The Why of It All

Teaching at a conservatory, most of the students I encounter are deeply invested in continuing the orchestral tradition. They spend countless hours honing their craft in order to produce the most expressive tone possible on their instruments. They immerse themselves in issues of performance practice for music of previous centuries and attempt to engender a hermeneutic understanding of this music in order to perform it at a higher level. And when these students aren’t working, they generally listen to Lady Gaga or Muse.

I relate to this experience. At their age, I was attempting to compose experimental music for chamber ensembles while obsessing over the rock music of my era. Eventually, I came to believe that it was essentially dishonest for me to write music that was aesthetically unrelated to that which I enjoyed at home. At the time, my solution was to divest myself from rock in lieu of the music I thought I should be consuming instead. This allowed me to fill many of the lacunae in my repertoire knowledge and for a short time I was able to reconcile my creations with my listening. Of course, this period didn’t last long and I found myself relapsing towards the music I was trying to avoid. As with many other composers of my generation, eventually I accepted my personal tastes and began attempting to write music that reflected the divided nature of my obsessions.

Even so, at the time I neglected to ask myself the questions that now seem most important to me: Why did I want to write chamber music (or orchestral music) in the first place? Why not focus on starting a band? Why create notated music for other people to play instead of working on electronica in a home studio? Why write music for theater (as I did) but not for films? What about video game music? Installation art?

These are exactly the questions that I hope beginning composers will address. Except for the first, every one of these options has a clear built-in audience. All except the first have reasonable (albeit difficult) career paths available. The first option is the only one where the colleagues involved in the final music making might balk at the thought of working on new repertoire. And there are dozens of other musical fields that the budding composer might explore that don’t even enter into my thinking. Indeed, the more one considers all the options, the more reasons one can find for choosing any option other than creating music for orchestral instruments. And yet, thousands upon thousands of us chose exactly that option.

When we have a compositional vision, nothing will stop us from working to achieve that vision. I would just hope that we would question our basic assumptions in order to have open eyes as we chose an artistic path. Personally, I return to these questions on a regular basis and find that my answers have shifted over time—both my reasons for following the paths I’ve followed, and the options I’ve pursued. I still have yet to write for video games, but who knows what the future will bring!

9 thoughts on “The Why of It All

  1. Elena

    I know exactly what you are talking about. While I do listen to a lot of classical music, I often find myself listening to the likes of Passion Pit, The Tallest Man on Earth, Alexi Murdoch, Das Racist and other music that seems to be on the other side of the spectrum. But as I listen to these other artists, I realize that they really aren’t that different from the music that I play, partially compose, and listen to the other half of the time.

    A few days ago, I listened to NOW Ensemble’s “Awake” CD immediately before listening to Jonsi and Alex, an electronic, ambient, almost post-rock inspired duo. I realized that without listening to NOW, I couldn’t have heard the intricacies of J&A, but without J&A, the pieces that NOW were playing wouldn’t have seemed as full of emotion in retrospect as they do. You mention the different career paths that composers can take, and there are thousands of different paths inside composing classical music. These paths can be positively diverted by other genres, and I hope that composers don’t feel like they can’t compose orchestral music because of the other genres they listen to. If composers keep composing orchestrally, there must be something about it that fulfills them.

    I think it’s important to be able to listen to other genres just as much as we compose or listen to classical. Though we may not go off and gather a group of rock musicians in a garage immediately after, the music we listen to definitely gives us a full perspective of the emotions and colors our music can include appropriately. The equation works the other way around as well–when we listen to good quality music that isn’t categorized as classical, we can appreciate it more because we also listen to Beethoven or Messiaen or Reich. It’s limiting and boring to restrict ourselves to the music that we compose. It would be like locking ourselves in a garden if we were painters who specialized in flowers. Without seeing other types of light and color, our vision will be blurred and incomplete.

    -Elena

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  2. Colewthornton

    I’m in a similar situation. I like to listen to many things that aren’t considered art-music, but I still write notated art-music in the Western tradition. This is the way I look at it: I love the visual arts and when I lived in Chicago I had a membership to the Art Institute… but I still watched Futurama and The Simpsons in the evenings. I love Dostoevsky, Pynchon, and Dante, but I also enjoy reading popular fiction like James Clavell’s “Asian Saga.” I listen to Iron and Wine as well as Valentin Silvestrov. I get different things from different levels of music, art, and literature. For an exploration of the Human Soul I might read Dostoevsky or listen to Pärt; for gripping entertainment I might read “Shogun” or listen to Astronautalis. Often I don’t listen to anything… which is a more confusing situation for a composer to find himself in.

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  3. mclaren

    Pop music has certain charms, and that doesn’t change the fact that it’s pretty simplistic stuff. The structure of all pop songs is more or less the same (ABABABCABAB where C is a bridge), essentially all pop songs are written in 4/4 time, essentially all pop songs use no broken tuplets and no polymetric lines and no real polyphony, essentially all pop songs use 4 or at most 5 chords, essentially all pop songs have lyrics dealing with cars or girls, and so on.

    I’ve never been much interested in pop music. Now, gothic music, that’s a different story. When I got enough money to start buying my own records, I starting buying LPs of Ockeghem and De Prez and Machaut. I have never bought an LP of pop music. (Side note: LPs are large black round platelike things that used to contain music inscribed on very small grooves. You used to play ‘em on something called a “phonograph.” They have now been replaced by AAC or MP3 downloads.)

