About the Music
by Michael Kurek
Here are a few comments about my musical style and aesthetic goals, which you can read in about ten minutes (or just the essential first three paragraphs in one minute). First, I am a formally trained, neo-traditional, melodic, narrative, neo-tonal composer whose music might be grouped in style with early 20th-century classical symphonists like Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Delius, or Holst.
That may sound like a disparate grouping 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, Modernist contemporaries 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; it cannot be said they were of an earlier generation or older age, like Mahler and Strauss were. So, they can by no means be dismissed as mere “19th-century hold-overs”, as I was inaccurately taught in college. 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. Let that last (italicized) statement sink in a second.
The people who essentially dismissed the above composers in favor of Modernism have been proven wrong in their predictions, and it’s time to let go of that assumption. It is profound that these composers have lived on, because it implies 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 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 one voice among many other 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 out my work and enjoy it; it has been quite of their own choice and desire.
I say this to debunk the latest trendy (and simply untrue) theory of false guilt with which music academics are burdening poor music students, “cultural imperialism” or “colonialism”. I feel I need to spend a few paragraphs here addressing this deeply misguided doctrine. Global listeners of my music would be the first to tell you that this theory simply does not match reality; they do not feel like musical “victims”! Such a self-denigrating, cynical notion only robs impressionable students of their joy making music, in order that someone who does even not play music himself can publish some provocative theory to sound clever and get tenure at a school. These non-musicians simply cannot understand the natural bond of respect, empathy, and admiration that actual, practicing musicians already have for one another. We who actually create music already do and have always respected music across genre lines and across styles. If anyone, it is the academics who have been snobs. We musicians respect music in any style that has intrinsic worth, which is obvious as a matter of natural law, even as the sunset is obviously beautiful to all people of the world. We do not need a scholar to condescendingly tell us it has worth. The great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa said: “The pure joy one experiences listening to ‘good’ music transcends questions of genre.”
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 hamburger or mix musical styles to prove you are not a xenophobe. Nationalism, a love of one’s home culture, does not require you to regard other cultures as inferior, to put them down in any way, or in any way to suppress their traditions! I think this notion has arisen from the false, atheistic premise that praising great achievements done by one culture implies that other cultures or races must be of inferior human worth. This is because these academics erroneously believe that human worth is measured in terms of accomplishment (as they measure their own worth). But theists have long known instead that human worth is based on the intrinsic dignity and love with which God equally values every human on earth, regardless of their accomplishment. We know that the humble will be exalted and the last shall be first, in heaven.
In short, all pieces of MUSIC are simply not of the same quality! But all PEOPLE are of equal worth in God’s eyes, and that is what counts. So no, the sky is not falling — Beauty has no victims. However, even beautiful music has always been made by flawed and complicated people, as have been other many other good things. My conscience allows me to separate people’s good works from their bad behavior; I can use light bulbs and listen to recorded music, even if Thomas Edison was a racist, but if you want to use candles and not listen to recordings, fine. Using them in no way implies an endorsement of racism or of any race being “supreme”. What nonsense.
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 music to compose well. This is not unlike the loss of great representational craft in sculpture and painting. (Could anyone sculpt Michelangelo’s “David” now?) To match anywhere near the quality of the early 20th-century symphonists 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, and to apply all my theory training in counterpoint, harmony, and form to my own style. (Unfortunately, even that advanced theory training is no longer part of the composition curriculum at many schools.) Since I am often asked, 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, both because the faculty discourage it and because they lack that skill, themselves. It might be better and less expensive to take composition lessons with a composer who can and 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 an inbred style almost no one really enjoys hearing, at least not more than once, 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. Most classical radio stations will not play it (except perhaps on a special show in the middle of the night), knowing almost everyone will change the station within the first minute.
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 of great masterworks, either. This music is mostly written by dilettantes, performers, and prematurely ambitious composition students, often with hip, professional-looking web sites to imply that they have had years of serious composition study or training when they have not. (Or, a few may have degrees, but serious training was clearly not provided.) This kind of music often does show off good performance skills and clever concepts, but with a composing techniques that can be learned in about an hour by any self-proclaimed composer. You cannot proclaim you are a dentist and open a dentist’s office, but anyone can proclaim himself a composer without revealing that he is only an amateur at it. They are free to do this, of course, but the bottom line is that in the twenty years or so since this trend has emerged, this rail has also failed to produce any more increase in the standard repertoire than the first rail, though some pieces may have been well-performed, entertaining, or novel enough for a single hearing. Much of it, while attractively consonant for any five seconds, quickly becomes a static, boring kind of noodling around on a scale or mode, because the composer has no understanding of forward-pulling harmonic progression or modulation through a progression of keys. I have, however, known many composers in both rails who have managed to live from one premiere to another, ending up with a stack of pieces that were only played once or, at most, a few times (or put onto a CD that sold fewer than 50 copies or downloads), which then sadly went into the waste bin when they died. This has been perfectly fine for their own enjoyment, and still is, if one wishes to do it. However, it is has not been fine for the repertoire, which remains a vacuum.
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 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. But it is not only necessary to have a piece of music in an attractive style that is well-crafted. There is plenty of forgettable music that does both of those things. There also must be, at least for me, enough transcendent spirit and memorable, lovable, emotionally moving melody, so that listeners “fall in love” with it and can’t wait to hear it again and again.
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. Yet, there are composition teachers who tell students that narrative is an outdated and naive concept. Could this be a way to avoid exposing the fact that they, themselves, lack the skill to compose a credible narrative? 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, such as theatrics, texts, or ironic and sardonic, biting social commentary. After all, the best defense is a good offense.
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 symbolically 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, like a hard-core gin drinker who can no longer tell that wine has any alcohol in it, anything that contains beauty is said to be banal or sickeningly sentimental, 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”. The reality is that music without emotion ends up on the ash heap of history.
I believe that many of the prideful musical intelligentsia have grown too sophisticated and malformed as listeners to recognize beauty, because without the virtue of humility and the wonder of a child, one becomes blind to much of the beauty the world has to offer. I do not see that postmodernism has contributed much, if any, original beauty of its own, only the parasitical manipulation of someone else’s beauty, someone else’s originality, someone else’s talent, without which they would have no musical quotations to cleverly weave into their collages. I also find it ironic that those who preach “inclusiveness” ad nauseam to students are the same ones who demand that students compose in styles that can only be appreciated by a tiny number of their own inbred, academic elite. It is fine for first-rail composers to write and listen to whatever they wish, however tiny their audience. Only, please do not tell students that they are the heirs to the only true, current path on the train tracks of the classical music journey, heritage, and tradition. It is more a matter of a train that jumped the tracks and derailed long ago and needs setting right. To switch metaphors, it has become more like a religious cult that believes only its thirty members will go to heaven.
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, some already has!), there is a fundamental difference between my music and film music that such effete dismissals overlook. Film music is an essentially collaborative art, at the service of what is on the screen. It 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 advance a long, formal narrative over a longer time. You would hardly get through the introduction to a Sibelius symphony in a film before the music needed to stop or change.
If great film music can be called poetic, as series of shorter musical “poems”, then I think the kind of tonal classical music I’m advocating can be likened more to a novel. There is no need to speculate whether a novel or a poem is “greater”; everyone knows that’s apples and oranges. My music is squarely in the same genre with the early 20th-century, fully-classical symphonists; it is not in the same genre as film music. But I do see a kinship with film music as a kind of cousin, just as poems and novels can be regarded as cousins, and I do not regard comparisons of my music with film music 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 and known to be the source. Writing for a film directly, though, is not something I have seriously aspired to do, thus far. I am happy being a classical composer for the concert hall.