Believing in Ghosts

Although it was a long time ago, it’s easy for me to recall the anxiety, tension, and sheer terror of being alone in the dark as a young child. As any former children reading this might attest, what makes the experience so frightening isn’t the darkness itself, but rather the darkness’s ability to thrust us into an indeterminate state where ghosts, monsters, and bogeymen might be swarming under the bed. As children we were still open to these kinds of possibilities, and the sense of sight which might have disabused us of these fears had been dimmed with the lights out. As an adult, I’m pretty sure there was never anything under the bed, but it was the belief in ghosts—not the existence of ghosts—that gave the experience of being in the dark such power.

Likewise, I feel that many of our problems as composers are self-created byproducts of something that is not actually there. For me, compositional ghosts often assume the form of teachers, peers, idols, or competitors, although they can also come to embody the opinions of panels, foundations, or imagined groups of critical people that may not in fact have a sound basis in reality. Oftentimes, our compositional ghosts are constructed more out of our own fear and anticipation of disapproval, absorbed through a strange form of social osmosis rather than handed down from an authority figure on high. We internalize expectations from friends, enemies, and mentors without full awareness of having done so; we believe everyone else’s tall tales, and this gets in the way of writing our own story.

Composer David Rakowski’s duly celebrated buttstix are a way of making compositional phantoms tangible and, moreover, just as ridiculous as they really are. I was never a student of Davy’s but always identified with his desire to see what he, figuratively, had a stick up his ass about. As Rakowski points out in his excellent NewMusicBox interview with Frank J. Oteri, we all have different hang-ups and assumptions and habits and fears and contentments that make us who we are, and sometimes it is the case that certain “buttstix” do provide us with useful tools or at least the discipline of having negotiated a particular rigidity; it’s just that, unexamined, a composer’s buttstix can inhibit personal and artistic growth. Some of Rakowski’s own buttstix include “serious music is slow music” as well as “improvisation is not composition.” In an official buttstix follow-up post on his blog, Rakowski relates how each time he discovered (and occasionally, extracted) a new buttstick, his music began to seem less a part of the “camp” he currently identified with and more like, well, himself.


Examples of buttstix, courtesy of David Rakowski.

I can’t help but think that Rakowski’s buttstix have done more pedagogical good than a whole four years of masterclasses with impressive prize-winning composers. The process of identifying and removing myriad buttstix is comparable to the terrified child turning on a light: in both cases, the phantom Unacceptable Act is easily cut down to size, or even revealed as entirely imaginary—but as long as they reign from the shadows, the phantoms are able to exert a terrifying influence.

Bringing our assumptions and hang-ups into the light of day can put them in their place, whether we view them as ghosts to be dispelled, buttstix to be yanked, or as just a few of the many available channels on the satellite TV of reality.

As another academic year begins, I have a few college visits planned and have been thinking about the compositional ghosts that most often haunt today’s generation of young composers—including assumptions and dictums about the process of composing, an area of composing rarely afforded the attention it deserves in today’s undergraduate curricula. Below are ten of the biggest, baddest ghosts that seem to be influencing many young composers today, and which we would do well to examine. The following precepts should be questioned and challenged just as forcefully as the belief in supernatural creatures lurking under the bed:

1. Measures of music generated=progress made (corollary: erasing measures is a shameful step back).

2. Studying works we laud and admire is more beneficial than taking a closer listen to works or (genres) which we dislike.

3. Composition is a “career.”

4. The presence/absence of any one award/accomplishment is, in itself, capable of making/breaking a composer’s chances.

5. More care and forethought always produces superior work (corollary for teachers: more writing on the blackboard=clear evidence that teaching has occurred).

6. Composition should reflect the results of conscious deliberation, rather than communion with the hidden unconscious.

7. The main point of school is class and the assignments/learning/social relationships acquired therein.

8. Explaining why you made a musical choice is equivalent to justifying that same choice.

9. The type of attention we bring to music is irrelevant to how that music is experienced.

10. Writing new music for old instruments isn’t in any way funny.

What compositional ghosts have haunted your nights? And what caused you to invest them with so much power?

