What’s The Matter With Being Academic?

What’s The Matter With Being Academic?

Graduation Caps

I’ll say it: I am an academic composer. And proudly so. And, if you are a composer, so—probably, speaking statistically—are you. I went to school for decades (it seemed), earned the usual passel of degrees, and through this I not only acquired the necessary skills to execute my job as a composer, but also many important colleagues, contacts, and friends to help me through the professional veil of tears that is part and parcel of building a career. I got much from my teachers—including the brilliant Lee Hyla, Margaret Meyer, and Arthur Berger—and continue to hear those voices in my own head when I am working, not because I seek approbation or because I am an especially acquiescent person, but because they taught me amazing things. And this leaves aside the hard-as-hell orchestration class I had with Jeremy Haladyna or the amazing sonata form classes Joel Feigin and Malcolm Peyton taught, as well as history classes with Michael Beckerman and Helen Greenwald, or seminars with Michael Gandolfi or Harold Shapero. All of these gave me perspectives that I greedily consumed and continue to use. This must be true for most of us, even those who suffered less-than-ideal situations in school. Maybe it is because school comes at an extremely important and absorbent developmental time; maybe it is because I looked at my teachers and realized a life in music was actually an achievable possibility. I still struggle—don’t we all?—but on so many levels these teachers were indispensible guides at a time when I needed a lot of guidance. Even many years after I left school, it is always the experience that remains in the immediate background of my working life as a composer, whether I am orchestrating, composing, discussing, writing articles such as this one or, yes, teaching my own students.

We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.” They are ghosts we chase or, in darker moments, sticks with which we composers, members of this small but powerful historical enclave, use to beat ourselves up. (“I will never appeal to the…” or “I will never make it in…) But when we use the idea of “academic composing” to pigeonhole other artists because we either don’t like their work or don’t agree with their methods, it becomes an unfortunate “choose a side” that all the recent important genre-leaping and boundary-crashing (or what have you) is there to eliminate. Maybe I dream, but the day that there are no “sides” but rather just individuals doing what they do (and possibly working alongside like-minded souls) will be a good day for us all.

I am not trying to slay a dragon here, but to gently urge the reconsideration of a term. Now maybe I’m wasting a lot of time because what’s in a name? Think, though, on how much ink (or pixelated “ink”) has been spilled (scrolled?) on the very idea of trying to come up with an alternative to the deeply unsatisfying expression “classical music” or “new music” or “concert music.” It obviously matters, because if we can strive to change the language then ideas tend to follow. The notion of choosing sides is, at best, a convenience of historical perspective. The up-, mid- and downtown schisms of the previous millennium—that simple reflexivity of in/out, of looking to the “other side” and condemning it as irrelevant—is an old, divisive, and destructive argument. Classical music is already an inside job. Manufacturing a garde from which you can avant is tilting at windmills.

Therefore there must be no “academic composers,” just composers whose own sound or aesthetic or approach we individually don’t find satisfying. And yes they may get all your grants or win all your prizes or be in line for all your jobs, but it is likely not because they strive to do something unappealing, mediocre, and poorly heard. I have to believe that nobody, even the composer you least respect, wakes up with the idea that today is the day he or she is going to write that truly hideous and shameful piece, that piece that will be so bad but seem so good. Even naked emperors have deep feelings. As a student, I spent a lot of time (when I ought to have been composing) mentally rebelling against the likes of Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez; their whole ethos, it seemed to me, was to make unpalatable music for an in-crowd whose sole purpose was the destruction of all I held dear. I knew in my way that my major chords were somehow angering them across the musical ether—especially since they were (and remained) unaware of my work. I shadowboxed, I suspect we all do. Then something truly important happened: I had a chance, at the Wellesley Composers’ Conference, to hear Mario Davidovsky describe in a lovely and short way his ideas on how his music worked, that his work mediated between moments of extreme tenderness and moments of sheer brutality. I wish I could say the scales were lifted from my eyes, but what it did teach me was that just because I didn’t immediately like something did not mean it held no merit—or worse, that it was there to hurt me.

For artists of any kind, but especially (I think) for composers, that notion of a “real world” as set against those “academic” is shockingly dismissive. For one thing, a scan of names of the composers who also teach for some usually meager portion of their income is the “real world” of being a composer. With few exceptions, almost every “concert music” composer with a noteworthy career also has some kind of heavy academic association. One could hardly say of John Corigliano, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse, David Lang, Chen Yi, Ned Rorem, Jennifer Higdon, David Del Tredici, Steven Stucky, Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, Lee Hyla, or Kyle Gann that they lack credibility as professionals despite their apparent cynosure at various schools. Quite the opposite. In almost any other discipline requiring such a long term of study, such a roster of brilliant and lauded “academics” would be obvious. Imagine: a Nobel-winning scientist whose colleagues sniped about his relaxing into a teaching appointment at MIT.

