My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
- It has raised not a few academic eyebrows in recent years that I have come to compose in a more traditional style than in the kind of Modernist, avant-garde, atonal, minimalist, or postmodern styles one might imagine coming from a typical university composition professor, and I am often asked to explain why. That question and others will be answered here, for those who care to know. Most simply stated, my goal as a classical composer for the concert hall is to write music that I would actually want to hear, myself, if I was sitting in the audience or listening to classical radio in the car or at home. That means it must match and be true to my own genuine listening habits and tastes and not be in some separate “research” compartment, nor represent leading a musical “double life.” For a long time I was writing quite respectable and tenure-worthy music that even won national awards, but disingenuously so, in respect to my own musical tastes. I realized that I was never listening later to recordings of it, or to music like it written by others. It finally occurred me that if I don’t even enjoy listening to my own music, why should anyone else? And, honestly, no one at all really cared whether they heard it or not. It took a number of years (even after already earning a doctorate in composition) to teach myself to write the kind of music that I myself would like to hear and that I now consider to be my mature style.
- I realize that if my own tastes had truly leaned toward music no one else liked, it would have been a dilemma. On the one hand, I would want to be true to my own tastes, yet on the other, I also believe that music has always been a fundamentally generous act of social and communal interaction. At least that seems implied when you are putting it on a public concert and advertising for people to come and hear it. After all, it could be created privately and not put on a public concert, or could be played in a salon with a few invited people, as Schubert did. But if I am creating it to share communally, then I personally feel a responsibility, as a matter of social justice and social conscience, to make that contribution to the wider common good of society and culture, and at the very least to a much greater percentage of those already in the concert hall. I understand that other composers may not be concerned about this, and that’s their right, of course. This idea of “social justice” has religious roots that I understand may not be shared by all, of course. It stems from the idea that musical talent is a gift from God, not to be selfishly hoarded but shared with others. But apart from that, the concept is not altogether unfamiliar in the guise of Copland’s so-called “populist” or “vernacular” works of the 1930’s and 40’s. Now I imagine someone might reply that if I really wish to reach more people, I should enrich even greater numbers and write pop songs to fill whole stadiums with people. But then, once again, the music itself might not be true to my own tastes and gifts. There is some kind of balance between writing music that reflects my own genuine tastes and gifts, which are mainstream classical, and writing in an elite sub-genre of classical music that (in my observation) very few in the average audience can get anything at all out of hearing or really care if they ever hear a second time.
- I do believe music can be both “classical” and speak to a mainstream classical audience, as it once did, without pandering or dumbing it down or making it sugary or banal, as some suppose. It can exhibit full artistic excellence and full integrity of fully classical craft, by no means of any compromised, commercial, or secondary artistic order whatsoever. I do not agree with the absurd but often silently implied idea that if very many people like it, by definition it must not be serious or not really be classical.
- One may ask, however, “Is there no room for futuristic visionaries who are simply ahead of the curve, who alone believe in themselves for now, being confident that society will catch up to them someday?” Yes, I do think there is room, but I think very, very few people really do qualify for that description. The reality is that a composition will never make it to “the future” if it is discarded and immediately forgotten. I’ve been going to “music of the future” composer concerts for thirty years and cannot recall one of those pieces that made it even beyond that one concert! That music of the future was perhaps only the music of the moment and quickly became the music of the past. I do not wish to be unkind to anyone in saying so, or to say that no one has a right to imagine and propose what they think the music of the future might sound like or ought to sound like. But the real point of these comments is this: It is a great modern fallacy that being, or posing as, a futuristic visionary or even as a member of a collective group of futuristic visionaries in composer societies and composer concerts, is compulsory in order to qualify as a legitimate classical composer. It is only compulsory to have a wonderful vision and write excellent music!
