My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
Here is a statement of my composing philosophy, which can be read in under ten minutes. For an abridged version, just read the blue parts in about three minutes.
First, my music can be described as Neo-traditional, roughly in the musical language of the early 20th-century symphonists. That is to say, I employ long, classical forms in a style that is melodic, tonal, and narrative. It is created for beauty and for enjoyable and serious listening. Simply put, I try to write classical music that I myself would enjoy and find moving, if I were sitting in the audience or listening to classical radio. It must match my own rather mainstream tastes as a listener, not exist in some separate academic or experimental compartment.
This is not to say, in today’s modern and postmodern climate, that my works represent a nostalgia or desire to go “backwards”. I was taught in school that traditional tonal music was only of the past and is no longer legitimate to be termed “classical”, and is now automatically to be deemed of a commercial or secondary order. I disagree with that, in principle, though I agree that second-rate tonal music is not classical. However, tonal, narrative music of fully classical integrity has always been, should be, and is still, viable. It can be perpetually fresh and non-derivative, but only if it is strongly crafted with imagination and a personal voice. Just look at the wide diversity of styles among such early twentieth-century tonal composers as Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Holst, Prokofiev, Delius, de Falla, and others. Certain works of Copland, Barber, Hanson, and other Americans could also be on that list. None of them sound like each other! Each has a still-fresh and personal voice, even though they worked concurrently with each other and with the early atonal Modernists (whom they have largely outlived) — just as I am working in the midst of my own Postmodern age.
The important criteria in music are not so much chronological — “old” or “new” — as they are substantive. That is to say, a piece of music can be either transcendent of its time and well crafted, or it can be dated, disposable, and/or poorly crafted. Unlike advances in science or medicine, newer in art does not necessarily imply an advance or an improvement. So, rather than old or new, I prefer to say that a piece of music is either “timeless” or “fashionable”. It is possible, but not necessary, for a piece to be both of those. Few realize that Brahms wrote his “old-fashioned” clarinet/ viola sonatas the very same year Debussy wrote his hip, new Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun! In this case, both composers’ works have lived on, because they were both great. Time has erased any cares whatsoever about which piece from that year was more fashionable or more cutting edge to those people. And so it will be in the future, looking back on our works.
One thing that feels “timeless” in music to me is a sense of narrative in its form. Storytelling has been a universal and timeless part of every human culture and historical age, and that seems somehow hard-wired into human nature. Narrative can have strong spiritual analogies to life goals and purposefulness of existence. So, I do think of myself as a storyteller in music. One thing that carries along a narrative in music is the so-called “long line,” a thread that can be followed through a piece, like riding a boat down a river. That often translates into line and melody. Even among the great composers, the works of theirs that keep getting played the most are, honestly, the ones with the most memorable melodies and not merely a pleasing ambience. Likewise, in my experience, it is a struggle to get much of an audible narrative quality without some kind of harmonic progression, pulling the ear toward intermediate and long-range tonal centers.
Second, I have a conviction, as a matter of social conscience, that I cannot personally compose music that I know only a few people will get something out of hearing, even among the relatively cultured audience that attends classical music concerts. A musical narrative requires some amount of tension at times, but music need not be weird, arcane, dark, or esoteric to deserve the name “classical”! It need not be distasteful to the vast majority of listeners to be classical, and it is not compulsory for every composer to be an eccentric, futuristic visionary! The true requirements are: sufficient artistic ability and a vision of some kind, but not necessarily one that is “ahead of its time,” whether due to extreme dissonance, extended techniques, eclecticism, or new multimedia technology. Being “of the future” was never a requirement of serious music till recently. And again, a better goal than current fashion would be a universal “timelessness”. It should be clear that I’m not advocating for “accessibility” for its own sake, or for dumbed-down, second-rate tonal music. Nor am I talking about today’s novelty acts and pop crossovers falsely marketed as classical, often by dilettante composers (expert performers though they may be). I’m sorry, but using a string quartet does not, of itself, make music classical, unless the music being played is actually classical; however, transcriptions of good popular music for string quartet can be really wonderful as pop music. Nor does gorgeous, expensive professional marketing or glamour photography make the music itself classical, nor is the person who creates and markets it a classical composer unless the music is actually classical, but of course people may still enjoy it, and that’s great. One cannot simply proclaim oneself to be a dentist and open a dentist’s office, but it seems that anyone can proclaim himself to be a classical composer. (Not only that, one can give a recital to a small audience in a couple of other countries and then proclaim oneself to be a “world renowned” classical composer, and people hosting the concert back in the U.S. will often reprint the phrase without question, hoping to draw more people, though the performer is neither playing classical music nor a trained composer, nor world renowned!) But truly great, genuinely classical tonal music, written by a genuine, professional classical composer with years of formal training in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, analysis, and developmental classical form, is not so expedient as these popular expressions. It is by far the most difficult kind of music to learn and to compose. Ironically, this most difficult form of composition can actually be the most accessible and nourishing. It speaks to a much larger, more mainstream classical audience than “contemporary music” has been reaching, and without pandering. After all, it was done for centuries, and people still go to concerts and listen to classical radio to hear those works. For example, the genius of Brahms lies partly in his having written the most serious kind of music that appeals to the neophyte and yet stands up to the scrutiny of the most learned, alike, each on his own level.
