Randy Nordschow opens his most recent Chatter piece with a brief rumination on the quandary of what to call what we do. Randy rejects “contemporary classical music” and “new music,” both well-worn but hardly descriptive. I like to call it “written music”—music whose essence lives in a score and relies on human-to-human performance to be heard—but this unfairly excludes improvisers and fixed-media composers. If, as I posit, we’re trained in the production of scores, though, why not take Randy’s suggestion that The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Music Composition could be a constructive starting point?
When I was 15 or so, I read Classical Music for Dummies. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship: This tome became my diving board into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of revelatory musical experiences. But it also offered a fledgling composer practically aglow with adolescent hormonal imbalance a number of intellectual short-cuts, some of which have taken me the better part of ten years to move beyond. Encountering that paramount toxic fiction of postwar music—the idea that “difficult” music was obviated by more “emotionally direct” music—at a particularly immature 15 years of age can really mess with your head. If you’re like me, you buy it hook, line, and sinker (1999) until it becomes clear that there’s cultural capital to be gained by rejecting it, at which point (2001) you become a zealot of the opposite persuasion. This is a transformation you can undertake with virtually no genuine critical thinking required.
I am 100% in favor of democratizing the composer’s toolbox. Whoever wants access to the kinds of technical resources I assume the Idiot’s Guide® contains should be able to get it. As one of those graduate students Randy mentions whose brain cells are tied up in low-yield compositional bonds, I’d be the first to agree that elevating the prescriptions implied by Straus and Forte to gospel status is unwise. But composing is not easy, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply wearing blinders against the thorny and often paradoxical problems that necessarily accompany art-making. So by all means, make the IG® your class composition textbook—just remember that the tough questions in response to which Ivy League wonks like Joe and Allen toiled are still out there. No single volume can equip you to answer them.