Almost every composer we associate with being a part of the “real world” has a serious pedigree through important institutions. There are precious few outsiders in our realm (even Charles Ives went to Yale), and these days most artists also have at least one degree, many far more. Which means that the word “academic” in its purest form is, itself academic. So can we ever justify its use as an insult? According to the Oxford English, yes. The word can mean “Of, relating to, or characteristic of an educational institution or environment” as well as “concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship; scholarly, educational, intellectual.” But also: “Not leading to a decision; unpractical; strictly theoretical or formal. Now also in weakened sense: of no consequence, irrelevant” and “Conforming to the principles of an academy of arts … often too rigidly; conventional, esp. in an excessively formal way.”

Anti-academicism is anti-intellectualism. Another of the OED’s definitions adds that academic also includes: “Reading, thinking, and study as opposed to technical or practical work.” This is the crux of the issue. As our culture becomes more suspicious of the Academy as a place where reasonable things happen (critical thinking being a common target), perhaps we worry that publicly associating with such a retrograde system will deem us irretrievably unhip. If that is what you truly believe, despite loads of evidence to the contrary, you simply do not have to participate. You do not have to aim your portfolio to the tenure track, but you are also free to not go to school—or if you do, to study something other than music composition. I’m not saying get in or get gone; I’m merely saying you are free to choose. All shapes and sizes…

There’s something disturbingly class-related in the suspicion of academia en masse, because what teaching offers to composers is not only money (the concern of pretty much all people every minute of the day, especially these days), but security. In complex financial times, it is a disturbing notion to think that a composer who has to make money is somehow less true or relevant a composer than those who do not. The reality as we all know is that precious few people can live—especially in a big city where one mostly needs to be when building a career—on even an unusually successful run of commissions, grants, and prizes. Would you ever scruple going down that dark road of judging artists solely by their ability to make a living?

The academic system is far, far, far from perfect. The Old Boys Network is alive and well. Tenure does not—and can never—guarantee a fertile and exciting career growing from the rich soil of security. But to simply label such individuals as “academic” does a disservice to a system in which nearly every composer participates. It is a little like conveniently bashing unions while still being a card-carrying member and waiting for the pension fund to kick in.

Obviously there is no easy answer. That glad-handing Old Boys Network made certain important developments suspicious for decades. Though I hate to say “when I was in school,” but, uh, when I was in school the very mention of Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, or Aaron Copland (to enumerate only the deceased) caused many an eye to roll. There are and will always be self-appointed vanguard denizens who view that which is not theirs as anathema, a rank betrayal of the principals on which they have staked their lives. And many of these people have teaching jobs. But then there is the other side of this, the idea that anything (or rather any one thing) is “going on in new music.” How often have I heard the expression “not being a part of the current climate” (read: “academic”) used to condemn a teacher, journalist, composer, concert presenter, or concert series? The simply incorrect notions of 1) a lone cutting edge, and 2) that music works in a linear singularity rather than just being a grand, messy stew in which there is room for many an aesthetic, is as destructive as anything. After all, isn’t adhering too closely to any single notion the very definition of “academic”?

57 thoughts on “What’s The Matter With Being Academic?

      1. Barbara White

        BTW, Eric, thank you again for being such a wonderful advisor in graduate school. I’m glad you have “taught for a number of years” at Pitt.

      2. Owen

        BTW he also taught at the Chicago School of Design and the New School for a number of years. He also gave numerous lectures funded by academic institutions and his writings are published by Wesleyan University Press.

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Yes, there is a difference between ‘real world’ and ‘academic’. Matters of style aside, it’s a matter of privilege and its consequences.

    As an independent composer (which I prefer to ‘real world’), I always sensed there might be a difference. Only when I actually became an accidental ‘academic’ at age 60 did I realize that it was indeed true, and shockingly so.

    I’ll just make a few points.

    Academic composers enjoy product discounts, advanced facilities, and technical services unavailable to independent composers — from simple items like computer printers and cheap software through high-end sound equipment and a wide range of acoustic instruments up through concert facilities and performers. This breeds a sense of expectation for, artistically, nothing.

    Which brings me to the second point. By “nothing” I mean that there is no criticism of the academic composers. There is no student criticism (the faculty enjoys the power, stated or not), no colleague criticism (to keep things running smoothly) and, because concerts are usually held inside the walls, little public or news criticism. This breeds a sense of accomplishment that is not necessarily deserved and a sense of artistic invulnerability.

    Then there is money. Internal productions can be created by in-house grant writers, student labor and facilities, internal publicity mills, etc., meaning the academic composer doesn’t get dirty hands trying to convince anyone of the value of the composition. The hardest part in the ‘real world’ is convincing, say, your local Radio Shack or Wendy’s manager that support of a concert event is worthwhile — and knowing that it will not happen unless you succeed at marketing.

    The academic circumstance is also one of networks. Unlike the outside world, which is hit-and-miss, self-financed and often in turmoil, inside the walls one can call on colleagues and recommend them as well. Though this is so with any associated group, it is extremely powerful in academia. Where I live, most of the directors and performed out-of-state composers come from one school network which has a tight hold on the high-power local performances.

    When it comes to writing the history of the artform, almost all of the recorded events come from colleagues. Yes, there are notable exceptions, but independent composers are rarely credited with primary developments because the history writers are also inside the walls.

