Guaranteed to Break Your Heart

After a day of delays at O’Hare—which, by the way, seems to have the highest Starbucks-per-square-foot ratio in the Midwest—I’m happily ensconced in my ancestral homeland of Frederick, Maryland. Not much new music going on out here compared to Champaign-Urbana, but to be honest, I kind of needed a break anyway. It seems, however, that I can’t escape the contemporary music scene: Guess who else will be spending the holidays at home here in the DC area?

Tudor Dominik Maican.

Although my earlier concerns about Jay Greenberg were met with not-unfair accusations of sour grapes, I am only encouraged by everything I’ve read about Maican. Let me pull out a few quotes from the Washington Post article that may elucidate:

“Where does that soulfulness come from?” [Dumbarton Concerts director Connie] Zimmer said. “How does a kid who’s never had his heart broken have that poetry and soul to the music?”

“If you ask me why Beethoven is great, I’d give the same answer,” [Juilliard instructor Ira] Taxin said. “I’m not comparing Dominik to Beethoven, but the music translates immediately to the human experience. Dominik has the ability to do that. It’s a gift.”

Let’s talk about Beethoven for a moment. (FYI: If you want to piss off a 21st-century composer of complex, discursive music, comparing a conservative composer to Beethoven is your silver bullet.) One of the qualities we sometimes ascribe to Beethoven is the ability to address all the categories of human experience that were knowable in the composer’s day. Beethoven’s facility at describing and commenting upon these categories of experience leads us, quite naturally, to assume that he encountered them (most of them, at least) firsthand. Maican, on the other hand, obviously doesn’t have the same kind of mileage that Beethoven had: He’s seventeen years old, and by his own admission, his emotional music emerges not from emotional experiences but from the diligent study of preexisting emotional music.

As far as I’m concerned, this is proof: There is a formula for writing music that people find emotionally moving, and that formula, those conventions, can be internalized and reproduced with sufficient practice. None of us should be surprised by this, but we rarely see it illustrated so transparently. Maican’s success is conclusive evidence that a) the distinction between semblance of emotion (i.e. the historical gestures associated with certain feelings through years of symphony, opera, and film-score conditioning) and experientially ratified emotional commitment is absolutely real and that b) most people, even well-educated specialists, are unable to differentiate between the former and the latter. In other words, the affective, expressive content that’s supposedly the exclusive domain of tonal music can be analyzed, synthesized, and manufactured, and you don’t even need to bus senior citizens to Canada to get it cheaper: It can be brewed in a bathtub in Bethesda, a stone’s throw away from where I sit right now. It is not real. Maican should be commended for his mastery of persuasive tropes; I wish him the absolute best. The rest of us should be relieved, because what we’ve known all along has been confirmed: Those fans of affirmatory music being born every minute really are suckers.

27 thoughts on “Guaranteed to Break Your Heart

  1. JKG

    Sucker punch…
    Are you describing formulaic approaches with respect to eliciting emotional response from an audience, Colin? Because if that is your beef, as if that’s such a horrible thing, then I would have to ask – what exactly motivates you to write music in the first place? I am all for fresh techniques for describing the human experience, and for myself that is the only genuine qualifier for experimentalism at all. If these young composers have confirmed for you and others that one may reach an audience through a systematic study of traditional methods, they have at least accomplished what you and some of your peers most loudly complain about regarding your “new” music – they’ve reached an audience. Does that mean the audiences they write for, and the composers, are the “suckers” you so eagerly point out? Because if that is true, then you’d only be making plainer the fact that what matters to you more is an elitist understanding of music. You can’t have it both ways – if its “us versus them” for elitist composers, then it must by default also be “us versus them” for the audience and traditional composers. Now, out of the two groups, who do you think has the broader “human experience?”

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  2. Colin Holter

    I admit that it’s not very scientific to make claims about Maican’s music based on a newspaper article. What I’m really talking about here, however, is not his music but its reception, the fervor with which his teachers and collaborators fall all over themselves to declare his music “soulful.” Maybe his stuff makes Franz Schreker sound like Giacomo Meyerbeer, but I’ll believe it when I hear it.

    JKG: It’s not Maican’s study of “traditional methods” that concerns me but rather the ease with which professional musicians are persuaded by his study of what we might call “traditional expressions.”

    what exactly motivates you to write music in the first place?

