My Philosophy of Classical Composition in the 21st Century
by Michael Kurek
For those who wish to know the philosophy behind my work, here is a brief summary that can be read in about five minutes. First, I am a neo-traditional, melodic, narrative, tonal composer whose music might be generally grouped in style with early 20th-century classical symphonists like Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Delius, Holst, and others. These composers sounded nothing like each other, yet collectively proved to me that great tonal music could still be written in the midst of their own early atonal/ Modernist age (whose music they have largely outlived), and do so in a non-derivative, personal, fresh voice. Moreover, they prove to me that narrative tonality, well done, can still be viable in perpetuity, even in the midst our own prevailing Postmodernism. I do not concern myself with current fashion or concepts, with trying to be novel, or with being a futuristic visionary of the avant-garde, only with timeless and universally proven elements of music, like beautiful melody and a goal-directed form — serious, classical, yet enjoyable for listening. I will address the current state of things here as a matter of context and to warn (jokingly) that by Postmodern standards, my work is completely conventional and without interest! If my critique of the status quo is rather unvarnished, it is not intended so much as a critique of what is here now, nor of any persons, but rather a lament of what is missing and needs to be restored.
I believe that the composition of truly great tonal music in a traditional classical style with an original voice such as I have described above, like the great masters’ traditional representational oil paintings, is a lost art and the most difficult form of musical craft to compose. To match anywhere near the quality of the composers I have named above requires a far more rigorous training than American universities now typically include in their curricula for composers, especially in regard to tonal craft. That is why, in addition to my doctoral work in composition, I pursued additional coursework and private tutelage in both 16th and 18th-century counterpoint, advanced harmony, form, and orchestration. Even so, it has taken me decades of practice to reach something even approaching a masterful skill and true artistry. I would like to propose a renaissance of this lost tonal craft as a kind of “third rail” in today’s scene, and a necessary one, if classical composition as we once knew it is to be restored, survive, and contribute beautiful new works to the standard repertoire, which composers have not been doing for many decades, with a few exceptions.
What do I mean by the first two “rails” and why this third one is crucially needed? First, I will postulate that there is no such thing as “old music” and “new music”. Rather, music is either “timeless” or “fashionable”. Great music with timeless qualities has no “sell by” date. It can still be written, just as a fresh new croissant using a timeless recipe can be baked and enjoyed now and is still considered “new food“. No one says, “I cannot eat that croissant — the recipe is out of date! It is derivative!” Indeed, it is still “contemporary food”; it is still “the food of our time”! These phrases have been used to connote an illegitimacy for today of traditional techniques and to intimidate student composers into toeing the party line of Modernism and Postmodernism. It is a line easily accepted by some as a path of least resistance, since that kind of music both pleases teachers and is technically much easier to write without ever mastering tonal craft, yet gives an illusion of sophistication, if one has a clever concept — a deceptive shortcut to being a composer.
The “first rail” I mentioned above is the prevailing academic / Modern / Postmodern music, now so marginalized that it is barely even known about outside academe and which almost no one who does know about it cares to hear a second time (and, in many cases, regrets having heard the first time, truth be told), and which is not living on after its composers die. Recording sales and streaming figures for this music are a fraction of a hairline on a pie chart. These paltry figures are not the fault of, nor due to, the ignorance or dumbed-down culture of the audience, as some suppose. People who come to the classical concert hall are generally educated and sophisticated. The problem is, entirely, the inherently off-putting incomprehensibility, innate ugliness, randomness, or just plain weirdness of the music, even for educated, sophisticated listeners. Add to that, in American contemporary music there has been a long-standing culture of nepotism, frequently assuring that some of the least competent composers are exactly the ones fast-tracked for awards and opportunities to be played by the highest-profile orchestras and chamber ensembles. Some concert goers diplomatically praise all of these first-rail works as “interesting” when they must awkwardly meet the composer in the lobby, but more often they choose a route of escape in another direction.
Nonetheless, this genre has its fans, however few they may be, and I do not wish to deprive them of it, only to loosen their monopoly and widen what is available, so as to include the rest of us with more traditional sensibilities into academe and “new music” circles, too. If they wish to be a happy cult of specialists in the esoteric, fine. I only ask them to keep an open mind and not ostracize those who wish to write in a traditional style. I continue to receive a steady stream of e-mails from high-school seniors and undergraduates complaining that they cannot find a university that is open to their writing in traditional classical styles. Some of these have sent me their music and show great promise but are screened out and not admitted (either at the undergraduate or graduate level) anywhere, in favor of those who have learned, already by their age, what kind of music is expected for admission.
