What’s Hot, What’s Not

The Midwest Composers Symposium took place this past weekend at Indiana University. Composers from Indiana and the universities of Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan gathered to hear each others’ music, drink, and maintain a tenuous grip on professional courtesy. A few observations:

  • Anyone who tells you that the academy is full of avant-gardists, experimentalists, and out-of-touch modernists is a liar. Most of the pieces presented this weekend—particularly those requiring the deployment of large instrumental forces—had more in common with Bartók, Debussy, or Copland than with Lachenmann, Murail, or Babbitt.

  • Counterpoint (c. 1200 – c. 2006) is out, apparently. Rest in peace.

  • I was surprised by how evenly the ages of the composers of the best pieces (both conventional and progressive) of the weekend were distributed. There was some really excellent music by undergrads as well as graduate students, whose ages tend to scatter more widely.

  • I need to start winning some awards. Compared to my peers, my bio is downright anemic. In the meantime, I might tweak some of the language: Perhaps if I’d studied with “world-renowned masters” (to quote one of my colleagues’ bios) rather than just teachers of composition, I’d cast a longer shadow. I’m also not above claiming to have been awarded a Regents Fellowship from the University of Michigan, which is eye-catching on a CV, even if I totally made it up.

  • Bloomington, Indiana, is a picturesque, hospitable town, even under a few inches of snow. The weather was rough this weekend; I have to give props to the composers, performers, and professors from Michigan and Iowa, who drove about twice as far as we did to get there.

Before I wrap up, let me take this opportunity to thank Clint Needham, the Indiana student who (in addition to being a fine composer) seems to have been responsible for a great deal of the Symposium’s logistical/organizational legwork. Putting an event like this together is a thankless job, and everybody who went to Bloomington this weekend owes Clint a major hat tip.

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31 thoughts on “What’s Hot, What’s Not

  1. GalenHBrown

    “Anyone who tells you that the academy is full of avant-gardists, experimentalists, and out-of-touch modernists is a liar. Most of the pieces presented this weekend—particularly those requiring the deployment of large instrumental forces—had more in common with Bartók, Debussy, or Copland than with Lachenmann, Murail, or Babbitt.”

    I’m sure it’s not deliberate, but this is a bit of a straw-man argument. There are plenty of modernists (note that I have no interest in calling them out-of-touch) in academia and, to be sure, there are many flavors of neo-romantic / neo-Stravinskyite composers in academia. There are precious few experimentalists, postminimalists, and the like, and that’s where the problem lies, not in the divide that you’re talking about. The Uptown/Midtown/Downtown conceptual model remains the most useful tool for this analysis — Uptown and Midtown are both well represented (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Midtown is now the dominant force, which is what you seem to be saying), Downtown is not. The key question is actually more like how many of the pieces that you heard sounded like Steve Reich? I will be very pleasantly surprised indeed to hear that actual Downtown composers were well represented.

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but just to be safe I’ll say it again here: I’m not claiming that we still see the kind of rampant overt stylistic discrimination that went on in the past, in fact I think there’s very little of that these days. The underrepresenttion of Downtown composers is maintained by underlying structural forces, in spite of the good intentions of individuals.

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  2. pgblu

    long shadow
    Colin, you cast a sufficiently long shadow. Now eat three squares a day so you can cast a wider shadow. Much more important. Your scrawniness worries me.

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  3. Colin Holter

    that’s where the problem lies, not in the divide that you’re talking about.

    Times are tough all over. Your allegation that there isn’t enough experimental music – you’re calling it “downtown,” I guess – in universities is right on the money. However, there also isn’t enough of what I guess you’re calling “uptown” music. But what there really isn’t enough of is music that obviates the distinction between these categories, music that demonstrates the anachronism of terms like “uptown” and downtown” – which, having never lived or worked in New York, I have to admit I find exasperating. As far as I’m concerned, whether the run-up to the dive into this dialectic comes from above or below 20th, if you will, is of negligible importance.

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  4. hausorob

    Regional Differences
    I think it’s a mistake to assume that music composed at the university level is stylistically consistent across the country – composers in the Midwest may have different influences than those on the East Coast (or in NY specifically) which would be different than those composers out in California or in the Pacific Northwest (similar to jazz musicians).

    We may all be American composers, but I think there may be a helluva lot of regionality to our work (both where we live and where our mentors came from).

