About the Music, and
The Case for a Return to Tradition in Classical Composition
by Michael Kurek
Here are some comments about my musical style and aesthetic goals, which can be read in around ten minutes. First, my formal training in classical composition, with a doctorate and additional studies, included tonal, Modernist, 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 and craft with early 20th-century classical symphonists like Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Delius, Butterworth, or Holst. I make no apologies, if that seems a narrow style influence to those who prefer the current fashions of postmodern juxtapositions, quotation music, and cultural hybrids. I only want to write according to my own gifts and what I can do well, which is actually not something many academic composers can do well now. The latest example of my work in this vein can be heard by clicking on the “Symphony No. 2” link at the top of this page. Granted, it is true that when you hear some tonal works nowadays, they can be the product of a naïve dilettante, but my work is the product of decades as a university composition professor developing a truly classical style, full of advanced harmony, modulation, counterpoint, formal development, and sophisticated orchestration, i.e., all the elements of the true, old-world tonal craft.
Indeed, the symphonists listed above (who, by the way, have already largely outlasted their Modernist peer) continue to prove with their non-derivative, unique, and personal voices that tonality itself has by no means been “exhausted”, as it was famously mischaracterized by Theodore Adorno in 1958. Rather, when it is imaginatively crafted, tonality can still have an original style and be infinitely viable in classical music. Just look at the variety of unique styles in the music of those composers I listed above. Whether written then, now, or in the future, if excellently crafted, tonality will clearly never go out of style, standing timelessly in the mainstream, even for the most sophisticated and educated classical listeners, and independent from the various passing fashions and Zeitgeists of Modernism and Postmodernism. I believe that music can no longer be considered “old” or “new” in regard to style. Rather, it is either “timeless” or “fashionable”. Anything written now, is new, by definition, regardless of its style. So, yes, I do write “new music.”
As for Modernism and Postmodernism, such music has followed its own path of erudition — first, into marginalization as a minuscule sub-genre of classical music, and ultimately into its present state of de facto extinction. I’m sorry to say that it is one of the greatest ivory-tower frauds of all time that within the insular confines of campuses it is still possible to create a deceptive marketing illusion to impressionable young music students that this is a well-known, career-building, exciting, hip, “cutting-edge” genre in which to participate. I’m so sorry to have to honestly point out the reality that this genre long ago essentially ceased to exist beyond the school boundaries, and barely exists within them.
As much as I have spent my career in education dedicated to and loving university students, and as endearing as they are as people, the truth is that most of this music, far from enriching humankind with beauty, simply put, has proven largely disposable after one playing because it sounds terrible to the vast majority of the very tiny number of people who even know it still exists. It is not uncommon, also, for a certain kind of intimidation, subtle or unintentional, to precede the performance of inferior music, and let this be a red flag when you see it. A very important person, like the artistic director of a music festival, gets up and earnestly tells the audience how important it is to the future of music for new works to be commissioned, and that would be true, but only if the music is actually worth hearing, which it is usually not.
The announcer then goes on to tell you how important this rising composer is, perhaps as the winner of a certain prize or distinction, and what an important privilege it is to get to hear a “world premiere.” Never mind that most such pieces only do get a premiere, because no one in the world cares to play or hear them a second time. The poor audience member has now been made to think, “Wow this must be important! If I don’t like it, it must be MY fault! Or, I dare not show my ignorance by pointing out that it sounds terrible.” But if it is ugly music, no, it is not the audience’s fault for not liking this Emperor’s latest outfit. These advance speeches may also be a case of an arts administrator doing some advance damage control on the embarrassment of how badly a big chunk of grant money has been wasted on music no one enjoys.
Lending further “importance”, a second-rate piece being played is often connected to (and justified by) some unassailable concept. One recent piece I heard was “inspired” by the parts of a certain kind of endangered tree, and who can dare criticize someone celebrating an endangered tree? For me this connection would have been fine, if the music had actually sounded anything whatsoever like the parts of a tree and if the music just hadn’t sounded so awful. Although much new music, like this “tree” piece, does sound more consonant and not so harsh on the ears as fully chromatic, atonal new music once did, all you got in this piece was some earnest noodling around on sound effects and textures, because that was, sadly, the extent of the composer’s craft. You are expected to sit there and endure the boring, textural noodling for several more minutes, till it ends, perhaps while contemplating the tree.
Likewise, many students are coerced by this kind of deception into the awkward position of becoming ambassadors for an essentially elitist form of music that even they, themselves, do not genuinely enjoy. They are vulnerable, struggling to please their teachers and also to find a way to make a living in music. That is not meant to deny anyone their right to compose within this micro-cult genre, if that is what they sincerely wish to do. But in my observation, many student composers are coerced or brainwashed through powerful peer pressure to adopt these styles and especially by professors who misrepresent these styles as the only legitimate or sophisticated way to compose. Likewise, some performance students are told that this is a hip and sustainable way to make a living in music — by those who have the convenience of a professor’s salary. It’s easy to advise someone else to invest their time and effort into something that will never pay a living wage, when you are being paid a full professorial salary with benefits to tell them that.
