My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
- My goal as a classical composer for the concert hall is, most simply stated, to write music that I myself would want to hear if I was sitting in the audience or listening to classical radio in the car or at home. That means it must be true to my own genuine listening habits and tastes, not be in some separate “composing” compartment of my mind or academic research compartment. In so saying, I do recognize that other composers may genuinely believe in a mission to write music intended primarily for just one or two live performances in the concert hall, or music for aficionados of music too demanding, experimental, or inaccessible for the vast majority of people. That is simply not my own mission. I do find it remarkable that, in my observation, when they are on their own time, so many contemporary classical composers do not actually listen to the kind of music they write for others to have to sit through at concerts.
- Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Vaughan-Williams, Ravel, Barber, and others like them are role models for my work, though mine sounds nothing like any of theirs, nor theirs like each others’. Though each had a completely unique artistic voice, what they did have in common was an essentially melodic, narrative style and a great mastery of craft. They are role models, because, collectively, they proved that well-written, new tonal music — yet in a personal, original voice and not merely derivative — could continue to be infinitely viable as an option for composers, both in the midst of their own Modernist era and in today’s Postmodern classical milieu. Composing with traditional craft is far easier said than done, though, and I have labored for decades to learn to do it. It is not just a matter of having a string of tunes over a repeated figure, or of writing a short, accessible “film cue,” as some may dismiss it, but of making an extended, developmental, narrative argument in classical form with melodic invention, counterpoint, modulation, and harmonic sophistication — i.e., all the elements of great tonal craft.
- I feel a responsibility as a matter of social justice and social conscience to write music that contributes to the wider common good of society outside of the ivory tower. I believe music can exhibit full classical integrity of craft and still speak to a mainstream audience without being pandering or banal. It can be both respected and enjoyed by a wide range of listeners, from the most educated, acculturated, and musically sophisticated who perceive and understand a long, developmental structure, to ordinary listeners who are simply moved by beautiful sound and memorable melody. I cannot, in good conscience, claim to care about cultural enrichment for all and then write music in a style that only a tiny percentage of the musically elite can comprehend or get anything at all out of hearing. Ironically, such erudite music does try to sell itself to a wider audience through what might be called bait-and-switch marketing. Beautiful graphics and PR give the impression or make the outright claim that this music is at the forefront of classical music today, when, in real numbers, it is in the tiniest, marginal subcategory of classical music. Titles like Magic Forests Beyond the Celestial Realm promise an enchanting listening adventure, perhaps composed by the next great genius, until you finally hear it and discover that it sounds terrible and nothing whatsoever like the title! Likewise, in many cases music laden with every kind of compelling concept, literature, or environmental message simply does not live up musically to its concept.
- My goal is to write emotionally engaging music that invites many repeated hearings and performances, not just one or two. But it must perpetuate and “sell” itself, due to its own innate qualities and out of the genuine initiative of others who don’t even know me personally. Some total strangers might even fall in love with it and want to hear it over and over for years, as they do the great historic works. (If not, and if my only audience and my only performers year after year are my friends, perhaps that is a red flag that the music is not likely to outlive me.) Such music should, ideally, elicit not only an emotional response on the surface but some transcendent perception that speaks to the soul of the interior human person. People simply do not wish to hear music a second time (again, regardless of title or program notes) unless the sound of the music itself has in some way moved them or touched their emotions, and not just been “interesting” or clever. I do believe music can still be written that moves the emotions without being overly sugary or banal. “Interesting and clever” can earn one hearing of a piece, like visiting a kind of curiosity shop, but in my observation, almost no one feels they need to hear such compositions again, any more than they feel the need to visit a Ripley’s museum a second time, once they’ve seen it, as interesting as it may have been to see one time.
- I appreciate that it is the valid and express intention of some artists to disturb their audience. That is simply not my own vocation, as many people today are already disturbed and look to music for healing and hope. Yet, I do believe that, in the course of its narrative arguments, my music can speak at some moments with strong dramatic tension, provided it is not gratuitous ugliness but is part of a narrative, dramatic context that makes sense, or, in short, “tells a story.” There are two fundamentals that seem to have been lost in the Modernist and Postmodernist reinvention of classical music. The first is that most listeners simply do not wish to hear an entire composition of harsh sounds, be they timbral or harmonic. Art can be harsh (or contain tension, as I just put it), yes, but you can look away from a harsh painting as soon as you wish. However, because music happens through time, listeners are a captive audience who don’t get to look away, but often wish they could. The second fundamental, naive as it may sound to some, is that a good melody or a memorable musical motive or idea is, in the end, the main thing that has sorted out the works of the past that have lived on from those that haven’t. I don’t see that this has changed or will change. Even a beautiful ambience, without memorable melody or motive, usually ends up forgotten, and that has already included some very consonant minimalist works, as well.
- I try to write music with the performers 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 should 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 short, respect them. No matter how much of a big-shot you get to be, always treat and honor performers humbly, as if they are doing you a favor to learn and play your music, because they are.
- 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 or 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 (for example, as they do in Tolkien’s). Only if they can enter into such a 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.
- 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. For example, in this age where 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 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 some of them back into the concert hall or listening to classical recordings, too. They are buying film soundtrack recordings unaware of the vast storehouse of great symphonic works upon which those soundtracks were modeled.
- 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 cutting edge. 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; it is an art, not a science, and newer great works are not “better” than, or an improvement upon, older great works. No one now cares that Brahms was writing his “old” clarinet/viola sonatas the same year Debussy wrote his “new” faun, 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.” It IS literally “contemporary,” simply because you just wrote it! Provided the music bears some sense of a unique, personal voice, of a transcendent personality, that 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 be again. Originality is found in that unique musical voice and transcendent spirit in whatever style you write; it is not necessarily found in novelty for its own sake. Searching for originality by doing away with the law of gravity or the overtone series or tonal harmonic progression by the circle of fifths reflects a misunderstanding of originality; those things will always be with us in nature and can be infinitely fresh with one’s personal interpretation of them. In music, there is neither “old” nor “new” in the sense of the medical field, but 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 fashion, if we don’t conform to it. History has not always been kind to the fashionable, but it is kind to the timeless. That’s why Debussy’s “more advanced” faun has not superseded and “replaced” Brahms’ “old-fashioned” sonatas written during the same year. Both are eternally contemporary, which is to say, timeless.
- Finally, and with the previous point in mind, I do not personally aspire to write music for other composers or to care what other composers think about it or whether it seems fashionable to them (or to reviewers, either). I write it for God, myself, my performers, and the audience. I don’t join composer organizations and, over decades, have observed that neither new-music concerts or composer conferences are an effective way to launch a new piece into the repertoire. It is much more effective if the work is either on the performer’s own concert with other kinds of music or at a conference of performers of a certain instrument, where other performers can hear it. Without meaning to be uncharitable to the dead, I am old enough now to have known, as a younger man, a good number of big-shot, prize-winning composers of great imposing and forceful personas, now deceased, who wrote according to the fashion of academic expectations and who were performed mostly within the subculture of new music concerts. Unfortunately, now their work has already died along with them. In their lifetime, their music was mostly performed by musicians who were part of their cult of personality or wanted a part in their supposed importance, by association. Now both these composers and their sophisticated circle have passed on, and there is, in most cases, practically no one left who wants to play or to hear their music on its own merits. No longer new, it has now simply been replaced by the music of a new generation of young, aspiring, ambitious “new music” composers, now using today’s novelties, who seem to me just as likely to be forgotten and replaced by still younger composers, in their turn, because, just like the composers they replaced, their music simply remains too arcane to sustain itself, once the composer is no longer alive to personally sustain it by means of his or her own charisma. Great music that a critical mass of people actually want to hear tends to do its own networking, even after the composer is gone, by word of mouth. I do care whether my music lives on beyond me to enrich the culture and leave the world a more beautiful place than I found it, although I realize some artists don’t care if they do, and that’s fine for them.
That concludes my list of goals for my own work, and why I aspire to them. 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, this is 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 (at least ideally) to be, if I can live up to them. I keep working toward living up to them. Regarding my many good friends among other composers, and there are many whose skill at what they do is strong, I say vive la différence. Do what you believe in doing, according to your own mission statement.