- Of what does a wonderful vision consist? For one thing, “vision” does not necessarily refer to programmatic (extra-musical) imagination regarding this or that topic of the day, memorial to a disaster, hybrid style experiment, postmodern juxtaposition, or technological gimmick. In traditional music, vision can refer simply to thematic imagination and development, which used to be called the art of “invention.” Purely musical invention stimulates the interior imagination of the brain in a different, non-verbal way, which used to be fundamental to the experience of classical, instrumental, so-called “absolute” music. Unfortunately, the culture of contemporary music sometimes so values clever or provocative extra-musical concepts that it sometimes dismisses or overlooks any new absolute music created simply for the pleasure of listening, even music of quality. If a lost symphony of Brahms were found and presented as a new piece today, I have no doubt whatsoever that it would be dismissed in some quarters as “elevator music” or called “meandering” by reviewers who don’t recognize a clear sonata form in a long-form musical argument any more and just want to quickly find out “what it is about,” for a quick, pithy article. We can see a parallel to this in the graphic arts today, where technique has often become secondary to message, much to its detriment, in my opinion. Of course there are exceptions to this trend.
- Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Barber, and many others like them from around the early 20th century (Delius, de Falla, Griffes, Holst, Glière, etc.) are role models for my work, though mine sounds very different from theirs, even as their styles sound different from each others’. Each had a unique artistic voice, but they did have in common an essentially melodic, narrative style and a mastery of tonal craft and form. They are my role models, because, collectively, they proved that well-written, new tonal music — yet in a personal, original voice and by no means merely derivative of the 19th century — could continue to be viable as an option for composers, not only in the midst of their own, early-20th century Modernist era, when it was supposedly passé, but today. Indeed, many of those supposedly passé works are still played and have outlived the ones that were supposed to have superseded them; and I believe history could repeat, and is already repeating, itself in this respect, if you compare the number of ongoing live performances of great tonal film music with already forgotten classical music that was never played again. Tonality remains an infinite well-spring that only requires imagination and craft to tap into. The unspoken problem is that composing well enough in a traditional style, that is, at the former classical standard of quality, is far easier said than done and has become something of a lost art. I believe a renaissance of this level of truly classical-worthy craft and training is overdue, which could be called a “new traditionalism,” if I had to give it an “ism.” I see no reason, in theory, that truly great tonal craft cannot be attained once more, and that great new traditional, classical composers like the ones listed above cannot once more arise, phoenix-like, from the current scene. They will have to be people who love the act of composing music and the craft and years of thankless hard work more than they love adopting the identity of “being a composer” by any expedient short cuts. I do not imagine this renaissance will ever really occupy more than a small place at the table in the current scene, but who knows.
- My goal is also to write emotionally and spiritually engaging music that invites many repeated hearings and performances, not just one or two. To really have longevity, music must perpetuate and “sell” itself, due to its own innate qualities and out of the genuine initiative of others. It has been my experience that if people genuinely want to hear and play it and are emotionally moved by it, then it will do its own networking and exponentially spread itself (for example, keep expanding rather than declining in its number of online listeners) through word of mouth, both to listeners and performers. It should draw those performers who are total strangers to me, not only those performers who are my friends or students doing me a professional favor, which is often the case and ought to be a red flag to composers. A merely “interesting” piece, perhaps fantastically orchestrated or with a virtuoso soloist, may earn one somewhat appreciative hearing by an audience and even get a big applause for the performers, just once, from that audience, and may even win a Grammy. But in my opinion, this is very much like people visiting a fascinating curiosity shop. That is, most of that one-time audience, however fascinated by novelty once, usually feels no need to hear that piece again, and in real numbers, pretty much no one buys the recording. No one feels the need to visit a Ripley’s museum a second time, once seen, as interesting as it may have been to see one time. You’ve been there, done that. Compare this with the pieces in the repertoire you love like a dear friend and that you hope you will hear many times for the rest of your life, and with books and movies you want to read and see again and again. More on this below.
