About the Music
by Michael Kurek
Here are a few brief comments about my musical style, for those who wish to know more. This can be read in under ten minutes. 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 the latter. All of the above tonal symphonists were born very near in time to those two Modernists; it cannot be said they were of an earlier generation or age. They can by no means be reduced merely to “19th-century hold-overs”, as I seem to have been taught in school. Rather, each had a fresh, new, non-derivative, personal voice. By extension, they 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 and love as a gift for all people everywhere to enjoy. I do so from my own tradition, yes, because that is what is genuine for my own background, skill set, and training — I can only write what I know how to write — but I do so humbly as just one voice among many other genuine and celebrated traditions in the world. Yet, it is one of the wonders of music that each kind of music has the potential to speak universally to all kinds of people who may be very different from each other, and across cultural obstacles, and can bring them together in their common love of the beautiful. I am especially grateful to those who are already listening to my music worldwide in over seventy countries, representing many very different cultures. To those earnest young academics who do not make music themselves but in their search for some trendy and controversial angle by which to attain publication or tenure cynically cry “cultural imperialism” or “supremacy” at those of us who are simply trying to do the best we can at actually making beautiful music, I would ask this: How is it that so many people in other cultures are making the free choice to listen to my music worldwide, without any “imperialism” or coercion, or even advertising!? And if they are seeking it out and enjoying and loving it entirely of their own choice, and if I am, in turn, listening to their music of my own choice and loving it (as I am), and as a result, if we are all appreciating and admiring each other’s music and cuisines in a beautiful and equal cultural exchange, then where exactly is the problem?? In truth, it would seem that everyone is happy but you!
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, especially in regard to tonal craft. Not only to mention it from a student perspective, I do not believe that many of the professors of composition I know around the country, as a result of their own one-sided university training, could write a credible tonal, classical melody, a credible popular song melody, a credible tonal development section, or a credible fugue. To overcome this deficit of training, even with a doctorate in composition, I had to devote decades of additional practice, score study, and self-teaching to reach something approaching a professional level of skill and artistry in tonal music.
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, nor to find any encouragement or approval for wanting to learn it. In many cases, they even find ridicule, and that from faculty whose own music has enjoyed little or no success beyond that of an academic research paper. I’d advise such students to major in something else and elect courses in tonal music theory, score analysis, counterpoint, and orchestration, where they can bypass the inbred composition faculty and learn directly from the great tonal composers through their scores. Or it may even be most time-and-cost-effective for some students, nowadays, not to seek a traditional degree but to select the courses they really want, a la carte, as individual online courses (for example, The Great Books Online) and to study composition privately with someone who can actually compose music in a style they want to learn and who actually has some real-world professional success in doing so. (See the “Composition Lessons” link, above.) Such a non-degree plan can be credibly documented and accepted now, more than ever.
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 “academic” classical music that might be considered well-composed for its style, but which is 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 is too complex, ugly, or weird for most classical listeners and occupies less than the width of a hairline on the pie chart of recording sales and music downloads (including Pulitzer and Grammy-winning music); and, understandably, it remains essentially unknown to the general public.
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 simply is not well crafted enough to enter the standard repertoire. Some of it is slickly marketed and has even won some prizes away from the first rail, but, once heard, it has already proved to be just as quickly forgotten as first-rail music has been. This rail includes more “accessible” techniques that any student or dilettante or performer wanting to be called a composer can learn to write in about an hour. Since they usually lack any training in orchestration, much of the second rail’s work consists of chamber music, often featuring visually fascinating and innovative new or crossover instrumental combinations and bright, smiling young faces on stage. Unfortunately, that novelty wears off in a few minutes as it becomes apparent that it is simply not a very good piece of music, and then the audience is left to “wait it out”. Or, it might be a novelty piece you can bear through one time, but not again, like visiting a Ripley’s Museum that you don’t need to see a second time, once you’ve seen it. Or it may be simply trivial and banal in its attempt to be liked, or completely random sounding but with a long verbal explanation of how it supposedly reflects some abstract sculpture or poem (which it sounds nothing whatsoever like, when played). I have attended countless such events, often in museums and art galleries, complete with wine and cheese, and the performers’ sincere efforts receive a hearty applause and even cheers, but the hard truth is, no one wants a recording. It was about the event, not the music.
Then, you may argue, so what? Who cares whether there is a standard repertoire? Wouldn’t an ever-changing stream of innovative new music be more fresh and interesting? If only it actually were so! I could ask in reply, who wants to hear a stream of disposable, mediocre new pieces that do not even merit a second hearing? The reality I have observed time and time again is that the audience feels betrayed by the misleading marketing, wishes they had not come, and stays away the next time; and the classical genre as a whole struggles and grows more and more marginalized in the culture. And what legacy will this generation have left behind? Or do we no longer care about leaving the world a more beautiful place than we found it? Will they say we only left them a landfill of disposable musical styrofoam, or a vase of dead, cut musical flowers instead of a living, ever-blooming garden of beautiful perennials? So, the great void remains, and most mainstream classical listeners still cry out for a third rail to exist — new works that are actually worthy of the standard repertoire and worthy of their own time as listeners — compelling, gimmick-free, narrative works of true excellence, craft, beauty, drama, and emotion that they can love and actually want to hear many times over a lifetime, and which will even outlive them for many generations to come.
Here are three practical changes that need to be made. First, musical contests and prizes that have a maximum age of 25 may be perfectly appropriate for performers, because great performance skill can be achieved that young. But for composition prizes, the MINIMUM age for consideration should be at least 35 or 40, if you want to foster a repertoire with adequate skill and that won’t be immediately forgotten. Second, the judging panels need to include more mainstream tastes, for example, non-academic conductors and great classical performers who are not academic, modernist ideologues. For decades, and still today, a tremendous amount of precious grant money has been, and is being, tragically squandered by these panels to pay for music that has already wound up, and will wind up, on the ash heap of history. Third, the option to make “no award” is usually allowed in the contest rules but goes unused and needs to be exercised responsibly and far more often. There are too many Emperors who have far too many new outfits in their wardrobes.
I am also sometimes asked, “But doesn’t concert music nowadays have to be in an atonal, modernist, or postmodern style 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 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, solves nothing.
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, 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 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 interest, like theatrics, texts, or ironic and sardonic social commentary. It even seems a requirement now to have them, and often the piece feels as though it is more about that than about the music, which does not hold up on its own. 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 randomness, confusion, and nihilism found in much modern and postmodern music.
It is 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 and 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. There is no shortage of tension, 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, the tension is resolved.