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  5. coreydargel

    Oberlin also participated in the Midwest Composers Symposium when I was a student there. Are the Oberlin kids no longer involved? They often contributed music that actually shook things up (sometimes just for the sake of shaking things up, but most often it was genuine). At any rate, most people didn’t care for our music, but the Oberlin kids always won the competition for best titles.

    I remember that you could always tell who the worst composers were going to be because their bios always started with a sentence like “Richard Richardson has composer well over 500 pieces…

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  6. tbriggs

    hausorob, i think you’re correct to say that music composed by university level students isn’t going to be consistent across the country. however, it’s also important to remember that not everyone who ends up at a university in the midwest is from the midwest. (or even wants to be in the midwest.) some of the composers represented at this symposium were, in fact, international students who have come to america to study at one of these midwestern universities. actually, what was surprising to me was how similar most of the music coming from certain schools was despite the diversity of its students. my guess is that the “regionality” you’re talking about comes not so much from the students, but from professors who are all too keen to mold their students into versions of themselves. or maybe i just wasn’t listening carefully enough…

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  7. GalenHBrown

    I don’t have much of an opinion on the proportion of Uptown versus Midtown music represented in academia — you may well be right. And yes, the New York centric terminology is unfortunate and causes problems in communication, but when treated simply as names for different parts of a stylistic spectrum it ends up making sense. I actually completely disagree that we need music that “obviates the distinction between these categories” — I think the existence of sub-genres is healthy and desirable. Music that’s hard to pin down is another matter, and maybe that’s what you’re actually talking about.

    Hausorob’s point about regional differences is of course also right. The bulk of my experience of the current state of contemporary music is based in the Northeast, and my impression is that Boston is a particularly conservative town stylistically speaking — New York obviously not quite so much. I’ve also heard people who were in a position to know refer to a “Midwestern Orchestra Style” which involved “writing really well orchestrated pieces that were quasi-tonal and as big and loud as possible.” I don’t have anywhere near enough data to make a judgement on this particular issue, but there are certainly plenty of smart people who say it’s a factor.

    Tbriggs makes an interesting point about similarity of styles within schools. I don’t think, however, that it’s a question of professors making their students in their own image so much as _admitting_ the students who are doing what they themselves are the most interested in. This is the foundation of the structural difficulty I was talking about, since it makes perfect sense that professors would want to accept students who are writing a kind of music that them themselves are interested in.

    Corey — when were you at Oberlin?

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  8. Colin Holter

    Oberlin dropped out this year; however, I remember them from last year’s MWCS at Illinois. I did not like them, but dammit, I respected them. There are a lot of great explorers among the composers at the other Midwest schools, but generally speaking, the Oberlin folks had more musical curiosity than Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana put together.

    I also seem to remember that the Oberlin kids all wore the same kind of pea coat.

    I’m glad somebody brought up the region thing. That’s super-important to me personally, and I certainly don’t think of myself as a “Midwestern” composer – in fact, I always include a shout-out to my hometown in my bio because there are a bunch of things about it (early history, proximity to DC, etc.) that really shaped the way I think about society and, by extension, the goals of my music. Nevertheless, a good many (but probably not more than half) of the composers whose music was played at MWCS aren’t from the Midwest, and that Midwestern orchestra sound was totally in evidence (and has even trickled down to chamber music). I don’t doubt that a conference of university composers in another part of the country would have sounded much different, but I wonder if you’d see the same dominance of the prevailing “regional style” – I suspect so.

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  9. jbunch

    In general I felt a little like I was being gummed to death. There were so many pieces that seemed like paradigms of their genres, but so few willing to take any particular stances in terms of style, material, instrumentation, form… I felt like stylistic concerns were sort of irrelevant in that way. There were a few pieces that did make such claims (perhaps at least 1 or 2 from each school) and sometimes I was a little disgusted by those claims, but for me I would rather listen to a piece that makes me want to vomit than a piece that makes me want to…well… do nothing.

    I was pretty excited to realize that there is no Illinois “sound.” But I’d be curious to see if students from other schools that were there perceived one. It’s pretty hard to be objective about that. Do the students at Michigan perceive a Michigan sound? Indiana? Iowa? How would you describe that sound? It’s not entirely unlikely that a group of people living in the same place studying with the same people are going to yield similar results (more or less).