    And a final point of many which I’ll just leave aside: What comes with an academic position, no matter how lowly, is a respect — again, deserved or not. When I started teaching as an adjunct at a local college, suddenly I was hearing from people who had never thought my music worthy of performance before. Most of that was due to the academic title, not the music itself.

    Add all these up (and there are many more) and it creates a privilege, insularity, and arrogance that subsequently dismisses the outside (or freelance or real or independent) composer and seeks to claim there is no difference and wish all to be the same. It is not the same. The difference of environment creates a difference of result.

    1. Howard Fredrics

      Well said, Dennis.

      I will add one more thing to your excellent account of what happened to you with respect to performances of your music once you placed a toe or two into exalted academic waters.

      What is the reason for this new source of interest in your work? Is it merely that you have a title, which somehow legitimizes you and your music? No, I believe it is part and parcel of the culture of mutual backscratching. The conventional wisdom is that if others program your music, you will, in turn, program their music or invite them to be a guest composer and/or performer at your home institution. Unspoken quid pro quo.

      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        As you know, I have always programmed music by composer colleagues as much as possible. That hasn’t changed from my first concerts in 1968 until now. Whether it’s perceived as more important now that I have a lowly title is yet another question to add to this discussion. I certainly don’t know.

        1. Howard Fredrics

          I suspect that your appearance on the academic radar might have something to do with some colleagues’ belief that because you are now involved in academia, you can and will now ensure performances of their work within an academic (as opposed to non-academic) environment. This is separate and apart from the fact that you’ve had a long history of rather selfless promotion of the work of a wide range of living composers.

    2. Kyle Gann

      Bravo, Dennis, and right on pitch. Funnily enough, I’ve been gearing up myself for a long blog entry on just this point, and now have all the more incentive to write it.

    3. Jared Burrell

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this comment. You hit the nail on the head: There’s no accountability in academia and the money and benefits just keep flowing.

      It’s worthy to make the difference between an academic composer and an accountable composer.

      An academics composer’s only real responsibility is to keep tricking everyone that it doesn’t matter that there aren’t enough people paying to hear their music to pay the rent.

      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        Jared, please don’t think I’m dismissing the composer in academia; I’m not. I think Marcos Balter’s comment below is important in explaining that from a different angle.

        There are nevertheless consequences to composition in being part of academia. There are consequences to every major life choice a composer makes, but there’s no denying the changes wrought by having (or maintaining) an academic connection.

        Let me reverse it: If an academic composer were suddenly ‘out on the street’ as an artist — stripped of all titles and academic entries on the résumé and cut off entirely from a network of colleagues, teachers, performers, facilities, photocopiers, resources, publicity, discounts and samples, grant writers, etc. — how would it change the character of the resulting work?

        1. Howard Fredrics

          One of two things would likely happen, Dennis:

          1. There would be no work.
          2. The work would be simpler, cause it would probably be written for some functional purpose (e.g. theatre, film, computer game, etc.) where deadlines are strict and short, and where the paymasters want what they want and nothing more.

            1. Lawrence de Martin

              Bach produced an amazing variety of orchestrations on demand; but he developed his vocabulary in a highly supportive environment at Cothen where Leopold hired one of the foremost ensembles and placed them under Bach’s bow and pen.

              He also continued to write for himself, his family, colleagues and a future wider audience. In all of his pieces he maintained the universal attributes of popular music, melody and rhythm. Within those constraints he expressed a wider palette through the contemporaneous conventions of micro-tones and micro-rhythms.

              I would suggest that if a composers wish to distinguish themselves without alienating the audience they look to these devices rather than atonality, arrythmia and anharmonic sounds.

        2. Mark N. Grant

          Dennis, you must know (and I know that Kyle G. does) Virgil Thomson’s famous essay on the subject of the correlation between how composers are paid and the style in which they compose– called “How Composers Eat” from his 1939 book “The State of Music,” it is still relevant (if slightly tongue-in-cheek) and applicable to this discussion and the excellent issues you have raised. According to Thomson, for instance, Mussorgsky and Ives, unencumbered by academia, were “naifs” thus freed to express their revolutionary music.

          It should be added that academia is only a recent historical phenomenon for composers. Did Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms et al. have Ph.Ds? Was university employment a union card for them and their colleagues? Yet what they wrote advanced the art of music in both academic rigor and creative glory.

          It should also be noted that academia and “the Academy” are separate and distinct. One could well argue that Downtown is the new “Academy,” but it certainly isn’t academia.

          1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

            Mark, I like those thoughts.

            And yes, this is about recent times. My only quibble about the past examples would be regarding academic rigor — the rigor was common practice and its slow evolution over centuries. When we reach its end, the fragmentation into a dozen (or more) streams of compositional activity created an economic disaster for composers. It was a new world, and not only artistically — of commerce, distribution, reproduction, etc.

            But that, too, came to a historical crisis and what, were it not sheltered, should have been an end long ago — certainly by the mid-1960s — when the academic realm remained protected and sheltered where there was only a somewhat economic and no longer an artistic need for it. The protection scheme resulted in unchallenged artistic presentation … and we circle back to several commenters’ points. I’m sure there will be a follow-up to Daniel’s NMBx entry!