    A desire, like many composers have, to address features of the human experience that we find especially meaningful–to address, in other words, shit that has actually happened to us. And maybe these things, these categories of experience, cannot be be responsibly dealt with using historical terms.

    By the way, my music is new, not “new.”

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  3. Matthew

    Three thoughts and a postscript:

    1. Journalists are always suckers for prodigy stories. They’re pretty easy to write: get a quote from the parents about how hard the prodigy works, get a quote from the teacher about how talented the prodigy is, get a quote from the prodigy about how they’re just a normal teenager, etc., etc. I’m intrigued, though, that all the big composer prodigy stories of the past few years—Michael Hersch, Greenberg, this kid—have all originated at Juilliard prep, which suggests that there’s more PR advance work going on here than meets the eye. (Maican seems like a bright, gifted 17-year-old student composer, but not that much more, and I’d bet you could find at least a half-dozen similar talents in any reasonably large metropolitan area.)

    2. Interesting, also, that the video attached to the article is also mostly people talking about how great this music is, rather than just letting us hear the music. (What little you do get to hear sounds like a technically sound Dukas pastiche—again, pretty much what most gifted 17-year-old student composers sound like.) It’s hard not to read the article as an elaborate proxy college application essay.

    3. The whole “he hasn’t suffered enough” trope is BS, of course; Bach and Haydn alone should suffice to debunk that. A little disturbing to read professional musicians perpetuating it with no apparent irony, though.

    4. From the article: “If you ask me why Beethoven is great, I’d give the same answer,” Taxin said. “I’m not comparing Dominik to Beethoven, but the music translates immediately to the human experience.’ I’m sorry, that’s so vague as to be meaningless. Isn’t all music a human experience to begin with? What translation is necessary? I hope Juiliiard isn’t still trying to promulgate the misguided notion of music as a universal language.

    P.S. JKG: Do the scare quotes mean that I get to call anything with a tonal vocabulary “old” music? Because that might be fun.

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  4. JKG

    The “new” old…
    I agree with you 1000%, Colin, Music should be about the human experience and should communicate those ideas as clearly as possible from artistic reference points. And (surprise!!!) I totally agree with the notion whether a composer has suffered enough as mere grandstanding (thank you, Matthew). What will the average Joe think of Dominik’s music? Will Dominik even care whether anyone appreciates his music (of course, he does)? What are new techniques worth to those who are unable or unwilling to make use of them in a meaningful way? The cop-out is to simply say that person is closed minded, and where does that thinking come from? The untalented academic who KNOWS SO MUCH (leering sarcastically at those who yearn for tenure and suck on grant money). Otherwise, folks are pretty much folks, right?

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  5. jonrussell20

    Can somebody please define two things for me:

    1. Affirmative (or affirmatory) music

    2. Discursive music

    I see Colin throwing these terms around a lot and I don’t know what they mean.

    And another thought: through the 19th century, composer prodigies like Mozart or Mendelssohn or Saint-Saens were writing music basically in a similar style to their contemporaries – not cutting edge certainly, but at least in line with what your average composer was writing at the time. Today, it seems that composer prodigies write music in styles at least 100 years old. Anyone have any thoughts on what’s up with this?

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  6. JKG

    I humbly suggest, Jon…
    today’s prodigies write music in styles a hundred years old because they’re too “unsophisticated” to know any better. After all, if they wrote in mannerist, serial styles, how would we ever know they were prodigies to begin with? Gosh, I hope some sniveling, prideful composition professor is reading this thread – grade those lessons! Thanks for bringing up the obvious, Jon. These kids are indeed talented, much to the chagrin of those who want to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes to maintain mere noise is, in fact, music. Could it be that they themselves lack the musicality of these young prodigies? “laughing my head off*

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  7. SonicRuins

    JKG…I have a few bones to pick with you.

    I certainly do not think that all music we consider ‘contemporary’ fall within the so-called ‘mannerist’ or ‘serial’ confines. That’s just a load of bulls***.

    Here’s my problem with the whole prodigy thing. They aren’t just writing in any old style; they seem unanimously writing in a late 19th/early 20th century idiom. Why aren’t some engaged in writing music in the Renaissance or Baroque or (god-forbid) the outwardly simple (by often structurally complicated) Classical-era style(s)?

    Heck these composers aren’t even writing in more accessible styles like Ades or Adams or Corigliano!

