A “Virtual Séance” with the Founders of the American Music Center

10. Advice for Today’s Composers

MARION BAUER: To tell you the truth, I am especially interested in young composers, in their problems and in giving them assistance when I can: possibly it keeps me young too.1

OTTO LUENING: At my age, you can shoot your mouth off. You’ve got your bags packed and you don’t know how long you’ll be around. I’ve been around; I’ve seen ‘em come and go. I’ve been in on all sorts of stuff.2

HARRISON KERR: If as a composer, I have what may be called a credo, it is to ignore every musical “ism.” Undue sensitivity to the fashionable taste in musical idiom has been the downfall of many a composer… Adherence to the conventional brings only atrophy.3

AARON COPLAND: You can’t just write music that’s going to please everybody because it’s going to please everybody. You have to write the music you have to write… And your audience, if you’re writing an avant-garde type of music or something a little bit above their musical capacities, they have to catch up with you. So you have to take that in your stride. It’s part of the job. You can’t sit around, sit at home, write a song and think: “Will somebody like this? Will they disapprove?” It doesn’t work—it can’t work that way. You have to write what you have to write, and you take your chances.4

HOWARD HANSON: “Communication” may be a naughty word in certain contemporary creative and philosophical circles but what music says to the individual will remain eternally important. This identification of music and its performance with the individual listener makes a categorical definition of “great” music, or even “good” music difficult if not impossible. Music which communicates powerfully to one listener may communicate little, or not at all, to another. To the first listener the music may be not only “good” music but great music, whereas to the second listener it may be unintelligible, or merely boring.5

MARION BAUER: No two people hear sound alike any more than they react alike emotionally. Ears vary as much as eyes…6

AARON COPLAND: “Reach[ing] certain audiences” makes it sound too deliberate…I mean it’s too easy to write something that you know everybody is going to love. That wouldn’t be any fun… I don’t mean to say you are always going to be successful at it, but you certainly know the type of thing that an audience would go for.7

HOWARD HANSON: My instinct gets the better of my intellect.8

QUINCY PORTER: I can’t imagine the pure mathematician (or the computer) making the exceptional choice which gives the music a ‘human’ quality. And often it is a decision which the composer makes because of some curious association which the composer doesn’t even remember. Perhaps he was awaken by a hoot owl at the age of two!9

HOWARD HANSON: Music is a spiritual expression.10

AARON COPLAND: No composer worthy of the name has ever written anything merely to be “as great as” or “better than” some other composer. He writes in order to say something of his own…11

MARION BAUER: The contemporary composer naturally reflects the musical viewpoint of his age. He is a microcosmic ray, as it were, of its composite consciousness.12

OTTO LUENING: The trouble with American composers today is cannibalism—they knock each other off. We’re too competitive now, and we forget that the real enemy is outside: ignorance and indifference, which are good things to attack. 13

HARRISON KERR: Following the dictates of a group of self-styled “avant-garde” enthusiasts may just as easily bring on musical myopia. Being stylish, whatever the origin of the fashion, never produced a significant work of art. Yet the temptation is great.14

MARION BAUER: There have always been conservatives and radicals among composers, performers, and listeners. The old and the new have always been at swords’ points. What an ideal balance would be reached if we could accept the novelty and admit the old also!15

QUINCY PORTER: I guess that there is apt to be a certain kind of mathematical sense in most composers. Perhaps this helps give a consistency to their music, once they have figured out in their imaginations the kind of idea they want to develop in their composition. It may help him to find ways which will allow to insist on the ideas he wishes to stress—to repeat them in an unboring way… But it is awfully hard to explain why a given composer does a particular thing at a particular time. In a given situation, he may not choose the 1st or 2nd possibility, but perhaps the 101st.16

HOWARD HANSON: Technical analysis of material is easier after the act of composition. For a composer uses combinations of tone as a writer uses combinations of letters. The writer does not, I am sure, think consciously in the moment of creation, ‘This is a noun; this is a verb’ although, subconsciously, he is aware of the form and construction of his writing. Similarly, the composer has his own vocabulary, his own nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions, which form a part of his tonal vocabulary and which he uses—or should use—with complete freedom.17

MARION BAUER: The artist of the 20th century has had a phobia against any display of feeling. In the fear of being sentimental he has sacrificed sentiment.18

HOWARD HANSON: It seems to me that the voice should be used as a voice and not as an instrument.19

AARON COPLAND: I think the best opera composers are those who can’t write anything else. If they’re stuck with the idea that they must write opera, they’re not interested in writing symphonies and sonatas, then they’d better write operas, of course, rather than not do anything. But it is an enormous gamble. It takes an enormous effort, it’s difficult, there aren’t that many opera houses around the world who put on new operas. It’s a very chancey operation. Particularly for Americans, because we don’t have that many opera houses, and they don’t play new things. They’re very conventional in their repertoire. And also the Europeans don’t stage American operas.20

