This column is an open letter addressed to whichever young composition students may chance to read it: A colleague of mine who teaches at a leading conservatory (this is not about him but about observed trends) recently lamented to me that his composition students tend to express little curiosity in any musical repertoire predating World War II(!). But, he added, while most of them will not take the initiative to learn/listen on their own about/to Bartók, a few of them do respond with enthusiasm when prodded to “check them out.” Oh, and yeah, they do know Ives. This floored me. And not because it was only yesterday that Bartók was hardly “the past.”
How could any student enrolled in a reputable conservatory need to be persuaded to be interested in the great legacy of past composers? I personally recall brochure material from one of the major conservatories in the 1970s addressed to parents that advised (I’m paraphrasing only slightly): if your son/daughter has to be persuaded to seek out and listen to canonical classical music for pleasure, then what the hell is he/she doing enrolled in a conservatory?
Imagine a graduate seminar for creative writers who read only Don DeLillo and Richard Ford and don’t even investigate Tolstoy, Dickens, or Keats. We already have a president who has no evident intellectual curiosity beyond his pre-established worldview. Now we’re going to found a new composer movement of musical “Dubyaism”?
Curiosity about history and intellectual curiosity are indissoluble. You don’t have the option of separating them, although you may think you do. Definition of intellectual curiosity: the investigation of phenomena that are beyond your immediate familiar experience. Without such curiosity about the power of music of the past, there is an impoverishment of aesthetic perceptions, and a malnourishment of the ear and the brain, that precludes the creation of great music. There is only infantile solipsism and, too often, the faux elevation of trivia. For true learning, history is not an option, it’s an obligation: it means you get up off your mental behind and make it your business to learn what went on before. If you are an aspiring composer, you have a duty—not to school or teachers, but to yourself—to do that. You can dislike the past, you can ultimately choose not to use the found past, but you cannot pretend it isn’t there and still consider yourself educated. Music history didn’t start with John Cage, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, Radiohead, the Velvet Underground, or whatever your post-1945 tastes and fancies.
For centuries the cornerstone of learnedness in the Western world was the classics: the study of the Greek and Roman civilizations and languages, even though they were millennia behind the “real time” present. For a few centuries aspiring composers had to write canons, fugues, practice species counterpoint, and learn solfege…until now. I recall reading an interview by the late Donald Martino expressing outrage at his young composition students’ insouciant, cavalier rejection of doing these classical things. Sure, it’s a lot easier to lay down and overdub audio tracks than to write a fugue. Hey, Berlioz and Wagner had no KontaktGold or other soundbanks to help them orchestrate, but they figured it out with their own low-tech tools: their brains and ears. Sometimes I think the bare fact that there was no electricity, and no recording, available before about 1880 is the most salient thing people should remember about music composed before 1880. And that thousands of hours of music composed before then still are regularly performed today.
So to the history-averse in the 21st-century young composing community, I say: You wouldn’t have made the cut a mere thirty years ago in conservatory admissions. Try to wake up and smell the Proustian “madeleine” of the pre-1945 canon, before your brains become ossified tissue for an Oliver Sacks study.
(Next week I’ll go back to being nice.)