Ivory Tower: Great Views, Rent Subsidized

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.

73 thoughts on “Ivory Tower: Great Views, Rent Subsidized

  1. ydandaman

    I am curious what you mean by the idea of music that people “need”. What does it mean that people “need” music? Could you give me an example of something from the past that people “needed” but didn’t “want”? Obviously people don’t need music the way they need food or oxygen, but I don’t really understand what you mean by it in this context. It seems to me that “needing” and “wanting” music aren’t really qualitatively different, with “need” simply being used as a stronger version of “want”.

  2. Colin Holter

    Nobody wanted Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie when it first dropped, but a cursory look at contemporary works suggests that the staid, superficial opera scene of 18th-century Paris was in dire need of a shakeup.

    I concede that the “want” and “need” language is probably too reductive; I’m referring mainly to the distinction between affirmatory and non-affirmatory music (a distinction tangential to the main thrust of the column). Valid question.

  3. eficklin

    In general, I would agree that the teaching of composition in colleges, universities and conservatories is important and vastly undervalued both inside and outside of the new music world. I would also agree that the material security offered by academic positions (tenured and otherwise) is not to be dismissed nor should the composers in these positions be scoffed at. However, there are other career paths out there (as I have discovered).

    As an undergraduate I quickly realized that the academic life was not for me, but was very hard-pressed to identify any alternatives. Then some years after college I landed, nearly by accident, in an administrative position at a non-profit. (I think my email address should tell you all you need to know.) It’s not without its challenges and frustrations, but the last five years have been the most productive in my life (yes, much more so than college!) and the next five are looking pretty good. Non-profits are always in need of good people and have a lot to offer in terms of working environment and flexibility in pursuing outside projects. I encourage other composers to share their alternate paths to security.

    I would also love to hear from composers in Europe about how the (comparatively) greater availability of state funding has influenced their careers.

  4. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    I agree almost entirely. I definitely agree about the benefits of higher education. Certainly, it’s not for everyone. There are an endless variety of paths one might take towards being a good composer, and while higher education was an excellent choice of paths for me, I don’t presume to choose it for everyone. But it sure has lots to offer, and I think it’s odd how often people focus on a few uptight individuals in the academic institution. There are uppity folks everywhere. Believe me, they’re not just in academia.

    Also, I might go a step further when it comes to college as a job, and say that I don’t see any qualitative difference between the music of academia-employed composers and the music of otherwise-employed composers, these days. It’s just a question of how you choose to make your living. You have to do something other than just write music. Even those composers who are “living on commissions alone,” are only able to do so because they spend hours and hours of each day networking and being on committees and foundations and so on… it’s as much a job as being a barrista at Starbucks. I mean, it’s a better-paying and more prestigious job than Starbucks, but also more difficult and possibly less pleasant.

    So, academic jobs are another option. They carry the benefit of being ensconced in a musical community, and the tenure system, and usually a big set of grants and such that are only available within the university… Other jobs have other benefits. I know composers who work in arts administration, which has the benefit of an instant network. I know composers who work in pop music. I personally work as an accompanist, which has the benefit of working with music all day long. In any case, academia is an option, and probably the one with the highest salary and most benefits. It has its downsides, certainly, but so do they all.

    Okay, I’m ranting on and on. But I’m just dismayed at the constant attacks on academics I find in many of the comments in this forum. I’m one (mostly), and I like it, but I’m one of the first people to say that there are hundreds of career options for a composer, and everyone has their reasons for picking one over the others. So what’s so hard about extending that respect to each other?

  5. SonicRuins

    Yes, I do think there is a place for composers in academia and a place for good composers to teach. However, I believe the current system is broken. Composers mostly teach composition, and sometimes theory. There needs to be a greater role for composers in academia to advocate this music- perhaps through classes not directed to composers-only and on campus involvement, which are activities composers-teachers seem reticent to do or be involved in. Perhaps most don’t consider it important?

  6. ichypatia

    “I don’t fully grasp how one could be a composer in the USA without a university position”

    Well, let’s see there are … conductors, accompanists, chamber ensembles, dance bands, cruise line bands, musical theatre orchestras, theatre music composers, jazz/rock bands, church music groups, music libraries, production music libraries, research librarians, instrument builders, piano tuners, publishing & editing firms (music, history books, textbooks, technical books), music journalists, music critics, music engravers, music arrangers, computer music technicians (hardware & software), acoustic engineers, music architects, broadcast production companies, music distributors (music books, recordings, musical instruments), music supervisors (background music for special purposes, restaurants, offices, clinics, etc.), copyright and performing rights managers, artist development managers, broadcast recording engineers, sound and video editors, concert hall managers, studio managers, broadcasting executives, recording company executives, ensemble managers (orchestra & other ensembles, opera, theatre, etc., road manager), booking agents, musician’s union jobs, fund raisers, and grant writers … to name a few.

    And some of them may think the above statement is silly.

  7. amc654

    Eric – to be fair, what you saw here at Northwestern last year is not particularly typical of the role of most composers in academia. At the vast majority of institutions, composers teach shocking little composition. Most primarily teach theory, ear skills, history, analysis, etc. Or, even more common, they teach bassoon or conduct the band or maintain the electronic music lab. I happen to really love (!) that we get to offer highly specialized, advanced courses that are geared towards upper-level students in composition. It’s a very rare and utterly rewarding situation. (And, for the record, the comp courses I taught here last year had conductors, performers, theorists, music ed majors, music tech majors, and film majors enrolled, though you’re right to point out that composers made up the majority of students in those classes.)

    I wonder what sort of “on campus activity” you’d like to see from composition faculty. In addition to concerts, we also often do lectures for classes in other fields, we go to plays and movie screenings and do other inter-disciplinary stuff, we interact w/ students in social settings … (For me, personally, one of the things I love about having an academic job is just being on campus, going to sporting events, being around faculty & students in other fields, etc.) What is it you felt was missing in the larger campus involvement?

  8. rama gottfried

    Tenure positions
    Please contact Rama Gottfried in regard your open tenure position in music theory and composition.

  9. SonicRuins

    Aaron, I agree with almost everything you’ve said; in fact, it is exactly the type of courses, the community etc. I experienced there that I will remember most vividly (and fondly). I also agree that the scant, few composers teaching at most colleges and universities-save for schools such as NU, Yale, Eastman-do end up teaching theory, solfege, and other general courses. I hear this from friends who study music at local schools around the Jersey area- and I’ll assume this is the case with most colleges around the country as well.
    I do understand the exciting changes at NU are quite extraordinary compared to what’s going on everywhere else and most colleges elsewhere simply don’t have the funds to do anything like that.

    Perhaps I’m in my idealistic stage as a composer (and please forgive me- I’m only 19…In a few years, that’ll definitely change haha), and I certainly think I’m probably raising an unsolvable problem; but what you stated: “Most primarily teach theory, ear skills, history, analysis, etc. Or, even more common, they teach bassoon or conduct the band or maintain the electronic music lab,” is exactly the problem. The composers in these positions become jaded or what not and as time goes on, are even less willing to work for the furthering of new music- or whatever we call it these days. They get comfortable with the job security, benefits that come with tenure etc. and many become even less involved. Frankly, I’d love to see more “academic composers” doing what you (and Reynold as well as some grad students) are at NU- organizing concerts, events, lectures and so on. But I think even that traditional model isn’t really working anymore. What about more interdisciplinary activities with other departments. I know you said that “we” attended “film screenings and plays” and all that jazz- but- when were the theatre department and creative writing faculty members and students (or worst yet—faculty and students from other departments in the school of music) at the new music concerts?

    Now, I know what most us do and write doesn’t have mass-market appeal and never will; but I believe there has to be an audience out there (the hip, artsy crowd for a start) and I think that composers in academia has a job- and duty- to not just be passively involved but actively hyping up concerts, think of creative ways to bring more of an audience to concerts, and work some magic with marketing. I know some composers around reject (or at least not completely comfortable with) the glitzy, schmaltzy kind of “packaging” of groups like Alarm Will Sound, ICE and Eighth Blackbird but I know one thing, it packs houses…and not just with composers. Until composers find a way to “become” part of the “culture” on campus- I will still say that composers working in academia have more to do.

    Frankly, I think composers applying for teaching jobs at universities (esp. those trying to get tenure) should have “advocacy for new music on campus” somewhere on their contracts. (I’m not sure if it already is…but I doubt it…can you shed some light?)

