View From The West: Teaching Composition. Art or Craft?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

As the academic year gets underway, it serves as a time of reflection for those who are teaching the next generation of musicians and especially composers. What is it that we (I use the rhetorical “we” being a music historian, not a composer) are to pass on to them? What musical or compositional values do we lay out for them? Regarding composition, it is clear that the tradition has been to focus, in some cases, almost exclusively, on formal considerations, i.e. structure and especially pitch relations.

This mindset and bias is underscored and made manifest in courses which are universally called “music theory,” coupled with classes in musicianship or ear training. What we call music theory is really no such thing. Rather, it is a theory of harmony, of pitch relations. There are dozens and dozens of music theory texts and treatises, but the focus is squarely on pitch relations and nothing else. We have no theories of rhythm, timbre, articulation, dynamics, or even orchestration. Orchestration courses and texts abound, but they are not based on any theoretical foundation, rather according to tradition and prevailing taste. Is there anything inherently wrong with scoring for one trombone as Chopin did (and which he has been reviled for) in one of his piano concertos?

Of course, the teaching, learning, and understanding of the basics of music is foundational and important. We think of the many great composers who studied with master teachers, always learning the ins and outs, the mysteries of musical construction. Arnold Schoenberg analyzed the works of the great masters, tearing apart the note relations in search of the genius behind the music. Nadia Boulanger, whose memory lives in infamy as a harsh task master, put her charges through the paces, often in a brutal and humiliating fashion, as they struggled to learn the rules and finer points of harmony and counterpoint. After suffering through her courses, students such as Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, Elliott Carter, and Philip Glass had a thorough, even flawless understanding of harmonic procedures that served them very well indeed.

As we all know, the great artists almost always have a firm grasp of the fundamentals. While much of Picasso‘s work looks as though executed with a childish and untrained hand, or the monochromatic, nearly industrial minimalist planes of Ellsworth Kelly seem devoid of technical ability, both artists were highly skilled draftsmen. Technique was not a problem for them and it undoubtedly was of value in the creation of their work. However, neither was it the focus of their work.

On the other hand, Schoenberg declared to his student John Cage the following: “In order to write music you must have a feeling for harmony.” Cage told his teacher that he had no feeling for harmony. In response, Schoenberg warned that a failure to learn and embrace harmony would set up a musical roadblock, a virtual wall through which he would never be able pass. Cage retorted, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.” Of course, Cage did not “devote his life to beating his head against the wall.” He simply went around the “wall.” Harmony remained of no interest and no use to Cage.

Cage’s concept of the creation of music was not bound by tradition and rules. Morton Feldman recalls his first meeting with Cage:

I brought John a string quartet. He looked at it a long time and then said, “How did you make this? I thought of my constant quarrels with Wolpe and also that, just a week before, after showing a composition of mine to Milton Babbitt and answering his questions as intelligently as I could, he said to me, “Morton, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.” And so, in a very weak voice, I answered John, “I don’t know how I made it.” The response to this was startling. John jumped up and down and, with a kind of high monkey squeal, screeched, “Isn’t that marvelous. Isn’t that wonderful. It’s so beautiful, and he doesn’t know how he made it.” Quite frankly, I sometimes wonder how my music would have turned out if John had not given me those early permissions to have confidence in my instincts.

We teach our students, but do we give them permission, indeed, do we encourage them to follow their muse? Or do we shuttle them in the direction of our own preferences and biases? We teach them about techniques, the craft of composition, but do we teach them about the art of music making? Perhaps we would do well to consider this morsel by Feldman: “Yes, remember, my definition of skill is to do exactly what you want.” Carl Ruggles may have had a more refined or extrapolated version of Feldman’s maxim. After pounding out a chord which he was considering for use in one of his compositions over and over for more than an hour, he replied to Henry Cowell‘s inquiry as to what he was doing:

“I’m trying this damned chord to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I [Cowell] said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

Thus, Ruggles brought together his skills as a composer, followed his instincts, and finally evaluated the product. Technique was not the standard, rather it was art which set the standard and technique was a means of achieving his goal.

In addition to teaching the fundamentals of music to our students, we must also give them license to discover their artistic muse, rather than stifle and suffocate it under the iron fist of the rules and regulations of proper voice leading, pitch relations, or some other mechanical process of relating one note to the next. In fact, as Claudio Monteverdi concluded and subsequently argued so well in his polemical exchange with Artusi, the rules of yesterday may not apply to the aesthetics of today. We cannot and must not judge new work according to the criteria and values of older work, however recent.

Until very recently, I had not seen music by Cage included in any music history score or recorded anthology aimed at music majors. And even then, it was limited to his prepared piano work. It is easy enough to describe the prepared piano, reducing Cage to mere gimmickry. Yet a quandary remains: how and why would a teacher pass along the concept and meaning behind chance operations to his/her student? In reality, the question might properly be, how can we not teach chance operations? Is composition a form of math or a form of art? Should not ideas about the meaning of music and art be at least broached by the instructor?

Composition is not merely a process of assembling a series of formulae, no matter how sophisticated, complex, and elegant. There is more to creating music than gaining a command of musical syntax. Syntax may be a means to an end, but end is the semantics of music, its content, its meaning. Just as we all know that virtuosity and chops are no substitute for insightful interpretation in the making of great music in performance, so too is music more than its syntax. Too often, somehow, composers, teachers, and students confuse musical syntax with musical semantics.

If Cage was correct and the purpose of music is to (1) quiet and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences and (2) imitate nature in her operation, why then all the fuss over technique, or better, why not more fuss over the art of music?