On Not Being a Student Composer

Isaac SchanklerYou have seen Isaac Schankler’s name on this site before. A few months ago, we published his “Anatomy of a Truth-Bender,” an illuminating reaction to the scientific, musical, and aesthetic misconceptions put forth in a Wall Street Journal column concerned with the tear-jerking power of Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You.” We enjoyed his ideas and his writing so much that we invited him to come on board the NMBx ship as a regular contributor, and we are excited to debut his column this week.

Schankler is a composer and improviser based in Los Angeles, California. He is the artist-in-residence at the University of Southern California’s Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory, and an artistic director of the concert series People Inside Electronics.

He can also be found at twitter.com/piesaac.—MS

This is my first post. Colin Holter’s final post about being a student composer gave me a great deal to think about, and many of his statements resonated strongly with my experience as well. My current vantage point is a little different; while I’m loosely affiliated with a university, I’m neither a faculty member nor a student at the moment. For now, I’m more or less a freelance composer, with all the uncertainty and freedom that implies. I graduated with a terminal degree (I love the morbidity of calling an education “terminal”) two years ago, which is just long enough ago that I’m finally beginning to feel somewhat objective about the whole experience.

I distinctly remember the vague terror I felt just before graduation, and the sense of liberation immediately afterwards, the slight adrenaline rush when I suddenly realized for the first time that I could write whatever I want without anyone looking over my shoulder. In the past couple of years I’ve written a three-hour mostly silent piece, a piece for accordions and electronics based on a YouTube video, a microtonal choral piece, a chamber opera about Nikola Tesla, and a video game soundtrack, among other things. I’m not sure I would have taken many of these risks as a student. Which is not to say my teachers would have discouraged me, exactly. The attitude I imagine could probably be best described as “bemused disinterest.”

Unlike Colin, I don’t think I was a good student. In terms of grades or accolades I did okay, but I was stubborn, and if I think about it in a certain way, my education becomes a series of well-meaning mentors trying fruitlessly to stop me from making questionable decisions. One expressed bafflement when I followed up a serene antecedent phrase with a gut-wrenchingly dissonant consequent phrase. Some seemed disappointed in me when, after writing a piece in a particular idiom, my next piece turned out to be something completely different. One once said to me, “If you’re excited about it, that’s the important thing.” At the time I interpreted this as giving me the go-ahead, but in retrospect I wonder if he was just giving up.

Despite my stubbornness, I was certainly affected by my teachers’ words. For one thing, it instilled in me nagging doubts about my own musical instincts. Certainly my most disastrous pieces resulted from not listening to those instincts. Instead of trusting my own ear, I attempted to try on somebody else’s ear, and the absurdity of that image should tell you how well that turned out. (I feel similarly when exhorted to think about “my audience”—how am I supposed to know how other people hear my music, or any music for that matter?) Predictably, sometimes the resistance to my “bad” ideas ossified my determination to carry them out, like a rebellious teenager; but like a child, I also felt a dim sense of shame.

My concern is that one of my former teachers will read this and take it the wrong way, but this is not so much a criticism of their instruction as a dissection of my failure as a pupil, for selectively listening and absorbing the wrong lessons from their expertise. I know now from both sides of the arrangement that it’s incredibly difficult to teach composition. As a student, the approach that seemed to work best with me was Socratic, where the teacher is almost more like a therapist, following up every answer with another question. Score study was another incredibly helpful activity, and I wish I’d pursued this with more diligence. Analyzing and taking apart the music of other composers exercises similar mental muscles as composition, without the defensiveness and protective feelings that inevitably result when someone else tries to take apart your music. When I teach, I try to model these approaches as best as I can, but I’m not always successful at keeping my own personal dogma out of it.

And in the end, your students will probably know how you feel anyway. Eventually I learned to recognize when my teachers were holding back from giving me advice that I probably wouldn’t have taken. In a sense this was almost worse than direct criticism; if I had been challenged more, then at least I could have fought back! I know that puts my teachers in an impossible position, where what they don’t say is just as powerful as what they do. As a result, I’d just like to issue a blanket apology to all my ex-teachers for my intransigence. Thanks for putting up with me!

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5 thoughts on “On Not Being a Student Composer

  1. Smooke

    Dear Isaac,

    What an auspicious debut! You raise so many issues that are worthy of discussion that I’m itching to read more. I’m hoping that you go into more depth over time on all of the interesting musical adventures you mention above.

    Sincerely,
    David

    Reply
  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    I’m sure you will be a great contribution to the NMBx, Isaac.

    Just reading your first article raises curiosity on what you’re doing as a creator. I will definitely like to know more about your chamber opera on Tesla and that three-hour “mostly silent piece”.

    Reply
  3. Justin T. Capps

    As someone who is in the same transitional space that (Dr.) Colin Holter is entering, I’m looking forward to getting the middleground perspective of your position. Thanks for consenting to what will surely be a delightful series of pillories and plaudits!

    Reply
  4. Jeff Myers

    “I was stubborn, and if I think about it in a certain way, my education becomes a series of well-meaning mentors trying fruitlessly to stop me from making questionable decisions. ”

    Good for you! I think that is not such a bad thing. After all, once you are on your own, you can only listen to your inner dialogue, which may include your teachers in the background, but shouldn’t compel you, in my opinion.

    Reply

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