    Unless someone is already extremely well off already or gets hit on the head with a Pulitzer Prize when they’re 14 (which is maybe .01% of composers), most composers work some odd job (which could be low paying or otherwise have nothing to do with music), work in commercial music, work in some related field such as performing OR teach in academic. Frankly, the final two are the only areas where real advocacy can occur. Hopefully we agree that the second to last option really isn’t an option as traditional institutions could care less about new music and those like ICE and AWS are already doing what they can. So the final area is academia- and from what I’ve seen and heard thus far, advocacy in the right way “ain’t” happening.

    P.S.- I remember you said something about teaching a course to non-music majors at when you were at Buffalo and while a few dropped the class, many who stayed became fascinated with scores you showed such as the Cage Concert. Perhaps, more colleges should have better advertised courses that survey new music.

    I also realize that this problem is not only limited to composition/music departments- it’s something that extends straight up to bureaucratic administrations of schools and there’s little we can do about that. If only they would cooperate and “care.” (sigh…)

    Oh my…I’m not gonna reread this now…I hope my long rant is coherent.


  10. Armando

    Very valid points all around. I write as I am about to finish my first week back in academia after a three year hiatus and, frankly, I am glad to be back. At the same time, I learned a lot of valuable lessons and did a great deal of work towards advancing my own work and career as a composer in the three years since my last academic position.
    After finishing my doctorate almost five years ago I landed a sabbatical replacement position at a small liberal arts college in Oregon. I absolutely loved the experience but, unfortunately I was unable to land another academic job, temporary or otherwise, and was forced to relocate and find new employment. I spent the first year teaching at the high school level and found that that area of music education was simply not right for me and left after just one year. I then devoted a year to caring for our young daughter (perhaps the greatest experience of my life) and teaching piano privately to help supplement my wife’s income and later on took on a job as an accompanist full time for a local choral program. All this, and the generosity of my in-laws, who took us into their home, allowed us to live in a rather high-priced metropolitan area. In the meantime I was also able to make some significant contacts which made some important performances possible and allowed me to begin my own new music ensemble.
    After three years of this, I landed a one to two year teaching position at another liberal arts college (this time in New York) through a post-doctoral fellowship program, which is allowing me to continue my work while providing an avenue for teaching future composers AND non-composers (and even non-musicians!) not just about composition but history and theory AND providing plenty of time to continue working with my ensemble and composing two rather large pieces that must be finished by the end of the year. Without this gig, which just fell on my lap in the middle of the summer, I would have a harder time making ends meet, even while still being able to work on these pieces (although my working on one of them has been made possible by this particular position).
    All of which is to say I have gotten a great deal out of life as both an academic composer and a non-academic one. I don’t think, for instance, that I would ever have started the ensemble had I been in academia last year. At the same time, it is very nice to have my work subsidized, even if for a limited time, and to have some measure of financial security, at least for now…something quite rare for a composer.

    Which is not to say that there aren’t problems with the system. Each year there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of students entering conservatories and music schools expecting to become professional composers. Neither the market nor the academic profession can support us all and our universities are not preparing us for this eventuality (I know mine didn’t). And as far as the quality of composers goes between those working in academia and those working outside of it I’d say the proportion of good and bad composers is the same regardless.

    Just my two cents.

  11. justjonathan

    This topic has a way of stirring up the best and worst in everyone. My opinion…it’s a wash. From my experiences in universities as a student or teacher (CalArts, USC, Pomona College, Heidelberg College, University of Michigan) to recording rock bands and writing music for television…people can be extremely opinionated on both ends. I’ve heard more digs at commercial music from academia than digs at academia from the commercial music world. Just because you write commercial music doesn’t mean it’s lowest common denominator. And just because you have a college position doesn’t mean you move people to tears and enlighten your audience. Composition teachers can encourage their students to seek a path of originality or a path of holding up tradition. It depends on where you study. As for making a living as a composer in the USA – it is possible, but not easy. I think adopting James Tenney’s view of music in the USA can be applied to working outside the academy (even though he worked in it…)
    “If nobody cares what you do, you’re free to do what you want to, if you can find a way to survive. Which is not the case in Europe. The societies there do care what their artists do and I believe that their artists feel more of an obligation to respond to that. American composers are, of course, free to write anything they wish, and the American public is free to ignore it.”
    Sure, my funding is tied to writing music for the entertainment industry. I can keep my motivations for creating music for money and art separate. It’s no different than a graphic designer that paints abstract expressionism. But, I don’t care about applying for grants or impressing graduate students or finding my place in history or converting people’s ears to sounds that I think are important. Those are good things for the higher education. I’m thankful that there is a place where idealism in the arts reigns.
    OH GOD…In my opinion, the American composers who are doing the most interesting work today are, with one or two exceptions, in academic positions. REALLY?
    …this type of value system gets us all in trouble…

    In closing…How do you do it? Well, I’ve been lucky and also self-sacrificing in LA writing music for television and recording concerts, some teaching. Is it worth the stress? Yes, absolutely. The sense of freedom and flexibility is excellent. Starting a family? Difficult even if you don’t pursue the arts.
    The worst reason for choosing a career in academia is security. A lot of job security is going away for good. I think a lot of people stay in because “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

  12. JKG

    Colin, I regret that you view my statement as “oblique.” There are some academic composers entirely bereft of any considerable talent for writing music worth performing for an audience outside of the hallowed halls of institutional wisdom, and I certainly meant to be direct about the matter. Dinos Constantinedes at LSU lamented about this issue in a paper some time ago, that academic composers frequently fail once they leave the coop—because they refuse to relate to the rest of the world. Inasmuch as your statement regarding the perceived “need” for academic music, I agree with you that there is obviously a great need for such experimentation within academia. However, to assume listeners outside those institutions have any need whatsoever for such forays, is both a value judgment on your part, and an assumption of an elitist viewpoint (which in many circles gathers both scorn and ridicule when you and your colleagues are not looking). Let us reconcile the matter by agreeing—there are indeed some composers in the academic worlds who truly do reach out to a bigger world, according to various modes of meaningfulness and tradition, and without a thought to what you refer to as “market pressure.” And what about the serious composer who writes to the absolute exclusion of the academic safety net—are they any less serious about the advance of the art of composition? …are they solely at the mercy of endless rents and insurances? …is their music any less a work of beauty and frankness in our generation? …are they less “contemporary” merely on the basis of style and expression?

  13. dannycdoubleb

    I think it is every capable composer’s job and perhaps moral duty to write the best possible music that she\he is able; the comforts of academia (if only relative – for we are often insulted intellectually by our contemptuous colleagues) make it the most reliable diamond for such creative pitching. Please take my point and not any pitiful witticisms which may have occurred or may follow. We as a community of human beings really do need this advanced music – advanced in intent and in realization of that intent.
    A composer who works at this hightest level is adding to the combined knowledge and experience of sentient beings; in fact, when anyone in any positive profession works at this high level the world is transformed (perhaps someday achieving a metaphysical enlightenment.) This is sometimes harder to see in music than in the other arts or sciences, for musical expression is vacuous without a performance (which is often supplied to or, at least, is a possibility for the university composer) and the understanding of at least a communal village (the composer’s colleagues.) But it is precisely this aspect of community that is so important in music. Upon completing a musical journey within the chasms of a concert hall, we have shared an experience which cannot be described.
    A composer should never have to worry about making her/his music ‘accessible’ to the public, for this daunting and depressing act can only take away from her/his important task of crafting thoughtfully. This freedom from fear, again, is most readily gained in the untainted tower of tusks. It is important, however, for us as musicians and as music lovers to share whatever music we admire and believe in (besides our own, of course) with as many unsuspecting souls as possible. All joking aside, this must be done through (must I be social again?) community. When bringing the music of, say, such a ‘problematical’ character as Milton Babbitt to a small community that has gained one’s trust (only with time), it is imperative to inform them that he is an incredibly important composer, explain to them that his music must be listened to very attentively, and perhaps warn them that their perceptual abilities might be challenged (which, at worst, will inspire, at least, mental growth.)

  14. Colin Holter

    This is what I’m talking about – and, as I think Aaron first pointed out, academic composers are as valuable for their potential to contribute to their communities as to their institutions.

    A composer should never have to worry about making her/his music ‘accessible’ to the public. . . Amen. It’s as unfair to us as it is to them (and, by the way, I maintain that there’s a clear pragmatic difference between “us” and “them” in this context insofar as we produce it and they consume it). My response to critics who allege that experimentalists “don’t care what the audience thinks” is that traditionalists don’t even care whether the audience thinks.

    And by the way, a lot of the best composers in America really are in university positions. Deal.

