As the coming school year lumbers over the horizon, I’ve been giving some thought to the future of composition as an academic discipline. The current dicey economic climate—and the growing attitude in the public sphere that educational institutions should operate by the same principles that private businesses obey—certainly don’t seem to bode well for music programs: Compared to students in other disciplines, most music students require a hefty sack of expensive one-on-one faculty contact hours. I haven’t seen the latest figures on graduates employed within the field, but I can’t imagine they’d be very encouraging. And I’m here to tell you that even if your undergraduate degree in composition should lead to a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate, the labor market remains treacherous, especially for graduates whose teaching experience and coursework are highly specialized. (That’s not to say that students with composition degrees have been duped—we knew what we were getting into, after all.)
But even if composition degree programs function inefficiently (from the university’s point of view) and don’t adequately prepare graduates for the realities of the workforce (from the graduate’s point of view), the culprit, ultimately, may not be composition as a discipline but rather specialization as an educational strategy in schools of music. Envision a music school without a dedicated composition program but in which composition training is required for every student, along with classes in music theory, musicology, aesthetics, and of course performance (lessons, ensembles, etc.)—a school that would produce generalists rather than specialists.
Naturally this arrangement would prohibit the sustained, focused study of composition (or, for that matter, of an instrument) that a degree program typically requires. However, the question of whether spending four hours a day for several years in the practice room or hunched over manuscript paper is a valuable use of one’s time in the 21st century remains open. As you’ll know if you’ve read my posts on education here before, my ideal undergrad music program is a harrowing gauntlet from start to finish; it should include developing technical expertise in a performance discipline, familiarity with music technology, extensive writing, even more extensive reading, and of course classes from other areas that will hopefully provide the student with the mental apparatus to serve as a good citizen and cultural contributor. The only thing that’s keeping composition from occupying the same core position that music theory now holds in music curricula—a sequence of courses that all music students are required to take—is the traditional division of labor that’s characterized Western concert music, one that owes ultimately to a particular notion of the work-object. For a number of reasons, that notion (and the social structures predicated on it) seem poised to shift; maybe music curricula should shift too.