My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
“It has seen the rise and fall of modernity and awaits, with studied indifference, the postmortem of postmodernity.” (Joseph Pearce)
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, for those who care to know. However, this is a very long essay. So, for those who want a quicker version, just below are six essential bullet points. For those who want the full essay, skip the bullet points and scroll down below them.
I will preface both versions by stating that any reviewers looking for novelty or some “angle” in my work will be sorely disappointed. Many composers now do have one, and it makes for a pithy review, after all — an unusual style hybrid, a social cause, an innovative technology or venue. However, my music is utterly conventional and without interest, at least in those ways. So, please just move on and review someone else’s work, if that’s what you are seeking. My music is written simply for listening, to be beautiful, or at times thrilling or sublime, I hope. My only gimmick is craft — melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, and form. Thus it stands, naked, with no other way to justify itself, and I can only hope to live by the sword of good craft and not die by the sword of bad craft. My forms are often classical and long-breathed in the manner of older symphonic movement forms, or in literary terms the novel. This requires for some modern ears a challenge to return to that kind of unhurried listening. I believe this has its own rewards for those souls who still remember actually having time to sit back on a sunny Sunday afternoon and read a novel or listen to a long symphony.
The audience for “contemporary” or avant-garde classical styles has grown (or shrunk) so 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 often unknown, even to most mainstream 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. Any other kind of concert would have been canceled. This observation is not meant to denigrate the existence and noble efforts of those few earnest practitioners, many being local students and dilettantes, and their friends and family who lately perform in public spaces like art museums, with wine and cheese. Those may be warm 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. 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 one they came to hear. I was composing such groan-worthy 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? My own tastes as a listener actually ran in a more mainstream direction, and so I finally chose to teach myself to write 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 erudite tastes or academic peer pressure. 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. While I have affection for my friends and students in the first kind of concert I 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 this genre has gone from a mainstream genre to a genre on life-support, at best.
As a matter of social responsibility and social justice, I cannot in good conscience write music that almost no one likes, or at least does not like it enough to want to hear it a second time. If I am going to put it on a public concert, then I want to feel it is contributing to the enrichment of the lives of a greater percentage of people in the audience, and beyond. I believe, in principle, that it is possible to write truly great and fully “classical” music that can be understood by more people without pandering or dumbing it down; it was done for centuries, after all. There is room for eccentric visionaries, yes, but, contrary to current opinion, it is not required to be a futuristic visionary to be “classical”, only to be excellent and to have a personal vision. But speaking now in regard to culture generally, it is not only the audience liking a piece of music that matters but the loss of a formerly great craft that many of us mourn, even as we mourn the loss of the great techniques seen in former masterworks of representational painting and sculpture.
As in visual art, we seem now to be in a period where concept is as important or more important than craft. Absolute music without programmatic concept, on the other hand, requires “invention” in purely musical imagination, and it requires strong craft. The emphasis on concept, if the music is not great, often results in music that one doesn’t desire to hear a second time, since one has understood the concept in one hearing. I desire to write music that people want to hear again and again, purely for the music. Three things mainstream classical listeners still crave are memorable melody, something that speaks to the emotions, and avoidance of gratuitous dissonance, but they do want some musical tension in a meaningful context of dramatic narrative that makes sense and “tells a story” and grips our attention from beginning to end. 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 quotations and surprising shifts of style tend to break the spell of the drama, like the parked car that can be seen accidentally left in the background in one scene of the film Braveheart.
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 experimenting upon them. 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 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 seems now to be a missing part of a balanced listening diet for many.