            (Thomson’s essay, by the way, is a riot. John McGuire and Noah Creshevsky both introduced me to it the very same week.)

      2. Paul H. Muller

        Jared, one of the fascinating things about academic music is that it is a system of allocating scarce resources – players, venues, audiences – that does not depend on the market. Composing is like poetry – it should be created because you have something to say and not because it provides an income. The academy at least provides some shelter from the capitalist idea that art is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

        But the entire performance system is in decline – no question. Not sure where it will lead but the art of music can only benefit from computer synthesis and Internet distribution, sidestepping the need for an expensive infrastructure just to have a piece heard.

        1. Lawrence de Martin

          The difference between music and noise is in the ear of the auditioner. Like a tree falling in a forest, it is the perception that creates the music.

          I believe music to be heart-to-heart communication. It does not require monetary transaction and indeed music for the sake of money in the music business is as corrupt as music produced by excess thinking for the sake of theoretical novelty in academia. Some of the most compelling music was anonymous sacred music which was written by ascetics and free to attend.

          However, if music composed and performed can’t reach one person who is not a degreed composer or performer it is tantamount to auto-flagellation like the secret prayers of a cult.

          Performing arts are inherently different in this respect because they have a cost in TIME, which is the basic economic quantity. One can have an excess of material goods and money, which is a construct; but no one can have EXCESS time to spend listening to sounds that have no meaning to the listener. If a canvas or sculpture does not appeal to you, you glance and move on. Music requires a commitment to stay in one’s seat, and therefore people will not occupy the seat without an expectation of staying satisfied to the end.

          Music composers somehow think they are immune from the bounds of audience because of the abstraction. Some music is written deliberately for future esoteric audiences, for example Sorabji which I find transfiguring while even academics find it difficult to sit through “Opus Clavicembalisticum”.

          If your students have another skill by which they make their money then this is a valid hobby. However, if you intend to graduate your charges with the professional title of composer, they must be informed of this reality and skilled in composition for an audience that is not theoretical.

  2. Samuel Vriezen

    “Anti-academicism is anti-intellectualism.”

    No, it isn’t. One could well have a strong intellectual position against the academic institutionalization of art.

    In any case, seems to me two things are always being conflated in the American context, one being the simple fact that there’s such a big role for academic environments within New Music as a whole, the other being the notion of “academicism” as it arose in 19th c. French painting, and the whole idea of stylistic prescription that comes with that. It could help to disentangle those two meanings.

    1. Samuel Vriezen

      Oh and BTW re: anti-intellectualism:

      The converse of anti-academic intellectualism is also possible. It’s possible to study, study, study and read, read, read (let alone get tenure) without ever having to use any kind of serious critical facility. I’ve met academics both intellectual and anti-intellectual; I’ve met intellectuals both academic and non- or even anti-academic. In my experience, intellectualism and academicism are neither positively nor negatively correlated.

  3. Daniel Wolf

    Since leaving University with a full set of academic traveling papers, 20-some years ago, my only formal engagements with Academia since have been — as David Tudor once put it — as something akin to a hit and run driver. In and out for concerts and chats, without formal affiliation or responsibilities, teaching only privately, and working to my own calendar (no semesters, no weekends or holidays) and hours (but then again, I’m far too evil to rest!) Yes, I miss the material privileges of a college or university gig, some of which Dennis mentioned above, but which also may include access to a good library, interesting concerts, events and lectures, and regular contact with the lively minds of both students and colleagues, in particular to creative and scholarly people outside of music departments (I crave those daily connections to poets and dancers and classicists and mathematicians and to physicists and philosophers!) My sad sense, however, is that with the increasing employment of adjoints and the untenured, much of the material attraction is gone, and with increasing compartmentalization, those cross-disciplinary encounters are far less actively encouraged. (When was the last time you heard someone talk about the value of the Liberal Arts?) To some large extent, a job in academe has become for many composers, just another day job, not the perfect complement to a composing career. Despite not being attached to any academic institution, I do happily continue to identify myself as an academic composer on these terms : I try to make a music charged by an engagement with the world at large and with the life of the mind.

  4. David J.

    I prefer the term “Composition Concert Music” rather than academic music. It seems to really paint a picture of the experience.

    Whatever happened to writing a really great piece of music? Oh, it’s easier to just get involved in all the gobble-de-gook than write something that blows people away…

  5. Phil Fried

    Anti-academicism is anti-intellectualism.

    I certainly agree that describing any musical content or style as “academicism” is nonsense. Especially as almost every style is represented and in depth too. Your arguments are fine and I agree with them (and have written similarly) but you seem to have excluded musical politics. In particular the politics of the academic hire? Is the academy above criticism in that? Do we always get the best and the brightest? Or perhaps those who posses a certain inevitability (networked or not)? Or the merely hire-able? Probably some of each. Anyway.

    Since “the big job” creates membership in an exclusive club why can’t one criticize those insiders who pretend to be outsiders?

    Naturally my poking will stop once I am a member.

  6. Hoseph Holbrooke

    “Almost every composer we associate with being a part of the “real world” has a serious pedigree through important institutions. There are precious few outsiders in our realm.”

