About the Music
by Michael Kurek
Here are a few comments about my musical style and goals, which can all be read in under ten minutes. Or, just the essential description of my work, stated in the first three paragraphs, can be read in one minute. First, I am a neo-traditional, melodic, narrative, tonal composer whose music might be generally grouped in style with early 20th-century classical symphonists like Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Delius, Holst, and others.
That may sound like a disparate group of composers, because their music sounded nothing alike. However, collectively, they proved to me that great tonal music could still be written during the same time as the music of their early atonal and Modernist contemporaries, like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and has even outlived or out-performed them. All of the above tonal symphonists were close to the same age as those two Modernists; it cannot be said they were of an earlier generation or age, like Mahler and Strauss. So, they can by no means be dismissed as mere “19th-century hold-overs”, as I was inaccurately taught in school. Rather, each had a fresh, new, non-derivative, personal voice and just as much right to define “new music” as Schoenberg, whose experiments have remained only marginal for a century.
It is they who lived on and who still prove to me that narrative tonality in classical music, imaginative and well crafted, can continue to be infinitely varied and viable in perpetuity, even in the midst our own prevailing Postmodernism. This bit of historical precedent aside, and more to the point, I simply compose music that I, myself, would like to hear, if I was sitting in the concert hall. I compose with no other agenda than the simple idea that music should both sound beautiful and be expertly crafted. It is enough of a challenge for me just to try to accomplish that.
I compose music in a spirit of good will as a gift for all people everywhere to enjoy. I do so from my own tradition, yes, because that is what I know how to write, but humbly so, as just one voice among many other genuine and celebrated traditions in the world. I am especially grateful to those who are already listening to my music in over seventy countries. These are countries that represent many very different cultures — and notice that no one forced them to seek my work out and enjoy it; it was quite of their own choice and desire. I say this to debunk the latest trendy (and simply untrue) theory of false guilt that music academics are burdening poor music students with, “cultural imperialism”. These global listeners of my music would be the first to tell you that they do not feel like musical “victims”. Such a cynical notion only robs students of their joy making music, so that someone who does even not play music himself can teach and publish some provocative theory to sound clever to impressionable students and get tenure at a school.
Also, it is not necessary that every composition be a cultural hybrid, to show one’s good will. You don’t have to put a sushi roll on a pizza to prove you are enlightened. It is fine to make one’s own kind of music in one style with excellence, but, in love, also to applaud the music of others, as a listener. Cook a great pizza yourself and then at another meal enjoy eating a great sushi roll made by someone else. Both are wonderful. But when this dubious form of “scholarship” looks at music, it see victims and oppression and sensationalism. The problem is that this just doesn’t match reality. I have traveled the globe for performances of my music and have never found any people who feel like a “musical victim”! It is a false worry, and they are like Professor Chicken Little — The sky is not falling, and beauty, by its nature, has no victims. However, music has always been made by flawed and complicated people; so have other things. The Renaissance composer Gesualdo was a murderer! There is some evidence that Thomas Edison was a racist. Does than mean we should not use recorded music (he invented the phonograph)? My conscience allows me to separate recorded music from Edison and to enjoy it, in spite of him; but you are welcome to live without it if your conscience tells you to.
I lament, however, that within my own tradition, the composition of excellently crafted, tonal, classical music has become a lost art and remains the most difficult form of musical craft to compose well. This is not unlike the loss of great representational craft in sculpture and painting. To match anywhere near the quality of the composers I have named above requires a far more rigorous training than American universities now typically include in their curricula for composers, at least in regard to tonal craft. Even after earning a doctorate in composition, I had to devote decades to additional self-teaching to learn the tonal craft I was not taught. Since I am often asked, in that regard I must regretfully add that composition students looking for traditional tonal training now are unlikely to find it as a composition major at any American university. It might be better to undertake an apprenticeship with a composer who is writing the kind of music you hope to learn. (See the “Composition Lessons” link, above.)
I would like to propose and issue a call for a renaissance of this lost tonal craft as a kind of “third rail” in today’s classical music scene, and a necessary one, if classical composition is to once again contribute great works to our standard repertoire. By the first rail, I mean the kind of “academic” classical music just mentioned. It might be considered well-composed for its style but happens to be in a style almost no one actually likes outside of the ivory tower, so the reality is that it will never enter the standard repertoire. It occupies less than the width of a hairline on the pie chart of all recording sales and music downloads (including Pulitzer and Grammy-winning music).
