Have Some Fun

Every fall since I began teaching at SUNY Fredonia, I’ve been asked to come speak to the School of Music’s Freshman Seminar class in order to let them know about our composition program. In addition to the real advantage of connecting with students who are interested in composition but either did not make it into the program or hadn’t considered studying it full-time, it also allows me to speak to the many performance and music education majors. Not only do I encourage these students to collaborate with composition majors as instrumentalists, singers, and conductors, but I always take the opportunity to encourage them to try composing themselves, especially if they’ve never done it before. “One does not need to be a poet in order to enjoy writing poetry,” is something I always tell them.

These yearly talks I have with 18-year-old students propelled me to take the opportunity to speak in a similar manner to professional music educators, first at the NYSSMA Winter Conference (New York State’s “all-state” convention) and now at regional and national conferences like the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME) Eastern Division Conference. The main gist of my presentation has been to encourage music teachers to begin to compose, something most of them have never tried outside of an occasional theory homework assignment. I explain that there are many reasons why composing can be helpful to educators, from giving them a much stronger context through which they can interpret the works of others to improving their skills in sight-reading and rhythmic comprehension. And with such a foundation, they can better work with their own students who want to try their hand at writing music.

But I also tell them that they should do it because it’s fun.

Having fun, or composing simply for the intrinsic enjoyment of creation, isn’t something that’s discussed much in education or composition circles, but I think it should be. Teachers tend to think that composing is something that is a mystery, an alchemical process in which they are, by default, not worthy to participate. Composers tend not to think in quite such esoteric terms, but I would wager that most would subscribe to the notion that there are too many aspiring composers out there already and they might question the notion of encouraging a large population of professional educators to dive into the composing pool.

To consider it another way, most of us look at professional composers in the same way that the sports world looks at specialists such as fencers: we can understand the basic concept of the sport (once it’s explained to us every four years during the Olympics), but very few of us ever get the chance to try such an activity. Most of us don’t meet fencers at parties or in the grocery store, and while there are fencing clubs around the country, the sport does not have the popularity of golf or tennis or even chess. I suppose what I am doing is asking why composing can’t be more like golf or chess. Very few will ever hope to reach the level of true masters, but the activity itself is still seen as an enjoyable pastime.

I guess the question at the heart of the matter is what is more important: the act of musical creation or the final product. For those of us whose livelihoods are intertwined with the success of our creative work, then the final product is, of course, a very high priority. But one might suggest that allowing and encouraging others to partake in the act of creation–whether or not the final product is performed publicly, used as an exercise in a classroom, or simply listened to in private–is both worthwhile and important for the future of our art.

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28 thoughts on “Have Some Fun

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    This is an important post because it highlights the double-edged sword of increasing composition, for fun or for ‘serious’.

    The pure democracy implicit in having everyone composing is thrilling. When I taught elementary school music, all my kids played, sang and composed. (I still have that 30-year-old recording with 90 compositions on it.) Not only was their freshness delightful, it was also inspiring. I still hear from these middle-aged adults about their experiences learning that composition was not alchemy.

    On the other hand, though I’m not so concerned about the threat to composer careerism, I do worry that increasing the body of music that will likely be drawn from the ‘easy’ sources of pop or light classics will further force adventurous composition into a niche. Because of our society’s interest in leveling the participation in supposedly talent-based (vs. professional) activities — that is, there’s a Project Runway but no Project Surgeon, there’s an America’s Got Talent but no America’s Got Physics — it will praise and perform the risen amateur over the experimental, hardcore, professional (etc.). It may in fact increase the perception of the composer-as-specialist (pace Milton!) as an elitist.

    Given the choice, though, I have always encouraged everyone to compose. Engaging in the discipline itself raises awareness of the demands of composing while rewarding an even deeper engagement.

    Reply
  2. Jeff Harrington

    Composing is a great hobby, and a great fun thing to do. However, suggesting that folks compose for fun is a cool concept, but you know what, Quantum Chromodynamics is fun, too, so is DNA Polymerase Reactive Chemistry and Topological Knot Discovery.

    And there is this sad, implicit societal delusion that if you write really great music that it’ll get recognized someday. That’s just not true. If the playing field were level, and there was a real music scene which cared about who is actually writing the most interesting music now, I’d agree… but right now?

    I’d suggest we teach folks to listen. Listening is a great hobby! It’s fun and what’s most important, more eager listeners will help create a world where more fun composers might actually have a shot at something besides filling up a closet with unplayed scores.