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10 thoughts on “Believing in Ghosts

  1. dB

    Thank you for this, Dan. The one thing that irks me most about composing is all of the baggage that comes along with it (much of which has absolutely nothing to do with actually creating music). That baggage generates all kinds of anxieties and elicits some horrible posturing, which I think accounts for some of the competitiveness (and defensiveness) I’ve seen in the composing community.

    I call the phenomenon “composeurphobia” — a composer’s fear of being seen as an inadequate poseur. I was recently toying with the idea of making a site specifically for composers to share stories of their own composeurphobia, but I abandoned it to pursue other projects. It is heartening to hear about other composers’ struggles with these ghosts, and you can be sure I’m going to adapt this buttstix idea for my own uses.

  2. Alexandra Gardner

    Oh how I love the buttstix! Thanks for a great post, Dan. I am in STILL discovering my own occasional deeply-lodged (eeewwww!) buttstix, years and years after finishing school! How do they get that stuff UP THERE?? :)

  3. Daniel Felsenfeld

    How about the idea of harmony and counterpoint being separable? Or that there is such a thing as a “fair” way to judge a contest? Or that composers who write thorny music don’t want it to be liked? Or the very word “academic” used in 2012 in the way it is…

  4. Daniel Felsenfeld

    …and who’s with me in thinking that the Buttstix need to go live with a place where composers the world over can contribute their own? WHO’S WITH ME?

  5. Kyle Gann

    What’s this “we” business, paleface? Nice to see the growth in self-awareness, but let’s admit that a lot of composers never internalized those idiot prohibitions in the first place, and have spent decades wishing our composing colleagues would chill out. As Peter Garland puts it, we thought since the 1970s we were living in a “post-prohibitive” age.

  6. Danvisconti

    Hi Phil and Kyle – I think ALL kinds of composers internalize many different kinds of assumptions about music, and rarely with much awareness of having done so. So I would expect that someone like Kyle Gann has a very different set of assumptions, desires, priorities, and interests than myself, Phil, or Davy. That doesn’t change the fact that all composers (even “60s people”) have SOME idea of what they are after in music and likewise what does not appeal to them, and they arrived at this present point in part because of their previous study, experience, and instruction.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with suggesting that we could all stand to benefit from deeper awareness of our own motivation, especially when (as Kyle seems to agree) there are so many people who have been absolutely f#@&ed up by school or the poisonous anti-arts rhetoric that’s become popular in America.

  7. Kyle Gann

    Dan, I really appreciate what you’re trying to do here, because the music world would be a better place if more composers didn’t immediately disqualify music that didn’t fit all their little learned criteria. But you’re trying to pull on me and Phil the false equivalency thing that political commentators do: if the Republicans do something bad, then the Democrats must do it too in the opposite direction, because they’re the mirror image. Of course I have things I try to do in my music, but I don’t try to do the same things in every piece, and I have no negative criteria at all like Rakowski’s that you cite here: no motor rhythms, no ostinatos, no octaves, and so on. I have no mirror-image list of prohibitions (or mandates), and never have. In the ’80s (and earlier) hundreds of us fled the academic-classical scene because we couldn’t handle the mandates, prohibitions, criteria, posing (I love dB‘s word), and, yes, buttstix. Your assumption that we developed our own, compensatory neuroses is pure speculation, and unintentionally condescending. Everything was acceptable, nothing was disallowed, and we lived that. “‘Must’ follows ‘music’ only in the dictionary,” I wrote at the time. I have never in my life told a student that there was any specific thing he or she must or shouldn’t do in a piece of music, whereas they get that from their other professors all the time. You have no conceivable authority to claim all composers do that, it’s simply an article of faith you’ve adopted, understandably, from your own experience. How in hell do you know what my self-awareness level is? I’ve been composing since 1969 and arguing in print since 1981. Keep up the good work, I like your list of examples, but your argument loses power if it requires from us an admission that you see deeper into the innermost souls of all living composers than we do ourselves.

  8. Phil Fried

    To me Dan it seems we are equating “assumption dumping” with virtue. Naturally, public displays of virtue are suspect to me.

    Personally I think inconsistency is what makes composers interesting.


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