  15. JKG

    Everyone has a favorite…
    Well, at least the lines are drawn in the sand, and I’m glad everyone’s comfortable. I am not against university instruction, nor am I against those stylistic advances and experimentation which result from arduous study in the fields of musical aesthetics and music history. If it is true that the best composers in this country are teaching, then that would imply that school is the best place to be creative – which unfortunately is not the experience of many. And if the same allowance for subjectivity exists for both types of composers, then it only makes sense that creativity exists in far too numerous settings besides the university. Aside from the simple fact that some are willing to starve to do what they love, there is also the matter that creativity cannot be taught. There is also the notion of whether the composer has a responsibility to cause his audience to think – a relatively new notion with the advent of so-called “modernism.” Of course, much of this new music must be explained, in the way a joke is explained before telling it. That keeps the mood sober and austere, which leads to the very basic question – is music an exercise of the mind or of the heart? Still, everyone is entitled to believe what they will believe regardless. And I believe the very best (and expressive) composers in this country and Europe work outside the university.

  16. coreydargel

    What about Teaching?
    It might be a good idea, Colin, for you to read Alex Ross’s new piece in the current issue of The New Yorker, titled “Learning the Score,” about music and education. It’s not online, but maybe your library has a copy.

    You indicate that the purpose of an academic composer is primarily to teach, yet you never say that you actually want to teach. Rather, your main reason for taking an academic job is your own financial and creative stability.

    Of course, you must find a way to make a living, and no one should judge you (or any other composer) based solely on what else you do to make money. But, if you’re not passionate about teaching, then PLEASE don’t become a teacher.

  17. ydandaman


    1. Teaching

    Teaching can be as valuable for composers as for any other profession. Of course the way it’s done in academia is generally very poor, and often more about imparting a set of aesthetics than the student achieving their own personal musical goals. While perhaps more subtle than in the supposed bad old days of serial indoctrination (so I’m told) it is no less real today.

    2. Market Protection

    First of all, creativity and musical innovation are very possible outside of the academic environment, let’s dispose of that myth right away. Unfortunately, when arguing with academics on this, they will generally refuse to allow the validity of musical expression other than those that are completely incomprehensible to the average music lover. This usually involves vague and unassailable claims that serious and experimental art music being written in popular idioms is less “important” or on a “lower level”.

    The main problem with this market protection (which seems good in theory I admit) is that it becomes an excuse given by people with extremely impressive technical and theoretical abilites, but no real expressive capabilities. I firmly believe that truly expressive, innovative music in any genre will find an audience within the confines of the market. I know there are people who disagree, but I’m hard-pressed to find any non-academic composers who have any genuine affection for more than a handful of academics.

    3. Financial Stability

    The financial stability offered by academia is obviously an important consideration. However, as others have offered, there are many paths to making money that exist for the aspiring composer. Personally, I think it’s an environment that very dangerous to creativity, however if you truly have a passion for teaching, I believe it is not only worth the potential risks, but is an extremely valuable service to society, provided of course the teaching is done properly (see above).

    I bear no ill-will towards those who make their living in academia, in fact it may be one of the more noble pursuits for somebody with a vast knowledge of music. It is when people forget the real purpose of educational institutions and begin using their academic positions to evangelize a particular aesthetic position that things start to get problematic.

  18. dannycdoubleb

    Be careful with your use of the terms original and tradition. Truly original music will come from a strong tradition. Anything else will lead us in circles. Arnold Schoenberg, serialism, and 12-tone serialism are not revolutionary, even if disliked by many.
    Any seriously dedicated composer who is working at the highest level that I have previously mentioned will have a desire to pass on her/his discoveries through teaching. Even Stravinsky, who said he could not teach, has concsiously shared his discoveries with us – through talking about his music and through, of course, the music itself. That is not at all to say every academic composer is a good teacher, nor that a good teacher is necessarily a good composer (or even an academic composer.)
    How can you suggest that composing in an academic environment leads to a lack of expression? Such a statement is just silly. Please to not reject and infect a body of music (in fact, many bodies of music) by using the cliche of non-expression. A music is does not lack expression simply because you don’t like it, and certainly not because you don’t like where it was composed. I think you are also confusing celebrity with success. Just go on writing the best possible music that you are capable of writing (hopefully you will find a way to focus on this task outside of academia) and whether or not people are moved by it today, tomorrow, or never, you can sleep knowing you contributed to the world as much as you were capable. Just think of the integrity of (albeit the completely different fuction of) compositions by such a friend as our at one time publicly forgotten Mr. J.S.

  19. DJA

    Any seriously dedicated composer who is working at the highest level that I have previously mentioned will have a desire to pass on her/his discoveries through teaching.

    “Passing on your own personal discoveries” is not quite the same thing as “teaching,” now, is it?

  20. justjonathan

    I just wanted to state that this is exactly the conversation that needs to happen in our field, regardless of how you plan on making ends meet.
    A few observations:
    1. People tend to defend what they know.
    2. We should be careful about what type of “value” we place on each of our roles in the music world. I think experimental composers in institutes of higher learning are valuable, Bollywood film composers are valuable, and people forming rock bands in Iran are important. “Value” shifts depending on perspective and culture. What one values in school can be drastically different out of school.
    3. It’s easy to dismiss different fields of music because it appears unchallenging. (Try music for a shampoo commercial and tell me that it’s easy to make 10 ad people happy and find something satisfying for you…or write a piece that is intellectually challenging that appeals to more than just your colleagues…neither are easy and each has its challenges)
    4. I agree with everyone else who says that if you’re not passionate about teaching, PLEASE DON’T TEACH!
    5. Can we all agree that a big motivation for writing music is that there is no wrong or right answer. FREEDOM! If I wanted to be right all of the time, I would have pursued something a little more concrete than composing music, like accounting or insurance!

  21. DJA

    Kyle Gann’s post today is really worth reading in light of this discussion, particularly for what it reveals about the difference between teaching versus indoctrination:

    Every theory teacher, I feel sure, collects over the years a repertoire of pieces for analysis guaranteed not to make him look stupid in class. But if the teacher always looks so smart, doesn’t the music start to look stupid? I have to use those pieces, because sometimes you have to make a specific point in a circumscribed amount of time, but I consciously resist limiting myself to them. I have some pieces I analyze – the bitonal Saudades de Brazil of Darius Milhaud, a symphony (Second) by Martinu, Liszt’s Sposalizio, that just don’t behave well. I give them William Caplin’s rules for the sonata, distilled from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and then analyze – Dussek!, who never read Caplin’s book. Every other year I wade a group of students into “Emerson” from the Concord Sonata and we try to figure out what the hell Ives had in mind, with perennially sparse results. I have learned to savor that stupid feeling of not being able to explain a piece fully, and not being able to justify its existence any better than pointing out that I like it. Sometimes I bring in pieces I’ve never analyzed, with no idea what we’ll find, and we just start rummaging around. I even teach an entire course that way, my Advanced Analysis Seminar, in which we spend all semester on three works I’ve never analyzed, chosen specifically because I don’t understand how they work. Once we got lost in the Stravinsky Piano Concerto, practically my favorite piece of his, and thought we’d never get out.

  22. kacattac

    you’re a meanie
    – “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?” — I’ll try to be as civil as I can in saying this: this statement is flat out ignorant. Yes, there are people who can’t write a simple rhythm correctly who pass themselves off as “composers.” Not cool. But not everyone who lacks a comp degree is like that. All else is, in fact, never equal Colin. And regarding the horse analogy, is composing more like finding a way to cross a vast wilderness, or is it more like running around in a circle 25 times? Don’t answer that.

  23. Colin Holter

    I’ll try to be as civil as I can in saying this: this statement is flat out ignorant.

    No it’s not. It’s informed by personal experience. I used to know nothing about composing, and my music was awful. Five years in academia later, I know a little more about composing, and my music is marginally better. I have no doubt that the best self-taught composer in the world could improve with formal study.

