Whom Should You Listen To?

One of the interesting aspects of writing these columns every week is that I find myself continually looking for issues to think and write about, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to set me off in one direction or another. Last week, as I was writing about Jennifer Jolley’s blog, I found an interesting post of hers describing a lesson she had taken with famed composer Augusta Read Thomas. While others might have simply written up a basic synopses of the lesson, Jennifer decided to give a play-by-play description of her entire time with Thomas–replete with pictures! One of those pictures was of a list of ten composers written on a sheet of paper–I’ll let Jennifer describe the context:

She also told me I needed to listen to more music; I completely agree. Some of my friends wanted that listening list, so here it is.

Whom Should You Listen To?

This jumped out at me for several reasons. First, I loved the fact that Thomas was telling Jennifer to listen to 20 works by each composer, thus ensuring that she become immersed in the sound world and creative concepts of each of those composers. Second, I was inspired to go listen to more music by many of her suggested composers myself because of this assignment. Finally, one could look at this list and get a very clear idea about the person who created it–it creates a window into their background, their priorities, pedagogical concepts, and stylistic tastes.

Thomas’s list got me thinking: What would other composers’ listening lists look like? Was Augusta Read Thomas unique in the method she used to create such a combination of composers to listen to for her students? How much overlap would there be across a wide selection of composers making the lists? What could one deduce from the names that were most often mentioned?

Being the inquisitive type that I am, I contacted a limited number of professional composers both here and in Europe over the weekend and asked them if they could give me a list of ten composers from the 20th and 21st centuries that they would want to give to an undergraduate or graduate student composer to listen to in depth. I’ve already received a good number of responses and the results are such that I’ve already decided to ask a lot more of my composer colleagues for their input on this topic before I make any findings public. I’m very cognizant that one could easily mutate this into a quest for a “best of” mega-list and I’m not interested in that at all. I’m already seeing some interesting patterns as far as which names come up the most and why, as well as the relationship between the overall list and the individual lists each composer is submitting. I will continue working on this and hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to write about what I’ve discovered in a future column–I’ve already decided that I won’t let anyone know who wrote which list, but I can see making both the aggregate list and the individual lists public down the road. If you are interested in taking part, please contact me directly via e-mail and please refrain from writing your list in the comments section below.

A few weeks ago my good friend Daniel Felsenfeld wrote a brilliant article on the “tyranny of lists” and as someone who tends to be a listmaker myself (as I’m sure at least a few of you remember), I want to be clear that I’m not jumping into this little side project in order to just make more lists or to push one viewpoint over another. I do, however, feel strongly that awareness in and of itself is ultimately a positive thing and if this project can shine some light on who we as a community listen to and subsequently pass down to future generations, then some good may come from it.

12 thoughts on “Whom Should You Listen To?

  1. Han-earl Park

    My two cents: Aside from the admittedly interesting query that is nonetheless in danger of becoming yet another canon making exercise, it strikes me that it’s more important to impart to students how to listen—to listen analytically, critically, reflexively, to reverse engineer, to gauge value (however that’s defined)—than necessarily what to listen to. Incidentally, I’ve found that sometimes documented examples of creative failures by skillful practitioners have been as useful for illuminating the creative process as successful ones.

    Reply
      1. Rob Deemer

        Andrea – there were a couple composers who did not give me lists for the very reason you list. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a one-size-fits-all concept at all…but I am interested in seeing where the similarities and differences are between different composers and their suggestions.

        Han-earl – totally agree, but that’s fodder for another column. Again, this isn’t a canon-building exercise…I’m not looking at building a “best of” list or anything close to that.

        -Rob

        Reply
  2. Jeff Harrington

    The fact that we have to systematize this shows, definitively, that we’re creating careerists, not artists. Artists are curious – they have to know what other artists are doing. They’re competitive. They want to be the best composer they can and have, throughout their life, looked for the edgiest, most interesting music. They’re scared of the competition, they’re scared of some other artist having the edge. Careerists, they listen because they have to… to appear literate. Their choice in style has been made, what does it matter today if somebody is mixing new complexity with blah blah. What does it matter what composers in Europe or Asia are doing? Or Americans for that matter? NewMusicBox is abuzz with listening lists and really… it’s sad. We’re a world where the arts are a job and writing music, a vocation. One of the work requirements is being able to drop names intelligently.

    I know! We need a Cliff Notes for careerists. Just a quick, essential 5 minutes of Rihm, of Read, 5 minutes of Czernowitz and 5 minutes of Lim and Mazzoli. In this age of rapid dismissal, there’s a real business opportunity for listening lists that will help careerists maintain their name-dropping edge!

    Reply
    1. Han-earl Park

      Despite my reservations, I don’t believe what Rob is asking for is akin to ‘Cliff Notes.’ It appears to me that Rob want to carry out a, perhaps informal, meta analysis of compositions/composers that are enrolled into the teaching process.

