Something Not Even a Mother Can Love

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a composer of Broadway musicals, which made my family extremely happy. Somewhere along the line I heard a piece of music for dried ice being heated up in frying pans, and my family’s dreams were permanently crushed. To this day relatives wistfully talk about how much they loved a musical I wrote when I was in high school—something I’m no longer terribly fond of. It has probably been more than a decade since any of my family members have attended a performance of my music.

Over the years, I frequently tried to get relatives to listen to music I was excited about. I bought them recordings. I took them to concerts. Most of the time, their reaction was complete bewilderment. An aunt of mine who is no longer living once conceded that there was something interesting about Alban Berg’s Lulu, although she preferred Les Miz. And my mother eventually learned the names John Cage and Philip Glass, although to this day she still tells me when Yanni is on television, thinking that he’s pretty much the same thing.

On some levels, I find this lack of musical connection somewhat troubling. There’s an old adage that says even if no one else likes what you’re doing, your mother will. In my case, I’m not so sure. What have your experiences been? What does your family think of the music that you compose, perform, or listen to?

If the music that is so central to us is something that not even our mothers can love, might there be something fundamentally wrong with what we’re doing? I’m certainly not advocating for composers of new music to suddenly do a volte-face and quit writing the music they believe in. Ultimately we have to create what we feel compelled to create, otherwise it’s insincere. But in order for the music we love to have a greater degree of relevance to the general populace, much more needs to be done. Until then, we should just keep trying. Mark Winges’s anecdote about his mother finally getting excited about a recording of his music during the Thanksgiving weekend (posted in response to my comments about the lack of appropriate Thanksgiving music) is extremely encouraging.

11 thoughts on “Something Not Even a Mother Can Love

  1. justjonathan

    Ha! For years my mother told people “he writes music, you know, like Andrew Lloyd Webber!” I would totally cringe. During college and graduate school it was total confusion from the parents…I was overjoyed when they appreciated a particularly emotional and accessible piece of mine while I was at CalArts.

    It always brings up the most important of issues – who is the music for? I had a real identity crisis in the academic world about this – growing up very working class and then realizing that my music generally isn’t for my people. It’s not the soundtrack of their lives. I had to ask the question “do I just write music for the rich?” I guess you get what you wish for – I write commercial music that my family easily understands, and the other music – I feel free from convincing the people close to me that it is necessary that they understand. As my wife likes to say “Drop the rope!”

    For me, the mode is always shifting : this is the music I write for money, this is the music maybe only myself and my colleagues would enjoy, this is the music I write for only myself in the moment…Maybe if we take a step back from ourselves and stop trying to prove that we are intellectually capable or we have some training or history to uphold, then we can write music that is more selfless and appeals to our mothers!

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  2. jcbatz

    My dad wants me to be either a conductor or a film composer. He will point out some music he likes in a movie and say “wouldn’t you rather be doing that?”

    No. No, Dad, I really wouldn’t. And I really don’t want to be a conductor. It isn’t just waiving your arms about and acting important. I respect conductors enough to know that I don’t want to work on the things that they work on.

    My parents, though, now go to some new music things because they want to know more about what I’m doing. Without provocation, they went to a performance of Bernard Rands’ Triple Concerto a few years back simply because they heard me mention his name once. They didn’t like the music, but they “appreciated the effort it took to write and perform it.”

    It is a two-way street, of course. I don’t full understand the ins and outs of flow regulator/ fluid power/machine bearing sales that keeps my dad working. My sales management style would be more like Homer Simpsons: “Could you guys work a little harder?”, “Sure thing, Mr. Simpson!”

    What this post has made me wonder is: will this happen to me? If my daughter (now 2.5 years old) goes into something I really don’t get, like sports, will there come a time when I don’t appreciate/enjoy what she does?

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  3. justjonathan

    To the post above :

    You’re lucky! My dad wanted me to be an accountant. I had one very dreary year at OSU before going to music school!

    It’s all perspective!

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  4. rtanaka

    I can identify a lot with some of Jon’s statements — although my mom dabbled in piano for a bit, most of my family don’t really have much interest in classical music. Though I’ve been interested in trying to bridge this gap, either subconciously or conciously.

    My mom probably wouldn’t be able to comment on the counter-point or harmonic progressions, but the gestures in my music have become clear enough so that she’s at least able to pick out some of the Japanese influences which are embedded in there. Mostly though, my family hears my improvisations as “nice background music”. They asked me to play for my cousins wedding and such…no pay, but its hard to charge family members for things. At least they find it tolerable enough to listen to, though! I take what I can get.

