This week I want to address an issue that’s been lurking behind a number of recent discussions on NewMusicBox: Specifically, I’d like to defend the legitimacy of the academic composer. This shadowy figure, squatting atop an ivory tower on a throne of dogma, has attracted a fair amount of (largely visitor-provided) invective on these pages; as a student who owes his entire compositional formation to such pedagogues, the least I can do is go to bat for them. They’ve typically been too classy (or, more likely, too busy) to hit back themselves, but I don’t possess that kind of restraint—and when it comes to arguing about music, I have nothing but time.
The most obvious function of the academic composer is, of course, to teach. Basic theory instruction for composers and non-composers alike is a major part of this responsibility, but tutelage in composition itself is more relevant to this apologia. There is a large and complex (albeit nebulous) canon, so to speak, of compositional technique to pass on. The transmission of this craft is the main job of the academic composer. There have been successful autodidactic composers, no doubt about it, but if composers were horses, would you bet on the wild one or the well-trained one, all else being equal? We don’t just collect credentials at school—we also learn about music, believe it or not. (By the way, one reader obliquely accused some academic composers of being able to teach but not to compose; my experience has been that this is absolutely not the case.)
Another benefit enjoyed by academic composers is their freedom from market pressures. Because their work is subsidized, they are not, by and large, obliged to deliver a low-common-denominator product of the sort that dominates the industry. They are at liberty, in other words, to write music that people need but don’t immediately want (at least not in the same sense that they want the new Nickelback). In my opinion, the American composers who are doing the most interesting work today are, with one or two exceptions, in academic positions.
Finally, teaching at a university is, under optimal circumstances, a steady job with insurance benefits and a salary, and that’s kind of important too. In fact, I don’t fully grasp how one could be a composer in the USA without a university position and still manage to stay afloat financially. Moreover, it seems like the only places in America where one could maybe pull this off are characterized by exceedingly high costs of living. How do you guys do it? Is it worth the stress? Would you feel secure enough to start a family? For me, at least, this is maybe the most compelling reason to pursue a career in academia.