My Aesthetic Philosophy

The question I am most often asked is why, as a university professor of composition, I gravitated away from Modernism toward composing in what might be described as a neo-traditional, neo-tonal, melodic, narrative style of music reminiscent of the early 20th century symphonists (Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, etc.). Here are my most essential and personal answers.

The kind of music I write now (as described above) is, first and foremost, simply the kind that I would like to hear if I were sitting in the audience myself. It is the kind of music I most enjoy working on for so many hours composing, and it is the kind of music that I am most gifted to do well. I’m fundamentally a melodist and a narrative composer at heart.

I found that I could not sustain a kind of double life, composing in academic styles to please others, when that does not represent my own tastes or consumption as a listener — or the taste of the vast majority of educated classical listeners, truth be told. I receive all manner of impressive P.R. from smiling or hip contemporary young performance groups trying to make a go of it, full of fresh concepts, titles, and enthusiasm for their adventurous musical explorations. The problem is that every time I actually go to these concerts, ready to cheer them on, the music sounds to me and to most of the audience disappointingly like a lot of tinkering around with abstract sound effects. Even if these sounds may be “interesting,” they do not move anyone’s emotions, and the fact is that few of this audience will return the next time, unless they are students required to be there or have friends in the ensemble. And in reality, even they will not once put the recording on their play list to hear a second time. I really do not mean to be unkind or tell others what they should or should not compose; everyone is free to play any kind of music they wish. I must only describe these factual observations and explain why this innovative model of music making is just not for me, sorry. I need emotion and beauty in music, and I confess I do want the audience to come back again and to play the recording regularly because they love it. If other composers don’t feel this way, that’s fine.

Consider how distinctively different from one another are the unique voices and styles of the contemporaneous composers Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Holst, Villa Lobos, Respighi, Delius, Howard Hanson, and others like them. Yet they are still essentially dismissed by some teachers as potential role models for today’s students under the erroneous 1958 pronouncement by Theodore Adorno that the tonal system has been “exhausted”. I concede that mediocrity in tonal composition may be exhausted, yes, because the great tonal craft of the past went out of fashion, ceased to be taught, and has become a lost art in classical music. But it is not tonality’s fault that it is difficult to master.

These composers, listed above, still do sound both excellent and repeatedly fresh to most educated listeners now, over sixty years after Adorno said that. For me, even this handful of composers exemplifies the fact that, with excellence of tonal craft, imagination, and a distinct musical personality, great tonal music is still possible to compose today. Indeed, in terms of actual performance history and listening statistics, these composers have already outlived and eclipsed their Modernist contemporaries — the ones students are told made them obsolete in the forward progress of history. In short, these techniques are by no means exhausted but are timeless and viable in perpetuity.

However, can music still be called “new” and “contemporary” if it shares traits with older music? Yes, it can, in the same way that a newly manufactured beret is by definition a “new” hat, because it was just made! “New” should be an entirely chronological term, not a style guideline imposed by teachers in order to intimidate students into conforming to the current party line. But, again, perhaps great new tonal music, like a newly made classic beret or a freshly baked, “new” croissant from a centuries-old recipe, is better called “timeless”. I think the dichotomy of “timeless” vs. “fashionable” is more useful than “new” vs. “old”. If fashionable is the stock in trade of the new, timelessness is surely the antidote, the postmortem of postmodernism.

One thing that techniques such as melody and harmonic progression, both being linear by nature, can impart to music is a greater perception of narrative, pulling the ear forward through time and striving toward a tonal goal. A clear perception of narrative has been diminished or even abolished in some contemporary music, whether accidentally or on purpose. Why is narrative so important to most people? I think it is because it symbolizes life itself as a story.

We are on life’s journey, each living out a personal story, and seem to be wired to desire a series of goals, even a spiritual purpose. Thus we are endlessly engaged by the elements of drama in a narrative: Exposition, Inciting incidents, Rising action, Climax, Falling action, and Resolution. Storytelling has always been, and will arguably always be, universal in all cultures. Conversely, music that sounds random, unpredictable, with little or no feeling of narrative or goal, for me, exemplifies aimlessness and purposelessness or even nihilism in life. If that is actually one’s philosophy, then fine, but for me the fundamental philosophical question about the Dada movement applies: Is it not a contradiction to want to express to others in art the purposelessness or futility of expressing anything? To go to the trouble to express and display anything is an inherently meaningful act of communicating that thing to others; thus, to supposedly “express meaninglessness” is an oxymoron.

However, in preferring tradition and narrative I am not talking about doing a skillful forgery of Bach or Chopin, which would of course sound derivative. I am talking about the same process used by the great composers, an assimilation and synthesis of many influences to create a uniquely personal voice. I believe you do have to somehow tell your story in your own “uniquely personal voice,” that is, through your own eyes, just as you must allow yourself in life to be the unique person you are, as each of us is. That still allows you to work within a traditional style, but in your own way.