  24. JKG

    *laughing uproariously*
    Colin, you are absolutely right that a self-taught composer can benefit tremendously from an academic experience – if nothing else, to acquaint him/herself with the location of the music library with suitable methods for making good use of it. There are, in fact, composition professors who should stay in school and continue to teach the basics, because their attempts at composition impress no one. They have the education, the credentials, and even perhaps the tenure – but they lack two very important things; the talent and the heart. Lest I be accused of mocking all of academia, let me be clear this is only true of some composers. It may not matter one fig whether the car mechanic or the five-year-old can understand something an “intellectual” composer has to say, but who is to define music in so limited a manner as to exclude most of humanity? Interesting that many of the same folks who insist on the liberty to express themselves “intellectually” tend to fall short of humanity when it comes to deeming the listener that same consideration. No, those who teach with little talent need to stay in school and teach, and leave real music composition to composers who mean to communicate to more than just an elitist few. I stopped short of getting a composition degree because twelve-tone in my opinion is not even musical. I’ve used serial techniques for years with great abandon, but only in the framework of tonal resources. World music and minimalism make great sense to me, and in fact Moussorgsky (try analyzing Boris Godunov), Bartok and other Slavic composers speak to me just fine within their native, tonal voices. It is one thing that “music” is taught in the universities, yet there is a distinct difference between “music” and “musical.” Perhaps the silence you mention in your first post, regarding any desire of professorial types to address this issue, may originate to some degree from their own self-admitted lack of ability to communicate musically? Not everyone is willing to be subjected to stylistic failure, particularly a composer whose idealism prevents him from writing “music” which only communicates to a few. There is a difference between music and sound manipulation, but that fact looms wanting in most instances of your fabled ivory tower. There are many instances of composers whose work is wonderful, who do happen to teach, and for whom the common denominator is that they reach out consciously to a larger audience than merely a select, mutual admiration society.

  25. SonicRuins

    Colin, I think your logic is slightly problematic. You really can’t make such a broad statement using only your personal experience. You may be one of those composers who truly benefit from formal training. However, you cannot assume that’s true for everyone. I for one know several composers who thought staying in school too long caused creative stagnation.

    With that said, I’m deeply grateful for the formal training I’ve have thus far and I believe I’m like you, a composer who dies benefit from more structured instruction. I am however taking some time off- these past 3 months have been the first time in 4 years I’ve been without a comp. teacher and I realize I need the time off. It’s my chance to synthesize everything for myself and a time for free discovery for myself as a composer.

  26. dannycdoubleb

    Increasing defense and little attack
    “twelve-tone in my opinion is not even musical” It is certainly true that the number 12 is not particulary musical, and that an ordering of twelve-tones is not inherently musical, but I hope you are not suggesting that a composition which takes advantage of the 12-tone method is neccesarily unmusical. Such a statement would, of course, be preposterous and might suggest that you were judging musics by their compositional processes and not by their empirical value. 12-tone serialism is not the determinant of a style or of even of a form, rather it is a method (I should note that the fugue is also not a style or form, but a method – which is not to say that the fugue has anything to do with the 12-tone method.) I am proud to be a serial composer, and I am also proud to be a composer who writes exactly what he hears. It is fine if you don’t believe me, but I will point out that Stravinsky, upon adopting serial and even 12-tone methods, still sounded exactly like Stravinsky. Please do not verbally insult and dismiss a body of important music simply becuase you don’t like the way it was composed. On a different note, I think JUSTJONATHAN had some good points in ‘thanks…’ Each one of us can have a great importance in whatever we do, but I still must stress the importance of doing it all at the highest possible level – be it twelve-tone, a-tone, or tonal. But if the ONLY thing we do is try to please the general public, we may find that there is not a great deal of growth involved. Perhaps I am elitist, but I think everyone has the priviledge (to an extent) to be elitist in whatever field they specialize. If physicists were only researching what could be understood by the general public, would we understand what we now do about the universe? Is anybody suggesting that such advanced studies in physics are unimportant? I am not saying that everybody needs to write extremely complex music that can only be understood by a few (or that complex music is necessarily important), rather I am saying that such music has an important purpose and has a different function than music which is deemed ‘accessible’. We should all be supporting each other as composers, not attacking ‘the other side’ without any real knowledge of what is going on there. As a young serial composer, I am suggesting that we ‘get together’ and ‘try love one another right now’.

  27. justjonathan

    Yes, there’s alot of flawed logic floating around…(*so maybe here’s some more flawed logic!*)

    *hey* does knowing Ligeti micropolyphonic music from the 60s take away from enjoying a Sigur Ros concert? I think not. Is a performance by Zakir Hussain less satisfying than Varese? nope. Is enjoying the Solaris soundtrack diminished because you know its origins? Nope. Some would say I’m comparing apples to oranges, but the choices are often limited in scope in college comp. classes. The problem is that (and it’s better than it used to be…) there’s a real hierarchy in place here or an indoctrination like the one mentioned in the Gann piece. And this stems from an unwillingness for most of the academic world to embrace the world we really live in – one full of cross-cultural connections, a myriad of art and entertainment options, and a general push of not placing music in boxes. My problem with academia is that the teachers usually do not have a wide enough frame of reference – things tend to err toward the structured and toward the wealthy and white and Western.

    *Or* maybe it’s that alot of the compositional guard in the academy have a different problem, that they don’t believe in the free will of their students or the public.

  28. JKG

    I swear, its so funny when some folks get their knickers in a knot just because I consider atonal music to be invalid as a communicative musical style. Aren’t I allowed to be as closed-minded as that genius Boulez? I am not preventing anyone from writing. listening or studying music within that framework, so why the defensiveness of its proponents when I suggest it worthless where my own music is concerned? I am perfectly secure in my own traditionalism, and I do not impress my views upon others – and just because a few professors think certain sound manipulations are in fact “music” doesn’t mean I have to agree. Anyone in here ever heard of the Emperor’s new clothes? Truth is, some professors who write in “modern” styles do so because they are inept at communicating within a tonal framework – and then justify the complexity of their work by all manner of explanation. If its any consolation, I’d rather listen to Webern than bad tonal writing any day. Funny how his stuff “sounds tonal,” which precisely explains his success as an expressive composer. I’d love to see how many of my colleagues here have a working definition of “talent.” Some of you modernists would likely HATE my music, but “who cares if you listen?”

  29. amc654

    My problem with academia is that the teachers usually do not have a wide enough frame of reference

    My problem with this whole string of posts is that apparently many (most?) of you seem to have gone to unbelievably shitty schools.

  30. dannycdoubleb

    If you had, in fact, read Mr. Babbitt’s insightful article you would realize that he does in fact care if you listen, but specifically cares HOW you listen. The original title of the article was “The Composer as Specialist”, but the editor thought it would be fine to change the title to something more provocative. I am very sorry that all you can here in Webern is that it ‘sounds tonal.’ You are missing out on a remarkably beautiful language which is deeply expressive and is based on audible relationships which are far from tonal. I further regret that you have given my previous words no consideration. The fact remains, your single opinion really has no effect on the importance of the body of musical composition which happens to be 12-tone, or even, somehow, ‘a-tonal.’ It is fine if the 12-tone method does not suit your musical fancy, but you have clearly been verbally abusing all music which has been composed using the 12-tone method. As much as I might hate your music, I would never attack something that was meaningful to another being, nor would I form opinions about works based on the theory of their construction as oposed the their empirical value. I wonder how many pieces of schoenberg and how many repeated listens of his music it has taken you to form your negative opinions. If you cannot even hear the 12-tone ordering, why does it matter that it was composed using this method? You have actually been quite hostile and you have yet to learn that music should bring people together in a positive way. Or by ‘communicative’, are you suggesting the segregation and alienation of us as composers and as people? As for composers who write music in order to talk about it or talk about music in order to justify it, please give me complete list and I will scold them personally.

  31. JKG

    You can begin by scolding me, Danny – which in fact you have. If I am hostile to atonality for my own use, that is my business. If it so happens that hearing after hearing of various atonal and serial pieces has produced nothing in me but a tired sigh that they pretty much all sound alike, that is my business too. Frankly, I am always pleased to meet another composer, regardless of how they write, and I am just as frankly amazed at how easily you feel I have slighted so many personally by maintaining that twelve-tone “ain’t my bag o’tea.” If there were more confidence in your posts, I would assume I’d somehow insulted your own talent personally – but in fact I merely stated that, from my own point of view, some modernists seriously lack skills necessary to be communicative composers. Does that fact surprise you? Where are all the standards by which we judge a piece’s beauty? Have they too gone the way of political correctness by means of which “some composers are more equal than others?” You reveal quite a bit about yourself by taking my comments so personally, and that is too bad. Yes, I find twelve-tone to be meaningless, but so what? I also find punk rock to be meaningless too – do I risk offending a punk rocker? Just because I don’t recognize some styles as music doesn’t mean they aren’t music to others, and I grant that fact. Even a patently untalented professor has every right to write whatever he or she chooses – have I made myself clear on this point? If my personal non-acceptance of atonal methods constitutes an affront to some, then what does that say about their views concerning artistic liberty? If I am not allowed to hold my own views concerning musical beauty (which for me exists for the common man as well), then what right exists for ANY of us to hold any particular view? I am not offended if someone doesn’t like tonality, nor am I put off if someone writes in that style. I do believe there is a difference between a ‘poser and a composer, regardless of the compositional legacy they uphold.