    Is it perhaps because the late Romantic style is the most powerful or genuine of all styles? Give me a break. It’s because music from that era is often outwardly flashy and gets the audience up on their feet. The same may be said of a rougher early twentieth century style a la Bartok and Prokofiev that may have sounded strident some 80 years ago but has since mellowed for our collective ears. That’s why these prodigies are often criticized for sounded genuinely like well-written Brahms on the surface but structurally patchy. (Not to diss Romantic composers…I still love them…I just think their music has been appropriated improperly.)

    Find me a prodigy that understands the subtly of Renaissance music is more interesting that these others.

    I’m not saying all prodigies are like such; one or two of my wunderkind colleagues’ music I genuinely enjoy and while their music is conservative in some ways, you can also hear the more adventurous (anti status quo) quality to it. Lest anyone accuse me of jealously and envy…I always bring up their names in conversations because I believe in that their music is genuine.

    But we seem to be heading in a direction where we worship those who can imitate Brahms better than anyone else.

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  8. pgblu

    Human Inexperience
    Music does not describe human experience. Music is a category of human experience. Let’s not take the essentialist route that music has to refer to some facet outside itself. It always ends up doing so, and that’s okay, but a composer cannot control this in any but the most banal way (really loud, bouncy music rarely expresses sadness (though it may be therapeutic for sad folks)). In this sense, I disagree with both JKG and Colin, apparently, which may be a first. Or perhaps they need to clarify their positions.

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  9. JKG

    Loud, bouncy sadness…
    I need to be more judicious in my use of black and white tones, and offer more subtle colors to my discourse. Being an adjunct to human expression along the lines of speech, music is in fact capable of expression and can produce expression as well. I prefer a program route myself, yet others are certainly free to take the purist view of music for music’s sake. Because music and poetry are so interconnected to me does not in any way mean it is so for anyone else. And if a piece conjures something after we’ve written it, isn’t tempting to title it in such a way as to reflect what we’ve discovered about the work of our hands? And ot address Eric’s concerns – why don’t we have more prodigies naturally concerned with serialism? Isn’t all music “flashy” to some degree, or is that the purpose of mannerist style – to produce a music which more plainly evinces human experience in ways one may take or leave (?). There is a bias at work here, you know. If I say all serial music sounds alike to me, that may seem a damning generality. On the one hand, one will say “that is because you haven’t heard enough of it;” and on the other I may answer, “…no, my problem is that it all leaves me cold upon the hearing – cold and uninteresting.” Now, as a composer, if I happen to be in agreement with those in the audience who are as mystified as I am, then why shouldn’t I give credit to the general audience if indeed I share their distinct impressions. Bored is as bored does, and I think only untalented, disconnected hacks (tonal or otherwise) are even capable of boring music. Having said this, why isn’t the music of recent prodigies boring?

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  10. pgblu

    On that note
    pgblu, please, not philipp. Nobody knows who philipp is. But thanks for the backup.

    Also, I have now listened to the article on Mr. Maican. I too am a little nauseated by the coverage, but that certainly isn’t his fault. Anyway… how does this remind anyone of Brahms? There’s an augmented triad progression at the beginning of the segment borrowed from the b-section of some late intermezzo, but after that it’s decidedly less clear to me what the influences are (don’t know enough Dukas, I guess). Give him time to sort these out, and I’m sure his music will be a very worthwhile affirmation of the general health and continuing prosperity of our superior, homogeneous, unified, monolithic culture. What gifted 17-year-old artist is NOT convinced that they are a mere conduit for their art?

    Matt, did you know about the nasty polyp that Haydn had on his nose, and all the other reasons that he was confined to a bucolic estate in the Austro-Hungarian Empire? I’m not sure he wasn’t suffering just a little. I’m joking of course, your point is well-taken, though nasal polyps are no laughing matter. They’re pretty gross.

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  11. Colin Holter

    Philipp, you seem to be advocating against “descriptive” music, and I sympathize with you, but I don’t quite understand your argument. I wonder why, if music intended to be descriptive produces a result that isn’t, we can’t also make the parallel claim that music intended not to be descriptive can resonate extramusically. I don’t think we can speak conclusively about the output, and the final authority on the input, what I want my music to do, is me. Admittedly, this is a critically discouraging stance, but at the very least maybe we can agree that just because “music is a category of experience” doesn’t necessarily mean that music (even the same piece) can’t also “describe human experience.”