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  5. resmail

    Neither of my parents are musicians, and they certainly did not follow the new music scene until I started composing, but since then both have developed an incredible interest in new music. I will never forget the time my mom called me up and told me that she had heard something absolutely captivating and brilliant on the radio, and it turned out to be Lukas Foss’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. They go to concerts often, and really enjoy the new music because, as my mom says, “I already know how the old music goes. I want to be surprised.” I sometimes really appreciate my parents’ perspective, because it comes from a combination of honest interest in the music being written and a lack of extra-auditory association that can sometimes color initial reactions to the music itself.

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  6. Kyle Gann

    Mom
    My mom has a master’s in music ed. Once I came home from Oberlin and gave her a tape of music I’d had performed, and she later commented, with evident relief, “I’m so glad it’s not 12-tone!”

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  7. philmusic

    “My mom has a master’s in music ed. Once I came home from Oberlin and gave her a tape of music I’d had performed, and she later commented, with evident relief, “I’m so glad it’s not 12-tone!”..”

    Kyle–Moms against 12-tone?

    Yikkes!!@!

    Phil Fried

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  8. mmcginn

    My mom’s musical tastes: anything Broadway

    My dad’s musical tastes: Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, etc.

    My tastes: Feldman, Cage, Varese, et al.

    Let’s just say that I had problems. They were cool with new music when I was at school. They would come to my concerts and really try to understand. They even got into The Rite of Spring and went out and bought a copy. But after a bachelors and a masters degree (both in composition) they most likely wondered, what is this kid doing, or rather, what is he going to do? My mom tells me all the time that I should just write one pop song, make a zillion dollars and THEN I can write all that weird stuff. I think the fascination is definitely wearing off. I tell them I’m working on a string quartet and they almost seem like they want to change the subject. With all that said though I couldn’t have written one note without their help and support.

    If you want to see the freak show visit Marty’s page.

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  9. justjonathan

    Yeah, I got that as well. Just write one pop song and you’re set! People, and parents especially it seems, have a warped view of how much luck and determination it takes to pull something like that off! Like writing music for film or television – it’s often the warped viewpoint that it’s so easy to write simple pieces and make a bunch of cash from them. The reality is it’s a ton of work and a major amount of stress. There’s always a reason something pays well.

    Having said that :

    Martin : It’s funny, but your mother’s plan is exactly my plan! (but not with a pop song, but tv music.) It’s actually working out. But I would say I’m realizing that it takes a very specific skill set(composer,negotiator,audio engineer, multi-instrumentalist,computer guru, stylist cameleon,scholar of culture and demographics,and most importantly an exceedingly strong back!)and large amount of luck and finesse to do well with this…Met the right people at the right time, over-produced for them, became the go-to guy for a couple different production companies here in LA. It’s been a tremendous effort and discipline that’s kept me moving along. (no real weekends, etc.), but I have a real shot at financial and creative freedom in the next 5 years. I figure I’ll be a better composer of new music from 40-90 anyway! I’m not suggesting everyone try this route, but sometimes it’s worth considering plan C. (even if it comes from your mother!)

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  10. rtanaka

    Yeah, going into commercial music isn’t exactly a walk in the park either, although I also do occasionally get comments about making a “one hit wonder” as well. It takes years of dedication and working up the ladder to even get anything that might resemble a commercial success…sorry but it’s not that easy!

    The idea of being “discovered” and rising your way up to super-stardom seems to be something pretty symptomatic of American culture in general, though, and I see it a lot in classical music too. Sort of the pie-in-the-sky idea that a higher power will see you for the special person that you are, and you will be taken care of for the rest of your life. This hasn’t really been my experience of things though…most of music consists of working tediously every day on certain skills in hopes of gradual improvement. If anything, this was one important lesson I learned in doing art.

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  11. bunnyman

    Mom’s Love
    Well, my Mom always said, “That’s lovely, Andrew. But I don’t understand it.” However, she did make every concert I had. Until I joined a punk rock band, when she said, “I know you understand why I’m not going to your concert.” My Dad never understood why I didn’t go into teaching: “You’ll never earn any money composing!” Of course, he was right… As it is, I received the composition degree in 1985, and I’m just now getting to perform some pieces. At a bookstore that usually gets about 15 people to show up. Better than a bar, I suppose! At least everyone at the bookstore show is there to hear music!

    Reply

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