While film music does potentially also allow for strong craft and a great deal of beauty, at least in theory, this is often on the scale of poetry, that is, in shorter passages. This is simply because because, with some exceptions, the music must so often be interrupted by dialog or scene changes. Thus, it does not always lend itself as well to the long, novel-scale symphonic forms, with their epic developmental narratives. You wouldn’t usually get more than a few minutes into a movement of a Sibelius symphony, for example, before you had to cut away to something entirely different. Classical and film music, though cousins, like the novel and the poem, are usually two different art forms. Yet, there is already a repertoire of great 20th-century film music that has been assembled into longer suites and coherent medleys for use in the concert hall. This music, by such composers as Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, and many others, already seems likely to outlive most of its elitist Modernist classical counterparts that are rarely or never played any more. It is already being played more often by orchestras. I’m also thankful to film music simply for keeping the symphony orchestra sound alive in the ears of the public, because so many people listen exclusively to popular songs and only hear an orchestra when they watch a film. Many might otherwise not know what an orchestra sounds like.
Third, I am concerned that a new norm of low expectations has been established, as new works are now actually expected to be played only once or twice. Practically every performance is a “world premiere”, an ironic term, since it is usually never heard again elsewhere in the world. This is, honestly, because such works are usually merely “interesting”, at best, and do not move people to fall in love with them and want to hear them again. Almost no one seeks out and purchases the recording, as the minuscule recording sales statistics for this music verify — less than a hairline width on the pie chart, in comparison with other kinds of music. I take no pleasure in saying that the living composers we bring in to our universities and falsely portray to students as the most “famous” living composers are, generally, completely unknown outside of a handful of university music departments, even among classical listeners. Classical radio stations mostly refuse to play their music; in most cases these stations know that almost everyone will switch the station after thirty seconds. It is possible for sophisticated living composers, visiting among the ivory towers and new music conferences, to sustain an impression of importance through the sheer force of their personalities, but it’s hard to think of more than one or two of them, now gone, whose music is still being performed to any regular degree. All but one or two of the seventy-plus compositions that have won the Pulitzer Prize in Music have been completely forgotten and are never played. And all of this goes to the point that, as a culture, we have for decades been contributing almost nothing to what used to be regarded as the great treasury of a standard classical repertoire. It would seem to me a worthwhile goal to start at least trying to leave behind a body of mainstream work deemed worthy to contribute to that repertoire and thus to the positive encouragement and ennoblement of society and culture.
With today’s artistic emphasis on concept over technique, it is common for contemporary composers to have all sorts of fascinating and fantastical concepts and titles. A great deal of wonderful-sounding marketing and advance articles with slick photography assure us that it will be an extraordinary event, perhaps in a lovely museum setting with wine and cheese and the enticement of hearing amplified violin with exotic percussion! The only problem is that when you finally hear the music, I’m sorry to say, it just doesn’t sound very good to most people (to put it mildly). It is usually devoid any of memorable melody, and it sounds to most educated listeners like it would be better suited as underscoring for a science fiction film. As such, it does not stand up to being heard by itself, and the vast majority of educated classical listeners simply dislike it, whether openly or (often) secretly, and tolerate and clap for it only to be polite or to acknowledge the work the performers put into it. The performers may even get some cheers if it was especially virtuosic. But no one wants to hear it again, and in my observation not a single CD of it on the back table or in the gift shop is purchased at the end. I have used the term “educated listeners” to show the most sympathetic kind of audience; and if they, who might be most expected to like it, dislike this music, the general public is even more negative toward it. Returning to all these fabulous concepts and program notes that composers now use to justify music few want to hear, I must admit that my music is utterly conventional and without interest! My only radical concept is to try and write music that actually does sound good when you finally hear it, and music that moves your emotions to want to hear it again and again. Of course, as the one who must spend so many hours working on it, the music I’m writing must move me, foremost, and I must genuinely believe in it and enjoy working on it. As I said, I am simply trying to compose music that I would like to hear, myself, if I were sitting in the audience.