    And another related question is why do we choose the styles, materials, forms, etc. that we choose? Are we being uncritical? Do we just simply like them? Is it possible that with each of these aesthetic choices there is some way of seeing the world that we are affirming (whether we know it or not)? I think so – and please don’t read this as some modernist schlub barking at the cowering neo-tonal martyrs – afterall, I’m only 26 and don’t even have the pull to get the internet in my office turned on.

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  10. Rodney Lister

    Why would anybody want to hear (or deliberately write, for that matter)anything that “sounds like Steve Reich” when the real thing would be so much better?

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  11. GalenHBrown

    Rodney, Rodney, Rodney. . .

    I’m not talking about music that slavishly imitates Reich any more than Colin was talking about people slavishly imitating Bartok, Debussy, Copand, Lachenmann, Murail, or Babbitt — I was using Reich as a synechdoche for minimalism and postminimalism in the same way Colin was using Babbitt as a synechdoche for High Modernism. If my use of that rhetorical trick was clumsy and caused confusion, then I’m sorry not to have been more clear.

    On the other hand, if you’re essentially saying that all or most minimalism and postminimalism is a cheap Steve Reich knockoff then you’re being totally unfair and unreasonable. I doubt that’s what you actually mean, but that’s what your comment sounded like it meant. Care to clarify?

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  12. coreydargel

    Hmm, the pea-coat thing must be new. Perhaps it’s because there’s only one store in the town of Oberlin where one can buy heavy coats, and it’s an Army-Navy store.

    Galen, I was at Oberlin from ’97-’01. Moved to NYC summer of ’01

    Colin, I don’t know if you were around this far back (probably not), but you should ask people at the Symposium if anyone remembers the infamous piece SILKWORM.

    My name is Corey Dargel and I have written well over 5000 pieces of music, 4914 of which are still available for premiere performance!

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  13. dalgas

    Why would anybody want to hear (or deliberately write, for that matter)anything that “sounds like Steve Reich” when the real thing would be so much better?

    Because that’s a tried-and-true method for both learning about the music you love, and hopefully to discover things that might push it past mere “sounds like” to something more your own.

    Steve Layton

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  14. mmcginn

    Wait one minute…

    “the Oberlin folks had more musical curiosity than Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana put together.”

    I graduated from Iowa (2003) and was supposed to have a piece on the 2002 or 03 concert. But, it was a year in which snow forced my performer and I to have to sit it out. I doubt you would have said that comment had you heard my piece.

    In general though, I agree with you about the lack of musical curiousity at said universities. I remember gaining an interest in Cage and being told, in essence, that he wasn’t that important.

    And, personally, I always felt like the kids from Oberlin thought themselves a little too important.

    Note: After Iowa I attended Mills College.

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  15. Colin Holter

    Aha! I had a sneaking suspicion that they were holding out on us. They’re hanging on to their A material (or at least their weird material).

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  16. coreydargel

    As a former Oberlin student, I can assure you that I am very important, as evidenced in my biographical note which states that I have composed well over 10,000 pieces of music.

    College is all about thinking oneself too important, n’est-ce pas, insulating oneself from the outside world in order to experiment, examine, and criticize (or think critically about) the status quo. These can all be healthy activities, but let’s not kid ourselves: those Symposium events tend not to attract too many local townspeople, do they?

    Yes, there are probably many Oberlin students, as well as many students from other schools, who think themselves too important.

    They’ll learn.

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  17. tbriggs

    I remember gaining an interest in Cage and being told, in essence, that he wasn’t that important.

    this is exactly the kind of thing i was trying to get at in my previous post. if i ever had a professor tell me that something i was interested in was not that important, i would not be in grad school doing what i’m doing right now. i guess i was lucky enough to have professors as an undergrad who encouraged me to pursue the interests i was developing and could lead me in directions that would further stimulate my thinking. to tell a student that something they are interested in, especially a composer such as cage, is not important is about equivalent to pushing that student out of the door halfway through a lesson. whether they like it or not, a professor’s job is to enable their students to pursue the interests and ideas that they bring with them to academic study while challenging them to continually re-evaluate and critique those very same ideas. to shoot down a student by declaring that something is unimportant or unworthy of interest negates the entire raison d’etre of academic pursuit.

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  18. william

    To blanketly condemn something so general as counterpoint reminds me of one of those self-appointed health fanatics who might say one should never eat carbohydrates. The thought is so essentializing and universal its value is only the humor of its hyperbole. And it reminds us that the value of blogs are that they allow us all to revel in our inner-blowhard.