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. Many Modernist techniques are now almost a hundred years old, themselves. Originality is found in the unique personality and unique synthesis of influences that one brings to one’s work, whatever technique is used. Tonality is therefore potentially ever viable in perpetuity, but requires imagination and craft to do well, but this kind of craft is rarely taught or encouraged now. Many early 20th-century tonal works that were considered passé at the time have indeed outlived their Modernist counterparts that were supposed to have superseded them. Some academicians do not realize that the same thing is happening again: As a statistic, orchestras are already programming film music more than new contemporary-style orchestral pieces. I propose that there actually is no such thing as “old and new” music but rather music is “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 (more on what constitutes timelessness below). 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. I believe that a really well crafted piece of music in a timeless style will live longer than a poorly crafted one in a timeless style. However, in my observation, i.e., during my lifetime, even well crafted works in a merely fashionable style have already been forgotten.
I do believe in and affirm the notion of a “canon” of great music. (This is not exclusive or limited to one musical culture or tradition. Every culture, tradition, and style can have its canon of particularly excellent works, yes.) The point here is that some works are excellent and some are not, as a matter of objective truth, and it is not a matter of relativism. Excellence and beauty are not “in the eye of the beholder.” Great works stand objectively excellent, whether or not someone is able to recognize it. Beauty cannot be proven in a court of law, but we all know a sunset is objectively beautiful, whether or not it can be proven and whether or not someone recognizes it. You can disagree that a sunset is beautiful, but you will be factually incorrect. Trees that fall in the forest do make a sound, and two plus two does equal four. It is enough evidence for me that people write me independently from many locations in the world and say that they found my work beautiful. I believe that contemporary composers have been creating a lot of compositions that, while surely written with care and detail, have been lacking in these things that make people want to play or hear them again, 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 repertoire, but there still may be time to start doing so again, and it is at least my goal to try. Please read the entire essay for more detail on all of these points.
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, even my most prize-winning pieces.
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 will say at the outset that this story embodies the wider dilemma of classical music composition at this time. Most new classical music is composed by those who see themselves, and teach students that they are, the heirs to the lineage of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc. Yet, they do not seem to notice that nowadays even their most famous practitioners are almost completely unknown, even among mainstream classical listeners! And the general public has no idea that these living or recent “famous” composers, Pulitzer and Grammy winners, even exist at all. 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.
This kind of music barely registers in recording downloads and sales, garnering a minuscule fraction, estimated at less than a tenth of one percent of listeners to all kinds of music. This music has become effectively non-existent outside the bubble of academe, where fewer than fifty people typically come to sit for free in halls built for three hundred to a thousand. They seem to think nothing of this fact, which should be shocking (any other kind of concert would have been canceled), and many of those fifty honestly came to hear their friends or teachers play; they only tolerate the music, and most of the applause is for those performer’s efforts. Nonetheless, the older practitioners of this arcane cult continue to give impressionable composition students the idea that if they take this route they will somehow also be in the mainstream of music history, which will someday recognize their importance as a remnant, this lineage of where classical music has arrived and is continuing to flourish and advance the culture of humankind!
It is true, these observations on the demise of the audience have been made for the past few decades. Sometimes I have heard the ignorance of the public blamed, rather than the music. But, in an attempt to reach out, indeed to survive, more “accessible” composers began to arise in the last few decades. But, in my observation, their music has been only slightly more accessible, with a few small nods to tonality, still largely non-narrative, emotionless, and lacking in any kind of melody — too little, too late — and it is still just as strongly disliked or politely tolerated, or at best found “interesting”, by most sophisticated, educated people who hear it. It has not increased the size of the audience, though it may have become more entertaining to the few who are there. This appears to be a genre of music on a suicide mission. Classical radio stations will not even play it in regular programming, knowing that almost every classical 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.
If new classical music is to have any kind of robust future, I believe it will have be reinvented yet again. Many arts management people are now discussing this, 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.” It’s all about presenting it in alternate venues, multi-media installations, art and poetry and dance collaborations, flash mobs, or with wine and cheese and hipper concert attire and hairdo’s. They don’t seem to realize that the music itself is the problem. It is the music that must be put back on the tracks of the timeless principles from which it has apparently been derailed. What are those principles? Here I will attempt to articulate them, and in so doing articulate my own mission statement as a composer.
