Last week I listed a few guidelines I’ve picked up for a healthy, lustrous contemporary music situation with plenty of shine and bounce. What I didn’t do was issue any prescriptions for composers themselves. However, I came across a terrific phrase the other day that captures something British students of composition are asked to do and American students of composition often aren’t: Theorize your practice.
Depending on where you are and with whom you’re working, it’s possible to study composition in the United States for years and years without having to engage in the kind of critical thinking that’s assumed over here. Let me clarify, by the way, that when I use the word “theorize,” I’m not talking about pitch class sets and formal diagrams, low-level jetsam that—it’s increasingly clear to me—no one but old American university composers gives a damn about at all. (I’m still glad I know about pitch class sets, but I don’t kid myself anymore: Nobody cares.) Rather, the burden of theorizing one’s practice makes it incumbent on the composer to articulate his or her music’s experiential mechanisms and defend its cultural relevance. “Why do you have to write this particular music at this particular time?” seems to be the gist of it.
The obligatory disclaimer must be issued here: There are lots of American composition programs that expect rigorous critical rationale from their students, and probably more than a few U.K. programs that don’t. Moreover, I can’t claim to make a truly neutral comparison; my educational experience in the U.K. has been at the postgraduate research level, whereas I’ve attended American schools for both undergrad and grad degrees. So maybe my sample is too asymmetrical, or maybe Brunel is just an atypical university—this is entirely possible. As I finish my commentaries (sort of like program notes intended to be read by other composers) for my thesis portfolio of compositions, I can’t help but wish that my curricula in the States had demanded similar exegetical materials. Not only would I have gotten a lot out of writing them, I would have loved to read my peers’! Let me exhort anyone reading this who happens to hold the reins to a composition program in the American academy: Hold your students culturally accountable. It’ll do them good.