The Road Not Taken
In my blog last week about Matt Marks’s The Little Death Vol. 1, I struggled with the question of what, exactly, is “alternative classical” music? For me, it’s an organic expression of a combination of influences—as Matt Marks says, the use of pop music in our generation is “not an active movement, it’s a passive movement…we’re not trying to put it in; if anything we’re trying not to keep it out, and trying not to assimilate it into the boundaries of classical music.” This week I’d like to focus on the following question: Why is it important?
As I’ve written about before on these pages about the television show 90210 and the “Magic Discovery Myth”—a media perpetuation of the storyline that “the only way to succeed in the music business is by chance, minimal practice, and the kindness of strangers,” by being “discovered” by some nice record producer—there is a disconnect between perceived professional paths one can take as a music-writer. The first path is that of the music artist, regardless of which genre you occupy it involves thinking in short-term investments and making a living off of “street-smarts:” you’re touring, you’re recording, or you’ve got a steady gig at a venue. The second road is that of the composer, the path of academia, thinking about long-term goals and job security: you’re writing based on commissions, you’re teaching, or you’re working towards a doctoral degree.
When applying as an undergraduate to Universities I was definitely confronted with a lack of understanding on the part of music academia. There were certain schools I knew I couldn’t even try for because I was simply, in terms of credentials, unqualified. I think the fact that I was able to get in where I did was mostly because of my ability to explain myself, explain what I wanted (which was very vague at the time, but mostly amounted to a quality, conservatory music education) and what I couldn’t change (the fact that I wrote pop melodies). Any schools that looked strictly at my portfolio—which consisted of notated piano-vocal pop songs, an album of pop songs recorded in my basement with friends, and one art song based on a Pablo Neruda poem—would dismiss me as a songwriter.
After blindly applying to conservatories, not really comprehending what kind of a mess I had gotten myself into, me and my sub-par music theory education found itself way behind where a freshman composition major was supposed to be at Rice University. Certain things became very clear that year. First, that if you work really hard for something you want sooner or later you’ll realize you’ve caught up. Second, that I was the only beast of my kind at my school, a singer/songwriter whose main talent was writing catchy four-bar melodies, composing chamber music. Thirdly, and most importantly, I found that when I explained myself articulately my peers (whether they were graduate student composers or performers or roommates) and my teachers were very open to listen to my ideas about pop music, and generally they agreed.
I’m not by any means trying to tell a story of self-triumph. In fact, I’m saying the opposite, which is that I’ve been really, really, really lucky. Out of all the singer/songwriters who get turned away by academia somehow, through some fluke, I made it through the gates. There needs to be a half-way point. If professors don’t get off their high horses and start accepting more composers with potential rather than credentials (songwriters with weak portfolios), and if more students believe in themselves and their potential for making a living as an intelligent composer with a higher, classical music education, then I really do think we can change Top 40 radio. A massive shift in popular music towards creating intelligent art would lead to active listening on the part of consumers, and to long-term planning on the part of the music-writer. It means a healthier music industry and a thriving culture that values artistic achievement. I truly believe that the rise of “alternative classical” is going to facilitate this, and that’s why when I came back home to Jersey City this summer I volunteered my time to support New Amsterdam Records. Because certain stoic business models—both that of the classical world and that of the popular world—need to adapt to yield a third professional path for music-writers.