About the Music
by Michael Kurek
Here are about four minutes’ worth of comments about my musical style and aesthetic goals. First, my formal training (doctorate and additional studies) in classical composition included tonal, Modern, and postmodern techniques. I both composed and taught using all of them for decades as a university professor of composition. Over time, I evolved into a neo-traditional, melodic, narrative, neo-tonal composer whose current music may be grouped most closely in style with early 20th-century classical symphonists like Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Delius, or Holst.
These composers ultimately spoke the most compellingly to me as a listener and as a composer, in part because they continued to value beauty as paramount and were also evocative of some kind of colorful story being told in sound. Their strong tonal craft included fresh sounds, compared to the 19th century, yet was underpinned by classical harmonic sophistication, modulating tonal schemes, traditional voice leading and counterpoint, great melodies, great orchestration, and a formal development that can still sweep up the listener’s emotions in a dramatic narrative as a vicarious participant. These composers have already largely outlasted their Modernist counterparts in terms of live performances and continue to prove with their non-derivative, unique, and personal voices and styles that tonality has by no means been “exhausted”, as it was once characterized. Rather, when it is imaginatively crafted, it can be infinitely viable in classical music. Whether written then or in the future, this kind of musical language will clearly never go out of style, standing timelessly independent from the various passing fashions and Zeitgeists of Modernism and postmodernism.
However, the choice of style for a composer is not such a rational one as the above points might suggest. Picking out a style is not always a matter of preference, like picking out what to wear or even who to vote for. Some composers, as their innate proclivity, are naturally “wired” toward certain gifts, like, for example, highly rhythmic gestures. That’s what they hear and what simply must come out of their pen. My natural gift or proclivity is toward lyrical tonal melody, which is not a gift shared or valued by most modern composers. I ultimately had to obey that rather unfashionable gift and write what I kept hearing in my head.
I also finally came to the simple conclusion that I aspired to compose the kind of music I would most enjoy hearing if I was sitting in the audience, myself. Perhaps this the first era of music in which many composers, surprisingly, do not listen in their free time to the kind of music they write. Yet, they expect others to listen to it, as if displaying their research project at a science fair rather than providing music to enjoy. Most of us in the audience want to be moved by emotion and not merely hear something “interesting” that we don’t feel any need to hear again. I also simply want to enjoy all those many hours, and sometimes months, home alone working on a composition, not only the short time it takes to play the finished piece. Without compromising my craft, I want to compose music that listeners can fall in love with and desire to hear again and again, like the enduring works of the standard repertoire. Too much music over many decades has been either well crafted but too unattractive in style to enter the standard repertoire, or the reverse, being in an attractive style but too weak in craft to enter the repertoire. We have been left with a great void, crying out for composers once again to write works that are qualified in both ways to contribute lasting music to the repertoire.
Superficially, it turns out that a number of the great film composers have also been drawn to the influence of the same composers I listed above, perhaps for the same reasons as I, and so I am sometimes asked if I aspire to do film work. But apart from the general sound, the classical genre for the concert hall in which I work is very different from theirs, because they must obey what is on the screen, with its many abrupt changes of scenes and dialog taking over. I enjoy the freedom to write in the longer classical forms where I can fully develop my own musical ideas without interruption. Perhaps if their work is like great poetry, mine is more like a novel. Neither poetry or novels are “better”; they are just different, and both can be great.
I am very gratified and honestly surprised to have learned that music lovers worldwide, across all kinds of cultures in over eighty countries, have chosen, on their own, to listen repeatedly to my work, among all the available musical choices in the world. In turn, be assured that I also gratefully celebrate and admire them and love having my humble place in sharing together with them all things beautiful, even while working in the style in which I am trained and able to compose. These voluntary listeners on six continents have shown me once again that beauty is not something imposed by one culture upon another, as some cynical and sensationalist academics nowadays like to theorize. In my actual experience, these ivory-tower speculations are incredibly out of touch with the real world of music making.
Languages and cultures may differ greatly, yes, and people may have many other kinds of conflicts with one another, but when it comes to beautiful music, we who actually perform and create music out in the real world know that all humans are wired much the same. Our experience, through the warm responses we receive from people of many cultures, is that all peoples are wired to innately recognize and appreciate beauty in their human soul, no matter which culture created it. In the real world, beauty is not adversarial and has no victims, only friends. It is not a divider but a unifier, not unlike the world’s variety of wonderful cuisines that can bring diverse people together in warm fellowship over a meal. What a wonderful gift music is! The great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa nicely put it, “The pure joy one experiences listening to good music transcends questions of genre.”