Don’t Hem Me in, Bro
At the Peabody Conservatory, where I teach, our music theory curriculum is “styles based.” After a year of tonal foundations, the curriculum moves chronologically from Baroque counterpoint towards more recent music, focusing on shared contemporaneous stylistic traits and on compositions that exemplify the sound of the times (the Zeitklang?). At the far tail end of this sequence, I take a day to talk about the most recent trends. This also allows me to give the students an opportunity to ask how to categorize various living composers who interest them but who otherwise are not covered in the class.
Invariably, a student asks the dreaded question: into which movement do I place myself?
After years of teaching and composing, one would think that I would have a good answer. But I don’t. Instead, I hem and haw. I name names of other composers who influence me. I describe the things about which I think while preparing a new piece.
Recently, I was described in concert publicity as a “microtonal composer.” But the piece that was being performed was composed strictly in equal temperament, I thought. Until I took a closer look at the score and found several microtonal glissandos. Since the microtonality wasn’t structural, I totally discounted it, thereby paradoxically making the label more apt than I had initially realized. More recently, I was called a “known local composer,” a sobriquet that I found somewhat disturbing in its implication that Big Brother takes interest in my compositional output (I can assure you, gentle reader, that I am not “known” in the Biblical sense).
Composers often express their discontent with the labels placed upon their music, including the friends called a “spectral minimalist” (which sounds remarkably fun to me) and “a composer in the European style” (which is wrong on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin). Even those whose music appears to be the Platonic essence of a specific style generally abhor being labeled within that style.
In general, artists tend to value originality and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, critics and theorists need to categorize and sort, even if only as part of the practical task of deciding what repertoire to include in any given discussion—and what to exclude, a more fraught consideration. Gestalt theorists tell us that this task is an essential part of human cognition. We constantly seek out patterns and create beautiful categories into which we pour our experiences. We intuit the difference between a dog and a cat, even though, at times, a description of the former can sound remarkably like the latter (try describing a Pomeranian dog). We accept anomalous examples—like the beloved platypus—as exceptions without forgoing all attempts at categorization, but our teaching of art generally errs towards setting norms, creating a myth of standard musical practices while avoiding discussion of the original thinkers who were uncharacteristic of their times. At times even the most central composers defy our attempts at placing them neatly within a specific style (is Beethoven a Classical or Romantic composer?).
As a teacher, I want my students to understand the context for the music they enjoy. As an artist, I want to be free to create the music I want to hear without worrying about its relevance to pre-ordained (or post-ordained) groupings. Even if someone tailor-fits a category to my previous works, I would chafe against these seams, immediately seeking ways to escape the straitjacket of expectations. But the next time I’m asked about my music, I would like to be prepared with an answer. It would be helpful to have a pithy description at the ready that encapsulates the possibilities I foresee when I sit down and prepare to start a new piece.
How do you solve this issue? Do you have a description that fits you? Have others found a simple way to limn your music that you appreciate?