About the Music
by Michael Kurek
Here are some brief comments about my musical style and aesthetic goals (about a seven-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 but the so-called common-practice era of classical music, generally.
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 characterized 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 deceptions of all time that within the insular confines of campuses it is still possible to create a phony marketing illusion to 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. 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 itself just sounds terrible to the vast majority of the very few people who even know it still exists.
Its slice on the pie chart of all recorded music consumption is no longer a mere sliver of pie, but literally thinner than a hairline. Without grants from indirect sources, distributed to insiders by an insiders’ committee, there is no viable market or ticket sales to support it from listeners (indeed, donors usually threaten to withdraw their gifts when it is played). Even on campus, its concerts usually draw a fraction of the hall’s capacity, even with massive advertising, and those few seats would be empty were it not for free admission, save for those 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 civic orchestras are now often 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 the 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, 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. A superior or haughty attitude 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 empty display in one’s craft, or at other times 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 and a natural, transcendent voice.
Finally, long before recent concerns about social justice and historical inequities were in the headlines, I had always hoped, in principal, to write music that does speak globally to the human heart across all boundaries and all cultures. Yet, 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. 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 — and these are not contrived qualities, like intentional style hybrids, but natural, universal qualities that already speak to the whole world. They happen to be the very same qualities I have sought to broaden my local audience from the few elite aficionados and effete reviewers sitting in the hall to the great majority (that is, the rest of the audience) sitting in that same hall.
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 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. 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.