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    1. Jon

      “but you know what, Quantum Chromodynamics is fun, too, so is DNA Polymerase Reactive Chemistry and Topological Knot Discovery. ”

      That’s is not a good analogy, you have to recognize that composition doesn’t come close to fitting on that list. Sing a note, and then some time later sing another note. There, you have a composition. Maybe just sing one note, write it down if you want, it’s not hard to compose. Now if you want to compose effectively in a certain tradition, that takes a lot more work but don’t kid yourself about what composing essentially is.

      Also I don’t get your second paragraph. There are many different music scenes that all like music that they presumably find interesting. Is your argument that actually all that music is uninteresting? Or do you wish there was a single music scene that only listened to music deemed the most interesting by some mysterious objective standard? It seems like you’re just saying that you’re unhappy there isn’t a music scene that finds your music and the music you like the most interesting.

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      1. Jeff Harrington

        Well, many of us, don’t just sing a note and then sing another note. That’s a tad disingenuous (and I know it’s not that Zen) to say that writing concert music is that type of easy to do thing. There’s a lot of work to being a concert music composer, prepping parts, etc.

        My comment was about how our concert music society now is more concerned with career-trajectory than it is with the real music. I know, we all try and be positivist about the what’s going on, but really, telling some poor guy to start composing because it’s fun and what are the expectations for realizing his/her music?

        Nil…

        No, I’m not talking about my music. I’ve got a little career retrospective at Rutgers Sunday. It would be hypocritical to say it’s not possible. But I invented the whole Internet composer promotion model (well me and Dennis and a few others) and we’ve worked our asses off to get where we are. But to say just sing one note and then the next is kind of like telling a young woman who can sew that she’s got a shot at a show in Paris in a few years if she keeps working hard. That’s just a load of…

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        1. Jon

          Except the whole point of the article is not encourage everyone to become professional composers. It’s to say you can do this casually and make something you enjoy. It’d be like telling that same woman she could find some joy in making a dress. That doesn’t sound unreasonable at all.

          But yeah in some ways I agree with you, it would be pretty silly to say to someone who doesn’t compose, “Hey, you should go write a large scale orchestral work” since it would be a lot of work for something that would almost definitely never even get close to being performed. But again, the article never suggests doing anything like that. What’s the harm in writing something for solo piano or guitar that you can play yourself? Maybe you’ve even got a friend who plays an instrument who’d be willing to play with you. I don’t see any way that’s not a positive thing.

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          1. Jeff Harrington

            Good points… but nobody in the real non-aspirational world looks at concert music like that. That’s an academic conceit, a new-age just do it kind of thing. Composers compose and they are great… or not.

            Ultimately, this feels like a rationalization about the production of a 100 Ph.D’s, 700 M.F.A’s a year who will never be performed.

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          2. Bill James

            “Good points… but nobody in the real non-aspirational world looks at concert music like that.”

            I think the point of the article is that maybe people should consider engaging in composition the same way many composers engage in, say, piano playing (e.g., plunking through a Bach fugue for fun whether or not one could hack it on a concert stage). Also, I don’t know that I would call a piano piece that play by myself at home ‘concert music.’

            That’s an academic conceit, a new-age just do it kind of thing. Composers compose and they are great… or not.”

            I don’t understand what’s new-agey or academic about pursuing an activity for your own personal satisfaction. Someone at NewMusicBox once wrote an insightful article about the interplay of accomplishment and recognition in a composer’s career. I think what the writer of this article is suggesting is that there are some people out there who have no desire for recognition as a composers, but may derive a great deal of accomplishment from it. Again, I don’t see how this is new-agey or academic. At its heart it’s no different from (i.e., it’s a compositional analogue of) the home music-making tradition that enabled most pre-20th c. solo and chamber music.

            “Ultimately, this feels like a rationalization about the production of a 100 Ph.D’s, 700 M.F.A’s a year who will never be performed.”

            It feels like the opposite to me. The idea is that you don’t need fancy qualifications to write a piece of music.

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          3. Jeff Harrington

            Responding to Bills’ assertion that these are not New Age concepts, this ‘just do it’ idea for composing. Yeah… that’s a beautiful and very unreal conceit in the real world.

            Look… the first thing that happens, in the real world, not the fine-tuned delusion of meta-artistic academic/well-networked careerist awesomeness, is that somebody says to this young composer, “WOW… you’re really good. You should get an orchestra to play it. You should get a real string quartet to play it.”