Some composers have, at least, brought back more consonance, either in a minimalist setting with a simplified version of tonality, or in a haunting, pretty, cinematic, or soupy ocean of ambience, but after a few minutes it becomes apparent that it still lacks any substantive melody, thematic invention and development, modulation, harmonic interest, etc. In short, compared to the twelve-tone, atonal days of my youth, we now have a much greater diversity and rich flowering of many more styles that hardly anyone actually wants to hear. The emperor now has many more outfits to wear. But in their defense, if only a few people do like each of these many niche, designer styles, then fine, of course they should continue to compose and play and hear them. I’m not talking about banning anything. We also now see many young, newly-performance-degreed musicians desperately looking for some kind of career, who form any number of uber-hip new-music ensembles with great names and PR, who continually rise like phoenixes out of this year’s grant money, but cannot otherwise be sustained over time. It is a wonderful experience and rite of passage for them to try it out, each group in their turn, before they find a more permanent and viable career. But through it all, there remains the enormous, silent majority of classical listeners yearning for substance, melody, emotion, and beauty, of which I am one. Can we not also provide to them a more mainstream classical alternative of new works without wine and cheese, un-hip, gimmick-free, but expertly crafted with the beloved, traditional techniques of the great standard works? As with traditional drawing and painting techniques in art, the “expertly crafted” part, however, is not really being taught in most American schools anymore, in my experience, at least in regard to tonal craft. I think old-school training can be found with some diligent effort, especially in places like Russia and Germany. Ideally, training in harmony and counterpoint needs to begin long before college and take several more years than the typical American college composition degree offers in those subjects. I have wondered whether an intensive personal apprenticeship in true craft with a master composer (if there were any to be found) would be more valuable than a college degree, if someone really wants to learn to compose.
In view of all this, I must honestly ask, is it possible that our current state of affairs is not, after all, the inevitable and most sophisticated destination of the historical trajectory of classical music, as we were told and believed it to be, and as our students are still being misled to believe? Is it possible that the mainline “train” of historical succession actually jumped the tracks and derailed some time ago and needs to be put back on its transcendent and timeless tracks? Is it possible that history will judge today’s “progressive” classical music to have actually have been a parenthetical period of “regression”? Yes, to all three possibilities. But some will argue that “the genie is out of the bottle,” in regard to modernism, and cannot be put back into it. To that, I ask, would you refuse to eat a delicious, freshly baked croissant because it is derivative, made with a historic old recipe? Such a croissant would still be, in my view, “contemporary food” and “new food”. It would still be “the food of our time,” simply because it was just now made! These are phrases that have been used to make composition students toe the party line. But when you use the loaded phrase “the music of our time” to imply that only modern techniques are of our time, who exactly is the “our” and who gets to say who “our” is? Modernist and postmodernist music is not the music of my time! Nor is it the “our” time of classical radio, nor of the vast majority of listeners, most of whom have never even heard any of it. The music of “our” time, by definition, is any and all music being made now, regardless of style. It includes music “baked” with a classic recipe, just as a freshly baked croissant is both old and new at once. But even more than the croissant, if truly well written, it is not at all derivative. Any great piece of music written now, even in an older style, also bears the unique-as-a-snowflake human personality of its particular living composer. It is a result of a unique synthesis of all of that one person’s many influences, which are exactly like no other composer’s, past or present. The result, while it may be influenced by the old, is fundamentally unique and new in substance, because each person is new, and there is no one else exactly like him or her. If tonal, it is still as different from any older tonal composer’s work as older contemporaries like Rachmaninoff and Sibelius were from each other. There is no need to put the genie back into the bottle! Let him stay out. Just write music so great that the genie has some real competition. Perhaps I am proposing a kind of “post-postmodernism”, or a “Neo-timelessness”, but “Neo-traditional” seems the clearest term to me.
Whether I have yet accomplished all the goals I have stated here, or will do so before I die, or if I have at least helped point the way in that direction for others, will be for others to judge, of course. In order to seek to accomplish them, perhaps at some risk of being misunderstood, my only hope is to try and live by the sword of strong craft and not die by the sword of weak craft. Yet, this is only an expression and not a true sword, for in actual practice, and in spite of my very strong critiques of the status quo, I am no angry revolutionist and remain personal friends with many so-called “academic” composers, and they are certainly free to disagree with me and to compose what they want. I have simply stated here my own tastes and goals regarding the kind of music that I myself want (and don’t want) to write. I get up each morning eager to get into my studio and compose the kind of music that brings me such joy to work on, and in hopes that it somehow will benefit others. It has taken a long evolution in my thought to write these words. Perhaps one can find the most clear musical evidence of their expression 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 “bonus video” link.