    Also: Sonic Ruins makes a great point. Very few prodigies get famous writing music that doesn’t date from Brahms to maybe Shostakovitch. Where are all the kids writing Obrecht studies? I would kind of dig that.

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  12. pgblu

    I am disinclined to repeat myself. If having an extramusical inspiration for your piece is what you need in order to write your music, more power to you. Go for it. If the end result is more music getting written, who am I to judge you?

    I am only reacting to the essentialism of earlier posts. I don’t think my music means anything, other than a general testament to the continuing triumph of Geist over Materie, and as I get better at writing it, I derive more and more satisfaction from listening to it. That’s the entire source of my motivation. The essentialist doctrine makes me into a superfluous, self-involved schmo who isn’t contributing to society.

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  13. AlexRossNY

    There have been a few cases in recent times of composers attracting attention at a very early age for their mastery of sogenannte “advanced” techniques. In the late 1950s the teen-aged Bo Nilsson was catapulted to international fame when Boulez began promoting his music. For a moment everyone was talking about his piece “Quantitäten” which contained no fewer than 85 different time-values, wowee zowee. I haven’t kept up with what Nilsson has been doing more recently, but he doesn’t seem to have made much impact outside his native Sweden. If we’re going to talk about high-school-composer pastiche of Beethoven or Brahms, we should also talk about college-composer pastiche of Ferneyhough or Grisey. In many cases we may be talking about the same composer. What were all of you writing when you were fifteen? Adolescents tend naturally toward Romanticism. The media likes prodigies. No big surprises here.

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  14. tbriggs

    pgblu,
    is not the “triumph of Geist over Materie” just as much a form of essentialism as that you were reacting against? it is the danger in asserting such cartesian, dualistic positions.

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  15. SonicRuins

    Hey Alex,

    Your point taken….And I can’t but help remembering a quote by Andrew Thomas that was along the lines of ‘every composition student that attended Juilliard pre-college in the 80s wanted to be John Williams.’ (I’m butchering the quote but the idea is there) But perhaps that says something about our current musical culture if we value Romantic music over everything else? Indeed, do you think a 15-year old writing a spectral violin concerto would ever get the attention that Greenberg or Maican is getting? I doubt it.

    Anyway, I’m not completely against the media covering interesting young composers. Your own article in the New Yorker a while back judiciously considered; you only mentioned Jay Greenberg in passing and focused on young composers with actual demonstrated talent. Timo A’s for example…a prodigy with actual substance. His music is not always free of classical influences, but at least willing to experiment.

    But Alex, I doubt the media frenzy surrounding the others came with the care that you took before publishing or broadcasting.

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  16. pgblu

    Didjeridualistic
    I was talking about my music, not about all music. Essentialist would be, for example, if I declared that everyone had to celebrate meaninglessness in their work in order to be worthy. I didn’t say that. Nor did I say that my music celebrates meaninglessness.

    Music is a discipline in which spirit works with/against matter — that’s not an aesthetic position, it’s a definition. Even declaring a bird’s song to be music requires a poietic spirit. To put it a different way, if matter were to triumph over spirit, we would not have a different kind of music, we would have no music.

    And I don’t know what is cartesian or dualistic about my position.

    I did not want to make this post about me, so let me say explicitly what this has to do with the topic. When someone says that music just sort of flows out of them, then they are ignoring or suppressing or denying, or have completely sublimated, the process of spirit wringing with material. Somewhere in the brain, that process is taking place: music does not spring from the mind like a tree springs out of the ground.

    The only non-trivial claim I am making, I guess, is that we should not choose to be naive: whatever critical faculties we use to filter our musical ideas serve us better when they are conscious than when they are unconscious. If hauling these processes into the conscious mind means one stops writing music, however, then by all means, keep it in the unconscious. That’s better than no music coming out at all. Not everyone is keen on analyzing themselves. But be sure to distinguish between two types of suppression: the one motivated by a fear of neutralizing the creative spirit, and the one motivated by intellectual laziness. The latter OFTEN masquerades as the former. If I say ALWAYS, then yes I am being what you call cartesian and dualistic, or what I call essentialist.