- I appreciate that it is the valid and express intention of some artists to disturb their audience. That is simply not my own vocation, because so many people today are already disturbed and look to music for healing and hope. Most do not drive to a concert hall eagerly anticipating a soundtrack to their personal Dark Night of the Soul. But if any do, and if any composers wish to write it for them, they are certainly welcome to do so. This is only to say that I do not wish to write it. I do believe that, in the course of its narrative arguments, my music can and should speak at some moments with strong dramatic tension, provided it is not gratuitous ugliness but rather part of a discernible dramatic context that makes sense, or, in short, “tells a story.” Dissonance and dramatic tension are relative to the prevailing language of the piece and do not have to sound like a plane crashing into a junkyard to make their point. Likewise, randomly getting louder (or musical shape alone) without the context of a discernible narrative does not of itself make a genuine dramatic climax. That only results from the development of ideas and characters that the listener was able to follow aurally through a musical argument.
- This leads me to add that listeners continually cite to me one or all of three basics of listenable music they still find missing in much new music: The first is that even today, most listeners still generally do not wish to hear too high a proportion of abrasive sounds in music without enough relief, be they timbral noises, excessively gratuitous volume, or (especially) unrelenting harmonic and fully chromatic dissonances with no discernible dramatic context, and will not seek out a second hearing. Second, a memorable melody, motive, or idea, in the end and as a matter of historical fact, has been the main thing that has sorted out which works of the past have lived on from those that haven’t. I really don’t see that this has changed or will change, yet there are so many brilliantly orchestrated works now that are forgettable because they are utterly lacking in memorable melody. It does not need to be a tonal, romantic-era tune, either. From Vivaldi’s Seasons to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, there are memorable melodies in many styles. Works without melody might have other good qualities, certainly, but just don’t have the same shelf life. Third, music that does not connect with and move people emotionally in some way, but is merely “interesting” has little chance of living on. I hasten yet again to add that if a composer doesn’t care about tolerable dissonance levels, melody, or writing emotional music people want to hear again, then fine for him or her. I do care about these, on all three counts.
- I try to write music with the performers first in mind, not only the audience, and give them music that lies well and idiomatically for their instruments or ensembles. Such music should feel grateful to play and provide reasonable technical challenges that make good musical sense to them to spend hours learning. Performers’ time is valuable. They are not the lab rats upon which composers do musical experiments; they are respected collaborators. For example, I do not give them so-called irrational rhythms to spend hours learning, only for them to discover at rehearsal that the part is covered up by other instruments. My music should have expressive potential they can personally bring to life with a sense of ownership and pride as co-creators. It should be music they feel good about programming, knowing their own efforts will be all the more enjoyed and appreciated by their audiences as a result. It is music that showcases their strengths, and in a way I see it as my job to make them look good, usually using the idiomatic techniques they have perfected over years, not tinkering around with extended techniques for their own sake that amount to sound effects or make the players look silly. It should also feel to them that the composition is making a contribution to the important body of literature written for their instrument or ensemble, and that by playing it, they too are sharing in making that contribution.
- In an era of musical eclecticism and collages that mix several styles in the same composition, I desire for my music to speak with one clear, unified style and voice — my own. I do not use isolated quotations of other works or styles that can break the spell of the narrative by switching or mixing styles in the same piece. Such postmodern references (“art about art” instead of “art about life”), are too prone to create a self-conscious kind of listening that I believe emotionally distances the listener and, for me, represent a kind of crisis of faith. I want listeners to be able to believe in and enter vicariously into the story-line of my work and lose themselves in it, as they would in a coherent, consistent fairy tale world like, say, Tolkien’s. To illustrate, a car can be seen accidentally left parked in the background of a 14th-century horseback battle scene in the movie Braveheart, and that’s what I mean by breaking the spell. Musical quotations and eclectic mixtures of other styles act like that car. Only if listeners can consistently enter and spend time in a unified musical world, truly care about and identify with its characters’ struggles and victories, and only if they have been touched along the way by something beautiful, will they desire to return to that world and hear the work again and again. I think the same is true of films or novels. A novel or a film we return to is one that has made us in some way truly care about or even love its story or its characters the first time, and want to spend more time with them.