            But see… the conceit is that you guys are already ‘made’. You’re already set up, so it seems very generous to say, ‘Just do it,’ when in fact it is a quite ridiculous, but wonderful game that academics play. “Anybody can do this stuff.” You guys don’t care, because you can just do it. Fall of the network for 5, 10 years and see how easy it is to get performed. Please…

            That’s why I started with ‘Quantum Chromondynamics is fun, too!’

            The real world, where you’re not guaranteed performances, where when you get a little ambitious, a little beyond the little piano piece you can play, because your friend that knows classical music said to you, “Yo man, you totally rock. You should be writing film scores and shit…” led you into believing that you maybe could do it. And now you’re writing stuff for a closet.

            The academic conceit that ‘everybody should be doing this stuff’ is wonderfully delusional, like most games academics play when it comes to envisioning the world outside of the heavily crony-centric accomplished network of fake achievement.

            Get real. To be aspirational is to be human. To aspire to greatness. This idea that all these folks are going to write little piano pieces that they can play themselves like Uncle Morty is so cute. So, perfect. And such crap. They’re going to end up being angry bitter pseudo-Baroque composers railing at the ‘atonal academic world’ that won’t recognize their greatness.

            Take a look at the Interwebs… it’s full of thousands of pseudo-Baroque composer that are ‘just doing it.’ Angry pathetic pastichists.

            Welcome, to the land of the real.

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          4. Bill James

            “The real world, where you’re not guaranteed performances, where when you get a little ambitious, a little beyond the little piano piece you can play, because your friend that knows classical music said to you, “Yo man, you totally rock. You should be writing film scores and shit…” led you into believing that you maybe could do it. And now you’re writing stuff for a closet.”

            I think it’s implicit in promoting amateur composition that one is promoting composition that takes advantage of available media, be they electronic (see Mr. Muller’s post below) or concert-based (for instance if you’ve never composed anything but you’re in an ensemble that out of sheer comradery would give your piece a performance if you wrote it). Obviously it’s just as stupid for an amateur to write a massively-orchestrated symphony that’ll never get played as it is for a professional to do so.

            “Get real. To be aspirational is to be human. To aspire to greatness. This idea that all these folks are going to write little piano pieces that they can play themselves like Uncle Morty is so cute. So, perfect. And such crap. They’re going to end up being angry bitter pseudo-Baroque composers railing at the ‘atonal academic world’ that won’t recognize their greatness.”

            Well it’s clear that greatness is important to you, but I assure you it isn’t important to everyone. I don’t see why this is so hard to accept when it’s utterly routine w/r/t playing an instrument. You wouldn’t say, “Oh come on, this is the real world! If you start playing piano now you’ll only end up a sad old grump bitter about not making it to Carnegie Hall!”

            And (as a disclaimer I mean absolutely no offense; I’m just trying to make a point) consider your own relative greatness. Honestly I’m familiar with many contemporary composers and I’ve never heard of you or your music, but you’re clearly satisfied with where you stand in the world as a composer. Is it so hard to believe that some 60 year old used car salesman who likes creating electronic phase pieces for an online audience of 10 or 12 might be satisfied with his level of recognition relative to you if you’re satisfied with your level of recognition relative to, say, Steve Reich?

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          5. Jeff Harrington

            Bill, it’s in large part from my experience in starting and running composer websites. They almost always end up getting dominated by amateurs and their ambition often ends up getting tainted by rants about how the academic world is keeping them from being recognized. You can see the aspirations being generated on line. Ever visit http://reddit.com/r/composer?

            I hate to repeat myself, but I still don’t think you get my point that aspiration is natural. It’s encouraged by one’s friends. You’ve never been over to somebody’s house that was an amateur composer and listened to his MIDI symphony? What do you say? You have to encourage him. Even if it’s just a piano piece, it’s inhuman not to say, “Really nice work, man… You should send it in to so and so…” Even your example of the car salesman electronic guy would eventually take on an aspirational taint. If you’ve never frequented places like ElectronicScene and read about how getting rejected by Warp Records, etc. There’s some serious dreaming going on there.

            Anyways, I’m just playing devil’s advocate because we already have about 200-300,000 too many composers that society has no need of. The AMC did a survey back in the 90′s and then it was over 200k. They each have a closet full of unplayed scores. It’s a fantastically unique American tragedy. So much creativity going unrecognized and dismissed outright because it doesn’t follow the fashionable meta-traditions of today. So much creativity that might just as happily be deployed through the creative listening experience.