The “second rail”, stepping into the great void the first has left, is a growing field of aspiring but insufficiently trained tonalists — well-intentioned dilettantes and crossover musicians naively presenting themselves as classical composers, in many cases aided in this misrepresentation by an equally naive local print and broadcast media who do not bother to check credentials, because they like the idea of offering a “local composers” feature, with the result that the Emperor now has many more new outfits to wear in public. These aspiring composers have pro web sites, glamour photos, clever concepts to draw an audience to attend, and many have some mix of intriguing venues, hip attire, wine, cheese, and engaging spoken introductions. But then when you finally hear the music, it bears little or no discernible resemblance to the description just given. While at least not as harsh and off-putting as much of the first rail, there is little craft to hold the attention after the first minute or two of music: weak or no counterpoint skills, little or no modulation through other keys, little or no command of tonal harmony, and especially little or no memorable melody, thematic invention, or true development, only some noodling around on a scale, or an ambience, and little or no overall formal structure or coherence, only a string of weak, unrelated ideas or a nod to minimalism, perhaps combined with some Indian drumming or technology gimmick. One cannot just proclaim oneself to be, say, a dentist and open a dental office, yet it seems now that anyone with little or no training can proclaim himself a classical composer!
Nonetheless, I honestly wish them all freedom to create any music they can, of course, if some audience members want to be there and are still glad at the end that they came. Likewise, I see a lot of advertisements for emerging performance groups that supposedly do a pop or rock crossover with classical, and again that is fine; they usually sound largely on the progressive pop side to me and not classical at all, except for using maybe a cello, which doesn’t make it in any way classical or even hybrid, in terms of the music itself. Rock music is still rock when played on classical instruments. So, this music is, in my opinion, simply not a new genre, as some claim, nor the “music of the future,” nor the heir to the art and craft of great classical composition, and it is not adding any more great works than the first rail has to the repertoire. It may be argued by some that this IS the “great work” of the future, and we should simply accept it. The problem with this idea, for me, is that even those who enjoyed it in the hall when it was played live do not seek out a recording of it or care if they ever hear it again. Once was sufficient, just as you may enjoy visiting a Ripley’s museum once, but you don’t really need to see it again. The live concert itself was the main event, not the completely disposable music. But when you hear a genuinely great work of classical music, you know that you will want to hear it again and again, perhaps for a lifetime. You will rush out to find a recording.
Yet, I am told by my students that other teachers no longer speak of “great” music as I do, even though our score study that very day demonstrates to them clearly otherwise. Perhaps we live in an age when there can be no heroes, and former heroes must, for some reason, be knocked off their pedestals, for it is supposedly naive to think of greatness and heroes any longer. And in a relativistic worldview there can be no canon of great music and no such thing as beauty! But I say yes, Virginia, there is a canon! Indeed, there are several canons for several genres and cultures, and they can be contributed to by anyone with excellence in that genre. Likewise, there are works that are not well crafted enough to be in those canons! Everyone doesn’t get a trophy in real life. Must we simply accept passively that it is no longer possible to reacquire a great, lost craft and restore it to musical culture? Must we simply accept that almost no one now can sculpt a great representational figure, like Michelangelo’s David, or must we resign ourselves in our great museums to amateurish sculpture that looks like blobs from a lava lamp, and give Grammy awards to pop songs with only one or two chords that have a riff or a whispered or half spoken drone for a melody? I do not see why, in theory, a civilization that has so regressed artistically and so utterly lost its greatness of craft over a relatively few generations cannot work to restore it over several more generations, if we regain the vision and the will to do so.
While the descriptions above have minced no words and been pretty tough on the music, I hasten to clarify that I am only criticizing the music, not the people who make it. On a personal level I do not mean any lack of charity toward the people themselves. Those in the second rail, especially, have sincere intentions, often youthful exuberance, friendly personalities, and virtuoso marketing skills. My point is not to forbid anyone from trying to create in either of the first two rails, or to be unkind toward them personally, only to cry out that there is a great void now in the art of classical music, in terms of the music itself. And the great silent majority of classical music lovers still cries out for this vacuum to be filled anew with true, enduring masterworks of standard repertoire. I realize, with apologies, that there may be exceptions of which I am not aware (and hope to be one, myself) but if so, I believe they would be the exceptions that prove the rule.