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, and that may be a starting principle. At least that seems implied when you are putting it on a public concert and advertising for people to come and hear it, people whom you know full well will hate it, but perhaps you keep hoping to get different results by doing the same thing over and over. If I wrote music no one liked, I think eventually I would decide either to create it privately for my own enjoyment and simply not put it on a public concert, or I would play it in a salon or home with a few invited aficionados, as Schubert did. But if I am creating and advertising it to share with the public at large, then I personally feel a responsibility, as a matter of social justice and social conscience, to make a contribution to the wider common good of society and culture, and at the very least to make it truly meaningful and not merely “interesting” (at best) to a much greater percentage of those already sitting in the concert hall. I think that some composers are indeed trying to make it meaningful by means of titles and program notes that make people think, but still piggybacked onto ugly music that few want to hear..
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 enrich the lives of 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 would not be true to my own tastes and gifts, which are mainstream classical. And I’m discovering that there is indeed a large demographic of mainstream classical listeners hungering for new serious music that is beautiful and moves them emotionally.
I do believe, in principle, that 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, in principle, 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, because the masses are too ignorant. I have seen too many students who were completely ignorant of serious music be moved and won over by great music, and without much help from me. Their tastes were of the lowest order, and yet they could hear the greatness of it and desire more of it and grow enthusiastically to love it.
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 really only the music of the moment and quickly became the music of the past. I do not wish to be unkind to any naked emperors in pointing it out, 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 my point 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! Yes, there will always be a few futuristic visionaries, but surely not everyone must be one.
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 secretly presented as a new piece today, I have no doubt whatsoever that it would be dismissed 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 review. 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 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 this year with already forgotten classical music that was never played again.
Tonality remains an infinite well-spring that only requires imagination and true 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 more than they love adopting the identity of “being a composer” by any expedient short cuts; they will probably also have to think more highly of the notes on the page, of absolute music, than of long-winded program notes and sophisticated cultural commentary or hip marketing.
Nowadays, to fill the void created by those with composition degrees who write music that almost no one wants to hear, any number of dilettantes and performers (I do not mean students, who are generally sincere and just learning) are arising and passing themselves off as classical composers of the more accessible kind, backed up by very professional looking web sites that proclaim it. They have not really studied the craft of composition for the many thankless years that are required to truly master it. For a start, they have not had formal courses of study or lessons in 16th and 18th century counterpoint, orchestration, harmony, analysis, and form, though they might even have been a performance major who had core theory or elected a semester of composition lessons. They lack both the craft to write great tonal music and, in some cases, apparently also the integrity to identify that they are dilettantes, or at least to honestly disclose to people that they are beginners or amateurs. They want to be instantly called composers. Imagine just proclaiming yourself to be, say, a dentist, buying some dentist’s tools, and opening up a dental office, without telling people you lack the proper training and credentials for it. My intent, however, is not to bash these people, many of whom may mean well and simply don’t know any better. The point is that I am not advocating for just any kind of return to tonality, banal and done badly by people with little training, but for a return to tonality done at the level of true craft with which it was once done in the masterworks of music, complete with harmonic tension, modulation, harmonic sophistication, counterpoint, and mastery of form. For me, these are the elephants in the room that no one mentions when they talk about accessibility.
My goal is also to write emotionally and spiritually engaging music that, again, 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.
These curiosity shops are always located in major tourist centers where there is a steady stream of new customers who can come just once. But most businesses could not stay afloat without return customers. When no one wants to hear your composition a second time, then you are trying to operate an entrepreneurial enterprise without return customers, and this is unsustainable. You can keep putting out new pieces that are each only heard once (though it may become harder and harder to have them played even once), but in the end you will not grow a catalog that will outlive you. You might as well bury every copy of all your scores in the coffin with you, for they will not ever be played again when you are gone. (In fact, some of the most imposing senior composers I knew as a young man, now departed, have already been forgotten.) 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. How can we composers measure our return customers? One way is this: In the world of streaming music, if your album is not getting repeat listeners along with new ones (they give you these stats), it will die away in due course. If it is getting both new and return listeners, it will continue to grow in the number of streams exponentially. This sounds very businesslike, but it is not about money; it is a way to know if your music is touching people and contributing beauty to their lives, because they fall in love with a piece you wrote and want to hear it again and again.
