My Philosophy of Composition in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Kurek
Here is a statement of my composing philosophy, which can be read in under five minutes.
First, my music can be described as Neo-traditional, roughly in the musical language of the early 20th-century symphonists. That is to say, I employ long, classical forms in a style that is melodic, tonal, narrative, and created for beauty and for enjoyable and serious listening. Simply put, I try to write classical music that matches my own tastes as a listener and that I myself would enjoy and find moving, if I were sitting in the audience or listening to classical radio.
This is not to say that my works represent some desire to go “backwards”. Rather, it is that I believe tonal, narrative music of fully classical integrity should be, and is still, viable and can be perpetually fresh and non-derivative, if it is strongly crafted with imagination and a personal voice. Just look at the wide diversity of styles among such early twentieth-century tonal composers as Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Holst, Prokofiev, Delius, de Falla, and others. None of them are derivative of each other, and each has a still-fresh and personal voice, even though they worked concurrently with each other and alongside the early atonal Modernists (whom they have largely outlived) — just as I am working in the midst of my own Postmodern age. I believe, then, that the important criteria are not so much chronological, “old” or “new”, as they are substantive. That is to say, a piece of music can be either transcendent of its time and well crafted or disposable and poorly crafted, which is to say it can be either “timeless” or merely “fashionable”. Few realize that Brahms wrote his “old-fashioned” clarinet/ viola sonatas the very same year Debussy wrote his hip, new Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun! In this case, both composers’ works have lived on, because they were both great, and time has erased any cares whatsoever about which piece from that year was more fashionable or more cutting edge to those people. And so it will be in the future, looking back on our works.
One thing that feels “timeless” in music to me is a sense of narrative in its form. Storytelling has been a universal and timeless part of every human culture and historical age, and that seems likely to continue. Narrative also can have strong spiritual analogies to life goals and purposefulness of existence. One thing that carries along a narrative in music is the so-called “long line,” a thread that can be followed through a piece like riding a boat down a river; and that often translates into line and melody. Even among the great composers, the works of theirs that keep getting played the most are, honestly, the ones with the most memorable melodies and not merely a pleasing ambience. And, without the aid of any kind of tonal and harmonic progression at all, pulling the ear toward intermediate and long-range tonal centers, it is a struggle to write music that has much of an audible narrative quality. I do think of myself as a storyteller in music.
Second, I have a strong belief, as a matter of social conscience, that I cannot personally compose music that I know only a few people will get something out of hearing, even among the relatively cultured audience that attends classical music concerts. A musical narrative requires some amount of tension at times, but music need not be weird, arcane, or esoteric to deserve the name “classical”. It is not compulsory for every composer to be an eccentric, futuristic visionary. The true requirements are genuine artistic ability and a vision of some kind, but not necessarily one that is “ahead of its time”. That was never a requirement of serious music till recently. However, I’m not advocating for dumbed-down, second-rate tonal music or pop crossovers marketed as classical. Great music in a more traditional style must still be expertly crafted in melody, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and form, yet it can still be enriching and enjoyable to a much, much larger, wider, mainstream classical audience than it has been reaching. After all, it was done for centuries. While film music does potentially allow for strong craft, this is usually on the scale of poetry. That is, it does not lend itself as well to the long, novel-scale symphonic forms, with their epic developmental narratives, simply because the music must so often be interrupted by dialog or scene changes. You wouldn’t usually get more than a few minutes into a movement of a Sibelius symphony, for example, before you had to cut away to something entirely different. Classical and film music, though cousins, are usually two different art forms.
Third, I am concerned that a new norm of low expectations has been established, as new works are now expected to be played only once or twice, so that practically every performance is a “world premiere”. This is, honestly, because such works are usually merely “interesting”, at best, and do not move people to fall in love with them and want to hear them again, or to seek out and purchase the recording, as the minuscule recording sales statistics for this music verify. Its most famous living composers are largely unknown outside of university music departments, even among classical listeners, and classical radio stations refuse to play them, knowing most people will switch the station after thirty seconds. As a culture, we have for decades been contributing almost nothing to what used to be regarded as the great treasury of a standard classical repertoire. My lifetime goal is to leave behind a body of mainstream work deemed worthy to enter that repertoire.
With today’s artistic emphasis on concept over technique, it is common for contemporary composers to have all sorts of fascinating and fantastical concepts and titles. The only problem is that when you finally hear the music, I’m sorry to say, it just doesn’t sound very good to most people. It is usually devoid any of memorable melody, and it sounds to most educated listeners like it would be better suited to be underscoring for a science fiction film. It is ugly and does not stand up to hearing it by itself. It is possible that this state of affairs is not the inevitable destination of the historical course of classical music, as students are being led to believe. It is possible that the “train” of historical succession jumped the tracks and derailed some time ago and needs to be put back on the tracks by the next generation. In any case, I like to joke that, by comparison with these fascinating concepts composers have, my music is utterly conventional and without interest! My only fantastical concept is to try and write music that actually does sound good when you finally hear it and that moves your emotions to want to hear it again and again. To accomplish this, and perhaps at some risk, my only hope is to try and live by the sword of strong craft and not die by the sword of weak craft. Many other composers are still my friends and are certainly free to disagree with me and compose what they want, but these are my own tastes and goals.