The stories posted on the Olist about composition study at music schools, especially Amy Scurria’s, inspired me to share my thoughts on the subject.
I have been retired from the academic world for thirteen years, yet I still attend College Music Society and Society of Composers conferences and occasionally have my music selected for performance. My style is very different from the majority of the compositions heard on these programs as I am a tonalist and adhere to the principles espoused in John Winsor’s excellent book, “Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Argument for Mainstream Literary Music.” In this book, Mainstream Literary Music is defined as music that builds upon the traditions of music established prior to 1950 and is music that has dramatic shape similar to its literary counterparts.
Most of the music heard on these programs emphasizes timbre and dissonance. It goes on for long periods of time with little or no dramatic shape. The audiences for these programs are other academic composers, usually only the ones that are also having their music performed. Also, the selection of the music to be performed on these programs is done by academic composers as well. I am often surprised that my music gets selected, as it does not fit into what is considered “the norm.” This type of academic backscratching seems very far removed from the non-academic concert environment where the audiences are more varied.
I heard a presentation about jazz trombonists at the Eastern Trombone Workshop almost 25 years ago that described jazz trombonists as falling into one of three categories; innovators, preservers, and refiners. Innovators are those that create something new. Preservers are those that recreate and an older style. Refiners are those that combine the old and the new into an artistic expression. These categories also translate well for describing composers.
Innovators are definitely needed in order for our art to move forward, but just because something is new doesn’t automatically mean it is good. It takes refiners to take the new ideas and to use them in an artistic manner that serves the art of music. I keep hoping that at these concerts I would hear a change from the academic style of composing that has been prevalent since the 1950s as the change has definitely permeated the non-academic concert world. But I have yet to see it take hold in academia. These styles that emphasize dissonance and timbre are no longer new and have served their experimental purpose. It is time for the academic world to get caught up with the rest of the concert scene.
It is difficult for a composition teacher to not impose his or her style on their students, but allowing a student to find their own voice is absolutely essential. One way to do this is to have students study the style of composers different from themselves. After taking a poetry class where we analyzed a poem and them wrote one using the things we gleaned from the analysis, I decided to try the approach with my composition student. I have blogged about the results on my composinginsights blog and here is a direct link http://www.composinginsights.blogspot.com/2013/02/learning-from-other-composers.html
You can see and hear Josh’s composition and his analysis of Stravinsky. We repeated this activity with Copland, Bartok and Ives and the growth in Josh’s musical vocabulary was amazing.
No student should go through what Amy and others have experienced. It is time for academic composers to break from the need to be motivated by peer pressure and to be more motivated by what is good for the art of music before the ivory tower of academia crumbles into ruins.