Composing the Creative Self: Constructing Meaning, Identity, and Aesthetic Imaginaires in Contemporary Art Music

Sutton, Alexander, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Reed, Isaac, AS-Sociology (SOCI), University of Virginia


The sociological story of classical music has largely been told from the perspective of the European ruling classes. Specifically, the literature has emphasized the music’s function as an explanatory variable in the reproduction of social class distinction; has linked classical music’s cultural significance (legitimacy) to the authority of cultural gatekeepers and wealthy patrons; has theorized classical music through the lens of 18th and 19th century European aesthetic politics; and has situated the composer within debates concerning the social construction of artistic genius. Much less is known in the sociological literature about the culture of contemporary art music in 21st century America. And even less is known about the role contemporary composers play in shaping that culture. This dissertation examines the creative and professional lives of contemporary American composers to show how their creative practices, their social and professional interactions, and their organizational efforts shape the aesthetic landscape of the field. Drawing on 85 interviews with composers, music critics, arts administrators, and public relations specialists, as well as two and a half years of participant observation at 68 composer/new music related events, I argue that composers construct difference and diversity as the organizing principles for a social aesthetics of contemporary American art music practice. Seeking to reconcile their institutional (classical) training and their perceptions of classical music’s elitist history with their social positions and backgrounds, their omnivorous aesthetic commitments, and the expression of a range of personal politics and worldviews, composers attempt to organize the new music field to reflect the multicultural politics of the musicians it comprises. I show how composer’s work at the individual level, and the collective socio-aesthetic dynamics of the new music field function as dual-directional sources of mediation for one another, effectively shaping the aesthetic discourses and landscape of the art music field in the U.S. More generally, this research examines and interprets the ways individuals engage in creative practice, how those practices generate collective social meaning, and how meaningful action organizes the landscapes of contemporary aesthetic culture.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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