The Transience of Transgression?

by Dan Albertson

14 January–1 August 2014

I turned 30 this summer. I am far from being a numerologist, but even I understand that some numbers are more than just numbers. Some atonement may be in order after such a misspent youth. I will thus put aside my own reservations about self-reflection and try not to devolve into pontification.


In many ways, I feel old for someone not yet having finished three decades of existence. I was likely born old. I have, in my capacity as the curator of The Living Composers Project, helped to document the lives and works of almost 3000 composers. I founded it as a 15-year-old on summer break, now nearly half my lifetime ago, completely unaware of what it would become, which is, or so I hope, a useful resource.

During this time, I have seen the trajectories of countless composers crest and wither, reinforcing my belief that someone will always be younger, cuter or more willing to compromise standards to achieve a modicum of success.

I have also helped, as a guest editor of the British journal Contemporary Music Review, to generate scholarship in English on composers heretofore scarcely touched outside their native languages, such as Aldo Clementi and Helmut Lachenmann, and espoused the legacy of Earle Brown, a composer unduly seen as a peripheral figure.

My poetry, divorced from the prevailing trend of vernacular writing, has evolved from vers libre to older forms, including haiku, rondeaux, sonnets, and villanelles. In poetry as in music, I find classicism to be a necessary counterweight to modernism.

These sins are justifiable enough and I will continue to commit them, to varying degrees, even as I seek new terrain to tread in my next decade. If my teens and 20s were the eras of music, what will my 30s be? I have no clue. I feel liberated.

Some missteps, though, require expiation on a deeper level.

When I was quite young, still in high school, I dabbled in composition and managed to find performances in several countries. My music was horrible, as the recordings attest, with few exceptions, which must have been a perverse form of luck. I tried again, several years later, to write in a less chaotic, more lucid manner, to no avail. Unlike many composers who continue to write in spite of being awful, I will not make this mistake again. Lesson learned!

I have also written articles that were more positive than they should have been and I have been more eager in personal meetings with certain people than I had a right to be. I was in awe of personalities whom I thought to be great and who, in hindsight, seldom if ever were. I have only my naïveté, and my quest for raconteurs, to blame.

I cringe at some of what I could see as unjustified positivity in my earlier criticism. My youthful enthusiasm, one founded on illusions, has turned gelid and has upended itself, yielding to my current pessimism about musical matters. My vision of the musical world now assumes it to be a realm mired in mediocrity, crass populism and vile superciliousness, which it surely is. Great music-making is rare in this age of music as a commodity rather than an experience. I dare to try it less and less now.


I know that faults are as permanent as glue and achievements as ephemeral as raindrops. Where to make my next mistakes?