D.M.A. vs. NYC

Over the holiday this very interesting article landed in my Google Reader, which talks about the two literary worlds that have emerged in the U.S. A bit long, yet worthwhile read. Based on conversations with friends and colleagues in the writing world, I am guessing that they would agree with the ideas presented in this essay, which describes, “the system within which [a writer] earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.”

But what’s remarked rarely if at all is the way that this balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures (or, more precisely, two literary fiction cultures) in the United States: one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, Calif., to Austin, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Tallahassee, Fla. (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street)… Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.

There are some striking similarities to the world(s) of music here, don’t you think? Composers working within academic settings throughout the country, and composers working outside of academia (whether or not in big cities) tend to have very different musical world views and value systems. The events attended, the meetings scheduled, the nature of the work being created, the audiences for whom the music is composed, and the expectations about the future for that music are bound up in the creative/career context of the composer. There are conferences at which my colleagues who are professors have their works performed that make perfect sense for them, but that would not be especially beneficial for me as a composer working outside of academia. The divide can be seen on the pages of NewMusicBox, in the weekly Chatter posts of Frank J. Oteri, Colin Holter, David Smooke, Dan Visconti, and myself. This is not at all to pass judgment on any one world or another, only to suggest that we are not all on the same page, nor should we all be, at least in terms of personal and creative survival.

Of course there are exceptions—those shapeshifters able to travel easily between worlds, and flourish within both. The part of all this that concerns me is when a talented student finds herself becoming enveloped in an institutional setting when that is clearly not the best option for her. The advice being given about how to prepare for her future is specific to that world, and given the divide, the student may not have a clear idea of where to look for other options. This is where those shapeshifters come in handy (sometimes they take the form of visiting composers who swoop in, give a masterclass and are gone in a flash). My hope is that an open attitude towards each world can be developed/maintained so that at the very least, the young people trying to figure things out for themselves can see a complete picture of the musical landscapes in play.

One could take these idea even farther and note plenty of other divisions—orchestra, band, choral music, chamber music, computer music. What do you think of all this? What do you think this means, if anything, for the future of new music?

5 thoughts on “D.M.A. vs. NYC

  1. mclaren

    I’ve continually remarked on the amazing academic-centric nature of the articles on this site. All the composers here seems to talk about

    1) getting their music performed by live musicians on acoustic 19th-century instruments (many, perhaps most, young composers no longer work this way); 2) limiting themselves to the traditional Western tuning of 12 pitches per octave (once you break free of 19th century acoustic instruments, you find yourself faced with unlimited intonational freedom, and limiting yourself to 12 equally spaced pitches no longer proves so appealing); 3) getting commissions (this self-limiting process tends to enforce a rigid self-censorship because of course rhythms and pitches unplayable on 19th century acoustic wooden or brass instruments by human performers prove unsuitable for commissions, so by accepting a commission, a composer typically boxes herself into an intensely conservative set of unnecessary musical limitations); 4) rhythms which can be notated using conventional software like Sibelius or Finale, never venturing outside those rigid narrow limits (try notating the following simple rhythm: qqq 5:4 5:4 qq 4:3 4:3 4:3 qqq 11:9 11:9, where q = a quarter note and the other durations are broken tuplets. Any luck? No? Hint: neither Sibelius or Finale will permit you even to enter such a rhythm. You literally physically cannot do it. The software gives you an error message and refuses to permit it); 5) how the composer will employ traditional musical forms rather than, say, software which interacts with performers in real time to generate unpredictable responses (and this is not even new — composers like David Behrman and the League of Automated Composers were doing this kind of stuff back in 1976!); 6) composers never ever working with acoustic compilers like Csound or Supercollider to generate their compositions as sounds files on a hard drive (indeed, computer composers are so completely unrepresented on this forum that it’s as though the entire era of computers used as musical instrument, inaugurated by Max Mathews in 1959 when the first developed Music I at bell Labs, never even happened, and the great figures of computer music like Laurie Spiegel and Emanuel Ghent and James Tenney and Paul Lansky and William Schottstaedt and John Chowning and Lauren Rush and Charles Dodge, to say nothing of European electronic composers like Bernard Parmegiani and John-Claude Risset and Henk Badings and Herbert Eimert, have been rendered unpersons, airburshed entirely out of musical history as far as everyone on this site is concerned).

