Mutually Exclusive

One of the few things that most composers seem to agree on is that new music ought to be more inclusive and more welcoming to outsiders. Beyond that, however, there’s very little agreement on what this inclusiveness actually means. Is it simply to do with the framing and presentation of the music, or does it extend to the musical content itself? If so, what kind of music includes, and what kind excludes?

An effect of this–or maybe it’s a cause–is that practically everyone in new music feels excluded by somebody else. Overtly tonal composers, who might believe they are writing truly inclusive music, may feel that their work is unfairly dismissed as unserious. Meanwhile, more conceptually or experimentally minded composers may feel that their work is unfairly dismissed as too difficult or academic, while they try to grapple with more than a half-century of post-tonal developments. (Developments that tonal composers may ignore entirely.)

A full cataloging of the intricately nested and overlapping sets of perceived exclusions is way beyond the scope of this article. But the end result is predictable: nearly everyone feels like the victim of some kind of persecution, often while being completely oblivious to the persecutions they themselves are perpetrating.

The copious verbiage expended on these sorts of topics tends to wear me out, to the point where I am not even sure what the arguments are about. Consider Daniel Felsenfeld’s recent article trying to redeem the term “academic,” and Kyle Gann’s subsequent response. I start to wonder if the terms “academic” and “professional” are even useful at all, because no one ever seems to use the same definition twice. For example, the “professional tricks” Gann mentions in his article, I learned as “craft,” and they were definitely a part of my academic education.

In other words, both articles create a kind of dichotomy that doesn’t really resonate with me. Instead, these conversations seem to be more about personal experiences that have been amplified into generalizations. But this seems to be the norm these days, to create a mental framework in which you, the composer, are situated in opposition to a large, monolithic establishment that is out to deny you the recognition you deserve. We are all rebels now.

17 thoughts on “Mutually Exclusive

  1. Colin Holter

    Instead, these conversations seem to be more about personal experiences that have been amplified into generalizations.

    This is the head of the nail right here. Thank you, Isaac.

    Reply
  2. Kenneth Froelich

    In other words, both articles create a kind of dichotomy that doesn’t really resonate with me.

    Hear, hear! Thank you for this post! I completely agree with you Isaac, and had many of the same thoughts as you did upon reading these two recent articles.

    It is quite clear that both authors have a very different idea of what these two terms mean to them. Academic, professional – these labels can be interpreted in so many different ways. They shouldn’t matter. What should matter is whether the music is *good.* While there is certainly room for everyone to have their opinion on the quality of a composition, we shouldn’t be dismissing any one piece simply because the style or approach conforms to one’s own narrow definition of “academic” or “professional.”

    Likewise, we shouldn’t dismiss any one composer because they happen to work either as an academic or professional. I know many university composers who write in what could be considered a popular “professional” style, and many independent composers who write in a more avant-garde “academic” style. We cannot generalize here. Once you factor in a composer’s education, working environment, personal aesthetics, prior opportunities, influence of teachers, etc. you are left with nothing more than an individual voice. That is to be celebrated!

    Reply
    1. Ana Cervantes

      Bravo, Ken, couldn’t agree more! It’s that individual voice in all its singularity –whatever its vocabulary may be– that really matters to me as an interpreter. The rest is noise, as they say.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Harrington

    To a poor man, losing a $100 is a nightmare. To a rich man, it’s an afterthought. The depths of inequality in the new music world, the feelings of persecution and victimhood, the intrinsic belief that networks matter more than pieces, where career trajectories matter more than pieces, belie a decaying world where the ‘rich’ have to justify not only their privilege, but play the victim, too.

    Boo hoo hoo!

    Reply
  4. Matt Marks

    When it comes down to it, everybody is usually just out for their own best interest. Academic composers defend their tradition, composers who write more for the audience (like moi) tend to wonder aggressively why others don’t, female composers decry the lack of female composers, etc. It’s easier to promote oneself and ones ideas and beliefs when it’s framed as a cause. [Obligatory: There’s nothing wrong with doing any of this.] It’s good to keep this in mind when reading and discussing these topics.

    What bugs me is that the discussion often becomes unnecessarily adversarial, or dichotomous as you say. I can critique how some academic composers rarely think about their audiences, while still believing they make kickass music. There seems to be this misguiding idea that critiquing equals dismissing. And, in fact, it seems to be increasingly the norm that disagreeing with a part of someone leads one to dismiss the whole. I’ve seen people say stuff like “That Kyle Gann article is bullshit.” Well… do you actually disagree with each and every thing he wrote..?

    Anyway, I’m digressing a bit (or a lot) but good article and junk and I’m also probably totally guilty of amplifying my personal experiences into generalizations.

    Reply
  5. Dan VanHassel

    Making generalizations from our experience is how humans make sense of the world, and it’s the basis of all communication. Do we have to commission a double-blind scientific study before we can discuss a topic?

    Positing that everyone’s experience is completely unique, and it is impossible to make broad generalizations, is a nice ideal. But unfortunately doesn’t change the fact that, exceptions aside, the academic-professional dichotomy is very real, and extremely pernicious in its effects on new music.

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      Call me naive, but I believe it is possible to write about things other than your own personal experience, by communicating with and drawing examples from people other than yourself.