            We were talking about this topic last night, my spouse and I, and she compared it to the beginning of the Middle Ages in Rome. You have an incredibly educated class that has nowhere to go. The barbarians are at the gate, there’s no more need for culture. She told me how the brass portraitists’s one goes on to making copies of sculptures, his son would go on to making armor and his son would go on making cauldrons. I’m not saying there’s a corollary with new music, but it does resonate in a scary way with the lack of listeners.

            There is an immense generosity in being honest to one’s peers, honest about the prospects for having a career as a composer and honest about the need for so many composers. As I posted before, we need listeners, not composers. I now believe thanks to Mr. Dillon’s poet story that there are actually more composers than there are listeners now.

            So, yes composing is fun… I love to do it. I encourage everybody I know to do it. But how do you manage the aspiration of an amateur composer before it turns into bitter disgust for the music world; the feeling of being shut-out, of being a lost cause. You know that he’s just repeating something he’s heard before, but he’s got more talent than that. I don’t often think it’s a good idea to encourage that type of endeavor if the end result is disappointment and bitterness.

            About the fact that you’ve never heard of me… that’s not surprising. It’s a very uncurious, ungenerous age, an age when many things out of the ordinary are quickly dismissed for not following the formulae of the day. I’ve been written about in the Village Voice; I invented the Free Culture Movement, being the first composer to give away his sheet music online, beginning in 1987 with BBS’s and then in the early 90′s with raw Postscript and PDF’s. Most new music websites that are online now were started by me, or at one time were run by me, Sequenza21, NetNewMusic, this one. My music is performed around the world. It just doesn’t sound like everybody else’s and there’s a price for that. If you’re near Rutgers today, the Helix New Music Ensemble is performing 3! of my pieces at 2PM.

            Just as a sidenote… I set up the first AMC website in 1994 and I was getting ready to get the domain, NewMusic.net, for a website for independent composers (NetNewMusic) but Randall Davidson, the president of AMC at the time, told me I couldn’t and keep my job. They wanted to use that domain name for for a magazine that would be called NewMusicBox.

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          6. Frank J. Oteri

            Most new music websites that are online now were started by me, or at one time were run by me, Sequenza21, NetNewMusic, this one.

            Jeff, with all due respect (and I’ve got a lot of it for your music having long been a fan of Acid Bach and your 19tET pieces), that’s not quite the way I remember the history of NewMusicBox. I know there were ideas brewing for the AMC to create a web magazine for new music before I came on board on staff in November 1998, but creating that magazine (that is to say this one) was something I specifically was hired to do and–well–did, working in close consultation with the AMC’s then Executive Director Richard Kessler (who had already established the model for what was to become the “In The First Person” conversations, now known as “Cover,” with his conversation with Steve Reich–originally posted on http://www.amc.net back in July 1998–and subsequently several others), members of the AMC board, as well as other AMC staff. And by the time I was at AMC you were not part of AMC’s staff, even though I definitely remember and appreciate the comments you have posted to NewMusicBox since the very beginning back in May 1999 (hard to believe that that is almost 14 years ago) even though I don’t always agree with every one of those comments as in these herein on this chain.

            I personally don’t feel that we have too many composers, although I do believe we need more listeners. I don’t think the categories are or should be mutually exclusive. (They have not been and are not in many “traditional” societies.) And as a composer I treasure the act of listening perhaps even more than the act of composing since there is often more to be learned from paying attention to others than in creating something that hopefully will result in others paying attention to oneself.

            Therefore I wish I could have been at Rutgers to hear your music this afternoon. I have very much appreciated hearing your music live every time I have done so and very much look forward to the next time I am able to do so.

            Hope it went splendidly,

            FJO

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          7. Bill James

            “I hate to repeat myself, but I still don’t think you get my point that aspiration is natural. It’s encouraged by one’s friends. You’ve never been over to somebody’s house that was an amateur composer and listened to his MIDI symphony? What do you say? You have to encourage him. Even if it’s just a piano piece, it’s inhuman not to say, “Really nice work, man… You should send it in to so and so…” Even your example of the car salesman electronic guy would eventually take on an aspirational taint. If you’ve never frequented places like ElectronicScene and read about how getting rejected by Warp Records, etc. There’s some serious dreaming going on there.”

