Going Against the Gray

Keeril Makan
Keeril Makan

“There seems to be primarily two types of new music presented most commonly in the area: academic avant-garde and gray music. By gray music I mean a type of music that is not intensely atonal, nor intensely tonal. Gray music is pleasing to audiences because it is fairly accessible, yet well written and does not tend towards extremes.”

This was a comment made by one of my students after researching the new music scene in Washington, D.C.

“Gray music” is a funny term but it doesn’t really help you to understand the individual strengths or weaknesses of the compositions. However, I can understand the frustration that many of us have with a lot of American concert hall music. It just doesn’t have the variety and extremes, the creative play upon expectations that you might hope to find. In fact, “gray music” is a very good way of describing a lot of music. Judgments made in frustration aside, I think it’s important to not give yourself over to this way of thinking. We have to be always looking for counterexamples and promising new directions that music might take.

I have always felt that it is part of a composer’s job to be an advocate for contemporary music and a teacher to anyone who expresses interest in the music. Given the quantity of activity and the aesthetic contradictions between composers, it is not always clear how to go about describing the activities and motivations of a composer. The lack of an aesthetic common denominator is one of the greatest strengths of our collective musical community, but it makes describing and advocating for the music fiendishly difficult.

In trying to gauge my own activities as a composer, some questions have been on my mind recently. How do we measure compositional success, outside of personal fulfillment? Can it be measured in terms of number of performances, commissions, or recordings? If so, do the funding structures that support new music in America offer incentives to write music in certain styles? Is it true that music written in an easily accessible style is funded more often? If I have some success in my compositional career, does this mean that external pressures of which I am only dimly aware have in some way influenced me? This semester, I was given the opportunity to lead a graduate seminar of my choice geared to both composers and performers. While I had a number of ideas for seminars on music analysis, I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to tackle the relationship between aesthetics and economics in American new music.

Using these questions as a starting point, I designed a seminar that examined the role of funding in the development of contemporary music in the U.S., with a particular focus on music written in the last 15 years. The seminar was to begin by focusing on American composers whose music is performed frequently, both nationally and internationally. Although this in itself is no indication of musical “quality”, it can indicate cultural interest and/or significant institutional support. The idea was not to make assumptions that stylistic accessibility guarantees success (as gauged by popularity, ostensibly), but to open up a dialogue about the forces structuring the state of contemporary music in America. There was an initial agreement that most composers are not cynical about the music they write. Given the limited rewards of being a composer, anyone involved in the field is hopefully writing the music that he or she wants to write, or at least is not altering his or her music to be financially successful. (I could be wrong about this, but I prefer to be optimistic about composers’ intentions.)

In addition to the activities of composers, the decisions of individual performers and ensembles are influential in determining the shape of the musical landscape. Therefore I also sought out performers to take part in the seminar so that they could be an active part of this discussion. I found a lively and motivated group of graduate students interested in the seminar and ready to tackle some of these questions. All of the performers that enrolled in the seminar are members of the New Music Ensemble at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The other students, being composers, also brought first-hand experience of new music to the seminar.

I began by presenting one possible outline of important features relevant to our topic: the commissioning of new work (through institutions, competitive grants, regional programs, and individual performers/ensembles), compositional aspects (the role of publishing, performance rights organizations, and competitions), performance (existing ensembles, funding structures, public outreach, and existing audiences), and dissemination (via recordings, the internet, and other media). Other aspects that we discussed were the role of academic positions in a composer’s life, and service organizations that exist to further American new music.