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. For those who don’t, like me, the term “captive audience” literally applies here, as it can be awkward to climb over people from your seat in the middle of the aisle to escape, once it has begun. 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 or the screams of tortured zombies 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. 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. 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 all ambience, utterly lacking in memorable melody. They may be fascinating to see one time, live. We have, for example, any number of pieces for wind ensemble now that, under the “more parts going on at once is better” concept, sound like a thousand ants voraciously attacking a freshly opened watermelon. We have orchestra pieces that sound like you are underwater in the ocean, with a wash of long, held chord clusters evolving gradually over twenty minutes, with the faint cry of a whale at 11:23, or is it the cry of humanity? We have spooky and scary-sounding chamber pieces using digital delay and other effect pedals from Guitar World, ironic pieces using the speeches of political enemies as the text, played backwards, and pieces that try to emulate rock singers with a clarinet. Do I need to hear any of these a second time (or even beyond the first two minutes), honestly? No.
Third, music that does not connect with and move people emotionally in some way, but is merely interesting or superficially impressive, as in those examples just given, has little chance of living on. I hasten to add that if a composer doesn’t care about tolerable dissonance levels, melody, or writing emotional music people want to hear again, or whether their work is only programmed once or twice and almost no one buys the recording, then that is his or her prerogative. I am not trying to deny anyone the right to write it. I am simply saying that I do care about these three basics, and so, I believe, does a vast potential new audience for classical music that supplies these three things.
I try to write music with the performers closely 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 performers 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. By the way, if you have to announce to an audience that a new work they are about to hear is important, because you know they will dislike it, then it probably isn’t important.
In an era of musical eclecticism with 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.
And now I come to one of the biggest misconceptions that I have had to “unlearn”, which is the falsehood that writing great new music in a traditional style is a philosophical impossibility, because it represents a futile attempt to go back to the past. We composers are taught, wrongly, 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 composers: 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 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 have seen how these coded phrases are sometimes used 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 of a 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. Likewise, there is neither “old” nor “new” but “well crafted” and “poorly crafted.” A work with timeless properties (e.g., a compelling narrative, strong melody, etc.), well-crafted, stands a greater chance of living on than a timeless work that is poorly crafted. A merely fashionable work, however well crafted it may be, stands little chance of living on — and my observation of such works in my lifetime bears this out, in regard to those works that have already been forgotten in spite of having been carefully crafted.
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. If I do not succeed, then I trust that eventually someone else can and hope that they will.
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 be “Euro-centrist” or 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, coherency of syntax and structure, and its 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 do care whether my music lives on beyond me and perhaps even becomes part of the canon, 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.
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 is “beautiful” and that it moved them, and I simply trust in that fact at face value and without needing to deconstruct the word beauty out of existence and out of use. I believe that beauty can and should still be one goal of composition, as a matter of objective truth, and I believe the word beauty (and beautiful music itself) should be brought back; at least that is my own goal. I suspect that those who most ridicule using the word beauty and who find the word naive even to use are the ones who feel threatened by it, because their own music lacks it. Likewise, these same intelligentsia seem embarrassed by emotion and by using the word emotional in regard to music.
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, along with quite a dosage of commentary, wanted or unwanted. 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 on a personal level. I have good friends among other composers who disagree with me, and there are many whose skill at what they do is strong, in its own way. I like them as people and respect their hard work and professional tenacity, even if I think they are barking up the wrong tree (and they may think the same of my work). I understand that 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 so few honestly want to hear would have felt too much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I am excited about continually improving my own work and striving to achieve the goals I have outlined here, and I go eagerly into my studio each day to work. As of this writing, my latest work in progress is a symphony, two movements of which you can hear on this web site, if you click above on “Bonus Video”.