  32. JKG

    Boy howdy!
    Feel free to ask Danny, Eric. All I’ve done is managed to insult him by suggesting I have a bias against professorial composers who refuse to express musically in a manner most folks can understand. I do, however, take full responsiblity for my entirely dismissive view of twelve-tone as a valid compositional system – that is simply my opinion and I do not force that on anyone. The original thread – justifying the compositional ability of academic composers – brought into focus my own concern that there are some who “teach” who cannot “do.”

  33. justjonathan

    “My problem with academia is that the teachers usually do not have a wide enough frame of reference.

    My problem with this whole string of posts is that apparently many (most?) of you seem to have gone to unbelievably shitty schools.”

    Good point. And also I must apologize for generalizing. There are alot of good teachers out there. I’ve had many and I *arguably* didn’t go to shitty schools. I grew up poor in a small town in Ohio, had a great teacher at a very small college (Heidelberg College), studied at the University of Michigan and then at CalArts. I taught at the Walden School for a few summers, and teach electronic music occasionally at Pomona College. I started a doctorate in composition at USC. Sure, I don’t have the pedigree of some of my colleagues on the east coast, but maybe there’s room for people like me in conversations like this. I’m not a composer at a college or a graduate student – I make a living writing for television, so for the sake of conversation, I decided to put in my 2 cents, whether it be totally subjective or not. The original post defended the academy and asked questions regarding living outside of it. I’m one of those people. I write new music when I’m not cranking out 4 minutes of commercial music a day. I attend concerts, I’m active in the scene, I record for people, I hire the same players that I write new music for to play on my commercial work, those players suggest me for gigs, I spend alot of time tracking international royalties, I improvise with a percussionist friend of mine…In short, my original point was to speak of the possibilty outside of academia and to defend the possibility that the work is important, serves a social function, and is in the world at large. I had a great education, but I’ve seen my share of snotty idealogues as well…
    I read NewMusicBox because I’m still interested in the craft of composition and want to know what’s going on, and alot of the posts I read come from one perspective.
    It’s difficult to convey that this conversation has been seen through the prism of joy for a field that I dearly love.

  34. dannycdoubleb

    Don’t worry friend, I too have been smiling
    I apologize 1. for bringing this discussion away from its point and 2. for being overly defensive (for I do take attacks on the 12-tone method very personally when they have nothing to do with the music at hand and I think all that this reveals about me is that I am a passionate about the music I love, a portion of which happens to have been written with this method.) JKG, I am indeed very sorry that you have essentially rejected a great deal of music before hearing a note, and that you have really not paid attention to a single detail of what I have written, but I am also sorry that I misunderstood you on one point: I thought earlier that you did in fact wish to impose your negative opinion on others, and I am glad this is not the case. Anyways, thank you for an enjoyable discussion, I shall consider you a friend, and now I must stop talking and actually go compose.

  35. Colin Holter

    How the **** did this thread become about the tonal/atonal battle again?

    One thing I’ve learned since I began writing for NewMusicBox is that all threads have the potential to become about the tonal/atonal battle. Initially this bothered me, but then I remembered that that particular battle was fought and won almost a hundred years ago.

    Back home in western Maryland, a lot of people fly the Confederate flag in front of their houses or display it in bumper-sticker form on their trucks. The First Amendment makes it reasonably clear that one’s right to fly the stars and bars is not to be impinged upon. However, if I wanted to announce to the world that I was an incorrigible, unreconstructed redneck, the first thing I’d do would be to install a flagpole in my front yard and run up those colors.

    Your right to compose tonal concert music is inalienable, but there’s no better way to demonstrate your ignorance (willful, I assume) of the past century’s musical progress. I’d also note that as far as I’m concerned, punk is the most important tonal(ish) music of the past 50 years.

  36. Colin Holter

    By the way: To all you composers writing uncompromising music and making a living outside of academia, more power to you, and thanks for sharing your experiences. Even though I see myself staying in a university setting, it’s heartening to hear that one really can make it on one’s own outside the ivy-covered walls.

  37. JKG

    Incorrigible me…
    Think nothing of it, Danny. I am no better or worse for wear than any of you, and I do not regret my lifelong aesthetic decisions. Art is in many ways, after all, the set of firm decisions we make for ourselves to merely have a distinct voice at all. Someone in this generation is going be an exponent for tonal traditionalism, and of course I am not the only one. I write the music I love to write, because I love to write it – income or not. Respighi is to me what Webern is to some of you, and I can live with that. I am only too gratified to finally find a blog where I am not seen as overtly attacking twelve-tone while simply being dismissive of it. While not everything I write is in strict common practice, there are in fact various issues I contend with as a point of study, all of which have to do with advancing tonal technique according to tonal tradition. Thanks to the many advances in jazz and world music, there’s a lot more there I think than numerous modern composers realize. And just because I’m tonal doesn’t mean I automatically cotton slavishly to an audience, although I must admit it is heartfeltedly gratifying to see a group of kindergarteners leaping around and expressing themselves to one of my symphonies. I give much credit to the common man and woman, and see their tastes as inalienable – just because they are not so sophisticated (or convoluted in some cases) as some of my academic peers, doesn’t mean they are not touched by the reality and beauty of music – a thing all of us admit to being affected by for life. As the motto of the X-Files states: “The truce is out there.”

  38. cornicello

    I’d like to shed some perspective on this idea of the academic composer. I think we all have to remember that there is a difference between the terms academic, modernist, and even university professor.

    First of all, the composers in the US moved to the university, for the most part, after WWII. The universities in this country were growing and expanding in many departments. Composers had made money elsewhere (as they still do), but found the idea of teaching pleasant and in conjunction with what they thought of on a daily basis. Of course, as it has been mentioned, they often were hired to teach theory, not compositon.

    At the same time, there was the rise of High Modernism. Many youngish composers of that time were attracted to the intellectual rigor of High Modernism. Perhaps they were influenced by the intellectual rigor of the sciences, and wanted to be taken seriously in the world of the university, or perhaps because it reflected a viewpoint of the times.

    Also, at around the same time, the AAUP was formed and instituted the tenure system we now have in place at most univerisities. How does one gain tenure? Often through research and publication, speaking at conferences, etc. This is perfectly fine for someone in a science field, but what about composers? Well, as theorists, they found they could publish articles on pieces they found interesting. The articles became more and more dense and complex, as the authors tried to mimic the sciences. And, their subject matter of choice tended to be High Modernism, the then-current rage amongst youngish composers.

    So, we’ve got university-based composers, maquerading as theorists, writing articles on music by their contemporaries, mostly High-Modernist. As we move to more recent times, the articles don’t necessarily abate, but the mentality becomes stronger: your piece now should become ‘analyzable’. So, although it shouldn’t be too easy to understand, it should conform to some system in case someone needs to write an article for Perspectives of New Music. And, thus, we have the Academic Composer.

    Now, not all university-based composers are academics, and they’re certainly not all High- (or Late-) Modernists. But, yes, there are a large number of truly dogmatic composition teachers who would be considered academic. Now, are all High- or Late-Modernists academic? No. There are some who take the attitude that their own music has a certain amount of rigor, and that’s not for everyone. But a lot of them draw the line between “music” and “not music”, and, yes, Modernist (along with its ugly cousin Academic) music certainly fall within the “music” boundaries. And that’s the shame of it all, because they’ve tainted a large number of people against an otherwise wonderful profession.

  39. composerose

    There are no prefabricated labels that apply to all equally. Why is it that we feel we must justify ANY music (or musicians for that matter)?

    Cultures need, cultures want. However, don’t you think that using these terms puts the debate in a separate realm? Say, the value of music (good music vs. bad music). The value of music lies in the priceless nature of its objectivity. We cannot deduce, then, that ANY music or musician is or is not justifiable.

    Simply put: music is the expression of ideas without a limitation of words or pictures.

    Our equality lies in our uniqueness.