    This is precisely the matter with being academic.

  7. JHigdon

    Daniel, Interesting article. I wanted to point out that I probably don’t really qualify in the having a “heavy academic association” category…I teach two hours a week (all of Curtis is adjunct and part-time), I don’t get benefits, and I don’t even have the code to the copy machine. In fact, the pay is so low that I would make more if I didn’t teach there (90% of my income comes from composition). I teach at Curtis purely for the opportunity of working with talented young musicians who come there to study. When Ned Rorem taught there, he taught 3 hours a week, so I’m not sure he would fit in this category either.

    But thanks for the thought provoking essay.

      1. JHigdon

        Phil, I didn’t say I wasn’t paid…I am. I make enough money from composing that I can pay my bills. The teachers at Curtis all have jobs outside of the school…everyone’s primary income comes from playing in an orchestra, soloing, being a chamber music performer, or composing. So the pay at Curtis isn’t about making a living for anyone there; it is something we all do on the side…but we are paid a small amount.

          1. JHigdon

            Well, as I said, we all agree to teach there for what the school pays (in the history of the school, no student has ever paid tuition). The faculty teaching there all do so, with the understanding of what they are being paid. I don’t think there’s a person there (not even in the theory department) who looks at this job as their primary employment. But it’s worth it to keep the school functioning as it has all along.

  8. Ben K.

    In the context of music, I have mainly heard “academic” used as a pejorative with regard to musical style – that is, music that seems stiff, overly-studied, sterile, perhaps a bit contrived. In this sense, “academic” music, just like anti-intellectualism (as Mr. Vriezen points out), exists both within and without the academy. Call me naive, but I actually don’t come across very much criticism directed at someone simply for accepting a full time job at an institution. At least, that’s not the sense in which the “academic” debate interests me. Perhaps I’m mistaken in my assessment of the term. And maybe, indeed, even in its aesthetic meaning, such a word does more harm than good (though I think it does have its place). Nevertheless, this article somewhat confusedly conflates the two senses: “Bobby’s double fugue came across as rather academic” vs. “Bobby, the academic, just got tenure.”

    I also take issue with “anti-academicism is anti-intellectualism,” for reasons largely outlined by others.

  9. Barbara White

    Thanks for this thought-provoking (and witty pixelated, phantom-argument-acknowleding) article. I may well assign it in my next, um, grad seminar which will have to do with a related topic. I often consider how an academic affiliation is one (but not the only) way to foster community, and even more so, (again not the only way) to give to the next generation. My shakuhachi teacher Riley Lee (a Ph.D. and occasional academic) tells me that in honkyoku training, you have not really mastered a piece until you “give it away”—i.e., teach it to a student. I find that notion beautiful and inspiring and I aspire to remember that I won’t always be here, my own “goodies” are not all there is, and to invest in the next generation, whatever they choose to do.

    I don’t think the privilege question is so simple; some of us academics come from less privileged backgrounds or underrepresented groups (as do I), and joining an academic community may be one (not the only) way for potentially marginalized individuals to be better nurtured—though, of course, there remain inequities in academia, imperfections in access, and—not all individuals will desire to go this route.

    I am on my way to teach at a Camp in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and it is very interesting to see how this plays out there. There is a mix of amateurs (extraordinarily good ones!) and pros, and less presence of formal training, but the luminaries that I have encountered are to a person very concerned with the repertoire’s history, with honoring predecessors, with tutoring the young, and with cultivating devotion to the tradition. Studying there last year was the first time my fingers bled from practice.

    This is a thought-provoking and rich discussion, by which I mean the responses too, one of those topics which is difficult to consider without specific examples, and thus there is the danger of focusing on one’s own frustrations and generalizing. It’s really hard to be definitive in the data and its interpretation, and easy to conclude that honoring one way equates with maligning another (which, again, may not be the case), or to feel the need to inject lots of (parenthetical) disclaimers, but it is a good discussion to be having (for me at least).

    Thanks again, Dan.

  10. Dr.DotDotDot

    I am not sure what privileges that I was afforded as an “academic composer.” I have accumulated 6 figures of debt for this privilege. In the 3 years that I had a full-time privileged job, I received no budget, no help, and a course-load that was unreal. I currently receive more income and financial support at the high school that I work for. As the composer at one regional institution, we had no stage/hall etc. I had no budget.We had no recording facilities, no computer lab, no electronic music courses, etc. At the ground level, there are no privileges. There are many more small colleges that are far less equipped than those Dennis speaks of. Perhaps we should stop squabbling amongst ourselves and write music that speaks to those that we want it to speak to.

  11. Lawrence de Martin

    “Classical” music was the most popular (at least financially) music of its time. That includes Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as much as “Classic Rock”. I find musical academics valuable in the Historically Informed Performance field, for example, but the disconnect from popular music post-jazz and the failure to find an external audience for the parallel developments inside the hermetic environment is obvious.

    Part of the problem is reduction in music training at earlier ages. The Golden Ages of composition all stem from education of the patrons in performance, leading to greater appreciation of the profession. Musical training stimulates brain function, joy and well being so it is an institutional and societal failing to retreat on universal musical literacy.