HOWARD HANSON: A composer should not try to set to music poetry which does not ‘sing back’ to him. I have admired many poems which I hoped to set to music but which I have never attempted because they would not ‘sing back’ to me.21

HARRISON KERR: Adherence to a line of conduct, laid down by a more or less powerful group, will lead to performance and to at least limited acceptance of your work. Conversely, to go your own way will certainly make the achievement of recognition difficult. But to yield to the pressure of surrounding opinion is to forfeit your honesty as a composer. Punishment for this will certainly follow. For the creative individual, artistic morality is of far deeper significance than social morality. You may go to jail for breech of the latter, but a violation of the former will consign you to oblivion.22

AARON COPLAND: Every composer secretly thinks he knows best how his own music should sound.23

HOWARD HANSON: In this day of the modern seating of the modern orchestra, you are apt to come into the orchestra hall and find the orchestra arranged almost anyway. One of the difficulties of being a guest conductor, particularly a composer going around and conducting your own music, is that you have to start each rehearsal with a different orchestra by playing hide and seek in order to find where the players all are. In one orchestra the brass will be over here and the other orchestra they’ll be over there and you find yourself giving cues to the wrong section which isn’t such a good thing to do. They generally don’t pay any attention anyway, so it’s all right!24

AARON COPLAND: In composing you are aware, almost unconsciously, of who you are writing for…25

OTTO LUENING: A composer composes the materials, but before that he has to compose himself, so that there’s an openness and a balance.26

AARON COPLAND: There is no doubt that a veritable Pandora’s box of new musical possibilities has overwhelmed the present generation of composers. But it is useless to attempt to shut the box and turn our heads.27

HOWARD HANSON: I don’t think you can put too much faith in criticisms.28

MARION BAUER: Criticism never hurt anyone, least of all a sincere artist.29

HOWARD HANSON: Once in a while, not too often you’ll find a critic who really has an axe to grind. He may dislike you personally and if he can find anything unkind to say, whether it’s true or not, he will go out of his way to do that. And then, to counter-act that, fortunately, you’ll find critics who are handsome fans and you can’t write anything bad. You know, everything you write is great…30

AARON COPLAND: I’ve been asked sometimes whether I compose at the piano, and the answer is of course that I do. It was thought to be a little shameful for a composer to admit that he needed the use of an instrument in order to write his music. But you mustn’t think of it in terms of using the instrument like a layman would use it. You don’t go to piano and by chance hit a couple of notes and think: “Do I like that. Oh no, I don’t like that. Try it again.” You see, it doesn’t work that way. It works like turning the piano into a typewriter. The instant you fall on the keys, you know whether you like it or not. You don’t have to worry about that. And there’s some sort of inner instinct that leads your fingers. It can’t simply be pure chance, because if it were it’d be much too chancey and you’d get nowhere. So that something is guiding your fingers… I don’t know what you do if you’re not a pianist, of course, you’re not helped in that way. I found it always stimulating to be in contact with some form of live music, even an inadequate playing of something that you gradually develop without the use of the instrument. Even that is a stimulus. Just the sound of the music, the pleasure in the sound of music tends to make me, at any rate, more imaginative in trying to find new combinations and melodies and rhythms than if I just sat at a table and thought about it.31

MARION BAUER: The writing on the wall points to a new romanticism, a renaissance of beauty and simplicity—but a romanticism composed of the new materials. The spirit of beauty must be born again… It will be a new beauty to fit a new epoch…32

HARRISON KERR: …Musical composition must be entirely a labor of love, but I do not advise trying to establish credit at your bank on the basis of your uncontaminated idealism.33

OTTO LUENING: My advice to the young is…to do what you have to do, and don’t take no for an answer.34

QUINCY PORTER: The futility of formulating rules for an art is proven by practically every genius. Geniuses make their own laws.35

1. Cited from Marion Bauer quotes in “Woman With A Symphony” by Irwin Bazelon, The Baton of Phil Beta Fraternity Cincinnati OH, Volume XXX, Number 3, March 1951.

2. Cited from Otto Luening quote in “An Influential Musician at 80″ by John Rockwell, The New York Times, Sunday, June 5, 1980.

3. Cited from a Kerr quotation in “Harrison Kerr: Composer and Educator” by Alexander L. Ringer, ACA Bulletin Volume 8 Number 2, 1959.

4. Cited from the transcript of Aaron Copland’s Composers Seminar, January 24, 1977. Archived in the offices of Oral History, American Music, Yale University.

5. Cited from “What is Good Music?” by Howard Hanson, Herald Tribune January 18, 1961.

6. Cited from Twentieth Century Music; How It Developed, How To Listen To It by Marion Bauer [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947]. Order from Amazon.