            Most of the composers I know I knew from grad school where things actually got performed. These days I don’t really have any composer friends (I’m not a professional musician), so no I’ve never experienced the MIDI thing (and I refuse to listen to MIDI or otherwise obviously synthetic realizations of concert works), but how many of us have learned the hard way (in my case as a teenager) that pouring your soul into say a big long string quartet and then having no way of securing a performance really sucks? Probably most of us, and most of us have learned from it. (And speaking of teenagers, much of the “neo-Baroque” crap that pops up in the margins of YouTube is written by 15 year olds whose example shouldn’t be used to construct an archetype of the amateur composer. The others are mostly people whose entire idea of what it means to be a composer seems to come from Wikipedia articles on Mozart and Beethoven, who were professionals. Presumably in promoting amateur composition one is also promoting an acceptance of its amateurness [I address the aspirational thing in the next paragraph].) There’s no reason why amateurs can’t write sensibly within their means and find a great deal of satisfaction, though if someone wants to repeatedly shoot himself in the foot that’s his prerogative I guess.

            As far as our composer car salesman goes, I think the fact that the record label is going the way of the dinosaur is changing people’s expectations and standards of success. The musical landscape is becoming more and more fragmented, and more and more of the professional musicians an amateur is inspired by themselves only have small followings, so having a dozen or so thoughtful listeners can feel enormously satisfying. You might say that our salesman friend’s aspirations will grow and that he will eventually find himself frustrated, but you could say that about anyone at almost any level (that was my point in relating you to Steve Reich). Someone could have said to you, “Jeff, don’t start composing, you’ll find some listeners but eventually you’ll run up against a wall. Your ambitions will grow and you’ll become bitter and dissatisfied about never earning a blurb in the music history books like George Crumb and Steve Reich.” Yet here you are just fine.

            Regarding a lack of listeners, I don’t entirely understand this. If you play viola in a string quartet and your quartet agrees to program your piece at your next concert, there’s your audience. As long as you don’t stupidly write a little MIDI symphony that no one will perform you could probably find an audience. Do you mean there aren’t enough listeners deeply ruminating upon and relistening to new works? If so, I think the expectation that there would be is an academic conceit. Sure if you’re a Boulez you’ll have classrooms of grad students untangling your music, but for the overwhelming majority of us the most subtle, artistic things about our best music will go completely unappreciated. Even very famous artists complain about this (Britten once remarked, in an inversion of this, that all of his pieces have problems that he wasn’t able to solve but that the critics have never once pinpointed). The reality is that the stuff you find most beautiful and meaningful in your art will probably be just for you. This is I think the most important real world artistic truth and the one that validates the amateur experience (i.e., if the really great stuff is just for you, what’s the difference if 10 or 1000 people hear your music?).

            (Congrats on your achievements, by the way, I didn’t mean to belittle your work in any way. I live in the New York area but unfortunately I’m out of town right now. I’ll bookmark your site for future reference though.)

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          8. Jeff Harrington

            Frank Oteri:Jeff, with all due respect (and I’ve got a lot of it for your music having long been a fan of Acid Bach and your 19tET pieces), that’s not quite the way I remember the history of NewMusicBox. I know there were ideas brewing for the AMC to create a web magazine for new music before I came on board on staff in November 1998, but creating that magazine (that is to say this one) was something I specifically was hired to do and–well–did, working in close consultation with the AMC’s then Executive Director Richard Kessler.

            Frank, just like you said, it was in the air, but I was forbidden as an AMC employee to get NewMusic.net because they WANTED to start a site which souneded a little like it, called NewMusicBox. I believe it was Randall’s idea for the name. I think you’re mis-reading my comments. Thanks for them, btw!

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          9. Jeff Harrington

            Me: Most new music websites that are online now were started by me, or at one time were run by me, Sequenza21, NetNewMusic, this one.

            Ah… Frank, I see what you mean. I keep thinking this is part of the AMC! This one is NewMusicBox, and you indeed did start it.

            BTW, it’d be cool to see NMB on some type of Drupal or other software platform that would let us edit our comments! Someday…

            Sorry to hijack your thread, Rob.

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    2. James Sproul

      I take a small amount of offense to “composition is a great hobby”. To most composers, at least me and the ones that I know, composition is not a weekend pastime, it’s everyday, all the time activity. Even if you aren’t actually sitting and writing, in the back of your mind the wheels are still churning. It isn’t something we do, it’s something we are!!

