My Philosophy of Classical Composition in the 21st Century
by Michael Kurek
For those who wish to know the philosophy behind my work, here is a brief summary that can be read in about five 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. These composers sounded nothing like each other, yet collectively proved to me that great tonal music could still be written in the midst of their own early Modernist age, and in a non-derivative, personal, fresh voice. Moreover, they prove to me that tonality can still be viable in perpetuity, even in the midst our own prevailing Postmodernism. I do not concern myself with current fashion, with trying to be novel, or with being a futuristic visionary of the avant-garde, only with timeless and universally proven elements of music, like beautiful melody and a goal-directed form.
I believe that the composition of truly great tonal music in a traditional classical style with an original voice such as I have described above, like the great masters’ traditional representational oil paintings, is a lost art and the most difficult form of musical craft. 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. That is why, in addition to my doctoral work in composition, I pursued additional coursework and private tutelage in both 16th and 18th-century counterpoint, advanced harmony, form, and orchestration. Even so, it has taken me decades of practice to reach something even approaching a masterful skill and true artistry. I would like to propose a renaissance of this lost tonal craft as a kind of “third rail” in today’s scene, and a necessary one, if classical composition as we once knew it is to be restored, survive, and contribute beautiful new works to the standard repertoire, which composers have not been doing for many decades, with a few exceptions. Let me describe the first two rails and why this third one is crucially needed.
The “first rail” is the prevailing academic / Modern / Postmodern music, now so marginalized that it is barely even known about outside academe and which almost no one who does know about it cares to hear a second time (nor in most cases even a first time, truth be told), and which is not living on after its composers die. The “second rail”, stepping into the void the first has created, is a growing field of aspiring but insufficiently trained tonalists — well-intentioned dilettantes and crossover musicians naively presenting themselves as classical composers, in many cases aided in this misrepresentation by an equally naive local print and broadcast media, with the result that the Emperor now has many more new outfits to wear in public. I applaud these musicians for so sincerely, enthusiastically wanting to share their lovely (usually youthful) spirits through what gifts they do have, but it seems highly unlikely, without adequate craft, to result in any masterworks for the standard repertoire, which is the issue I’m addressing here. Lacking any serious training or skills in classical, tonal craft, this rail substitutes, instead, exuberance, novelty concepts of every kind, alternative venues, cool names for their ensembles, cross-over instrumentation, long explanations before playing about what their piece “reflects” (which cannot actually be heard in the music, whatsoever), clumsy attempts at postmodern eclecticism or minimalism, banal tonality that noodles endlessly and aimlessly on one scale in the same key with no harmonic direction or form, truly impressive professional marketing, hip attire, wine, and cheese. While often at least more entertaining than the music of the first rail for just one hearing, these beginner-level compositions, so far, have proven to be as quickly forgotten as those well-crafted but off-putting works of the first rail; and “quickly forgotten”, in both cases, is the real issue. The great silent majority of classical music lovers still cries out for the vacuum to be filled anew with true, enduring masterworks of standard repertoire. I realize (with apologies) that there may be exceptions of which I am not aware, but if so, I believe they would be the exceptions that prove the rule. Finally, please know that I do not mean for this much-needed, frankly objective assessment of the current situation to imply a lack of charity toward anyone personally.
In regard to the first rail, it is also simply a matter of social consciousness for me to write music that can be appreciated by many more people than the minuscule number of elite listeners who like academic music, even among the educated people who attend classical concerts. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, it is not necessary to dumb down music to reach a wider audience. The master composers named above certainly managed to speak to listeners who are at every level. A litmus test for my own work is whether people actually want, of their own initiative, to hear a piece of mine again, and whether they seek out and buy the recording or listen repeatedly to it. If not, that is a red flag indicating that I have not really moved their inner spirits or emotions, and the piece will not live on. It might also be a red flag to my fellow living composers if the only musicians who will perform their work are their friends or colleagues doing them a favor, and no strangers ever contact them wanting to play it.
Most recently, there is a trend for many symphony orchestras to drop this first-rail kind of music almost altogether from their programming, in favor of pastiches, medleys, and suites of great film music. I hasten to add that it is great film music — in film — and it is at least an improvement in the concert hall over the first rail. However, the film medium, with its interruptions of dialog and scene changes, simply does not allow for the long symphonic forms of the great symphonists. Add to that, film music is almost always an uncredited collaboration between at least two composers, since so few (if any) of even its top composers, excepting the earliest days of the genre, fully orchestrate or notate their own work, but only provide a short sketch to one or more trained orchestrators to assign and notate all the players’ parts, often in a generic way, while we classical composers do all of that ourselves. Likewise, members of the second rail who write an orchestral concerto, lacking the training, typically hire a ghost orchestrator and typically take all the credit. I welcome the great film music suites but along with them want to bring back new truly classical works in the long forms, too. I believe those can most transcendentally transport the listener to sublime heights and far away lands of the mind, as they make their extended arguments free of cinematic associations. For example, you wouldn’t usually get more than a few minutes into a symphony by Sibelius before the film’s scene had to change to something else entirely, or dialog had to begin, nor did Sibelius have someone else orchestrate his work in generic film style, since in classical music the orchestration is considered an essential creative component and hallmark of the composer’s personal style.
Finally, we live in a time when artists, especially those of what I have called above the first rail in music, responding to (or in a few cases, I hate to say, exploiting) social concerns, often feel the need for their work to darkly “disturb” their audience, sometimes with ugly, grating sound. That is their prerogative, and it may be done thoughtfully and tastefully, so that the hearer feels thoughtfully enlightened and improved by the experience; or it may be done gratuitously and sensationally and in poor taste. In any case, it is simply not my own vocation to disturb or preach specific programmatic “messages” (about world events, political causes, etc.) through my music, other than the general messages of goodness, truth, and beauty. Too many people are already disturbed and are looking for music that simply heals. I aspire to compose music that does contain sufficient tension, where needed, for the narrative form’s musical arguments, but still ennobles the spirit; music whose goal-directed form reflects the sense of purposefulness to life that is found in faith, rather than the aimless, random wandering, and despair of nihilism; and music that people can actually “fall in love with” and want to hear again and again. I keep working toward these goals, the latest expression of which can be found in my album called The Sea Knows and especially in my newest work, a symphony in progress, which can be heard by clicking above on the “Symphony No. 2 Bonus Videos” link. (A commercially released album of the symphony is due in early 2021.) Thank you for your interest and for reading all of this!