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.
- 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 tune here or there, or of writing a short, accessible “film cue,” as some may dismiss it, but of making an extended, developmental, narrative formal argument, complete 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 write music in a style that only a tiny percentage of the populace can comprehend or get anything out of hearing. Ironically, when such works are programmed, one notices nowadays, more and more and at every level, a great “bait and switch.” The PR and graphic ads have become slicker and with more sensational claims of importance and interest, using fantastic or provocative visual imagery and enticing words and program descriptions to sell tickets to concerts of music that almost no one actually likes when they have bought a ticket and finally hear it! I have gone from concert to concert and disappointment to disappointment in search of musical craft. It might even be said in some cases that the advertising has become part of the work. Or, fantastic multi-media effects, a message about the environment or about some injustice are used to prop up music that no one would care to hear a second time. Great poetry and literature serve to sell tickets to horrible-sounding art songs or opera. In some cases, it can sound as if clever marketing and branding and cultural associations have formed the main substance and focus of the creative act, with musical craft as an afterthought. If that is what someone wishes to do, it is certainly their prerogative. But as a statement of my own goals, this state of affairs is not what I hope to perpetuate as a composer.
- 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 listeners might even fall in love with it and want to hear it over and over for years, as they do the great historic works. Such music should, ideally, elicit not merely an emotional response on the surface but some transcendent perception that speaks to the soul of the interior human person. One of the most gratifying things I’ve seen in a published review of my recent CD (“The Sea Knows”) is the statement, “This is one album that you’ll get years of listening pleasure out of.” Even though it may be true that some emotional music can become banal or trite, I do not believe, as some seem to suppose, that it therefore forbidden for any new classical music now to touch the emotions at all.
- 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, and that by playing it, they too are sharing in making that contribution.
- 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. However, I do not want such tension to sound random or gratuitous but to make sense in a beautiful, compassionate, and profound dramatic context or a narrative musical argument that still, by the end, leaves the listener feeling ennobled, enriched, and somehow encouraged for having heard the work as a whole, just as the great classics do — in short, to “tell a story.” There are two fundamentals that seem to have been lost in the effort to reinvent classical music. The first is that most listeners simply do not want 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 a tune, usually ends up on the ash heap of history. Classical “new music” circles (some in the ivory tower and some out of it) have become so inbred and erudite that they have lost sight of these two simple fundamentals. They create all kinds of ways to entertain and engage the audience one time at a concert, be it with humor, with a relevant and important political statement, with fantastic titles and extensive program notes about what supposedly inspired the creation of the work, or with fascinating new timbres and multi-media effects. And that’s fine for one hearing, as a kind of “curiosity corner,” but in my observation, almost no one feels they need to hear such compositions again, any more than they feel the need to visit Ripley’s museum a second time, once they’ve seen it, and as interesting as it may have been to see one time.
- 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 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 (e.g., as they do in Tolkien’s). Only if they can enter into such a world 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 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 only to popular songs with a vocalist, I would like for them to discover that instrumental music can be a gratifying component of a balanced musical diet too, and that orchestral music is not the exclusive province of films but can stand alone and indeed existed long before film was invented.
- Finally, 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; it is an art, not a science, and older great works are not “better” than newer great works. No one now cares that Brahms was writing his “old” 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. 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 one of those two. History will sort out timeless quality from fashion and from the pressures we may feel exerted upon us by fashion, if we don’t conform to it. So, I aspire simply to write great music in any style I want, but I write it for God, myself, my performers, and my audience, not for other composers. Without meaning to be uncharitable to the dead, I am old enough now to have known a good number of big-shot, prize-winning composers of great imposing and intimidating personas, now deceased, who wrote for other composers, that is, according to the fashion of expectations, and unfortunately their work has already died along with them. In their lifetime, their music was mostly performed by musicians they knew or who were part of their cult of personality or who wanted their supposed importance by association. Now both they and their sophisticated circle have passed on, and there is, in some cases, practically no one left who wants to play their music — and even fewer who care to hear it, on its own merits. 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. Therefore, I am most grateful that total strangers, both to me and to those who know me, are finally starting to contact me out of the blue during my lifetime, wanting to play my music and that thousands of listeners are listening to it multiple times on streaming online sites like Spotify. If they didn’t, it might be a red flag that my music is not selling itself, on its own, and will not outlive me. I don’t have an imposing personality, in any case, so I can only hope that a more gentle personality can contribute to posterity and to the repertoire something timeless, too. People did not wake up on the morning of January 1, 1600 and pronounce, “Now we begin the Baroque era in music.” Only much later does history sort out these rough demarcations, understanding that so-called style eras always overlap. It feels, therefore, naive to pronounce that one is representing a style era, whether new or old, or in coded, exclusionary language like “the music of our time” (i.e., only Modernist and Postmodernist styles need apply for this grant or festival). All a true artist can do, I think, is try to create timeless, excellent work with universal human and spiritual qualities in whatever style feels personally genuine and gratifying.