Musical Philosophy

Not a few academic eyebrows have been raised in recent years about the fact 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 as concisely as possible, for those who care to know.
It appears to me that many composers of contemporary classical music today have some general concept behind their work, which can be cited to summarize what it is about. For example, a composer might be known for creating a hybrid merger of two certain styles or musical traditions, or might be known for championing the environment or some social cause, for creating eclectic collages over a minimalist background, or for using multi-media technology. I like to joke that my music, by contrast, is utterly conventional and without interest! I suppose it can be summarized musically as neoromantic, narrative, melodic, and tonal. But this is without any extra-musical emphasis; it is written simply for listening, to be beautiful, or (I hope) at times thrilling or sublime. Without any other innovation or clever concept to justify my work, I can only hope to live by the sword of good craft and not die by the sword of bad craft — melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, and form. My forms are classical and strongly organized, but often long-breathed or discursive in the manner of older symphonic movements, or, in literary terms, like a novel. For some modern ears, something like a 15-minute sonata form can present a challenge, unless they can recall that old-fashioned way of unhurried listening or reading on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Indeed, I am orienting these comments toward my desire to write music that one actually wants to listen to for enjoyment, as opposed to music that one respects but doesn’t really care to actually listen to. For example, there is some well-written music for the concert hall that I think would work really well in some kind of scary movie, but I don’t want to sit and listen to it in the way I listen for enjoyment to, say, a Brahms symphony or Daphnis and Chloe.
  • Where has classical music “arrived”?
    • Although it uses impressive PR and has an academic imprimatur to create a mainstream appearance, especially to students, the “contemporary” classical genre has, in actuality, become so marginal and minuscule that by now it has virtually disappeared as a percentage of listeners to all genres of music — half the width of a hairline on the pie chart. Its most “famous” composers’ names are almost completely unknown outside of university composition departments, even to most classical listeners. It seems to go unnoticed, or has been accepted as a new normal, that concerts of this music often draw only around thirty people in halls built to seat 300 to 1,000 people, and that’s with free admission! Any other kind of concert would have been canceled. By painting such a harsh-sounding reality, I truly do not mean to be harsh in tone, and I take no pleasure in saying it. These observations are not meant to personally denigrate the existence and heroic efforts of its few earnest practitioners. Many are local students and their friends who do try to make a go of it, increasingly of late in public spaces like art museums, complete with wine and cheese. Those may be warmhearted experiences, as events on a personal level for handfuls of people, and bravo to them. It is possible to occupy this tiny space happily below the radar, if it is meaningful to do so and all parties are willing — and why not, if they wish to? Likewise, a Capella choral music now is its own world and doing better (at least in live concerts), because their new works, while in my view not enduring masterpieces, have to be relatively pleasing to be singable, at least in an ambient, haunting style. (There is only so much ambient, haunting music that can be done before this trend plays out, perhaps.) I want to emphasize at the outset that any arguments I may make against the contemporary instrumental genre are directed only at the genre, the musical style itself, and that as it relates to my own aesthetic goals. No criticism is meant of its composers, many of whom are my friends and can certainly write whatever they please.
    • But the other side of this coin is the concert hall in which most of the audience groans as they must endure some ugly or incomprehensible academic piece in order to get to the beautiful one they came to hear. And if a coin had three sides, the third would be the elephant in the room, that nothing is being added to the treasury of the standard repertoire, because no one cares to play or hear most of this arcane music a second time. While I have personal affection for my friends and students in the first kind of concert described above, as a human event, the music one hears there admittedly sounds, let’s say, well below masterpiece level and just as unlikely to enter the repertoire and be heard again as the academic music in the second scenario. So the essential fact remains that, outside of the ivory tower, the contemporary classical genre has gone from a mainstream and beloved genre (e.g., Copland, Barber) to a genre on life-support, at best.