      Hobby indeed!!! It’s sentiments like that that prevent composition from being like golf or chess!!

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  3. Alvaro Gallegos

    One of the most importante composers of my country was also the foremost composition teacher of his time.

    Gustavo Becerra always shared with his students the JOY of writing music. He used to say that writing a piece is a fun thinkg, like playing chess or solving a puzzle.

    More and More I know about people who writes music for themselves, just for the fun of doing it.

    We’ll have notated music for many more years!

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  4. lawrencedillon

    It’s true, writing music is fun, and the world might be a better place if more people did it — not a better place for “professionals” maybe, but a better place from the standpoint of having more people with creative outlets.

    “One does not need to be a poet in order to enjoy writing poetry,” you say, and that calls to mind a lament I heard from a poet last year: more people in this country write poetry than read poetry. That would be a sad situation for music, and one that’s hard for me to envision.

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    1. Jeff Harrington

      That’s a really interesting comment from your poet friend. I bet that that, in large part, is what’s going on in new music. More people are writing it than listening to it!

      We all know how new music concert audiences are often almost all composers. What a strange situation…

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  5. Paul H. Muller

    If the conversation is about music performed in the concert hall then composers – in addition to writing artful music – will need to have the connections and promotional skills necessary to get their pieces played. I think this speaks to Jeff’s point that the quality of the music itself is not sufficient to carry it through to performance. The composer must negotiate his way through several layers – players, conductors, administrators – to get a piece heard.

    And performance is an inherently expensive undertaking – even on a smaller scale of a few instruments or voices – much less a symphony orchestra. Dennis knows this having staged his opera. Contemporary music written for performance by traditional acoustic musicians and players in a concert hall is up against long odds.

    I believe an alternative is emerging – the Internet allows electronic music to be shared in niche communities with common tastes and interests. You don’t need a concert hall to deliver a sound to the millions who own smart phones and who are wearing ear buds. Anyone with a PC can create, distribute and promote his music, often finding enthusiastic listeners even if the audience is thinly scattered worldwide. The days of acoustic music may be drawing to a close given the inefficiencies of its production. Contemporary composition will be thus freed of the financial constraints presently inhibiting its rightful influence.

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  6. Jon

    Wow, I’m kind of shocked that Rob’s proposal is in any way controversial. Are composers today really so sensitive and wary and insecure that the idea of more people trying to write music arouses this much angst? Encouraging performers and educators to compose should, if anything, increase their empathy and respect for the act of composition and how much work and effort goes into it. My wife’s respect for my work as a composer shot up enormously a couple years ago when she decided to try to arrange a Christmas carol for us to play and suddenly realized how many choices, how much expertise and knowledge goes into something as simple as an arrangement, let alone an original composition. The more performers and educators try it themselves, the more they’ll realize what really goes into writing music, and the more understanding and respect they will have for it. And who knows, maybe some of them will turn out to have real talent and something important to contribute. What is there to lose?

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    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Your point about appreciating the expertise and knowledge is what I presented in the first post in response to this article.

      However, I don’t think it is broad-based composing causing some to be ‘sensitive and wary and insecure’ — unless it’s deserved; that’s another question — but rather that education in the arts has been so abysmal in recent decades that both listening and language about music have devolved. For example, older symphonic music is broken up into one-movement nuggets; longer movements aren’t heard at all much less entire symphonies. In the present social context of music listening, any piece of music, in defiance of presentation or structure or historical period, is one more ‘song’ to shuffle into a postmodern sonic wallpaper.

      In this environment, making the case for composition as a (fill in the blank) profession / calling / provocation / artworld / _______ is nearly impossible. The vocabulary (verbal or sonic) for doing so isn’t present. A randomly shuffled deck of songs has no particular value.

      Out of these lost vocabularies came many levels of grasping, judgment, analysis, enjoyment, discrimination (again, etc.). There are more levels of understanding and appreciation for discussing iOS or Android than for Reich or Gosfield much less Harrington or Oteri.

      In a society without the means of listening beyond the gut level, there can’t be the means of composing beyond the gut level, either. Yes, some appreciation will come from the activity of doing it, but technological tools (automated transcription and orchestration) dramatically reduce the effort. There’s little more beguiling than having a few minutes of generic keyboard playing turned into a full orchestration with accompanying score.

      Rob’s suggestion of composing for the ‘enjoyment of creation’ assumes (I think) a different posture of interest from the unfelt equation of the ‘enjoyment of creation’ with the work of creation (not to mention the expense of its manifestation, another area that clouds the issue — how many amateurs get their worked performed simply because of a social addiction to amateurs smashing an elitist realm?)

      Sure, there may be many artists who are ‘sensitive and wary and insecure’. It comes with the territory of creativity. There are also many artist who are deservedly ‘sensitive and wary and insecure’. Some of it comes from fear of the future — who knew that the cross-influences would run so deep?

      So to your last question ‘What is there to lose?’ I’ll ask instead: What is there to gain? By focusing on the gain, it may reveal that to be ‘sensitive and wary and insecure’ is a waste of emotional energy. Just acknowledge we’re in a tiny yet overpopulated niche, to the wider society a meaningless niche. Get on with the work if you have to do it. Invite others in. Recognize your career, such as it is, will likely be pointless anyway. And the future won’t offer what you had hoped for or expected. There is no threat to what is already essentially insignificant. Maybe there’s something to learn from those in the wilderness, no?

      That done, you can grow.

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  7. Jeff Harrington

    I am not arguing with Rob. Rob wrote an interesting and not provocative at all piece. I’m just riffing as somebody who crawled up through a living hell of poverty and a half-completed graduate program to forge a place in the music world without connections, grants, rich uncle, Philip Glass, Corgiliano or school networks at all.

    I’ve set up sites and encouraged amateurs for 20+ years, running NetNewMusic and other sites for independent amateurs. I see what their chances are and – I know of no amateur composer who, in the past 30 years, has successfully maneuvered the waters of careerism and performance availability to have a shot at getting performed regularly. And I’ll repeat myself that although we would all like to think that folks will compose little piano pieces without aspiration – aspiration happens through continued progress.

    The idea of the non-aspirational artist is a pleasant, sugary sweet, academic conceit.

    The new music ecosystem at the moment is quite sick. It’s driven by career trajectories more than it is by music. When aspirations arise in the composer, after she’s lauded by her friends and family for her cool little piano piece that sounds like Morton Feldman, only disappointment will follow.

    Again, we composers live in a world we ourselves don’t even admit to – one populated by 300,000 plus failures; folks who fill closets if they compose at all. When I worked as a programmer in NYC, it was astonishing how many proggers were ex-composers. They don’t feel good about abandoning their dreams – at all.

    And these amateurs will never have a shot at success in large part, because they haven’t received the meta-fashion training we all get as freshman. You know that talk your teacher gave you when he told you that yeah, Bartok is cool, but nobody writes like that any more. The same thing goes for writing in past styles, something endemic to the amateur composing world.

    A world, again, that we professional composers do not recognize – we seem to know nothing about it. There is bitterness, resentment, outright hostility directed towards successful composers who don’t write in tonal styles. These folks never got that memo. There are thousands of pastichists now, I know, I used to be an honorary member of one, the Classical Music Makers.

    So, I’m half-heartedly discouraging folks to become composers because there are so many composers now – there are more people writing new music than there are people listening to new music. There are more closets filled with unperformed scores, more bitterness, than many of us are willing to accept. And there is no system for preserving these works! What if one of them is a brilliant genius… her family will hold on to her symphonies for a few decades and then poof.

    Again, I’m not arguing with Rob, I’m just trying to demonstrate, as a devil’s advocate, why our world today, really might not benefit from, and the amateur artist herself might not benefit from, going down that path.

    And I know it seems kind of creepy… but my experience with failure and with broken dreams and with watching how amateurs evolve is frankly, unique.

    Don’t bite me! I really have done more than anybody I know to encourage amateur composers. I just sometimes wonder if it was a good idea these days. We need to create a world that doesn’t trivialize the dedication and risk it takes to be a composer. This 60′s ideal that everybody is an artist sounds good, but in practice, it has led to monumental amounts of work that have no real function in society – except as harbingers of disappointment.

    Reply
  8. Gavin Borchert

    What Jeff says about the kudzu-like spread of bitter pastichists is true and weird and fascinating. They’re all over imslp.org, even, with their self-posted MIDI files of their String Quartet No. 1 in D Major in the style of early Gyrowetz. And yes, to judge from their comments on Facebook and elsewhere, they are not a happy bunch.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: How Composers Approach Teaching Composition: Strategies for Music Teachers | creativemusicianship.com

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