My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
- It has raised a few academic eyebrows in recent years 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 expect of a 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. 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 composed what I would call specialized music for erudite expectations, and though it was well written and clever and even won national awards, 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 listen to my own music, why should anyone else want to? I was writing quite respectable and tenure-worthy music, but disingenuously so, in respect to my own musical tastes. It pleased a relative handful of academic colleagues and grant organizations across the nation, but I began to realize that this was not at all why I became a composer in the first place.
- 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 each of their styles sounds 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 my 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, even in the midst of their own, early-20th century, Modernist era, when it was supposedly passé, and today. Indeed, many of those passé works are still played and have outlived the ones that were supposed to have superseded them. Tonality remains an infinite well-spring that only requires imagination and 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 is something of a lost art. I believe a renaissance of this level of truly classical-worthy craft 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 craft cannot be attained once more, and that great new traditional composers like the ones listed above cannot once more arise, phoenix-like, from the current scene.
- 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 and culture outside of the ivory tower. The idea of “social justice” has religious roots that I understand may not be shared by all, of course. But I do believe music can be both “classical” and speak to a mainstream audience, as it once did, without pandering or dumbing it down or making it sugary or banal, as some suppose. It can 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. I simply cannot, in good conscience, claim to care about the cultural enrichment of our society as a whole and then knowingly write music in a style that only a tiny percentage of people can comprehend or get anything at all out of hearing. I think it is a modern fallacy that being a futuristic visionary is compulsory in order to qualify as a legitimate classical composer. It is only compulsory to have a wonderful vision!
- My goal is also to write emotionally and spiritually engaging music that invites many repeated hearings and performances, not just one or two. To really enter the repertoire, 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 through word of mouth, both to listeners and performers, including those performers who are total strangers to me, not only those performers who are my friends doing me a favor. A merely “interesting and clever” piece, perhaps fantastically orchestrated or with a virtuoso soloist, may earn one appreciative hearing by an audience and even get a big applause once from that audience, like people visiting a fascinating curiosity shop. However, in my observation, most of that audience usually feels no need to hear that piece again, any more than 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. 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.
- 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. This is only to say that I do not wish to write it or hear it. 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.” Most listeners today, in spite of supposedly more “accessible” post-modern styles, still generally do not wish to hear too high a proportion of abrasive sounds in music without enough relief, be they timbral noises or harmonic and fully chromatic dissonances, and will not seek out a second hearing. Likewise, an attractive and memorable melody, motive, or idea (whatever the style), 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. I don’t see that this has changed or will change, and yet it seems often ignored today, with so many brilliantly orchestrated (and, ironically, quickly forgotten) works utterly lacking in melody. It does not need to be a tonal, romantic-era tune, either; even the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds live on, in part, because they still have memorable, though Modern, melodies.
- I try to write music with the performers first 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 is music that showcases their strengths, and in a way I see it as my job to make them look good. 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.
- 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 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 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.
- 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 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 view of history, generally, which sees our own age as superior to all previous ones, a common bias I reject in our current culture.) 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 time perspective, 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,” simply because you just wrote it! (I suspect that sometimes these coded phrases are intended 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 today’s common practice of 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” or “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. Likewise, 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 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, and one’s contemporaries not 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. 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, 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. Concerns over chronological placement or being derivative, conversely, tend to be raised only when the music is not excellent and beloved.
- With the previous paragraph in mind, I do not personally aspire to write music for other composers. I write it for God, myself, my performers, and the audience. I do care whether my music lives on beyond me, not (I hope) 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. Indeed, with no disrespect meant to the deceased, I have known some very major, big-name composers, most ivy-league professors of composition, now gone, whose music has already died along with them. Their work has been replaced on concerts by that of a younger generation of ambitious new-music composers, who seem to me equally likely to be forgotten and replaced by yet another generation, in due course. Why? Because, like the composers they replaced, their music is still simply too arcane, weird, and displeasing to most educated and cultured classical music lovers. I’m afraid the hard truth is that to most classical audiences this new, so-called accessibility still sounds like “a Halloween concert,” as one woman so succinctly put it, who was seated next to me at what most of us composers would call a very accessible concert (it was in April, not October). Or, in a few cases a piece of music may be on the other extreme and truly accessible but boring, because it has no tension at all and is lacking in tonal craft, harmonic interest, counterpoint, or modulation.
- Let me explore some issues having to do with composition education and “marketing” contemporary music. I do believe the university recital hall is rightly a venue for musical experimentation, and it is good for students to have that safe place to try things out in their student composer concerts. I admire the fun and youthful comradery they are enjoying in creating and playing their pieces and feel great warmth toward them, personally. Numerous visiting composers with impressive credentials and powerful personalities, impressive posters, and important required events give a strong impressions that the students are in, or learning to be, in the very heart and mainstream and forefront of exciting musical culture, rather than on what they will later discover is (at least in pure numbers) actually the tiniest fringe of it. After graduation it can come as a rude awakening to them that, no longer enrolled as either an undergraduate or graduate student and not being a professor, most of those concerts and venues and this magical world will suddenly and decisively be cut off to them. The professors get to stay and can have a wonderful life in the bosom of the academy, like Mr. Chips. For their graduates who don’t get to be professors, getting music programmed in professional venues becomes much more competitive and difficult and pays little or nothing, which ultimately has discouraged many composition alumni I know from continuing to write music at all, though it might amount to a hobby for some. Ironically, working full time in some non-music day job or even music administration profession to pay the bills often takes most of one’s energy and time away from being able to compose. I don’t think having a beautiful web site or YouTube channel that few ever visit is the answer, either — perhaps only a delusion. The only real answer I know to thriving and lasting as a composer beyond the university and for the long range, as it has always been throughout history, is simply writing music that some critical mass of people out in the wider world actually like. It cannot be music they turn off after 30 seconds or one or two minutes. And it must be music they want to hear or to perform repeatedly, and I do not mean to imply that it must only be in a commercial or pop genre. All kinds of music for wind bands, choirs, orchestras, and student instrumental chamber music and solos at many levels of skill could be viable areas in which to ply your trade as a composer. Yet, it seems some have stigmatized the idea of writing music that normal, educated people actually enjoy.
- Last, but by no means least, I must add that 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 culture’s treasury. I may never succeed in contributing anything to that body of great repertoire, either, 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. 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 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, even if different, in the garden. I have heard any number of people postulate that film music is “the new classical music.” Orchestras are programming live performances of film music (with or without video) more and more, filling the vacuum of a new classical repertoire their audience can really enjoy. I only know, 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. Some film “end-credits” can run as long as a classical symphony movement, but most tend to be broken up into suites or medleys of music and songs from the film; but in that longer spot I would like to imagine there might be an opportunity for longer symphonic forms to be introduced sometimes.
That concludes my list of goals for my own work, and why I aspire to them. 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, personally, or to dictate what other composers’ goals ought to be, only to explain what I believe my own goals ought ideally to be, if I can live up to them. I keep working toward living up to them. I have many good friends among other composers who disagree, and there are many whose skill at what they do is strong. They must also do what they believe in doing, according to their own mission statement, 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.