7. Cited from the transcript of Vivian Perlis’s Interview with Aaron Copland in Peekskill NY on February 12, 1976, Reel H. Archived in the offices of Oral History, American Music, Yale University.

8. Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri from the audiotape 1 side 1 of David R. Williams’s interview with Howard Hanson, June 9, 1978. Audiotape archived at the Eastman School of Music.

9. Cited from Quincy Porter’s Letter to Peter Kranz, January 15, 1965. Archived in the Quincy Porter Papers at the Yale University Music Library.

10. Cited from “What is Good Music?” by Howard Hanson, Herald Tribune January 18, 1961.

11. Cited from “Composers without a Halo”, originally written in the 1930s and later collected in The New Music: 1900-1960 by Aaron Copland [New York: Norton, 1968]. Order from Amazon.

12. Cited from Twentieth Century Music; How It Developed, How To Listen To It by Marion Bauer [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947]. Order from Amazon.

13. Cited from Otto Luening quote in “An Influential Musician at 80″ by John Rockwell, The New York Times, Sunday, June 5, 1980.

14. Cited from a Kerr quotation in “Harrison Kerr: Composer and Educator” by Alexander L. Ringer, ACA Bulletin Volume 8 Number 2, 1959.

15. Cited from Twentieth Century Music; How It Developed, How To Listen To It by Marion Bauer [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947]. Order from Amazon.

16. Cited from Quincy Porter’s Letter to Peter Kranz, January 15, 1965. Archived in the Quincy Porter Papers at the Yale University Music Library.

17. Cited from “The Lament for Beowulf” by Howard Hanson, collected in The Composer’s Point of View, edited Robert Stephan Hines [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963]. Order from Amazon.

18. Cited from Twentieth Century Music; How It Developed, How To Listen To It by Marion Bauer [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947]. Order from Amazon.

19. Cited from “The Lament for Beowulf” by Howard Hanson, collected in The Composer’s Point of View, edited Robert Stephan Hines [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963]. Order from Amazon.

20. Cited from the transcript of Aaron Copland’s Composers Seminar, January 24, 1977. Achived in the offices of Oral History, American Music, Yale University.

21. Cited from “The Lament for Beowulf” by Howard Hanson, collected in The Composer’s Point of View, edited Robert Stephan Hines [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963]. Order from Amazon.

22. Cited from a Kerr quotation in “Harrison Kerr: Composer and Educator” by Alexander L. Ringer, ACA Bulletin Volume 8 Number 2, 1959.

23. Cited from “Composer from Brooklyn: An Autobiographical Sketch” by Aaron Copland, Magazine of Art 1939, later reprinted in The New Music: 1900-1960 by Aaron Copland [New York: Norton, 1968]. Order from Amazon.

24. Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri from the audiotape “Know Your Orchestra,” a lecture by Howard Hanson given on November 18, 1936 at the Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Hall. Audiotape archived at the Eastman School of Music.

25. Cited from Aaron Copland quote from a conversation with Phillip Ramey, November 12, 1978, contained in liner notes for the LP, Copland Conducts Copland: Symphony No. 3, Columbia Masterworks M35113.

26. Cited from Otto Luening quote in “An Influential Musician at 80″ by John Rockwell, The New York Times, Sunday, June 5, 1980.

27. Cited from The New Music: 1900-1960 by Aaron Copland [New York: Norton, 1968]. Order from Amazon.

28. Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri from the audiotape 4 side 1 of David R. Williams’s interview with Howard Hanson, June 9, 1978. Audiotape archived at the Eastman School of Music.

29. Cited from Marion Bauer quotes in “Woman With A Symphony” by Irwin Bazelon, The Baton of Phil Beta Fraternity Cincinnati OH, Volume XXX, Number 3, March 1951.

30. Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri from the audiotape 4 side 1 of David R. Williams’s interview with Howard Hanson, June 9, 1978. Audiotape archived at the Eastman School of Music.

31. Cited from the transcript of the VHS Tape of Aaron Copland’s Self-Portrait Documentary, December 19 1979. Archived in the offices of Oral History, American Music, Yale University.

32. Cited from Twentieth Century Music; How It Developed, How To Listen To It by Marion Bauer [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947] Order from Amazon.

33. Cited from “The Composer’s Lot is ‘Not A Happy One'” by Harrison Kerr, Musical America, February 1934.

34. Cited from “Otto Luening at 85″ an interview with Otto Luening by Brooke Wentz, broadcast on WKCR-FM 89.9 New York NY on June 11, 1985 and subsequently published in Musical America (November 1985).

35. Cited from the Introduction to A Study of Sixteenth Century Counterpoint by Quincy Porter [Boston: New England Conservatory of Music, 1940].