My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
- My goal is, most simply stated, to write music that I myself would want to hear if I was sitting in the audience. 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. I also want my music to function well outside the concert hall for everyday listening enjoyment on classical radio, in the car, or at home. In so saying, I do acknowledge that other composers may genuinely believe in a mission to write music intended primarily for live performance in the concert hall, perhaps because it is so demanding, and which serves its purpose by being played and heard only once or twice, live. 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 could continue to be infinitely viable as an option for composers, both in the midst of their own Modernist era and in today’s pluralistic classical milieu. Composing with this type of 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.
- 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 such music 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 how I like my Classical music fix to be: full of tender, beautiful tracks that stir strong emotions in the listener. This is one album that you’ll get years of listening pleasure out of.” I believe the reviewer is right in his general premise. It is the emotional connection that brings us back to a work again and again.
- 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 an even strident 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 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 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. I want listeners to be able to 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 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, no one, and in other cases almost 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 a daunting 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.