To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

Criticism of the current state of higher education in music continues to rage both from within and without. Morton Feldman‘s classic work, “Boola Boola,” made the indictment in 1966: “Have you ever looked into the eyes of a survivor from the composition department of Princeton or Yale? He is on his way to tenure, but he’s a drop-out in art” (Morton Feldman Essays. Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985). These are harsh words from an individual who was slightly outrageous, but always perceptive. Needless to say, his musical sensibilities didn’t find comfort in the accepted canon of the time.

More recently Orlando J. Garcia, Professor of Music at Florida International University in Miami, takes up the torch, “Boola Boola Revisited” (Society of Composers, Inc., Newsletter. November-December 2001, XXXI: 6). “We find the Art Music world in the U.S. in a state of disarray and chaos, mired in a mediocrity few eras have known.” He blames the composer mills for the “technically barren, unimaginative works throughout the university systems” and says what is lacking is “auto criticism.” In the name of diversity/democracy/self-expression, whatever we do is okay. In other words, “I won’t criticize you, if you don’t criticize me.”

Rebuttals will continue for decades, and the above should be seriously considered. I am reminded, however, of the words of Luciano Berio: “We all know that music can’t lower the cost of bread, is incapable of stopping (or starting, for that matter) wars, cannot eradicate slums and injustice” (“Meditations on a Twelve-Tone Horse.” Lecture of 1968 as found in Composers on Modern Musical Culture by Bryan Simms. New York: Schirmer Books, 1999).

Realistically, the university has been and will continue to be a primary patron of contemporary music. Why not utilize this excellent opportunity to produce a generation of educated and curious musicians consumed by a love for their discipline? The academy, though flawed, gives us a space to make art, provides us with a forum for presenting it, and preserves our history.

Quality is always an over-riding concern and is being addressed on every level. More than ever the reading and math scores of our children are scrutinized. Assessment is the “buzz” word. However, a wise person once told me, “You don’t fatten the chicken by weighing it!” I never forgot those words.

And what will be the challenges future composers face—increasing dependence on technology; publication and distribution via the internet; developing new performance venues and audiences; collaborating across disciplines.

Finally—take risks, work hard, be passionate about your art. And, don’t forget to feed the chicken.

From To What Degree: A HyperHistory of Teaching Musical Composition
By Marilyn Shrude
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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