Reading fellow composers’ bios is one of my very favorite quasi- professional pastimes. Bios have been the subject of more than a few NewMusicBox screeds, so I’ll leave aside the structural problems necessarily inherent in any hundred-word description of a lifetime of work and study. I’m a simple man: I love nothing more than to curl up with a cup of tea and leaf through some composer websites in search of gold stars and dropped names to smirk at.
The inevitable pedagogical rolls of honor are always a good source of amusement. They represent a veritable playground of suppositions that, in the absence of actually hearing someone’s music, have to stand in for genuinely informed opinions. (It’s sort of like fabricating identities and life stories for people you glimpse on the subway: You’re probably way off, but until you encounter the person for real, it doesn’t matter.) Even if I know and admire the composers listed, I have no qualms about snorting dismissively. Studied with Samuel Adler? East coast automaton! Studied with Roger Reynolds? Staunchly defending a long-passed aesthetic frontier out west! Issuing sweeping and nuance-free generalizations is one of contemporary music’s most hallowed traditions (Studied with Herbert Brün?), and as long they’re disclaimed to be completely baseless and frivolous, why not indulge?
Sometimes composers even cite a few of their favorite progenitors in their biographies, which for me is a bottomless mine of comedy gold. This practice is generally no more than a jockeying for aesthetic position, an attempt to stake out a context (or worse, a tradition) in which one’s music is supposed to be understood. I recently saw a bio that listed a clutch of early 20th century composers like Rachmaninov, Ravel, and Debussy alongside the likes of John Adams and Dominick Argento; this is tantamount to admitting that the experiential quality you seek most fervently in a musical experience isn’t a tension against the boundaries of the artistically conceivable, say, or the intricacies of immanent material/formal correspondences, but rather diatonicism. You have to be a little embarrassed for someone like this, someone who (we might assume) reads novels because he likes how paper feels when he touches it. But again, maybe this composer has cultivated some model of deceptively commodity-like counter-hegemony, some theory of the childlike that both reinforces and undermines conventional notions of the beautiful/sublime dichotomy, whereby his affection for diatonic music is expressed in his own work as a mind-opening, stunningly incisive originality.
That’s the other reason I like to read composer bios: It’s fun to scoff mock-pretentiously, but it’s also really enjoyable to speculate about what kind of awesome music someone who underwent the listed experiences might be moved to write.