  40. JKG

    The need for justification…
    The post concerning the genesis of academic music in America is frankly one of the most precise and succinct I have ever read – thank you! As far as the labeling and justification of stylistic processes go, however, i think we need to be honest. Its a lot easier just to “make nice” and keep one’s mouth shut regarding matters of taste and whether certain musics reveal both depth and meaning. Music which is designed to have no meaning except for what sounds it incurs, is perfectly useless for me, even if I smile while listening and respond “interesting” upon being asked my reaction to the hearing of it. I do not buy into the inclusivity argument that we all express equally, and that there is no longer any need for criterion where great art is concerned. To me, that is precisely the kind of political correctness and boorishly pedantic patronism that we all can do without. If art were ever a tool against tyranny (even tonality?), then certainly there are enough tyrannies to go around lately. The only composer who needs to defend his work is one who cannot depend upon his music to defend itself at the listening of it. Great music never requires an explanation as to its meaning, regardless of style. Concerning the taxonomy of music throughout the ages, there will always be a need to catagorize, if for no other reason to facilitate both access and study. So the labels will be there regardless of how polite we are, or how polite we pretend to be. What would beethoven do?

  41. jonrussell20

    Several points I’d like to make.
    1) Colin, how can you deride people for not responding to the changes in music over the past hundred years, when you clearly have not responded to the changes in music in the past 30 years? Atonality won?! What about minimalism? What about neo-romanticism? What about the recent influence of world and popular music? It’s akin to deriding Mozart for failing to respond to his predecessors by writing intricate, complex fugues. The history of music is NOT a steady and inexorable process of increasing complexity. Sometimes willful simplicity is the most radical statement of all.
    2) I think the head-heart dichotomy is key here. The academy tends to be most receptive to music that lends itself to analysis and study. While much great music lends itself well to this, much great music does not, and this music tends to be neglected in academic training. This creates the constant danger that music coming from the academy will be over-intellectualized and heartless. I’m not saying by any means that all of it is, but I personally find that much of it is. It is something the academic composer must always be wary of.
    3) There are many, many ways to learn music. I’ve been out of school for five years and have been playing with lots of interesting ensembles – I’ve learned lots of things from this hands-on experience that I could never have learned in graduate school. Until recently, there was no formal educational process at all for jazz music, yet people learned by doing, immitating, apprenticing (the way classical music was learned until recently too). So obviously the academy is by no means the only or best way to become a learned and well-rounded composer.
    4) There is absolutely no reason that composers cannot write “commercial” music to make a living as well as “serious” music. There need not be any contradiction. Mozart did it. Beethoven did it. And it is entirely plausible for music to be both profound and challenging and wildly popular (e.g., Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s 9th, most Verdi and Wagner operas, even the Rite of Spring, which went on to considerable success in a concert version the same year as its infamous ballet premiere). This idea that all great music is misunderstood in its own time is a great fiction. While it is true that SOME music’s greatness is only realized later, it does NOT follow that if audiences hate your music now, that means it’s actually important and forward looking and future generations will admire it. Most likely, future generations will still hate it, if they hear it at all. Profundity and depth is not a function of style and it’s not something that can really be learned; it is not for us to decide if our music will be great or worthwhile, and no amount of technique can make our music that way. We simply are not all born to be revolutionaries or to “advance” music. Some of us are born to create well-crafted pleasant music, that’s what we love, that’s what we’re good at. The tragedy is when people feel that they ought to be “advanced” or “revolutionary” and so deny the music that they truly have in them. If you really are revolutionary, you don’t have to try to be that way; you write what you want, and that’s how it will come out. And if you aren’t revolutionary, no amount of effort to become so will make you so.

  42. JKG

    Meaning and its uses…
    I catch a lotta flack about meaning and talent from many academic peers. To be fair, I can understand why someone would be insecure if they thought I were honestly questioning their artistic abilities to begin with, especially in an age where “anything goes” and traditions (and the public) be damned. But universities are in the business of selling sheepskins, so its important to them that the “discipline of music” justify itself at least to an artificial set of standards, if not tradition. Beauty has nothing to do with it, and that has been borne out by the very term music inclusive of the most outrageous sonic inventions. Complexity and uniqueness have become so overused to the point of absolute entropy in the schools, while at the same time music to which folks can dance to, and sing along with and relate to is still being written with great joy and deliberation. I thought a long time before I finally threw out the hope of ever getting a composition degree, but once I realized within myself I was indeed a composer despite any need for credential under the circumstances, I must admit a fantastic freedom and investment in my own personhood which leaves me pregnant with inspiration at every turn. I have no “superiors” to answer to, and I don’t have to worry about being phony simply to please someone with likely less talent than I have. Yet I am far from a “wild horse,” in that my studies persist in being steeped in esoteric, mystical and cross-cultural concerns which shape my music continually as I grow as a person. In short, I always have something relevant and colorful to say, and it is always packed with meaning. Some academic composers in the past sixty years have frequently been at the bottom of ruining the careers of others, primarily out of jealousy, selfishness, and their own inabilities to write good music. It is this tangled web of guilt and university intrique which has caused many, including myself, to cast a sneering, wary eye towards those whose ego and ridiculously obtuse scores look like sonic trash from the get-go. These are the ones, Colin, who can teach theory and perhaps composition, but cannot write a meaningful piece for themselves – or anyone else.

  43. JKG

    Objectivity and limitation…
    “The value of music lies in the priceless nature of its objectivity,” is only true in a closed system where objectivity rather than subjectivity is viewed as the standard – thus beauty is relegated to the dictates of whatever is different as opposed to what is moving or transcendant. “We cannot deduce, then, that ANY music or musician is or is not justifiable,” which is of course true in a scientific expression of music detached from subjective beauty. “Simply put: music is the expression of ideas without a limitation of words or pictures,” …an interesting statement considering it is precisely the limits one places upon one’s expression which help to define one’s efforts as “art” in the first place. “Our equality lies in our uniqueness,” is certainly true in a system where expressive ability and musicality are less important than being equal to others with respect to mediocrity. These are not unfair critiques of your statements, composerose, nor am I deriding your thoughts as a fellow composer. Yet you must rise above any naive notions your schooling has placed into your head about the value of what you personally have to offer. If we say all music is good, then we may as well say none of it is of any value. And if we decry subjectivity in order to skirt the necessity to compete as artists in a real world, all we have accomplished is to show others both our insecurities as artists, and dubious talent as technicians. In the end, should you invest in yourself in profitable ways, you will find that you must pick and choose – acceptance is one thing, but to lay hold of a voice and speak with it in no uncertain terms is to truly transport your listener. As St. Exupery once wrote, “For the flower you choose is to the exclusion of all other flowers; nevertheless, only on this basis is it beautiful.”

  44. cornicello

    First of all, let me thank you for your nice comments about my previous post.

    Now, let me get this straight: basically, the sum of your posts say that it’s okay to be subjective (as well all are), as long as it doesn’t come from an academic viewpoint. Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd.

    While we’re on this subject, how many positions of power do these people currently hold? I’m not going to be a revisionist and say that the academic composer never held any positions of power and didn’t influence hirings and grants. I know that this still exists in the Northeast. The last I saw, things like the Fromm Foundation was fairly academic, but there were always a few surprises. Same for the Guggenheim.

    But, if we’re talking about a university setting, then lets see some examples. Princeton, with Steve Mackey? University of Michigan, with Michael Daugherty and Bright Sheng? I don’t think those people would be considered academic. Actually, if I read things correctly, most of the dyed-in-the-wool academic composers are retiring these days.

    So, maybe this ‘battle’ is coming to a close. And, Colin, I cannot disagree with you more that the battle between tonality and atonality was ‘won’ over a hundred years ago. Maybe one can say that the tonal system of the Classical/Romantic era ran its course, but not that tonality (in a larger sense) was obliterated.

    And, yes, I agree with JKG’s comment about our uniqueness. I’m not about to convince anyone else that what they’re doing is absolutely wrong. (I’ll leave conversion to religious fanatics.) Everyone does things that feels right for them. Are there great serial pieces yet to be written? Certainly. Can one adopt tonal structures to post-tonal thinking? Definitely. My only complaint are those composers who seem to refuse to acknowledge the last 75 years or so of music (and that goes for those Modernists who refuse to acknowledge the last 30 years as well).

    Finally, I should mention that I AM a university-based composer. I teach at a small college, and when I get composition students, I try to expose them to all forms of contemporary music and let them decide where they want to go. And I should mention that once you are no longer a student, a composer of strong will and fortitude does not have to answer to any superiors, either.