After initial discussions, it became evident that the students’ background in new music and knowledge of living composers were limited. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that there is no standard approach for teaching contemporary music in American universities and conservatories. I realized that before tackling any larger issues, the first step that needed to be taken was to help this group, which in many ways is representative of a larger population of graduate-level musicians, educate themselves about the field as it currently stands in this country. So, I revised the direction of the seminar midstream. Instead of tackling the questions I had started off with, I first had to find a way to offer a comprehensive introduction to the current new music scene in America. How to go about this critical task was unclear, for numerous reasons. For one, there is no centralized location for musical activity as there is in some European countries. In addition, it is difficult, and perhaps counter-productive, to approach the topic from a discussion of style. Over-simplified terms like neo-romantic, post-minimal, academic, etc., prove useless when it comes to discuss individual composers’ works. It’s more a type of language used by those trying to market or dismiss certain types of compositional activity. (What label should be used for John Adams, Augusta Read Thomas, Stephen Hartke, or Osvaldo Golijov, to name just a few?) For me, pigeonholing composers into such terms is about as useful as describing any French composer who studied with Grisey as post-spectral. It doesn’t say much.

So, first we investigated programs and institutions that are national in scope. The students researched composers that have won national commissioning competitions in the last five years (such as the Fromm, Koussevitzky, Meet the Composer, and Chamber Music America). Coincidentally, I was serving on a national commissioning panel early on in the semester, so I was able to give students a more in-depth example of how such a panel works. We also discussed composers that have received multiple orchestral commissions in the past five years, and looked at how national performance rights organizations such as ASCAP and BMI function. Then students researched and reported on new music activity in given urban centers. So far, we have looked at New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago (not a comprehensive list, but certainly a start). Students were charged with investigating larger institutions as well as small performing ensembles, local composers active in the region, and the universities that have composition and new music programs.

The goal of these activities was to expose the students to as many aspects of new music in America as possible. Despite some similarities in funding sources, certain areas of musical activity fell outside the stylistic scope of our seminar’s discussion (including jazz and improvisation, as well as composers focusing on band, choral, religious, or children’s music). Some areas had to be omitted for no reason other than the overwhelming volume of material related to our subject (such as a discussion of the recording of new music, composer’s collectives, or publisher’s catalogues and promotional activities). However, after nine weeks, the students have been exposed to a great deal of music and its means of production. My hope is that they are being provoked to think about the creation of new music in an increasingly multifaceted way.

I recently asked the students to give me a mid-semester critique of the seminar, to get a sense of what has been learned, and what questions it has inspired. Encouragingly, their comments indicate that this study has already had an impact on how they are thinking about new music. They have also begun to indicate how it might serve as a point of departure for them in their own musical careers. Most were surprised to learn there was so much music by living composers they were previously unaware of, and although there were clearly some composers more active in some regions than others, musical styles seemed to lack regional boundaries.

The students were also struck with the difficulty of learning about composers’ work, unless they were represented by large publishing houses or have received major orchestral and/or opera commissions. Another sobering conclusion is that most people involved with new music (whether composer or performer) spend a lot of their time as grant writers, since a constant piecemeal cobbling together of funding is a big part of the job. Despite this, the seminar has sparked their desire to sort through the daunting amount of music available and to make personal decisions on what to champion and what to set aside. The performers who participated in the seminar now have the tools and confidence to research and discover music that they will perform in their future careers.

The composers involved in the seminar are now more keenly aware that although it is possible to have a career as a composer after being a graduate student, it involves planning and struggle. As to how it will affect their writing, I think that composers have two main choices: 1) listen to as much music as possible and internalize it, or 2) listen to as much music as possible to learn what not to write. Nobody wants his or her music to be considered derivative. But it seems like the more you understand what’s out there and your own reactions to it, the more you have access to your underlying musical motivations. This knowledge can transform a composer’s way of working and the music itself. But that is a very personal issue, and one that’s difficult to make generalizations about.

Although we haven’t quite made it to the question of the influence of funding structures on composers in America, there have been a number of new insights for the students concerning new music. I think the seminar has given them a sense of perspective, and even optimism, about their future involvement. It has also underlined the necessity for composer-performer interaction and collaboration.

One semester barely allows enough time to scratch the surface of who is writing music, where it is being performed, and the current funding systems. We will probably be left with more questions than when we began. At least we might be better able to navigate through some of the gray areas we’ve discussed, towards a new music yet to be written.