    However, it is also a failing to get caught in the dichotomy between repeating forms that have been fulfilled brilliantly in the past and pursuing novelty for its own sake. To this end, defining music as notation and even analysis per se creates a false paradigm for fostering music as a creative artistic expression and human connection. Preparatory training and admission to conservatories needs to include playing by ear and improvisation, with more weight to higher levels of understanding the super-verbal nature of music than note-perfect rendering of scores in eye-hand coordination or extensive categorical vocabulary.

  12. Marcos Balter

    Really interesting post, Daniel. This is a complex topic as “academic” can mean so many things in this context. I believe a distinction needs to be made between composers who teach and teachers who compose, and also between teaching as a vocational choice and as a professional strategy.

    I think art can be born marginally sometimes, but it seldom thrives as such. Academic and non-academic endeavors in the arts are intrinsically codependent, or at least they should be. But, as an insider in both fields, that is not what I have personally witnessed, unfortunately. And, that is exactly why I teach: to contribute toward making both sides relevant and beneficial to one another once again.

    I also believe that us composers are in a constant conversation with our times rather than pontificating our personal prophecies through myopic and intransigent monologues. Artistic individuality does not mean artistic alienation or exclusion from the collective debate. Style should be a consequence, not a cause. Theory should be observational and heuristic rather than dogmatic. History is a living and ever-growing entity rather than a finite study map. One can only call something a true artistic choice if a choice has indeed been made, and for that to happen it is crucial to be at least aware of what is going on elsewhere. The day all those things happen inside academic institutions in this country, I think the term “academic” in music will quietly die away. But, I think we are still a little far from that, sadly.

    1. Lawrence de Martin

      The glaring problem with academic composers is they are being paid to flood the market with composition graduates for whom there are insufficient positions in society. They are missing a major opportunity because non-music majors don’t satisfy pre-requisites for composition classes!

      The academic composer can create exactly one job in their career by retiring. Orchestras are shrinking so commissions are declining. Soundtrack work is expanding in video games, but automating in commercials, TV and even film for a net loss in jobs. Even the revenues from pop are shrinking.

      Academic music has lost relevance and attention because of the gap between the highly trained music specialists and the general public. Raised on Barney, Teletubbies and Mouseketeers, Generation X rightfully expects music to be disposable. Academic composers are not communicating to an expanding audience because they don’t share vocabulary!

      I have a concrete proposal: composers, performers and venues should allow recording by bloggers and reviewers or make rehearsal and concert recordings available for audio quotes. Readers do not have the cultural background to decipher erudite comments; and dumbed-down reviews read like advertising drivel overloaded with adjectival and adverbial cliche. Listening to a sample tied to an informed opinion is like an on-line text book – and I hope we can all agree wider education is a good thing.

      1. Howard Fredrics

        I agree completely with your comments, Lawrence, particularly when it comes to the irresponsible and self-serving nature of composition degree programs. I’m not entirely convinced that your idea of allowing recording of concerts/rehearsals will help much, partly because few contemporary concerts are actually reviewed, and of these, even fewer are read by the general public. But given the small revenues generated by commercial recordings of new music, I don’t see any reason not to make such recordings freely available in this way. Maybe a few people will listen and get turned on by what they hear.

      2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

        Lawrence, you are conflating two issues with academicism which I don’t believe always need to be so tightly joined. The first is the problem of the job market—and indeed the whole system of career support—for academically trained composers. We have undeniably set up many composers for a lot of difficulty. But this is not always so closely tied to the music produced by these people.

        Marcos raises a good point that there are composers who teach and teachers who compose. Coming from either direction, it is not too far-fetched to expect a composer to adjust his/her style to attain some perceived advantages in the job market. That’s too bad, but whose responsibility is it to fix the problem?

        That said, there are vast numbers of composers who teach, whose music can hardly be said to adhere to the expectations of the “academy,” that demon on your shoulder telling you to add more nested tuplets. There is a reputation at a number of institutions for being creatively stifling, and that’s terrible, but again, whose responsible for fixing this?

        I believe Marcos is doing an important service to our community by bringing a distinctly down-to-earth attitude toward his composing AND his teaching. There are so many people like him entering teaching positions that I expect within a generation we will have replaced much of what makes the “academy” so bad with a genuinely broad-minded atmosphere.

        But I see one final problem, which you identify as the distance between the music and the listener. Whose responsibility is it to fix this, and what needs to be fixed? As a composer, I’ll accept (or volunteer to take on) much of that responsibility. But under no circumstances will I change my music—I’m aware that you don’t advocate this. You have a nice idea in trying to find a way to make our music more accessible to broader audiences. People out there really love music, and I’m convinced that if they sit down and listen a little, they will probably like what we do.

        Honestly, I believe it is competition that gets in the way of this. Our music is laughably unmarketable, so why attempt to compete in the market? Academic learning always suffers when competition is brought into the picture. For this reason we need more people like Marcos who will not hold all students to the same individual standards. Thinking that promotes a set of values to be met by “successful” musicians is harmful to the art, and only contributes to a competitive climate. It also sponsors a homogenizing of style—this can be heard on any top-40s station or in many university graduate student composition concerts.