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  17. philmusic

    One of the benchmarks of being a composer is how we deal with our own success and the success of other composers. It little matters if that success is perceived to be, or is, deserved or undeserved. If the “fix” was actually in or not or that we, or others, think that the game was fair or rigged. Its not about them really, its about us and how we feel about ourselves. The bottom line is the media, besides reviews, consistently loves the arts as a “side show” -hence its focus on the unusual and the human interest, but that’s also their way to get people who don’t pay much attention to us to pay some attention. I don’t want to seem an apologist for the media that even this web site is part of. Perhaps these same “prodigies” are thinking, “Who are these bloogers who thousands of people read?” One day these ”prodigies” might end up becoming our students.

    What then?

    Phil’s Page

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  18. tbriggs

    dualism
    sorry that i misunderstood your previous post about your music. the cartesian or dualistic element to your comment that i wanted to respond to was the very clear distinction made between mind and matter or material. i wholeheartedly agree that music is a domain in which spirit and material interact but i’m not so sure that such a clear distinction between the two can be made. in other words, what constitutes the triumph of the mind over material? why must mind triumph over material? does this mean that material is dominant in the first place and mind must subsequently struggle to assert its role in the creative process? where does mind end and material begin? as mind works on material, so does material work on mind. in my experience, composition is a reciprocal process of wringing with material in which the material sometimes makes demands. some ideas simply do not work with some materials. can mind simply dominate material in these instances? what effect does that have upon the integrity of the work? the notion of triumph implies to me a struggle between two fundamentally different things (a duality) whereas the interaction between mind and material in composition seems to me to be much more nuanced and complex than just mind vs. matter.

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  19. pgblu

    Not so complicated
    Material lacks agency, is by definition inert, shaped by mind. Mind is ert. When we say this material is affecting my mind, then that is a metaphor. It is my mind reacting to the existence, not the agency, of material. Does that help?

    Merry Christmas, NMB!

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  20. JKG

    Descartes…
    was a brilliant mathematician, but no aesthete. His nemesis, Gianbattista Vico, had much to say about the fulfillment of culture over the course of generations, as an embodiment of various worldviews which tended to define a culture according to its trueness to itself. If we accept the mind-body of Descartes, we may as well just let machines run the world, because we pathetic humans have little to offer by comparison. If indeed the entire morass of human experience is nothing more than electromagnetic conditioning on a par with Pavlov’s dog, then I’d say that objectivity in music is indeed the future and destiny of the human musical experience. Obviously I would hold a materialistic view of music not only suspect, but contemptible as well. Is it any wonder I consider Schoenberg’s greatest masterpiece to be the Guerreleider?

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  21. EvanJohnson

    If we’re going to talk about high-school-composer pastiche of Beethoven or Brahms, we should also talk about college-composer pastiche of Ferneyhough or Grisey.

    Surely, surely, while there are certainly Ferneyhough and Grisey pastichers among the much-maligned population of under- and graduate-student composers, they are quite outnumbered by the number of, if not Beethoven- and Brahms-, then Rouse-, Schwantner-, Lang- (David, although, what the hell, maybe Bernhard too) pastichers.

    Pastiching is part of studenting, consciously or unconsciously. The problem is when the pastiche-reflex is mistaken for truth, or when (barf) the only obstacle to musical maturity is having one’s heart broken a few times.

    For what it’s worth, when I was fifteen I wanted to be some admixture of Bartok and Crumb. The Penderecki phase came later.

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  22. JKG

    Pierre Zappa…
    Frank once commented how Pierre Boulez enjoyed really weird and exotic foods for his lunch. I guess that makes sense, considering what comes out of him. I often wonder what Boulez thought of Zappa’s music – or whether he was not so absorbed in his own world that he wouldn’t have noticed Frank’s work to begin with. Perhaps Boulez could do a cover of “St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast (Where I Stole the Margarine)???”

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  23. EvanJohnson

    I often wonder what Boulez thought of Zappa’s music – or whether he was not so absorbed in his own world that he wouldn’t have noticed Frank’s work to begin with.

    Whatever you may or may not think of Boulez as a conductor, surely he at least noticed Zappa’s music in the course of producing
    this
    .

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  24. Colin Holter

    When I was 15 I wanted to be a mixture of Sting, Renato Bruson, and Mandy Patinkin’s character from The Princess Bride.

    Evan, I’m glad you cited the Boulez-Zappa record before anyone else could jump on it, because you certainly handled it more gracefully than I would have.

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