  45. jbunch

    Interesting article
    For those of you that are interested, there is an article by Joseph Straus that discusses this issue in an interesting light. It’s called “The Myth of Serial “Tyranny” in the 1950′s and 1960′s”. You can pick it up on Jstor if you have access, or I think it was published in the Autumn ’99 issue of the Musical Quarterly. He brings some interesting evidence into play, most relevant for the present discussion is the observation that most academics during this time period were not writing atonal music. Here’s the stable URL:

    The Myth of Serial “Tyranny” in the 1950′s and 1960′s

  46. JKG

    Yes, interesting…
    Now, do I go along with Mr. Straus’ evidence, or do I go along with my own personal experience dealing with professors firsthand? Furthermore, I doubt seriously Mr. Straus has any vested interest in being completely honest about the matter, since he has made his living being an expert on twentieth century music. What would be in his vested interest, however, is the notion that – if tonal composers failed to succeed in a university environment which both advocated and required the use of atonal and serial techniques as a prerequisite for course completion, then it was the tonal composer’s fault for not having completed the work. And it would be different doe some, to say the techniques were only proscribed as a general exposure to the style, but that is not what took place at all. You may agree with Straus if you prefer, yet please realize there are distinct biases at work here. I hope for the sake of younger composers that they are being given an option of whether to write that way at all – at least now their use is not only dated, but found useful generally to express the extreme and moribund in human experience. By the way, have there ever been any twelve-tone prodigies?

  47. JKG

    typo errors corrected…
    Now, do I go along with Mr. Straus’ evidence, or do I go along with my own personal experience dealing with professors firsthand? Furthermore, I doubt seriously Mr. Straus has any vested interest in being completely honest about the matter, since he has made his living being an expert on twentieth century music. What would be in his vested interest, however, is the notion that – if tonal composers failed to succeed in a university environment which both advocated and required the use of atonal and serial techniques as a prerequisite for course completion, then it was the tonal composer’s fault for not having completed the work. And it would be quite different to say the techniques were only proscribed as a general exposure to the style, but that is not what took place at all. You may agree with Straus if you prefer, yet please realize there are distinct biases at work here. I hope for the sake of younger composers that they are being given an option of whether to write that way at all – at least now their use is not only dated, but found useful generally to express the extreme and moribund in human experience. By the way, have there ever been any twelve-tone prodigies?

  48. Colin Holter

    Now, do I go along with Mr. Straus’ evidence, or do I go along with my own personal experience dealing with professors firsthand?

    You go along with Mr. Straus’ evidence, because he did verifiable, quantitative research and published his findings in a credible periodical that is subject to peer review.

  49. JKG

    The world does not turn…
    around myself, or you, OR the university setting. But hey, find that out for yourself, Colin. I have no doubt Mr. Straus’s findings will prove as useful to you as they are unuseful to me. I have no axe to grind, but I must admit – it seems sometimes the mere presence of a tonal composer brings out much antagonism amongst several of my modernist peers. I am not the least threatened that my music is both serious and tonal, so why all the theatrics? If I happen to deny atonality to myself, that is my business, and if I happen to idealize the common person’s views concerning music, that is my business too. I am still very interested in other styles, even if I don’t write in them, and I am willing to listen to anyone’s views. I do not have access to Mr. Straus’ article, but I’d certainly like to see it in full – it is not important enough for me to pursue presently, but perhaps later when I have the time. Also, I am certain that considering Mr. Straus’ position and expertise, I am confident in saying he would no doubt have an agenda concerning the topic at hand, and I doubt if it would be completely objective. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with respect to his research, but I will not slavishly agree to something I honestly do not believe is true. Of course I accord you (and others) the same courtesy. I have little doubt, however, that you will greet Mr. Straus’ article as PROOF of the alleged superiority of modern, mannerist systems of writing. That opinion you are welcome to, but I will wait until I’ve read the whole thing – for now, my personal life experience says quite otherwise.

  50. dannycdoubleb

    oh give it a rest JKG
    I come check back into the conversation and JKG is still the king of the argumentum ad populum. His complete disregard for fact is matched in beauty perhaps only by his great desire to put down any music which has challenged him.

  51. JKG

    Giving it a rest…
    I would be playing the devil’s advocate if I weren’t so absolutely sincere. It’d be a waste of my time to banter for no reason, and in fact that’s why I’m here – the reason being my interest in learning. Just because I skeptical of some music doesn’t mean I am doctrinaire about my own interests or tastes. And if I am wholly unimpressed with the career of say, Boulez, is that necessarily an ad hominem attack? Some of your posts, Danny, say more about you than they do about me or my opinions. To maintain the original thread, allow me to mention there is certainly a need for academic and intellectual composers, in some instances so one knows what NOT to do to accomplish certain compositional goals. That is no value judgment, but rather an evaluation concerning how the thing sounds (as opposed to how it looks on the page or its’ analysis). If anyone is made uncomfortable by my presence here, just say so. I have found it an interesting blog, nonetheless, and for the most part have enjoyed the rapport. Just for the record, how many solely tonal composers are there nowadays within those hallowed ivory towers? …and by tonal I mean not only chromatic tonality, but also tonality by assertion.

  52. cornicello

    I see that JKG never answered my question.

    What this whole argument really boils down to is open mindedness vs. close mindedness. A close minded person can either be one who is a serialist who abhors tonal music, or vice-versa. Basically, JKG, you are being as close-minded as those you despise. Do you have any first-hand accounts of this? Did anything ever happen to you, that you know were definitely, directly attributable to that kind of thinking?

    You could, of course, do what the Minimalists did in the 1960s: find your own way. But, you should realize, that those composers had a good understanding of modernist music.

    Finally, I don’t know if there is a record of tonal and atonal composers in the university setting (if you read my previous post, however, you may have noticed that I mentioned a few). I’ll need to check with the Atonal Cabal That Rules All.

  53. cornicello

    About the tonal composers in the University:
    A few years ago, I was at an SCI conference in Florida. I’ve got to say that I was certainly the somewhat lonely wacky experimentalist amongst a bunch of tonal composers – all holding university posts, I should add.

  54. mp

    I agree, JKG, it is strange that people get so provoked by someone who renounces the progress that has been made for the past 100 years in music. I guess it is because it’s so hard to believe, at least for me, that someone dealing with art can be so conservative.

    JKG; there was a serial wunderkind in the 50′s from Sweden, called Bo Nilsson. He wrote scores that caused a sensation in Darmstadt, and the kid was only 18. Stravinsky wrote an article mentioning him and wondering how young the next prodigy will be and on what iceberg they will find him. As it turned out, there’s more to that story though…

    Now the thing I really wanted to say is that I agree with Colin’s original post; being in academia must be the best way to work and function as a composer in this country. No doubt, academia is functioning as an “oasis” for composers; they can continue to compose whatever they want, mostly without having to desperately meet deadlines, and still make a living, doing something that is certainly much more rewarding and suitable than selling booze or writing meaningless music for commercials. It is not so strange that most of these people in academia write “bad” music; how many of Mozart’s contemporaries do we know, respect and play? I’m sure the percentage of “bad” composers are just as high outside of academia.

    In Scandinavia, where composers usually work outside of academia since there are very few teaching jobs and most of them are living on grants and stipends, the amount of bad music is just as big, if not in an even more sad state.

    And JKG, it sounds like you’re saying that there are no successful (whatever that is) “tonal” composers within academia, but you can find conservative professors absolutely everywhere in the country who have never heard music by Lachenmann or Grisey or even Varese, so maybe you just didn’t research the universities enough?


  55. altometer

    from Colin’s original post:

    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.

    Of course you don’t, nor should you be faulted for this.

    But consider this: How many music schools and their faculty whole-heartedly teach their students how to make a living at music?  
    And how many musicians teaching in the academy can make a living in music on the outside?

  56. JKG

    Off the deep end…
    Thank you, MP. Let me clear that up for you. There are quite a few successful composers in the universities, and in fact only a handful write in atonal styles regularly any more. Most everyone may use atonal techniques alongside modalism, but generally there is a delightful eclecticism everywhere. My original observation, which Colin pointed out in the origin to the thread, is that there are some university professors with considerably less talent to write music than many of their students. It is not all or nothing, despite any passions which may inflame us to see things that way. I agree with you wholeheartedly, MP – there are plenty of conservative, teaching composers these days whose works are warmly received by both the academic and general public. It is when an artist assumes the only meaning of a work which matters is his own perception of that meaning, that he/she gets into trouble expressing to others. As far as tonality is concerned, precisely where is the alleged “victory” of twelve-tone over it? I’ll have to check out the prodigy you mentioned, as I am curious to see what he has going on lately. It is no doubt the universal conditioning of tonal music worldwide which has produced a prodigy as old as eighteen.

  57. JKG

    Bo Nilsson
    I’ll have to check out some of his work. He sounds pretty interesting. I note his Darnstadt debut occured the year of my birth, which would make him almost seventy these days. Since I very much admire and read the Beat Poets, he will certainly prove an interesting investigation. And I hope I have answered your question, Mr. Cornicello. I gladly admit to remaining close-minded regarding certain compositional styles and even admit my view of what defines music is narrower than some. That is all a matter of my own focus, however, upon the values or musical tradition generally exclusive of two world wars. Angst isn’t my cup of tea, but others are certainly welcome to it. I might add, before some nut goes crazy in here – I do not push my views onto others, nor do I expect others to automatically agree with me. I am only too pleased to disagree with someone for the purpose of (measuredly) expanding my worldview. Some of you have worked to paint me as doctrinaire, yet I am here for precisely the same reasons many of you are – I do not pretend to hold views I do not understand, and I refuse to be intellectually dishonest with myself or anyone else. Now, someone point to me a composer who is altogether “open-minded” and successful, who also happens to be a specialist in his own style.

  58. JKG

    …from Google:

    Your search – “atonal prodigy” – did not match any documents.

    Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
    Try different keywords.
    Try more general keywords.

  59. mp

    Of course twelvetone has never “defeated” tonal music. In my opinion, serialism and new complexity are blind alleys. But there are so many other paths to take, not built on angst! Everything from spectralism to post modernist styles (and I don’t mean crap like Golijov or Glass here), and that makes me wonder why someone would stick to old, tonal laws which to me seem just as fundamentalistic as the serialist’s systems. I’m not trying to change your mind either, I too am for an aesthetically free world, I’m just trying to offer an explanation on why people reacted so strongly. Just to expand a little on my “atonal prodigy”: Bo Nilsson grew up in the middle of nowhere in the north of Sweden. He listened to the concerts from Darmstadt on the progressive public radio in Sweden, and in the equally progressive local library he found serialist scores. He then sat at the piano and fabulated music that sounded like serialist music, only good.. Then he also wrote the scores in that overcomplex style and the Darmstadt guys went crazy. His music has lots of nice quasitonal licks and chords and can therefore – like Webern’s music – be enjoyed just for the sonorities and by someone how has no idea about what serialism is, but the scores are extremely dense. Later he rejected all his early scores and went on to compose folkloristic, romantic and completely tonal music, so I guess I’m playing right in your hands here, JKG… Yes he’s old but still alive as far as I know, writing arctic fantasies… It’s not easy to find those early pieces, there’s a Swedish cd with those pieces conducted by a guy called Gunnar Valkare. He even rewrote the scores so that they would be playable and then recorded them not too long ago, I can recommend it if you do find it! As for your request, I find people like Grisey and Ligeti to be masters of their “styles”, able to evoke a broad range of “emotions”, successful, and they both seemed to be open minds, may them rest in peace.

  60. JKG

    No, you are not…
    “playing into my hands.” It’s not black or white, this inner struggle we work to express to one another regarding so expansive an art. If indeed we are all unique creations in this world, then it only stands to reason our expressions will be unique. There are actually several composers I’d like to check out of late, but I need to be near a suitable university music library to do so. I find Ligeti to aesthetically honest, and his music interesting. On the matter of stylistic tyranny, I’d just as soon be subject to tonalism – but that is simply my taste. I prefer a universal music where my listening is concerned, and that means including children, homemakers, auto mechanics, and other “common folk” within those bounds. That this notion is overtly threatening to some speaks volumes about their own artistic agendas. Would there degrees be worth any less if all serious music listened to and honestly appraised by everyone? And again, these particular academics are distinctly in the minority – perhaps I shouldn’t pick on them, as they likely feel badly enough about their relation to the “outside world” as it is. I do not hate modern, manneristic music – I am simply indifferent to much of it.

  61. composerose

    The debate has moved on since my last read, however, JKG, I feel we had a miscommunication.

    “The beauty in music lies in the priceless nature of its objectivity.” Objectivity: impartiality, open-mindedness, lack of prejudice. “If we say all music is good, then we may as well say none of it is of any value.” No. My argument was to simply say that no one will win when arguing the value of music. What I believe is good, you may not. So…there lies the lack of prejudice. The music itself is not innately good or bad, it is the people whom interpret it that deem it one or the other. So who is the final authority? No one.

    I can understand the misinterpretation of what I meant. I will choose my words more carefully in the future.

  62. JKG

    Thank you, composerose, and allow me to certainly agree with you that music in and of itself is neither good nor bad, beautiful or ugly. Its’ ability to transport the listener, however, are very likely to be a function of these subjective tenets, and so these aesthetic ideals must be taken into consideration by any composer would deem to communicate to a large audience. That description does not fit every composer, but their music is no less valid as a source of study or even enjoyment. I do apologize if I misunderstood you; frequently the desire to reach out and communicate is fraught with the prospect of flat out offending, yet that is at times the risk we take. About the only composers I have NO patience with are the snobbish ones, tonal and atonal, who deem the public ear to be “unworthy” of their efforts. A small group, indeed, but one whose artistic demise is assured by virtue of their expressed narcissism.

  63. dannycdoubleb

    JKG, (yet again :-) I should let you know that your prescence here has certainly not made me uncomfortable and that any comments I have made which were in any way rude were, in fact, said very lightly. I think this conversation has taken some wonderful turns and I think comperserose is especially wise. I still do think that even if we are pursuing completely different and even seemingly disagreeable musical paths, that we are all taking the same journey as composers and as human beings.

  64. JKG

    Thank you, Danny…
    You are precisely right about the matter if we are all to learn from one another. It may be we at times have little use (at present) for someone else’s technical approach or perspective, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are at odds. I am pretty picky (or “narrow-minded as some would say), but I do enjoy learning and having moire to offer my audience. I appreciate composerose’s comments, now that she has helped me understand where she’s coming from – all music is certainly neutral on the page in written form, even if its’ sonic incarnation proves difficult for the listener. Music speaks to me in a way soundscapes do not, although I realize that for some of you, they are one and the same thing. Music which is written devoid of the will to communicate is frankly meaningless to me (and others too countless to name). It would be a wonderful thing is the schools were to focus more upon their students actually making a living at music outside of school. Then I think the art would truly progress – unlike decades of intellectual and artistic stagnation in the holy name of complexity. I challenge any professor who forces his student(s) to write in a mannerist fashion to prove (s)he can make it outside the university as a professional composer.

  65. cornicello

    JKG (John Graham, I presume?), it’s possible that I may have misjudged you. Certainly, we ourselves make decisions in our own music-making, and many of us are, at one time or another, unwilling to try something different. But, seeing your most recent posts, I see that you’re not as “close minded” as I thought. Trust me, I’ve seen many people who will declare the music of “the enemy” (be it Minimalism, Serialism, Spectral Music, etc.) to be “non music”, not worthy of anyone’s time. That to me is close-minded.

    And, I should mention that one of the most open minded composers whom I knew was John Cage. He could talk to you about Stockhausen, about Copland, Wolpe, as well as Feldman and others. Of course, he didn’t care much for jazz, but that’s another story. Phil Corner was also the same way, although I think he liked some jazz.

    Finally – a friend and I were recently discussing politics, and we struck upon a definition of what it truly means to be liberally educated: you are given the means to truly question all of your beliefs. Some of your beliefs will stand up against questioning, and some will not.

    For me, my move away from serialism came when I was making the tape part for a piece, in the mid-90s. I slowed down the attack of a flute note to the point that I could hear every overtone being sounded, one by one. And there it was: the harmonic series, with all its tonal references. You can’t escape it! There were many other factors that contributed to my departure from Late Modernism, but that moment is still with me.

  66. JKG

    I am happy I am not seen as thoroughly closed-minded, although I do profess a deep-seated aversion for commercial country music *grin*. Part of my training coming up as a percussionist was to analyze over and over the various licks produced by both drummers of the Grateful Dead. Mickey Hart’s books on drumming are still for me some of the best written. Being mostly self-taught, plus possessing of a deep-seated wariness of anything phoney or off-the-scale establishment always smacked of meanspiritedness to me. Plus, I just love being a bit old-fashioned, in that this tonal mentality provides me literally with all I need to express. While I could no more write some of what others write, by the same token – they’d have a difficult time even approaching some of the notions I use regularly. Just as Respighi studied ancient music yet was contemporary for his day, so I aspire to do the same. The row I used in First Symphony is in the finale, a quotation from Schoenberg’s “Die Kranke Monde” (The Sick Moon). It is prefaced by another quotation, from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and is answered by a third quotation from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Its from the second aria of the Queen of the Night, where she rails against the old wizard for having corrupted her son. I also harmonized the row according to common practice, and orchestrated it as per Rimsky-Korsakov. What a hoot!


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