        I think by removing the notion of competition from our field we are essentially hitting the restart button. By making our music widely available we will attract new audiences, something we haven’t enjoyed for a long time (I’m talking about composers both within and outside of the academy). After some time a market may arise once again, whether we like that or not.

  13. Christopher Adler

    Thank you, Daniel, for this excellent article. I have long imagined writing it myself, although the list of professionally celebrated composers employed in academia I imagined would have been completely different from yours. This attests to the pluralism of styles, and of positions vis-a-vis the intellectual discourse that surrounds and supports composition, that exists in modern American universities. And this pluralism mirrors that which exists in the professional world. There are composers who are employed in academia, but the dreaded Academic Composer is a rhetorical construction that fuels an innate desire to divide the world into us and them, and to imagine that our individual tastes are shared by those we think to be our peers, and it satiates precisely because it can only remain vague. That way we can all project onto it that which we do not like. It is a fiction. There is no Academic Composer. Composers in academia are just composers. They don’t write academic music. They write music.

  14. Jeff Harrington

    Academic is a well-known pejorative term and for good reason; it suggests an obsession with form over content. It is synonymous with ‘boring.’ Maybe, if you don’t have to worry about getting performed, you write music that sounds like it.

    Those of us outside of academia who get performed solely because performers love our music would like to suggest that all the academics quit academia and honestly tell us how many performances you get then.

    1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      I don’t want to rehash my lengthy comment above (in response to Lawrence’s most recent post), but there is a problem with the notion that the music is somehow defective. There are undeniable issues surrounding who composes what we know pejoratively as “academic” music and why they do it—often for bad reasons. But it is cruel to advocate for casting the academics out into the sea of the “real world” to see if they can sink or swim. It’s demeaning to those composers’ most basic abilities, and blatantly dismissive of the possibility that the music might be rewarding in its own right.

      There is unfortunate competition everywhere. If, for instance, I seek to adjust my portfolio to meet the perceived demands of an academic job, then I’m just creating a feedback loop for other composers like myself, and I’m measuring myself against them. Here the music suffers. The same is true in the market outside of a university. Audience taste is in no way irrelevant as a measure of a work’s/composer’s success, but it is by no means the only gauge.

      Also, your attitude shows a willful ignorance of what goes on in a lot of schools. All of the professors where I studied are widely performed publicly, with no support from the school. If you want to continue using the term academic pejoratively, feel free. Many of us “in the university” have moved on, and the difference between those employed by an academic institution and those not is irrelevant to us. (This is certainly not true for everyone, but it’s fair to say that this is a new trend). You wouldn’t any more appreciate it if I ran around declaring that composers outside of a university are jealous and unsophisticated—it’s obviously garbage to say so, so let’s drop the assumptions.

  15. Steve Gorbos

    Good post, Daniel! Marcos Balter and Barbara White make some great points about why one might choose a career in academia which definitely apply to my own experience. Something that has come up in a few of the comments that should be addressed: it seems that a lot of folks out there believe that we composers that teach, whether our students be undergrads, masters, and doctoral students, only teach people with the same specific career goals as ourselves. One of my favorite experiences as a teacher is working with a student that articulates completely different professional goals from myself, or even getting to be there when said student discovers what her own totally unique creative outlet for her talents is going to be for a little while. While many of us expect this in undergrad liberal arts programs, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter this at my current job in a university school of music. To extend what Daniel Wolf was saying, meeting and being influenced by all of those people with diverse interests also includes your students.

  16. Daniel Felsenfeld

    I want to thank you all for your insightful responses to my article. They pointed the way to a few things that I could have made clearer. I do want to (re?)iterate: this article was hardly intended as a “side” of a polemic. Quite the opposite. The distinction between “professional” and “academic” composers is not one worth making because those terms mean next to nothing any more—the era of an “establishment” rejecting whole cloth the ideas of composers who, say, seek to cross genre, is long past.

    And to agree with many posters: it does ultimately, come down to money, because teaching is that way any number of artists through history have made their living. As someone who has made money via composing, writing books and articles, teaching, engraving, proofreading, playing piano in the pit and at a department store, working at a toyshop, engraving Christmas ornaments, dressing as a clown and wearing a sandwichboard sign advertising new housing developments (not recently, but still), and by other moderately unsavory means, I would not be the one to look under the hood of how any working artist keeps the wolf from the door. These are complicated matters. Because where you work is where you work and your work–your music–is what you do, the fulfillment of our collective and possibly anachronistic vow: to compose.

  17. Antonio Celaya

    I previously posted this in the wrong (though related spot) I think Professor Felsenfeld 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. Felsenfeld 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.

    Felsenfeld’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 stylistically “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. Felsenfeld 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. Just consider yourself lucky and try not to feel persecuted.

  18. Phil Fried

    On reflection it seems to me that an academic composer is simply a composer with a sponsor, with all that might entail.

    On the other hand “academic” as a pejorative was used in the NYT arts section today in particular singling out 12 tone music,(for a change) as if that is the only kind of academic approach.