    From the perspective of a contemporary composer, this site proves fascinating indeed, like visiting an Amish village where no one uses a telephone and everyone rides horses.

  2. dB

    Academia begets academia
    My professors always went out of their way to talk about non-academic options for composers, but none of them had much experience in that world. Visiting composers were good for demonstrating other viable avenues, but were never around long enough to paint a clear picture of how they do what they do. In the end, even if this type of education isn’t lacking, music students (performers included) get a much better idea of how the academic music world works than any other option. I suppose this is true of all academic subjects, and is just kind of the nature of the beast, but I am curious if any of the non-academics would like to expound on how they got into their respective scenes, and what, if anything, they felt the academic world hadn’t prepared them for.

  3. BGabor

    mclaren gets things spectacularly wrong again.

    1) there are lots of players out there who can not only play non-12 tunings well, but they commission new works for those tunings. There are also even schools which encourage this, for example Cal Arts in the US, with Tenney, and now Wolfgang vn Schweinitz.

    2) Getting commissions is a way for composer to earn a living. Sure, it means negotiating aspects of a piece, but unless you’re living on a trust fund or have some alternative model for paying composers, putting down a composer for taking a commission is nonsense.

    3) It takes some work, but a program like Finale can get rhythms like broken tuplets to both play and/or display, either as broken tuplets or as compound metres. See Darcy James Argue’s blog, here: http://secretsociety.typepad.com/darcy_james_argues_secret/stupid_finale_tricks/ and the follow-up article.

    4) This article referred specifically to DMA composers. Well, one of the biggest DMA factories of all is Stanford, with more than half the big computer composers mclaren listed associated with Stanford and all of them publishing at one time or another in the Journal of Computer Music, which is a big peer-review academic journal.

    5) Obviously mclaren is not really familiar with New Music Box, or he would have noticed interviews on line here with Tenney, Lansky, Dodge, and Spiegel.

  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    While I agree with Mclaren that NewMusicBox caters to a relatively narrow slice of the music readers spectrum, that doesn’t mean it’s a conservatively oriented blog. There are plenty of blogs out there that cover nearly all types of music being produced. At their best they are informative and eye-opening, and at their worst suffer from too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen. So, we get to have a different forum.

    I resent the assumption made that composers of music for traditional acoustic instruments are necessarily ignoring all modern advances. I also resent the implication that we live in the Triassic erc, culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. Technology does not necessitate throwing out the old. Can we agree that it’s still acceptable to paint? (We had so much success with Diebold not to long ago…..)

    The other problem mentioned here is the notion that academia is poisoning us. This goes back to the original post: there certainly seem to be more than one world, but I’d venture to say it’s more than two. I can comfortably exchange ideas much more easily with my friend who’s a member of the Chicago avant-jazz scene with his prepared electric guitar, than with a violinist committing himself to rep which came of age 150 years go. I am sick and tired of people in academia being scared of someone without a proper “education.” Likewise, people out there “in the real world” need to try and see the value in institutional study. A school holds a specific function, and while this can certainly create a professional feedback loop, it is up to the STUDENT to recognize the situation and make mature decisions. If a musician is too involved in his own environment to observe anything outside of it, than he is exclusively to blame for narrow-mindedness.

    That said, Alexandra was not talking about narrow-mindedness, but about how people arrive at where they are. I am still connected largely to academia, although I’m no longer a student. I do this because- having very recently finished a degree- I have access to a lot of support and excellent players. (By they way, feel free to throw a few grand at me to set up an electronic studio, and maybe I’ll move out!)


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