All of classical music, whose sales figures include not only composers like Beethoven but semi-classical recordings (pop singers attempting Puccini or opera singers attempting Broadway), comprises a mere 2% pie sliver on the pie chart of all recorded music consumption. Within that sliver, its subgenre of “contemporary” music cannot even be called a sliver, because it is thinner than a hairline. Without grant money administered by insiders, there is no viable commercial market or ticket sales to support it. Even on campus, its concerts usually draw a fraction of the hall’s capacity, in spite of weeks of slick posters and other impressive advertising and free admission! Even those few seats would be empty were it not for student audience members who are required to attend or who personally know the performers on the program.
Only one of the nearly 80 compositions that have won the annual Pulitzer Prize in music, the tonal Appalachian Spring (1945), is still regularly played (and in most cases they are not played at all); and even most of the winning composers’ names are already forgotten. Most classical radio stations won’t play this music, knowing that almost everyone will immediately switch stations, and their phone will begin to ring with complaints. Many city orchestras are now playing film music suites in their former “new music” slots. It may be argued that at least in major cities the larger population can support eclectic new chamber music ensembles, or they can find grants to exist. However, their audiences still tend to be small and, in my observation are often drawn there as a wine and cheese social event, perhaps held at a hip art gallery. However, the turn-over of audience members is high, with few return customers, once they actually hear the music, or they come and endure a new piece in order to hear some beautiful masterpiece on the second half of the concert.
However, I do believe composers will yet arise who can and will once again reclaim the lost rigorous training and craft and contribute truly beautiful and lasting new mainstream works to the treasury of classical music, works that people actually enjoy. Of course, a composer like myself can only hope to make such a contribution, but one’s only concern now must be to write the most beautiful music one can. And for me, another more tangible goal is simply to compose music that I would truly enjoy hearing myself, if I was sitting in the audience. 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. Of course, it must also be interesting, but in the sense of having an arc of dramatic or narrative tension and resolution combined with great tonal craft. Moreover, as a composer, I am not only concerned about enjoying the performance, but want to enjoy all those many hours, and sometimes months, home alone actually working on a composition. Without compromising my craft, I want to compose music that listeners can fall in love with and which they desire to hear again and again, as I loved and enjoyed composing it every day for months at a time, myself.
Although this point may seem irrelevant (speaking above of “erudition”, which has, on occasion, been known to entail academic jealousies and politics), I also think a composer’s personal attitude toward life and toward others is creatively important. The superior or haughty attitude I have sometimes encountered in contemporary music circles can act like a toxin to shrivel a spirit of open-hearted, childlike wonder, especially in composition students who feel coerced to conform. Only with that spirit of wonder can one hope to compose genuinely moving music. Only with such a spirit can one find beauty rather than an empty display of one’s craft, or can one recognize when utter simplicity would be more powerful than complexity for its own sake. A grateful attitude of humility and kindness, then, may not endear one to the intelligentsia, but it may actually be the sensibility most crucial for a true artist to see the beauty in the world and to convey it to others with imagination, love, and a natural, transcendent voice.
Finally, long before concerns about social justice and historical inequities were in the headlines, I had always hoped, in principal, to write music that does speak globally and inclusively to the human heart across all boundaries and all cultures. So, imagine my happy surprise to learn that on the Spotify streaming service alone, people on six continents in over eighty countries have already, of their own choice, been downloading and repeatedly enjoying my last album! And so far, they have done so a third of a million times! I wondered how this could be, when the usual “contemporary classical” album typically enjoys fewer than fifty listeners (and most of those just being polite, as friends or family of the composer or performers). I see this as proof that regardless of its origin or heritage, some music can have qualities common to all forms of music that speak across cultural boundaries — tonality, melody, and emotion, to name a few.
Notice, crucially, that tonality, melody, and emotion are actually what is universal to all forms of world music, not academic contrivances such as self-conscious style hybrids that mix European atonal music with African drums and Chinese gongs. While these weird hybrids, which to me are like putting sushi on a pizza, are touted in the ivory tower as some newly sophisticated “inclusiveness”, the truth is that people who actually use African drums and Chinese gongs hate this hybrid music as much as Westerners do. So, such music is simply not “inclusive” or “diverse”, however much that may be asserted as its intention. It’s just another new outfit for the Emperor. That is why people in countries like Malaysia, Bangladesh, Qatar, Iceland, Ghana, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Maldives, Belarus, Bahrain, Suriname, and Vanuatu are streaming my music, and not theirs.
I have always hoped to leave the world, both at home and beyond, a more beautiful place than I found it, and for more than just a few academic specialists. However, as a musician, I ask myself what I can possibly do to make the world a better place. I may not have an impact upon the masses, but perhaps I can hope to impart a little beauty that enhances the lives of at least a decent number of other people. Perhaps I can hope to add some excellent music to the regularly performed repertoire, beyond my own lifetime. I don’t know. In any case, words are inadequate to say how humbled I have been to learn that my music is enriching the lives of at least some people all over the world, entirely of their own initiative, and how grateful I am for the affirmation and global endorsement, not only of my work but of tonality, melody, and emotion generally that it can represent, as a future pathway for other composers.