    I was wondering if a site with bloggers like NMB should actually have quite a few more regular contributors for the sake of variety and balance? Where are the Californians, the computer music folks, the neo-romantics, etc.? When it comes to composers, there is no shortage of people willing to “chatter”, so why not let a few more flowers bloom here? If we had about twice as many chatterers, and if there were a rotation of forces every few months, things might be more lively and interesting. Just a thought.

    William Osborne

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  19. pgblu

    Snap
    Well, I agree with Mr. Osborne, but then: to praise something so general as Californians reminds me of one of those self-appointed research and development fanatics who say we should hire more people that wear bow ties.

    I think the comment about counterpoint was, to some extent, humorous hyperbole, and to a greater extent poignant sarcasm, since there was indeed a shortage of contrapuntal technique on display at MWCS. I can corroborate that. But it isn’t like that was the only message in the thread, and it’s not like the Californians aren’t allowed to post their own comments. I believe Randy Nordschow (as well as I) spent a long time in California.

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  20. Colin Holter

    Let me clarify: I was lamenting the absence of counterpoint at Midwest. My music is highly contrapuntal, and although I appreciate that not everyone values this compositional tool equally, I had hoped to hear a little more from my peers last weekend.

    Note that I am not necessarily refuting your accusation that I am a blowhard.

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  21. randy

    Yup, I spent many years in the California sun, which may have had an adverse reaction on my willingness to use counterpoint. Seriously, my most successful piece, Detail of Beethoven’s Hair, sports very little counterpoint. I’m working on a new piece right now that dispenses with counterpoint all together. Solo, monophonic—love that stuff. When I do choose to have something else going on, I find it more interesting to have uncoordinated parts and let things collide on their own. I guess being a native Californian—you know, all laidback and stuff—makes me less of a control freak.

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  22. Daniel Wolf

    Californians
    I’m a fifth generation Californian and counterpoint (modal, not tonal) has always been the center of my work. I think that more essential, than laidbackness, to the Californian identity is an ability to keep things in balance, if only an uneven balance given the delicacy of the environment, and in a musical context that’s exactly the one thing counterpoint can help with.

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  23. mmcginn

    california?
    Sure there may have been regional stylistic differences back in the day but I think it is now a different picture. I, too, am a “California” composer though I grew up in Iowa. When I first came out here to California I expected all the music that I was going to hear to be so “laid back” and I thought everyone was going to be “laid back”. But stylistic differences go deeper than the state where you live. They are individual and, although, influenced by your surroundings and colleagues, unique. I’ve been as surprised as I could be by what I’ve heard out here. I don’t think we can make any blanket statements that can confirm what a California, New York, Illinois or any other state composer is.

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  24. philmusic

    “I don’t think we can make any blanket statements that can confirm what a California, New York, Illinois or any other state composer is. ”

    The only blanket statement, that I can make is that they are good in bed. I use one all the time. Most of the composers I know use them too.

    I hope that dosen’t offend anyone.

    Beach, Blanket–Bingo!

    Phil’s Page

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  25. william

    I enjoyed the humor of your comment about counterpoint, Colin – and also Randy’s echoes of the same in his latest NMB entry. My point is that I would like to see a few more voices regularly writing around here. There’s so much happening on the West Coast, for example, I would like to hear a little more about it – and in a blogging style. And computer music is such a lively field, but I don’t see much about that on NMB. These are just a couple examples of how things might be expanded a bit. On the other hand, it might be too much work for the NMB staff to keep it all organized. Again, it is just a thought, absent of knowledge of the practical realities that might be involved.

    William Osborne

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  26. geordiem5

    Colin didn’t address this in his article, but I’d like to briefly discuss it. Does MCS provide an adequate forum for electronic works?

    In the future, I would like to see a separate submission category and concert for electronic works. Many universities at MCS feature some of the best studios in the country (Illinois, Iowa, etc.). I think this is something definitely worth looking into for next year.

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  27. Colin Holter

    Good point. If I remember correctly, we got a whole lot of electronic submissions at last year’s Midwest (which took place at Illinois); however, there were only four electronic pieces at Indiana this year. I’ve heard that some of their faculty are hostile to electroacoustic music – maybe that has something to do with it.

    Reply

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