    The notion of “making contemporary music more relevant to the pop music of our time” would involve either A) rewriting the lyrics to oratorios to deal with cars or girls; B) changing all contemporary music to 4/4 time; C) reducing the number of harmonies used in all contemporary music to 4 or at most 5 chords; D:) eliminating all complex rhythms (more complex than eighth-notes-quarter-notes-sixteenth-notes) from the music and getting rid of all polyphony… None of which holds much promise, musically speaking. Of course there are some exceptions, such as minimalism, but the length requirements of pop music pretty much eliminate minimalism from consideration if we’re talking about using pop music as any kind of model for contemporary music.

    In my experience, most people interested in contemporary music grow up interested in serious music. And most people who grow up interested in serious music don’t have overly much interest in pop music. So most of these kinds of discussions prove incomprehensible to me, and to most of the people I know who are active in contemporary music.

    Pop music is fun, like eating candy. I don’t use candy as a model of what to eat when I cook a meal, and I don’t know anyone else who does.

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  4. smooke

    Catholic consumption
    Elena and Colewthornton-

    Thank you both for your responses. I agree that every type art we consume helps us to more thoroughly digest the others. And, yes, the confluences today just keep getting tighter and tighter.

    Of course, Jonsi (and his previous band, Sigur Ros) reach exponentially more people than even as excellent a group as NOW (and if you haven’t seen their video for Plan of the City, go watch it now–it’s incredibly lovely). I’m not sure if this is a problem….

    -David

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  5. smooke

    sorry about the overlap
    mclaren-

    Sorry that I didn’t see your response earlier. My point here is more of a “to each his/her own” idea. I think it’s wonderful that you don’t respond to popular music. I do respond to (some of) it. Great. The key here to me is that our artistic choices reflect our aesthetic predilections. To me, that’s the essential aspect of musical honesty. Many composers ignore their actual tastes in an attempt to please others. I certainly did exactly that as a beginner.

    -David

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  6. Elena

    David–

    I have probably watched Plan of the City more than any other singular video ever… it’s amazing! And I hope that one day ensembles like NOW can be listened to as much as Jonsi is.

    Mclaren–

    I see where you are coming from when you talk about the overwhelming simplicity of a lot of pop songs. But I don’t see what you mean when you talk about the division of “serious music” and music that isn’t serious and how they are divided. I know people who are interested in, play, and compose what you call “serious” music, but they still listen to music that can be found in genres other than classical. I think the beauty of being into “serious” music is that you have a more complex view of music itself and are able to appreciate all types of sound. At least I hope so.

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  7. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    …. we do. There is no serious or “un-serious” music. Just serious ad un-serious musicians.

    I can hardly think of a movement more loaded with serious people than the hard-bop/early free jazz eras. Not popular, but not notated. Sonic Youth? Foolish not to call them serious, and same with David Bowie (arguably much “poppier”). I think we’ve all come across classical composers who strike us as something other than “serious.”

    Mclaren- not to be a jerk, but your tastes aside, decrying popular music and generalizing about what people like me enjoy is insulting and narrowminded.

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  8. sblasco

    Before the twentieth century, most classical music used no broken tuplets or polymetric lines. Lots of classical/”serious”/contemporary music contains essentially “no real polyphony” if you get right down to it. Lots and lots of classical/”serious”/contemporary music uses a harmonic palette of 5 chords or so, have boilerplate formal plans, are in 4/4 or 3/4 time, and so on and so forth. Who cares? These are not measures of what makes music good or serious. Is it good music you’re after, or a checklist of technical features?

    I’m in the home stretch of a DMA in composition at UMKC. At every stop along my academic career, the composers and performers who made up my fellow travellers were, in the majority, actively involved in so-called “pop music,” myself included–as regular consumers, performers, and/or composers. This holds true even now, when more and more of my interactions are with active professionals. If you really think that popular music is as limited as you say, you need to hear more of it (unless you take as the limits of “pop” that which is likely to end up on top 40 charts). There is so much out there that is so good, some groundbreaking even by contemporary music standards. Aphex Twin, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Meshuggah, Björk, Muse, Minus the Bear, Cynic, Primus, King’s X, Outkast, The Mars Volta, Efterklang, Sigur Ros, Janelle Monáe… and I’m barely scratching the surface. Timbrally, formally, rhythmically, harmonically interesting music that happens to fall under the broad banner of “popular music.”

    Even if I were to take your self-deprecating reference to vinyl to indicate that you consider yourself to be of the aging set (and aren’t we all, really?), thirty or forty years ago we had Genesis, Yes, Rush, Magma, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, The Police, Frank Zappa and many others lighting up “pop” music with smart, detailed, complex music. I can’t for the life of me imagine any educated musician seriously taking all of the amazing rock and pop that’s been written in the last forty years as so much simplistic rubbish unless that person A) hasn’t listened to much of it, or B) has some irrational bias against it (such as that of a past professor of mine, who derided as non-music anything that had “a beat” for no other reason than that he didn’t like music that had “a beat”). Is it as complicated as Ligeti’s music? No. Does that matter?

    I grew up interested in and playing serious music. I learned about classical music for the first time in college, and went on for over a decade of pursuing it. It’s serious too, but “serious” applies to a lot of music outside of the classical stream.

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  9. philmusic

    “”I think it’s wonderful that you don’t respond to popular music…”

    Of course this assumes that the comments made were not just for effect.

    That said I can’t say that its wonderful that political skill is privileged over common sense.

    Phil Fried Phil’s I’d rather be wrong page

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