      If I have not misread the scenario(s) described by Rob the above article… I’m unconvinced that the lazy careerism that you describe necessarily emerges from, or is symptomatic of, a listening recommendation as passed from teacher to student. The teacher, after all, will likely have greater breadth or depth of knowledge, and will be able to home in on the issues that concern the particular student at a particular point in their work, practice and, yes, career.

      Reply
    2. Chaz

      Jeff-thank you for your thoughts. I agree whole-heartedly. Forcing yourself to listen in such a systematized way seems somewhat artificial. “to appear literate” is an apt observation in my opinion.

      Reply
  3. James Sproul

    I find the “listening to 20 pieces” aspect of this endeavor to be really interesting. We always see a list of pieces we should listen to and study but many of those important pieces are essentially one-hit-wonders for some of these composers, or so far removed from their overall body of work we don’t get a true sense of what they really have to say as composers. Delving into 20 pieces of any given composer is quite a task, but you would emerge with a true sense of what they have to offer the musical world. So in making a list of this sort you would really have to think about a composer as their body of work, not just their most important work. I think this is far more beneficial than just the “list of important pieces” that so many undergrads get.

    Reply
  4. Matthew Saunders

    The best advice I ever got about directed listening came from a jazz masterclass I was in with Conrad Herwig when I was an undergraduate. Essentially, it was this: Listen to the people who inspire you, learn all that you can from them. Then, listen to the people who inspired them. His example was that if Miles Davis is your guy, you listen to Miles, but then you go listen to Gillespie, and then to Cootie Williams, and then to Bix Beiderbecke, and then to Armstrong. A year later, someone else will be inspiring you, and you do the same thing. The result, hopefully, is that you listen to a lot of different music, yes, but that you also hear music that is relevant to the music you’re trying to make at any given moment. Are there pieces and composers that I “should” know that I don’t? Yes, but life is too short to be limited to the field’s idea of what I need to hear. Listening to the greats isn’t always the answer, either–sometimes something heard accidentally provides the leap forward. One of the most genius moments in my own work over the last couple of years came to me when I was stuck at a basketball game listening to the hip-hop played as warm-up music for the players–music I would never have sought out if left to my own devices.

    Reply
    1. Michael Robinson

      It’s frequently overlooked that tenor saxophonist Lester Young had an enormous influence on the expression, timing and phrasing found in the playing of Miles Davis.

      Reply
  5. Philipp Blume

    So there are 11 names. I don’t know from the context whether ART proposed these names in response to the materials she reviewed during the lesson or because these are 11 composers everyone oughta know. Perhaps a little of both. Still, though it isn’t bad advice, it doesn’t strike me as such noteworthy great advice eitherIt’s very hard to bring our focus to bear on the basic materials of music, and how they could be put together in new ways. I think ‘immersing ourselves in the sound-worlds’ of other composers only makes this harder, not easier, especially if we immerse ourselves to such an absurd degree. 220 pieces of music! By when does she recommend that this task be completed? And what does she think will be gained? Surely not a greater clarity about one’s own as-yet-unheard ideas. Leaving aside the fact that maximalist undertakings of this kind are not for everyone, young composers nowadays (especially in the US, I’m sorry to say) sound far too derivative already. It would be nice to get some clarification about what the intent was, exactly.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer Jolley

      Now that I’m a few years removed from my lesson with ART, I believe I can clarify some things. She believed I had some holes in my listening (based on the one incomplete piece I let her see), and considering that I only knew two or three pieces from each composer on her list (and not twenty), she was correct in this assumption. As I said, I should listen more. Would this listening exercise be accomplished over a specific period of time? Yes and no: I was under the assumption that I should listen to these pieces over a long period of time, or I could possibly create an independent study where I’d have a somewhat supervised deep listening experience.

      That also being said, I now realize that this was her aesthetic, and that my aesthetic did not conform to hers at the time. (Actually, I still think it doesn’t, but I’m okay with that.) This listening list tells us where she is artistically and geographically coming from. I especially realized this after attending the Bowling Green New Music Festival (the Cold Blue Music retrospective concert that featured West Coast post-minimalism): the reason why I wasn’t terribly familiar with the above composers (at the time) is because I’m from California. For lack of a better word, that concert made me happy, especially because I musically felt at home.

      Reply
      1. Philipp Blume

        Thanks for your response, though I’m not sure I’m any wiser. I am from California too, and I don’t understand the importance of geography in this day and age… I do very well understand the influence that our schooling can have on what music we’re exposed to, however.

        Since you’re the (unwitting) test subject here, let me ask you: did you do the assigned listening? And how, if at all, did it make you a better (or more informed?) composer? As a teacher who’s always apprehensive about shaping my students to my own tastes, I could learn something here for my own teaching!

        Reply

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