    • In fact, it feels increasingly dishonest to me to portray to impressionable college students that this now-almost-completely unknown and largely disliked music represents the current state of classical music, as if it were just the latest point on the same historical thread as the great works of the standard repertoire. If it really is on that thread, then classical music has surely become like Tolkien’s character Sméagol, who used to be a normal hobbit but has at last devolved into the isolated, deformed Gollum, saying “my precious” to its own weird music in a forgotten cave. (I do not mean to compare the composers as people to Gollum, but the genre.) Or, you could say this brand of classical music, while busily rearranging its proverbial deck chairs, has become as out of touch with reality as a tiny religious cult whose thirty-five members sincerely believe that they alone possess the truth. In this case, it is the “truth” of how “the music of our time” should sound or does sound. Who exactly is the “our” of “our time”?! Who gets to decide who “our” is? Can the phrase really be owned and dictated by the fiat of a tiny, self-appointed group? Practically no one else beyond this nearly non-existent fraction of a percentage even knows or believes it to be the music of their time or has ever even heard any of it. Unless it is on a concert broadcast, classical radio stations normally refuse to program it — It is clearly not the music of their time, either. They know that almost every classical music lover will turn to another station within the first minute. I regard the fact that my recent recordings are getting classical radio play as evidence that these stations are not simply biased against playing all new classical music, only against playing new music that they know almost everyone will dislike and turn off. This is a genre of music on a suicide mission. If it is really on that same train track of classical music history as the great works were on, I can only hope that we are not yet at the train’s destination but only passing through some obscure tunnel and will come out into the sunshine again.
  • Can tonal music still be viable?
    • I was also composing erudite and “award-winning” music as a graduate student and young professor of composition until I realized that I was never listening to my own music later, and so why should anyone else want to? I was leading a double life. My own tastes as a listener actually ran in a more mainstream direction, and so I finally worked toward writing music true to my own tastes — simply put, music that I would want to hear if I were sitting in the audience myself, or listening to classical radio, rather than music to please academic expectations. I am not advocating for bad tonal music, though — rather for a return to great tonal craft at the level of quality and originality of the early 20th-century symphonists, and I work toward that end. 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 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 already supposedly passé, but today and in perpetuity. Many of these early 20th-century tonal works that were considered passé at the time have indeed long outlived their Modernist counterparts that were supposed to have superseded them. Few academicians seem to realize that the same thing is happening again now — As a statistic, most orchestras are already programming film music more than new contemporary-style orchestral pieces, and no doubt some of it will live longer.
    • I believe that this musical Gollum can be redeemed and the tradition of beauty and excellence rescued. If new classical music is to have any kind of robust future, I believe it will have be reinvented yet again, upon the postmortem of postmodernism. Many arts management people and a continual flow of short-lived but fresh, young new-music ensembles, like wannabe Phoenixes arising out of the grant money, are now discussing this need for change, too, but when they do, it appears to me that their solution is not to fix the music but to market and re-package it in new ways of “reaching out.” I have mentioned above that it can be perfectly fine to hold a concert in a museum, when a tiny, sophisticated audience (usually friends of the composer and players) knows in advance what the music is likely to sound like and genuinely wants to hear it. But I have seen other instances where promoters think that classical music can be saved by reaching out to a wider audience in alternate venues, multi-media installations, art and poetry and dance collaborations, social media campaigns, flash mobs, and even hipper or sexier photos and concert attire and hair-do’s than last year’s. They still don’t seem to realize that this will not save classical music, because the music itself is the problem. An unsuspecting person gets to the venue all excited by the PR, balancing his wine and cheese on his lap, and then when the music finally begins, it sounds just as horrible to most people as it did in the concert hall! Last April a woman in the seat next to me whispered in my ear, “Is this a Halloween concert?” (And no, I’m sorry, but this music sounds nothing whatsoever like the elaborate description they just gave of a redwood tree or of echoes from beyond the moon, about which it was supposedly written.) I believe it is the music itself that needs to change, not the venue or clothing, and return to timeless musical principles that have been forgotten, if it is to get beyond the hairline on the pie chart.
  • Is it possible now to write masterpieces of music that people do like and still have them be considered “classical”?