- I would like for my work to serve in a way as an “ambassador” for classical music that leads so many listeners of today who don’t know classical music at all (or very little) to be drawn to discover the great historic treasury of classical music. In this age when many people listen exclusively to short popular songs with a vocalist, I would like for them to discover that longer, instrumental music can be a gratifying and soul-edifying component of a balanced musical diet, too. Many don’t seem to know that orchestral music is not the exclusive province of film sound tracks but can stand alone and indeed existed long before film was invented. I am thankful to films for essentially preserving orchestral music in the ears of the public; I would just like to get a few more people back into the concert hall or listening to classical recordings, too. Many are buying film soundtrack recordings, as great as some of them are in their own right, unaware of the far more vast storehouse of also-great symphonic works which inspired those soundtracks.
- We composers perhaps tend to assume that music history is on some kind of chronological trajectory that is analogous to say, progress in the medical field, which has evolved to be gradually “better and better.” We like to imagine that we are somewhere in that stream and might hope to have our own place in music history, each in our turn, or even on the leading edge of musical “progress.” Therefore, some of us imagine that only Modernist and Postmodernist techniques are currently sophisticated enough and historically aware enough to qualify as “new music.” But nothing could be further from the truth! Music is not like medicine, which through science and technology has demonstrably improved; music is an art, not a science, and newer great works are not “better” than, or an improvement upon, older great works. (Such an idea seems congruent with a progressive, chauvinist view of history, generally, which sees our own age as superior in every respect to all previous ones, a common bias in our current culture.) But let’s compare two older works: No one now cares that Brahms was writing his “old-fashioned” clarinet/viola sonatas the same year Debussy wrote his hip “new” faun! From our time perspective now, we care only that both of them were writing great music. I will argue that if you just now wrote it, then it is literally “new” music, by definition, regardless of the style. It is what you write that, of itself, defines what is “new,” not whether it conforms to someone else’s dictates! Whatever you write IS “the music of our time.” Whatever you write now IS literally “contemporary music,” simply because you just wrote it! (I suspect that sometimes these coded phrases are intended to intimidate young composers into towing the party line.) Provided the music bears some sense of your unique musical personality, which only you would have written exactly that way, then it is new, because you are new, and there has never been anyone exactly like you, nor will there ever be again, who would have written or who would write it in just the way you did in every detail. Originality is found in that unique, personal musical voice and transcendent spirit in whatever style you write; it is not necessarily found in novelty for its own sake. And to be brutally honest, neither is it found in jumping on the latest band-wagon to copy someone else’s latest novelty, which hardly seems original. Searching for originality by doing away with the overtone series or tonal harmonic progression by the circle of fifths is like trying to find originality by doing away with the law of gravity. It reflects a misunderstanding of originality, as does tossing out your whole tradition and musical heritage in order to feel original. These things will always be with us naturally but can be made infinitely fresh with imagination and one’s personal interpretation of them. If you bake a fresh croissant using an old classic recipe, it is still “new food!” It is indeed “the food of our time” and “contemporary food,” because this is the croissant that just came hot out of the oven, made with flour from new wheat, using a timeless recipe. You don’t just look at it and remark with condescension that, too bad, you cannot eat it, because it looks very much like a derivative croissant made generations ago — No, you eat it and say “yum!” because it is fresh and new. You experience it sensually NOW. And with a new piece of music in an “older” style, you likewise relish it aurally. In music, there really