In regard to the first rail, it is also simply a matter of social consciousness for me to write music that can be appreciated by many more people than the minuscule number of elite listeners who like academic music, even among the educated people who attend classical concerts. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, it is not necessary to dumb down music or to “pander” to reach a wider audience. The master composers named in the first paragraph above certainly managed to speak to listeners who are at every level. A litmus test for my own work is whether people actually want, of their own initiative, to hear a piece of mine again, and whether they seek out and buy the recording or listen repeatedly to it. If not, that is a red flag indicating that I have not really moved their inner spirits or emotions, and the piece will not live on. It might also be a red flag to my fellow living composers in the first rail if the only musicians they can get to perform their work are their friends or colleagues or students doing them a favor, and if no strangers ever contact them wanting to play it. If music is really good, it will usually “sell itself” and propagate itself by word of mouth among performers.
Most recently, there is a trend for many symphony orchestras to drop this first-rail kind of music almost altogether from their programming, in favor of medleys and suites of great film music. I hasten to add that often it is great film music, when used in a film, and it is at least an improvement in the concert hall over the first rail. However, the film medium, with its interruptions of dialog and scene changes, seems to me more of a poetic genre, as it simply does not allow for the long symphonic forms of the great symphonists that are more akin to a novel. Not only that, but it seems to go unnoticed that it is usually orchestrated by someone other than the composer, or even by a team of orchestrators. Classical composers must do their own orchestration themselves, and it is often on a much higher level. (Look at the scores of Ravel, for example.) They have their own unique orchestration style that is integral to their personal artistic voice. I believe truly classical, masterful, long forms can most transcendentally transport the listener to sublime heights and far away lands of the mind, as they make their extended arguments free of cinematic associations. For example, you wouldn’t usually even get through the introduction of a symphonic movement by Sibelius before the film’s scene had to change to something else entirely, or dialog had to begin, nor did Sibelius have someone else orchestrate his work.
Likewise, there is a fashion now for famous pop musicians to attempt to write a “classical” orchestral concerto featuring solo instruments like the fiddle, electric guitar, or even the piano, which are eagerly programmed by orchestras. The orchestras know the music is amateurish (consisting of what musicians call “a string of licks”) and they would never otherwise choose to play it, but a famous pop name sells tickets, which orchestras are desperate to do. These classically untrained artists, some who can barely read music, typically hire a ghost orchestrator who is, most unfortunately, rarely named and credited in the program, leaving the false impression that they, themselves, have suddenly mastered orchestration, music notation, and editing.
Finally, we live in a time when artists, especially those of what I have called above the first rail in music, responding to (or in a few cases, I regret to say, possibly exploiting) social concerns, often feel the need for their work to darkly “disturb” their audience, sometimes with ugly, grating sound. (Or, it can simply be a way to justify music that sounds that way, perhaps.) That is their prerogative, and yes, it may be done thoughtfully and tastefully, so that the hearer feels enlightened and edified by the experience; or it may be done gratuitously and sensationally and in poor taste. In any case, it is simply not my own vocation to disturb or to send out specific programmatic “messages” about political causes, pandemics, bombings, the environment, etc. through my music, other than the general messages of goodness, truth, and beauty inherent in great music itself. Too many people are already disturbed and are looking for music that rather heals their disturbed spirits; and too many feel blindsided by disturbing works, having not been warned in advance nor come there to hear the sound-track to their personal dark night of the soul.
I aspire to compose music that does contain sufficient tension and dissonance, where needed, for the narrative form’s musical arguments, but which still ennobles the spirit, and that does not, by definition, require sugary banality, as some of the intelligentsia seem to presume. I aspire to compose music whose goal-directed form reflects the sense of purposefulness to life that is found in faith, rather than the aimless, random wandering and despair of nihilism; and music that people can actually “fall in love with” and want to hear again and again. I keep working toward these goals, the latest expression of which can be found 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 “Symphony No. 2 Bonus Videos” link. (A commercially released album of the symphony is due in 2021.) Thank you for your interest and for reading all of this!