    • First, it is for me a matter of social responsibility, inclusion, and social justice that I cannot in good conscience write music that almost no one likes, or at least does not like enough to want to hear a second time. Anyone is perfectly free to write unlikable music privately or for a few friends, but if I am going to put music on a public concert and advertise for the public to come, and charge admission, then I want to feel (a) that I have not duped them into coming to something I know they won’t like, and (b) that it is actually enriching the lives of a large percentage of people in the audience, and beyond. I believe, in principle, that it is possible to write truly great and fully “classical” music, of no secondary or commercial order whatsoever, that can be understood by more people without pandering or dumbing it down or making it sugary or banal. It was done for centuries, after all. Yet in some minds, the more people who like it, the less genuinely classical and the more naive and unsophisticated it must be! I have seen this idea used as an unspoken cattle prod to keep students toeing the party line. There is room for eccentric visionaries, yes, but, contrary to current opinion, it is not required for every single composer to be a futuristic visionary in order to be “classical”! It only required to write excellent music and to have a personal vision. Far fewer genuine futuristic visionaries exist than now seem to be posing as one, anyway. I would like to say to students that joining a modern composers society, composers forum, contemporary composers collective, or whatever you wish to call it; or jumping on the bandwagon of someone else’s novelty in order to become part of some visionary movement; or imagining you are innovative for using the extended techniques that have already been used for almost a hundred years now; or aspiring to be seen as hip and trendy or part of a new generation’s movement, rather than aspiring to what is great, will not make you a futuristic visionary or even original, just another copy cat following in the soon-to-be-forgotten footsteps of the previous, already-forgotten generation of composers, who were once as you are now. Yet originality is in you! But you must search more deeply within yourself, not in movements or groups, to find your own voice.
    • Speaking now in regard to culture generally, it is not only a matter of the audience liking a piece of music that concerns me, but the loss of a formerly great craft that many listeners mourn, even as we mourn the loss of the great artistic techniques seen in former masterworks of representational painting and sculpture. As a result of this vacuum of great craft — and please pardon a bit of a tangent, but it is increasingly frequent now — Any number of dilettantes and apprentice-level beginners, some trained in performance but not composition, some who barely even read music and have no idea how many hours it takes (or how) to prepare a set of properly notated and cued orchestra parts (to give just one example), now get away with proclaiming themselves to be “a composer” and putting up a web site about it. You could never just proclaim yourself to be, say, a dentist, and open up a dentist’s office, but it seems you can become a composer by just saying you are one. Never mind all those pesky degrees or years of training in counterpoint, orchestration, analysis, and form. I think this is possible because any clever person can assemble a collage over a minimalist background or create crossover and improvised experiments with pop and world music styles with minimal notation skills and without needing any traditional craft in composition. I don’t mean this as a personal criticism, though. Who can blame them for stepping into the void? I have no animosity toward theses people for doing the best they can do and having fun, or for a performer composing the occasional piece for a hobby, or a piano teacher composing beginner piano solos for kids. Anyone has a right, honestly representing himself as an amateur, to try to compose something, to cook, or to paint a water color. Rather, I am making an observation about the state of music itself. The graphic arts are in the same boat. Few now can paint a portrait like Caravaggio or Rubens or sculpt like Michelangelo. This is the great, old, and sadly lost craft, and if you will, the ancient deep magic of a past civilization. But must we now passively accept that these were miracles only for a distant, mythical age? Is there any good reason great craft cannot once again return, if we seek all over again as a culture to learn how? That is what I have been seeking and continually seek to do.
  • The importance of narrative, melody, and emotion in music.
    • As in visual art, we seem now to be in a period where concept is as important or even more important than craft. “Absolute” music without “programmatic” concept, on the other hand, requires what used to be called musical “invention”, using a purely musical imagination, for example thematic variation and development. The emphasis on concept, if the music is not great, often results in music that one doesn’t need to hear a second time, since one has understood the concept in one hearing. 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. I desire to write music that people want to hear again and again, purely for the music. And why would they? Four timeless things mainstream classical listeners still crave and will return to a composition again and again to hear are: 1) memorable melody; 2) something that speaks to the emotions; 3) avoidance of gratuitous dissonance — but they do want some musical tension in a meaningful context of 4) dramatic narrative that makes sense and “tells a story” and grips our attention from beginning to end, not a purposeless string of musical ideas. This last one may take decades to master, even for a true composer.