is neither “old” nor “new” in the sense of the medical field, only “timeless” or “fashionable,” and a work may be both or may be either or neither of those two. History will sort out timeless quality from mere fashion and from the pressures we may feel exerted upon us by the purveyors of fashion, if we don’t conform to it. History has not always been kind to the fashionable, nor one’s contemporaries always kind to the timeless, but history is kind to the timeless. That’s why young Debussy’s “more advanced” faun has not superseded and replaced old-man Brahms’ “out-of-date” sonatas written during the very same year, not in the way that antibiotics have replaced leeches in the medical field. Today, we can see that both of those composers’ works are eternally contemporary, which is to say, timeless. Anyone can still compose eternally timeless music today in any style, if he or she can write great or even very good music with some transcendent musical personality in that style. But in any case, I’m not talking about mimicking just one past style era or composer, because composers have many influences. If their own voice blends various elements of several of those influences, they can trust that it will be a unique synthesis, and therefore personal and original. And finally, if a composer can write a truly excellent and beloved piece of music, all of these questions tend to go out the window; people simply won’t care when it was written, they will just be happy that it was written and will relish it like a fresh and delicious croissant. Concerns over chronological placement or over being derivative tend to be raised only when the music is not excellent in craft and not beloved in spirit. The problem with some neo-tonal works is not that they are neo-tonal but simply that they are poorly written. That does not mean that great neo-tonal works cannot once again be written, as I have stated above, and that is what I am trying to do.
- With the previous paragraph in mind, I do not personally aspire to write music for other composers or sophisticates or reviewers, in any case. I write it for God, myself, my performers, and the audience. I do care whether my music lives on beyond me, not for my own ego and fame, but to enrich and leave the world a more beautiful place than I found it. Whether it will do so or not remains to be seen, of course. (At this writing I have not yet left the world!) I appreciate that some composers don’t care in what state they leave the world, at least musically, and that’s their choice. Indeed, with no disrespect meant to the deceased, I have known some very respected, so-called big-name composers, most being ivy-league professors of composition, now gone, whose music has already died along with them. (Ironically, even the “biggest” names among them were always completely unknown to the general populace, a telling statistic itself. I think this fact needs to be fully disclosed to impressionable students, to whom we often convey a falsely “mainstream” image for music that possibly belongs to the tiniest, least known, most marginalized, fringe of a musical genre, like a tiny religious cult that tells its members that only they are going to heaven.) The work of these never-known and already-forgotten composers has now been replaced on concerts by that of a younger generation of ambitious new-music composers, who seem to me equally likely to be forgotten and replaced by yet another generation, in due course. Why? Because, like the composers they replaced, their music is still simply too arcane, weird, lacking in melody, lacking in an emotional connection, and displeasing to most educated and cultured classical music lovers. I’m afraid the hard truth is that to most classical audiences this new, so-called accessibility still sounds like “a Halloween concert,” as one woman so succinctly put it, who was seated next to me at what most of us composers would call a pretty accessible concert (it was in April, not October). We cannot continue to blame the ignorance of the audience for this! The music itself has clearly engendered its own obscurity. Classical radio stations will not even play it in regular programming, knowing that almost every listener will turn to another station within the first minute. I regard the fact that my recent recordings are getting lots of classical, prime-time radio play nationally as evidence that stations are not simply biased against playing all new music, only against playing new music that they know almost everyone will dislike and turn off.
