Noblesse Oblige

There’s a disease that afflicts certain composers, a malady whose symptoms appear with particular strength in the presence of university placement exams. Many composers who live with this illness manage to keep in remission most of the time, but when served with a hundred-question multiple-choice diagnostic on the history of Western music, it can metastasize ferociously.

I’m speaking, of course, about the “tip of the pyramid” syndrome. Because most music curricula are structured around composers, those of us who actually are composers have no choice but to consider the possibility that we squat atop the hierarchy of all other musicians by virtue of our job title. I mean, come on—Beethoven was a composer, I’m a composer. Do I have to spell it out for you?

With great power, however, comes great responsibility. Specifically, we are responsible for putting students of every other academic discipline in music to shame. We have to out-theorize the theorists and out-musicologize the musicologists. It’s always satisfying to bust out some Derrida or Adorno, although such citations verge on the embarrassingly asymmetrical, like using breech-loading rifles against the Zulus. Also, no fair making reference to pieces from the past twenty years, because your colleagues haven’t heard of any of them.

We can’t be held responsible for our behavior when this febrile state descends on us. Normally we’d never presume to pee on another musician’s lamppost so brazenly. Obviously doctoral musicology students know their stuff—they wouldn’t have gotten this far if they didn’t. Ditto for theorists, who have it even worse because they know that we know that they’re probably going to steal all our teaching jobs before long. But the sting that we feel when we don’t obliterate the grade curve is very real, and it can spur us downhill to truly reproachable depths of pettiness. Thankfully, once the battery of examinations is finished, our arrogance usually stabilizes in a more or less healthy level, and people can stand to be around us again.

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18 thoughts on “Noblesse Oblige

  1. rtanaka

    Then your superiority comes back to bite you in the butt when you have to beg performers to play your newest masterwork.

    Heh, ditto. I like how he just admitted that he thinks he is better than everyone else combined. At least it’s honest.

    Personally I’ve found that musicologists tend to have a much better understanding of philosophy than composers, because their workload is actually geared toward scholarship and academic research. Several people I know who have done serious study philosophy in school have turned to musicology as a way to apply their skills in a musical context, so it tends to draw that kind of pool of applicants. Maybe if you actually spent some time talking to them you might find that they’re more knowledgeable about certain subjects than you might think. Derrida and Adorno aren’t exactly obscure references if you’ve done any sort of study in that area.

    I noticed he left out performers in his post, even though you’d think it’d be the most relevant. If you’re going for the full package, shouldn’t composers also be able to upstage performers in their ability to play an instrument? More than anything, I find this division to be the most problematic, because well, a lot of composers simply don’t understand what it means to have to practice something for several hours a day.

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  2. pgblu

    This is bound to get ugly. I’ll be over here hiding behind the couch.

    Meanwhile, Colin will learn never to post anything even mildly ironic again.

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  3. SonicRuins

    “More than anything, I find this division to be the most problematic, because well, a lot of composers simply don’t understand what it means to have to practice something for several hours a day.”

    Besides this great comment, I think there’s something important to think about in Colin’s rather ironic post.

    There is a division, and it’s problematic. I’m not saying all composers need to be performers or vice versa, but the last 50-100 years of increased specialization in every field in the world may not be necessarly beneficial for ‘classical music.’ There are many in my generation who are starting to do both again, a blurring the boundaries once more. I think it’s important.

    One final thought that’s a bit

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  4. SonicRuins

    more interesting as well: yes, performers do spend many hours practicing a day. But writing a piece isn’t exactly a 30-minute a day exercise for everyone either.

    I know people who work upwards of 5-8 hours writing a day, in front of a computer, piano or desk.

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  5. rtanaka

    Ryan, this is what as known as a “sectarian” remark. Now, theres no need to be a “hater.”

    This was in response to Colin’s comment about musicologists and theorists somehow not understanding citations from Adorno or Derrida, despite the fact that study of their ideas (love it or hate it) is extremely common in those fields. The fact that he thinks nobody will “get it” is condescending, not to mention, completely untrue. The idea that musicologists usually are well-versed in philosophy is a statement of fact, based on the types of studies they’re required to do, as well as the types of applicants they draw. Musicology, is in a sense, the study of philosophy of music. I could’ve responded in a less agitated manner (sorry about that) but this I have found very much to be true.

    I really hope that his post was meant to be ironic. Ranting about how much more nobler and more difficult composition is compared to everything else isn’t going to win you much friends anywhere you go, and it’s rather painful to watch people play into their respective roles despite the fact that all of the fields are interrelated and there’s much to learn from every niche of it. How do you out-musicologize someone, anyway?

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  6. philmusic

    “Personally I’ve found that musicologists tend to have a much better understanding of philosophy than composers,”

    Ryan, this is what as known as a “sectarian” remark. Now, theres no need to be a “hater.”

    Phil

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  7. rtanaka

    Yes, performers do spend many hours practicing a day. But writing a piece isn’t exactly a 30-minute a day exercise for everyone either. I know people who work upwards of 5-8 hours writing a day, in front of a computer, piano or desk.

    Nobody is asking anybody to be a virtuoso, but I find it extremely difficult to work with composers who don’t at least have some experience performing. You know, the nervousness of going upstage being in the spotlight, the criticisms given in lessons and from peers, the need to keep in physical shape, and probably the most important — time management. Composers with enough empathy can put themselves in other people’s shoes, but the easiest way to understand all of this is just to do it yourself.

    The process can be rather painful…it’s not all fun and games, but composers who understand this and show an appreciation for this kind of thing are well sought-after. Who knows which profession is “harder”, composition or performance? I don’t think that’s the point. It’s supposed to be a collaborative process where people feel good about it after having done it.

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  8. philmusic

    “This was in response to Colin’s comment about musicologists and theorists somehow not understanding citations from Adorno or Derrida,”

    Sorry Ryan -I don’t see your angle from Colin’s blog-I think he’s up to something else.
    and perhaps Colin can explain more?

    –But even if your findings are true -don’t be a hater too!

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  9. Matthew

    Personally I’ve found that musicologists tend to have a much better understanding of philosophy than composers, because their workload is actually geared toward scholarship and academic research.

    Maybe I’m reading the wrong journals, but I’m not seeing the logical necessity of this cause-and-effect, either in musicology or any other academic field. I used to hang out in a bar in Chicago filled with aged ex-hippies and journalists who never bothered with college, most of whom had a better understanding of philosophy than a lot of philosophy majors. (And I’m not talking about life-lesson philosophy, I’m talking about Kant and Marx and Sartre.) If you want the understanding, you get the understanding—and plenty of composers are curious enough to want it.

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  10. Colin Holter

    I really hope that his post was meant to be ironic.

    You may rest easy.

    I have tremendous respect for my theorist and musicologist friends, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that performers are the reason I’m a composer.

    Aside: I don’t perform regularly anymore (although I usually find myself doing it a few times a year), but throughout high school and undergrad I was very serious about it. Ultimately, I gave it up because I didn’t want to do it unless I could really devote myself to it.

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  11. Matthew

    You know, the nervousness of going upstage being in the spotlight, the criticisms given in lessons and from peers, the need to keep in physical shape, and probably the most important — time management.

    I can stop worrying about all those things? What a relief!

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  12. rtanaka

    You may rest easy.

    Well that one got resolved pretty easily. Sorry for getting riled up then — your comments really just brought up bad experiences working with some people who really thought of themselves in that way. Honestly, sometimes I can never tell.

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  13. rtanaka

    If you want the understanding, you get the understanding—and plenty of composers are curious enough to want it.

    True enough, but if you talk to people who study this for a living you’ll find that philosophy, like music, has its own sets of fundamentals that needs to be learned. You could learn about Marx and Sartre from individual books, but if you study them in isolation I think it becomes very hard to see things in terms of a historical perspective. At least in my experience, philosophy majors are quite adamant about the history part, because a lot of it only begins to make sense (why things are the way things are) when you see it as a series of progressions leading up to present times.

    Admittedly I’m also a hobbyist in terms of studying philosophy, but I think I saved myself a lot of trouble just asking questions to philosophy majors about things I didn’t understand. And sometimes they’d tell me things that I wouldn’t have otherwise figured out on my own either. There’s no way anybody can read Kant without someone guiding them through the process…even with all the help I think I only understand like 5% of it.

    I guess my point was that people shouldn’t be afraid to ask others for help or advice. I don’t think its a weakness to admit that other people in other fields might actually know more about something than you do. Nowadays it’s easy because the internet is just a click away.

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  14. JKG

    Thank God…
    or whoever, most of you fitting that description are languishing in academe! I suppose a person could be a REAL COMPOSER even if they seriously lacked the talent to write so much as a phrase or real music, yet that does not budge one iota the significance and value earlier masters have contributed to serious music. Then again, with aesthetes such as Adorno, who NEEDS masterful musicianship? or STANDARDS, for that matter? Yes, please enjoy getting things performed – the proof really IS in the pudding.

    Reply

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