    • I want listeners to be able to vicariously enter the world of my compositions, which requires writing in a single unified style rather than using eclectic quotations from other styles. Such postmodern quotations and surprising shifts of style tend to break the spell of the drama, like an aside in a play or the parked car that can be seen accidentally left in the background in one scene of the film Braveheart. And while 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. (If someone wants to write and hear that, good for them; I am only saying that I do not.) A dramatic narrative does require tension at times, as in the “fight” music in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but dissonance and tension are relative to the prevailing language of the piece and can still have beauty, as in that piece. Music does not have to sound like a plane crashing into a junkyard or the screams of weird monsters and cats being tortured to make its point. Some composers’ ears have become so accustomed to dissonance that they have lost touch with what normal audiences regard as sufficient dissonance, like a hard-core gin drinker who can no longer tell that wine has any alcohol in it. The result is that most people feel information overload and tune it out. And contrary to popular belief, mere shape — just getting louder —  does not equate to a dramatic “climax”.  A true dramatic climax is the result of a genuinely audible character development woven through a clearly discernible musical argument toward their highest point of tension or crisis. If the basic musical idea is not memorable, one simply cannot hear that  it is being developed or transformed into a climax. All you hear is “getting louder,” and the emotional response you hoped for is not truly, dramatically engaged.
  • Writing music for the performers and for the audience, not for other composers.
    • I am conscious to write music that the performers themselves find idiomatic and gratifying to play and in which they feel like respected collaborators, rather than feel I am using them and their audience as guinea pigs for my self-indulgent experiments. They must feel that if a passage in their part takes a lot of time to master, it is not a waste of their time and is worthwhile rehearsing for hours to master it, because it is evident to them musically why it needs to be written that way, and it will be heard and not covered up by other instruments. I would also like my music to function as an ambassador to the public for instrumental music, generally, because so many people now listen exclusively to vocal popular songs and only know about and experience symphonic music as something in a film. Giving one’s full attention to an extended instrumental piece in the symphonic forms, and to instrumental music alone without film or lyrics, seems now to be a missing part of a balanced listening diet for many people.
  • Does art make “progress” like science? The timeless vs. the fashionable.
    • I do not believe music is like the sciences or medicine, where there is “progress” and things get better and better (for example, antibiotics are an improvement over leeches). A great 19th-century piece of music is not “an improvement” upon a great 18th-century piece, though they are different in style. It is therefore not required to write in a so-called contemporary style to be sophisticated, historically aware, up to date, or genuinely classical. 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 (and, in my opinion, unfortunate) bias in our current culture. But let’s compare two older composers: No one now cares that Brahms was writing his “old-fashioned” clarinet/viola sonatas the very same year Debussy wrote his hip “new” faun! From our perspective now, we care only that both of them were writing great music. Time will likewise erase such current comparisons. Originality is found in the unique personality and unique synthesis of influences that one brings to one’s work, whatever technique is used. I am not advocating for trying to clone one favorite composer’s style but for absorbing and internalizing the work of several favorite composers, so that the result is your own personal voice. That’s what each of them did, after all. Tonality is therefore potentially ever viable in perpetuity, but requires imagination and craft to do well. As with traditional representational painting techniques, mentioned above, this kind of craft is rarely taught or encouraged now. Many postmodernist composers are attempting to bring tonality back in some way, yes, but only succeed in bringing consonance back generally, because they cannot write a good melody and have either rejected or not mastered the skill of crafting a narrative musical argument. The problem with many of the new neo-tonal works, then, is not that they are neo-tonal but simply that they are poorly written, lacking not only great melody but sophistication in harmonic language, modulations that pull the ear forward, countermelodies, and so on. As I implied above, this does not, in principle, mean that great neo-tonal works cannot once again be written, with the will to learn how.
    • I propose that there actually is no such thing as “old and new” music but rather music is either “timeless” or “fashionable”. Timeless music can be written in any era, according to timeless principles of excellence and beauty; it may or may not conform to what is fashionable at the moment. I would rather write a timeless piece, even if some consider it passé. (Likewise, instead of “old” and “new” music, there is simply “well crafted” and “poorly crafted” music, and if it is well crafted and sounds great, who cares when it was written?) Besides, 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 have seen how these coded phrases are sometimes used to intimidate young composers once again into toeing the party line. 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 traditions and universals 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 of a croissant made generations ago — No, you eat it and say “yum!” because it is fresh and new and tastes good. You experience it sensually NOW. And with a new piece of music in an “older” style, you can likewise relish it aurally.