- Last, but by no means least, and in spite of all relativistic, sociological attempts to wish it away, I must add that in principle I do still believe in something like a canon of great works or a standard repertory, and for me this fact may be “the elephant in the room” in all of the above discussions. With so many new works performed only once, or a few times at best, but never brought back after their initial run, there have been far too few pieces of so-called classical repertoire added to our own culture’s treasury. Yes, other cultures also have their great works. We can all take pride in our heritages and in many wonderful and inspiring world cultures, with their own wonderful canons. The point is not at all to pit one culture against another, as some wrongly seem to imagine to be implied by the word “canon.” The real point is that some percentage of music in any culture, can be potentially, inherently great, not merely because of arbitrary, relativistic, subjective opinion or cultural conditioning, but because it is so well-written in that style. Its self-authenticating, coherent, and beautiful properties are a matter of objective truth that stands independent of the listener. Yes, it also takes acculturation and appreciation on the part of the listener to perceive all that great works have to offer, but the works themselves are still intrinsically “great,” whether appreciated or not. Can I prove it in a court of law? Can I prove that a sunset is beautiful in a court of law? No, but in the court of natural law we all know it is. Can I prove that a piece of music is “beautiful”? No, not using the currently convoluted, relativistic, semantic arguments over the meaning of that word. (Yes, in one sense ugliness can be beautiful, but now we are just toying with words to be clever. Such persons belong in a forest of falling trees that make no sound or in a classroom proving to impressionable young students that two plus two can equal five.) I only know that people in many countries who have not consulted with one another keep writing and telling me that one or more of my compositions are “beautiful” and moved them, and I trust that in that fact, simply at face value and without needing to deconstruct the word out of existence and out of use. Moreover, I trust that beauty can and should still be one goal of composition, as a matter of objective truth, and I believe the word (and the music) should be brought back; at least it is my own goal. Can we say which great work is greater than another great work? Usually not, because it is often an apples-and-oranges comparison, but we can enjoy a friendly debate over our favorites among the greats. I may never succeed in contributing anything to that body of great repertoire, but I am pointed in the direction of trying my best to do so, and for me, that is at least a worthwhile goal. We have been called a “cut-flower civilization,” with the flowers of the past culture in a vase, still appearing deceptively to be alive but doomed to wither soon, because they are no longer connected to the sources of soil and roots of a living plant. I don’t know to what extent this analogy may apply to new classical music. For me, postmodernism has produced little or nothing of its own that is truly great but has survived parasitically by reassembling the genius of previous generations into clever collages. Perhaps the loss of traditional training in composition (as well as in studio art) or simply the ivory-tower culture that, to this day, still discourages many composition students from learning and applying traditional tonal, narrative techniques, is the missing “soil.” Some will argue that it is simply the case that the flowers of film music and popular music now occupy the garden instead of classical music, and therefore all is perfectly fine in the garden, even if different. I have heard any number of people postulate that film music is “the new classical music” and that so-called contemporary classical music is already essentially dead, having marginalized itself out of existence. Orchestras are programming live performances of film music more and more to fill the vacuum of any new classical repertoire their audience can really fall in love with. I still believe, even so, that this does not preclude our own new classical flowers from re-emerging and taking an important place in the garden once again, too, if they are beautiful and not weeds. I believe there should also be a place for the extended musical forms of the former symphonic tradition, like musical novels, with music that never had to match what was on a film screen or be interrupted into shorter “cues,” however poetic they may be, by scene changes or dialog. There can, of course, sometimes be longer cues in a film, like the “end credits,” which could potentially employ longer symphonic forms. Regardless, I simply enjoy writing music out of my own pure imagination, without having to match what’s on a film. If someone wants to use it in a film later, fine.
That concludes my list of goals for my own work, and why I aspire to them. Thanks for your patience and time in reading it all. I want to be clear that as strong as my opinions may be, and as much as they may of necessity have been framed in contradistinction to other views, they are not meant as a manifesto against others, personally, or to dictate what other composers’ goals ought to be, only to explain what I believe my own goals ought ideally to be, if I can live up to them. I keep working toward living up to them. I have many good friends among other composers who disagree, and there are many whose skill at what they do is strong. I like them as people and respect their hard work and professional tenacity. They must also do what they believe in doing, according to their own mission statement and whether or not it agrees with mine, of course. I think some composers know full well that they are on a more lonely path than the more mainstream one I have outlined and chosen, and I have said several times here that if they are prepared to make that choice in search of their vision, so be it. For me, to continue writing contemporary classical music that almost no one honestly wants to hear would have felt too much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.