      And anyway, the particular academic-professional dichotomy that Gann sets up doesn’t resonate with my personal experience at all. I don’t know details about their finances, of course, but Gann and Felsenfeld are both composers, writers, and teachers. They’re equally beholden to audiences as far as I can tell, and listening to their music side by side I think you’d be hard-pressed to determine which one was more “academic” or more “professional.” The fact is that they’re both accomplished, academic, professional composers.

      Reply
  6. Phil Fried

    Instead, these conversations seem to be more about personal experiences that have been amplified into generalizations.

    Quite true. Perhaps the problem is that composers are in the habit of making personal statements. That is music.

    On the other hand artist’s circumstance tend to vary and some exclusions are very real (just as some exclusions are imaginary or just for show). Such imaginary talk can add sizzle to the steak. (sorry my vegetarian friends).

    Oddly everyone complains about the “style police” yet it’s always somebody else (some “other” style) who runs it.

    Reply
  7. Antonio Celaya

    I think Professor Schankler is putting up teaching strawmen (not the sort to whom one transfers property) and hoping someone will take a punch, and that others will rush to the defense of the wronged teachers. Surprisingly, there ahve been many who rushed to defend teachers. Schankler knows as well as the rest of us that in general critics of academic composers are not attacking composers who merely happen to have been lucky enough to get a teaching job. The term “academic composer” isn’t even meant as a slight to those lazy tenured SOBs who think a faculty position is a sinecure, rather a job with a duty to work hard at teaching. Schankler knows it refers to a line of composers who write music that is intended to appeal to other practitioners of the same dull game. They write music that says “Aren’t I ever so clever?!” I often think that composers of such music don;t really catch what’s going on in the other fellow’s music, but they read the program notes studiously. There was a time when überserialism was the code through which the professorial cognoscenti declared their faith to their historical destiny. Now there are newer, though no less tiresome doctrines by which the sages guide themselves unto musical truth. No composer has to write for the largest possible audience, and writing to communicate directly, viscerally and without insulting the listener’s intelligence (and yes even allowing for those who want to approach music cerebrally) is the very opposite of what is generally understood to be “academic music.” We do not live in the middle ages and our society feels no need to support those who practice arcane arts that do not amuse the those with money.

    Schankler’s suggestion that one can learn a great many things by studying with a skilled and knowledgeable composer is not something many people would dispute. Every composer who teaches, even full-time, is not a composer of “academic music.” composer.” Nobody accuses William Bolcolm’s rags and cabaret songs of being “academic music.” Nobody who has heard them or studies the scores would think of those works as anything other than the sophisticated product of an extraordinarily talented and extremely knowledgeable composer. Schankler tip toes around the question when he mentions that Mario Davidovski explained the tender feelings behind a Davidovski work. That begs the question as to whether Davidovski wrote a piece that can readily express that tenderness to an audience – even an audience of fellow Ivy League composers.

    To those who are lucky enough to have teaching gig, I offer my congratulations and best wishes. Jut consider yourself lucky and try not to feel persecuted.

    Reply
    1. Philipp Blume

      Really nobody considers Bolcom’s rags to be academic music? Well, folks, I’ll stick my neck out even if I’m the only one. That’s not a comment on the quality of the music, needless to say, just that I’m completely sure it wouldn’t exist except as the product of an academic environment. Something about the combination of compositional ‘learnedness’ (which is not to say starchy) and the preoccupation with an obsolete genre, technique, or style.

      My point isn’t to make a cheap shot at Bolcom, from whom I feel I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration, but to say that the label ‘academic’, which we all agree can often be tiresome, is not a matter of style but of mètier.

      Reply
    2. Isaac Schankler

      First of all, I think you’re a little confused about who I am — I’m not a professor, and the Davidovsky comment was made by Daniel Felsenfeld in his previous article, not by me.

      Second, as a former student of Bolcom’s and a fan of his music, I do believe it is a variety of academic music. In fact I think of that impulse to say “aren’t I so clever?” as a main characteristic of his music. How else would you characterize his playful negotiations with ragtime forms, for example?

      I mean, I love those pieces. But to directly address your comparison, I assure you that there are many people out there who are equally bewildered by Bolcom’s music as by Davidovsky’s.

      Reply
  8. Phil Fried

    Not the only one Philipp, I agree. As I have said all styles are mostly are represented, so its not a style issue at all.

    No sacred cows no sonic prejudice.

    Reply
  9. Andrew Durkin

    “personal experiences that have been amplified into generalizations”

    I agree that this is the crux of the problem. Perhaps it is another way of stating Hume’s critique of induction, in which (to adapt it to music) the fact that we rely on specific musical experiences for our understanding of what genre is—or what social categories like “academic” or “popular” are—runs up against the fact that we can never directly know more than a tiny portion of the music that exists. Add to that the problem of subjectivity in the arts—a problem we pay lip service to, but rarely follow to its logical conclusion, which is that we can’t honestly speak about how anyone else experiences music at all. And add to that the fact that all of us, at least some of the time, enjoy and even depend on having conversations about artistic value and categorization (a la Felsenfeld and Gann), because they help in the formation of communities, and because they seduce us into feeling a little less confused, even if they simultaneously create other challenges.

    Reply

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