About the Music
by Michael Kurek
Here are some brief comments about my musical style and aesthetic goals (about an eight-minute read). 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 with early 20th-century classical symphonists like Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Delius, Butterworth, or Holst. 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. It would not be inaccurate to think of me as a kind of musical Pre-Raphaelite, though not too literally. Some may think of those painters as reactionary, but they saw themselves rather as reformers, reclaiming what the real reactionaries had taken from art — beauty, realism, and great detail in representational craft; but in my case, it is not Renaissance music I honor (as they honored Renaissance painters) but the so-called common-practice era of classical music, generally, especially the early 20th-century symphonists named above.
The above-named composers ultimately spoke the most compellingly to me as a listener and as a composer, in part because they continued, in the midst of their Modernist counterparts of the same age (e.g., Schoenberg, Stravinsky), to value a traditional understanding of beauty as paramount, and their works were perceivable to all as narrative, a story with a goal, being told in sound. Their strong tonal craft included fresh sounds, compared to the 19th century, yet it was underpinned by classical harmonic integrity and sophistication, modulating tonal schemes, traditional voice leading and counterpoint, great melodies, great orchestration, and formal development evoking emotion in the listener.
These composers have already largely outlasted their Modernist peers, in terms of continued performances, and 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 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, 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.
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, with all its Emperor’s latest outfits, 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 my students, and as endearing as they are as people, the truth is that most of this music, far from enriching humankind with beauty that is inclusive by nature, simply put, sounds terrible to the vast majority of the very tiny number of people who even know it still exists. I believe this deception can put students into the awkward position of being ambassadors for an essentially divisive, elitist form of music that even they, themselves, do not really love. They are struggling 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 genuinely wish to do and have not been coerced to do by professors misrepresenting it to them as the only legitimate way to compose, and to players as a sustainable way to make a living in music for anyone who does not have the convenience of a professor’s salary, as they do. It’s easy to advise someone else to invest their time and effort in something that doesn’t pay, when you are being paid a full salary with benefits to tell them that.
All of classical music, including composers like Beethoven and even popular crossover-classical performers, is 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.
However, I do believe composers will yet arise who can and will once again reclaim the lost 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 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; yet it must also be interesting in the sense of having an arc of 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 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. Only with the latter spirit 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 over a quarter 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, touted as some newly invented inclusiveness, but natural, universal qualities that already do speak inclusively to the whole world. They happen to be the very same qualities I have employed to reach my local audience, beyond the few elite aficionados and effete reviewers sitting in the hall, to the the rest of the audience sitting in that same hall, and now also beyond to over 80 countries. It is only modernism, atonality, a lack of warm and loving emotion, and weird or complex postmodern attempts by academic composers at contrived global fusions, with no good melody, which, no, I’m sorry to tell them, do not at all speak inclusively to other cultures, or even to their own.
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 specialists. However, as a humble musician, one asks oneself, what can I possibly do to make the world a better place? I can only imagine that if music can soothe and help to heal one person, perhaps it can foster peace between two people, and thus, “blessed are the peacemakers”. If two enemies discover that they are both listening to the same beautiful music and therefore have something in common, perhaps it will soften their animosity. 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 people all over the world, entirely of their own initiative, and how grateful I am for the affirmation and global endorsement of my work that this represents.