Even though I read Belinda Reynolds’s writings on NewMusicBox with interest every week, I’m usually so wrapped up in fretting about the university music scene that I forget to fret about pre-college music education. I paid a visit this morning to a group of high school students in a county-wide magnet music program—the very program, it so happens, from which I graduated in 2001. (If 2001 sounds recent to you, by the way, I’d advise you to go meet some people who are as old now as you were in 2001. Be ready to feel old.) Before fielding a few questions about studying music in college and graduate school, I gave a brief spiel about my activities as a composer and played a recent piece.
The students’ music literature curriculum extends through the 1970s or thereabouts. All of the kids I met today were intelligent and perceptive young musicians, no two ways about it, but most weren’t prepared for the disjointed, microtonal, inexplicably referential weirdness I chose to represent my musical endeavors. By and large, I didn’t find their reactions surprising, but one question popped up several times that I hadn’t anticipated: They wanted to know whether tonality or atonality will be the future of new music.
I assume that they meant, metonymically, to ask whether pretty music or ugly music is in. My gut reaction, which I moderated in the interest of even-handedness, was that ugly music is where it’s at: Game over. I pointed out that film scores are full of atonal music and that more than a few hip-hop samples could be considered so as well. Ultimately, though, the question of tonality versus atonality is a hundred-year-old question, and not many composers I know—regardless of what kind of music they write—worry too much about it either way. I certainly don’t. Besides, much virtual ink has already been spilled on these pages to the effect that harmonic organization is only a small (and shrinking) part of how most of us hear music now. The presence or absence of a steady pulse, for example, is easily as significant as the presence or absence of a tonic among today’s listeners, to say nothing of formal symmetry, pleasing timbres, consistency of loudness, etc.
Of course, I didn’t articulate this too clearly to the high schoolers I addressed today. I probably said something about how pretty Le Marteau is, and how you should check out this one guy, Feldman. I’m grateful, though, to have been given the chance to speak to such a group about what I do: It’s good, every so often, to be confronted with the things you take for granted.