  • Is the idea of a “canon” of great works dead?
    • I do believe in and affirm the notion of a “canon” of great music, or I might say “canons”. This is not exclusive or limited to one musical culture or tradition, as some anti-canonists fear. Notice, I did not necessarily say “Western” canon, though that is the one I myself aspire to. Every culture, tradition, and style can have its canon of particularly excellent works, yes. Likewise, Jazz and Country music can each have their own separate canons. To compare one canon with another, or even two different genres within the same canon, like string quartets and opera, is usually an apples and oranges comparison. My point here, rather, is that, in principle, some works are excellent and deserve to be in their respective canon, and some are not and do not. Contrary to the prevailing relativism of our day, my position is that this excellence is a matter of objective truth, and it is not a matter of subjectivity or equal kindness toward all, where “everybody gets a trophy for participating.” Excellence and beauty are not “in the eye of the beholder.” They are in the thing beheld. Great works stand objectively excellent, whether or not someone is able to recognize it, and it may take some acculturation or training to see its excellence, it is true. Beauty cannot be proven in a court of law, but in all cultures the human race is hardwired to know many things, for example, that murder is wrong and that a sunset is beautiful, whether or not that beauty can be proven in court and whether or not someone is willing to acknowledge it. You can disagree that a sunset is beautiful, but you will be factually incorrect as a matter of absolute truth. There are certainly pieces of music that I do not personally enjoy, but I still acknowledge that they are great and deserve to be in the canon. All of this used to be known as plain common sense or “natural law.” At any rate, it is enough evidence and affirmation of objective beauty for me that people write me independently from many countries around the world and say that they found my work beautiful, and that thousands of people on six continents are repeat listeners of my work on the streaming services. Why is this important? Certainly not for my personal ego, but as a matter of principle. I do aspire to leave the world a more beautiful place than I found it. Yet in our circles, the word is almost never allowed, and the intelligentsia often seem embarrassed if anyone mentions beauty or emotion in music.
    • And once again, I believe that contemporary composers have largely been creating compositions that, while often written with care and detail, have been lacking in the qualities that make people want to play or hear them a second time, and so, for decades, we have not been contributing much to the treasury of great classical music that we call a canon or a standard classical repertoire. There still may be time to start doing so again, and it is at least my goal to try. If other composers, understanding all I have said here, nonetheless prefer a more lonely path, understood and enjoyed by few, and if they genuinely believe in the music they feel called to write, and if they want to exist artistically “happily below the radar,” as I put it at the start of this essay, then fine, I respect their right to pursue that. This is only a statement of my own goals. Like me, they have their own mission statement for their work, and once again, I do not mean for these remarks to be taken as any kind of personal animosity; many are my good friends, even if we disagree about music. Any human person has many qualities you can love and share empathy with, even if you disagree with them about music, or even about religion or politics. We are more than just those opinions. We all enjoy and laugh over a good meal with friends, we all love our children and pets and enjoy sports or a day at the beach. So I do not lay down any angry gauntlets or wish to spearhead any adversarial movements, nor am I “against” anyone as a person. I am only a composer plying his trade, and need to continue to strive to improve and to better live up to my own goals stated here. However, perhaps these remarks will be an encouragement and a kind of permission to those young artists, particularly in the university, who feel they are alone, like ugly ducklings, in their desire to write something beautiful and well crafted for the concert hall. To become a swan, though, is a hard road and cannot be accomplished instantly, just by wishing it, but only by decades of work and gradual improvement in craft, with the scores of the masters as your textbooks and teachers. You will probably not win many young composer awards for neo-tonal music and your music may even be put down by some. You do need to find the right school and the right teacher who actually knows and supports tonal craft, even if it means transferring to one. To invoke the medieval guild system, unless you are Mozart you are probably an apprentice now; upon graduation (even with a doctorate in composition) you will likely still only be a journeyman; and perhaps in another twenty years you will be a composer. My advice is: take the scenic route, and try to enjoy the journey patiently and without worry.

%d bloggers like this: