millennials? Take as many selfies as you want.


  1. Every time I see anybody commenting on this, I have the same reaction that I did when I read it the first time. Blossom Dearie sang a song called “I Have a Feeling I’ve Been Here Before.” I’ve been hearing all this stuff, packaged and argued in more or less the same way, for about the last 50 years, when I was in my teens and first paying attention. I have to say that I might (might mind you) like to live in a world where I was able to decide about whether I was going to accept a commission–something that in my life I’ve had precious few of anyway…..(so maybe this is all just sour grapes on my part) it’s all, as a friend of mine says, “first world problems”…..something that privilege and entitlement puts one in position to talk about.

    1. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Adam Conover’s talk, linked above. One of the most compelling arguments he makes is that every charge leveled at millennials is a variation on charges the Boomers leveled at Gen-X’ers, the Silent Generation leveled at the Boomers, etc. It’s not hard to see that at work here.

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