  19. Steve Soderberg

    A great article, Daniel. And after I had read it I thought, just for a moment: this is so reasonable and well put – maybe the time for mutual respect and understanding has finally come to the music world. Nahhhhhhhh. I began reading all the comments – the usual arguments from the usual suspects. Clearly, scars and agendas still trump music out there.

    Instead of trying to make headway out of academic vs academics, maybe it would help to start making a distinction between music and musics.

  20. Peter Homans

    “I’ll say it: I am an academic composer. And proudly so. And, if you are a composer, so—probably, speaking statistically—are you.” So begins Daniel Felsenfeld’s good, thought-provoking article. Still, it might be interesting to determine what percentage of NewMusicBox readers these days are, in fact, tied to a general academic institution or conservatory, if such a study were possible. Perhaps, in this Internet Age, composers don’t need to rely on the academy quite so much as they did before.

  21. Pingback: It’s Academic | Secret Geometry - James Primosch's blog

  22. Andrew H

    It’s not the academic value in new music that people object to– it’s the fact that all the value of the piece is locked up inside the academic construct. The problem is that much of new music depends on a context or aesthetic that is far enough removed from the mainstream that it requires study to understand. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to read an essay about a piece before I can figure out whether it’s good or not.

    This isn’t an anti-intellectual position; it’s a matter of accessibility and audience education. You’d think people with university positions would be better at audience education, but then again, most of them weren’t trained as teachers. Maybe that’s the problem?

    1. Howard Fredrics

      Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were not the slightest bit involved with “audience education.” They didn’t need to be because the average audience member, whether within the royal court, church or at a popular opera, was much better educated with respect to the meaning of the musical language of the time. Such is not the case today. Is it because the language has become too complex and indecipherable or is it because the audience has been dumbed down by lack of musical education? Either way, there is certainly a greater disconnect today than their was in centuries past.

      What to do? Do we, as composers, attempt to dumb down the surface of our music so that its language and structure becomes entirely familiar to audiences? Do we retain our current approaches and, in many instances, risk failing to reach all but a select few well-trained audience members and those poseurs who pretend to understand? Or is it possible to take a lesson from Mozart by employing a multiplicity of languages that are understood by audiences, while exploring new sonic and structural paradigms that will appeal to the musically educated classes (e.g. academics). I don’t think there is a single answer as long as there are composers writing for divergent purposes.

  23. Dave Soldier

    I’m in Naples now, which academic music started! From about 600 years ago, several churches had orphanages / homes for abandoned children known as “conservatori”. They trained the kids heavily in music: Vivaldi was of course famous in this roles\, though later and in Venice. Plenty of great composers were associated with these, mostly as teachers, including Donizetti, Scarlatti, Rossini, and they became gradually, during the 1700’s, places for those interested in music study regardless of whether they were orphans.

    The very first music conservatory, Maria di Loreto, is destroyed but I’ll look at the others. For info on the web, see

    Our continuation of this tradition is not only music schools and then academic departments within larger universities (also was just in Oxford on this trip, and the oldest designed music hall, the Hollywell Music Room – piano sounds great ) but special musical training for disabled kids. For example, as someone who went to college in Lansing, I’m proud that Stevie Wonder was trained to be a musician at Lansing’s Michigan School of the Blind.

    All hail academic music!

  24. Ben Gessel

    From the time I was a freshman in college, until now, this subject has troubled me somewhat. But, with time, I have learned what it is that is more truly frustrating and troubling, and what isn’t, with regard to “academic” music vs. everything else, etc.

    It isn’t the music. It has everything to do with attitude, arrogance, and character. Let me explain. Professors should be those that help students become who they want to become in their chosen fields. Of course, there is always the question regarding who truly chooses a student’s career, at least initially, in SO many cases. In other words, many professors are, well, manipulative. Dismissive of tonal works (unsupportive). Condescending. In a word, arrogant. The student learns the “academic” culture from professors, being taught that professors are always right, and that any arrogance lies squarely with the student. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    What every student needs is employment after college, employment in their chosen field. That’s it. The student is the primary force behind what career path they pursue, but there are many instances when they need guidance. That guidance is NOT a free pass for manipulation, the teaching of half truths, omission of important concepts students must be aware of before graduation, and so forth.

    None of this has anything to do with the nature of music that one prefers to write. In the world of media music, the composer must write music that fits the media. In “academic” music, the composer has far more freedom to write anything. Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is when we talk about money, about employment, about lifestyle(s) regarding different career paths, and about what a composer truly wants to write. In my experience, the world of academia, more esp. in music composition, is riddled with deception regarding the working world. It is SATURATED with deception. Again, this is about income, employment, lifestyle, and helping the student live the life they are working toward.

    There is a lot of money going into colleges these days. Quite a bit. And the return for students after graduation? A pittance, most of the time. As I mentioned initially, the problem isn’t the music. The problem is the deception that colleges engage in, and that (many) professors willfully, reluctantly, or grudgingly engage in, to avoid being axed by their departments, etc. People tend not to support avant-garde music financially. Imagine that. It doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. It simply means that it is less relevant. But, again, all this pales in comparison to the “shaping of young minds” that goes on in academia. That, and the absolutely ridiculous cost of college, that just gets nuttier and more insane with time…


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