Into this void comes what I call the second rail, which is the reverse situation — music in a style people might be able to like, but which is simply not well crafted enough to enter the standard repertoire, either. Written by dilettantes, performers, and insufficiently trained composition students, often with professional-looking web sites to give the impression of professional credentials in composition, often without actually providing any, this kind of music uses composing techniques that can be learned in about an hour. In the twenty years or so since it has emerged, it has also failed to produce any more increase in the standard repertoire than the first rail, though a piece may have been entertaining or novel enough for a single hearing. I have, however, known many composers in both rails who have managed to live from one single hearing to another, ending up with a stack of pieces that were only played once or a few times (or put onto a CD that sells fewer than 100 copies or downloads), which then sadly go into the waste bin when they die. This is fine for them, only not for the repertoire.
I am also sometimes asked, “But doesn’t concert music nowadays have to be in an atonal, modernist, or postmodern style either to be considered ‘new music’ or to be genuinely classical?” Indeed, this is what composition students in academe are told, to make them toe the party line. But the true answer to both questions is: Absolutely not! If music was just written, then it is literally “new music” by definition, regardless of style. I ask you, is a freshly-baked croissant disqualified from being called “new food” because it was made using a classic old recipe invented in 1683? No, it is literally “new” food because it just came out of the oven! Or, to paraphrase yet more musical jargon used to intimidate young composition students, such a croissant is, indeed, “the food of our time.” It is “21st-century food”, and it is “contemporary food”! The croissant is both new and is still classical, yes, because it uses a timeless recipe and timeless ingredients that will never become obsolete.
So, I do not call music “old” or “new” as a description of style but only as a description of when it was written. In terms of style, I call newly written music either “timeless” or “fashionable”. The problem is that, in its preoccupation to keep up with the times, fashion has failed to keep up with the timeless. And that applies not only to matters of style but also of skill. A beautiful style, poorly crafted, is just as quickly forgotten.
One example of universal timelessness in music that is important to my work is “narrative”, a sense of a linear story unfolding and moving toward a goal. It is universal and timeless, because story-telling has been a part of every culture throughout all of history, still is, and arguably will always remain so. What the twentieth century taught us, or should have taught us, is that, without tonality, harmonic progression, and a truly engaging linear melody, it becomes much more difficult with music alone to pull the ear forward through time and create a perception of narrative. Thus, “new music” tends to get loaded up with extra-musical concepts to try to create and maintain the interest that is lacking in the music alone, like theatrics, texts, or ironic and sardonic social commentary.
I sometimes joke that, by comparison, my music is completely without interest! All you get from me is melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, tonal structure, and form. But from these you can get a sense, even without added concepts, that a story too deep for words is being told by the music itself. I believe this reflects the stories of our own lives, our deepest interior journeys, and the sense of purposefulness to life that is found in faith rather than in the wandering randomness, confusion, ugliness, and nihilism found in much modern and postmodern music.
It may be true that some artists do feel called to “disturb” their audiences, but that is simply not my own vocation. Too many people are already disturbed! They are looking for music that rather heals and imparts hope to their disturbed spirits. So, I leave it to other artists to do the disturbing, if they wish to. This does not mean my music is syrupy or banal, by any means. To those in the first rail, out of touch with the mainstream and whose ears are accustomed to dissonance as the norm, anything that contains beauty is said to be banal, and they are embarrassed by emotion in music. I am not. Humans are wired for emotion. There is no shortage of tension in my music, but the relative dissonance that it has does not sound random or gratuitous. Rather, it makes sense in the context of supporting the crisis points of a perceivable dramatic narrative, and, just as importantly for me, the tension is resolved, and I believe that is why so many of my listeners are “repeat customers”.
Finally, because much film music, is inspired (as my music has been) by the early 20th century symphonists, it is common for some in the first rail to dismiss any classical music in that style as mere “movie music” after only hearing the first minute, as if to say that its composer “sold out”. Apart from the fact that I think some film music is indeed great and will outlive their own music (wake up!), there is a fundamental difference between my music and film music that such comments overlook. Film music is at the service of what is on the screen and is usually cut off after a few minutes by a scene change or dialog, with some notable exceptions. Classical music like mine is not interrupted in that way and is free to make its own narrative using larger classical forms over a longer time. If great film music can be called poetic, as series of shorter musical “poems”, then tonal classical music like mine can be, I hope, likened more to a novel. My music is squarely in the same genre with the early 20th-century fully-classical symphonists, not in the same genre as film music. But I do see a kinship with film music as a kind of cousin and do not regard that as the put-down it is intended to be by some. I would not mind if some portions of my work were used in a film, as long as the whole, original composition was also available. Writing for a film directly, though, is not something I have ever aspired to do. I am a classical composer for the concert hall.