I can explain it this way: Many people speak the same language in conversation, and it is possible for someone of lesser talent and skill to write a novel in that language that is formulaic, derivative, and generic or lacking in a personal voice. This is not the fault of the language but of the writer, nor has the language itself been “exhausted”. Indeed, it is also still possible for someone with talent and true literary craft, using that very same language, to write a fresh, unique, and original novel, and to do so without needing to create a bizarre new language that few others know or like. The same things are true of music.

J. R. R. Tolkien more elegantly made the point this way:

We are heirs of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance there may be a danger of boredom or anxiety to be original. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the willfully misshapen, nor in making all things dark or unremittingly violent, nor in fantastical complications. Before we reach such states, we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold anew sheep, dogs, and horses – and wolves.”

I continue to desire to grow and improve in this craft, but at least I have come to believe I’m on the right track for myself. As I said above, others can certainly do what they like and what they believe in, too, and I wish them well. With regular streaming of my work by listeners in over a hundred countries approaching half a million streams of my recent album The Sea Knows so far, and growing, it seems my tonal work is speaking to people more than my previous work did — which had no listeners in no countries! Formerly, I did not even want to hear my own music again, so, I thought, why should anyone else? And, honestly, they did not.

The number of listeners is not an end in itself, of course, but perhaps it is some kind of measure or byproduct of striving for excellence and of caring about communicating to others. To try to leave the world at least a slightly more beautiful place than you found it, and to enrich the lives of others even a little, is nothing to be ashamed of. But I have actually met a few academic composers who have the de facto belief (if unspoken) that the fewer people who like a piece of music, the better or more erudite that music must be, and if too many like it, it must be mediocre or motivated by pandering.

Such a view, it seems, might be based upon a defeatist premise that it is simply no longer possible to achieve the excellence in tonal craft of the great past masters. I disagree and believe the old craft will eventually return. But if their view is based on a genuinely different aesthetic, for example, one that genuinely does not value narrative, then that is their prerogative, and there is no reason that both kinds of music cannot exist and with today’s technology be available to the people who wish to listen to it, minuscule as their numbers may be.

It is interesting that, until the traditional styles and orchestration of the centuries-old craft might possibly make their return in their long forms to the concert hall, which seems inevitable to me, film music of good quality (albeit in service to what’s on the screen and usually in shorter cues than symphonic music) keeps the sound of the orchestra well in the ears of the public. A conductor friend of mine observed that, whereas film composers borrowed the styles of the classical masters to make their scores, I seem to be doing the reverse — taking film composers’ work and making it symphonic again. I prefer to think that I am rather modeling my work directly on that of the early 20th century symphonists and not on the work of film composers, but I can see how his observation makes some sense from today’s perspective. Aside from the fact that, unlike most film composers, I orchestrate my own music, I also think my music often has too much counterpoint and formal development to work very well in a film; it might prove too distracting from what is on the screen.

On another topic, the current concern for a diverse, inclusive, and global art is nothing new to me. The people in over a hundred countries on six continents who are listening repeatedly to my work, completely of their own initiative, irrefutably demonstrate that my music speaks inclusively to the taste of a culturally diverse audience. I believe that is because, though it was born out of my own style tradition, it has underlying traits that are universal, not imposed by just one race or peoples upon others. These traits are genuinely appealing to the entire human race and are common to all musical cultures. They are, simply, a tone center (regardless of what scales are used), human emotion, linear “story-telling” through melody, and evincing skill in some particular kind of craft, whatever it may be. These, or some combination of these, are the global meta-language of all musical traditions of the world and can appeal to all.

I believe that another hidden key to making music with such a universal appeal is, ironically, this: Inspiring art cannot be calculated by formula, even the one I have just given above. It cannot be contrived to speak to cultures as a whole or marketed to masses of people through generic cultural appeal or by merely appearing to be inclusive as some kind of statement. In its particulars, it must come from one individual musician’s heart and unique voice to one other kindred spirit’s heart, and then to another’s and another’s, one person at a time, till there are many. Or, you might say it must be like a love letter written from one person to one beloved, which many years later is vicariously moving to others when they read it in a book. So, the “universal” must first be individual and personal, and it must first be the genuine product of the creator’s personal taste, from the heart. After all, in order to have a kindred spirit, you must first be sure you have a spirit yourself.

Perhaps that is the secret of the spiritual intimacy of art, which, like a prayer, is first a fundamentally personal and interior act. In the case of music, it is an interior act both on the part of the individual creator and later the individual listener. Secondarily, when listening at a concert with others, it can also become a communal act. But even then, as in a group of people praying together, this is based upon sharing one’s personal, interior experience with other listeners who have genuinely had (or are simultaneously having) that same individual, interior experience.

Above, I said you must have a spirit yourself in order to have a kindred spirit. However, “spirit” often implies something bigger than, or outside, or beyond yourself, even if it is also in you and you do possess some share of it. To say that so-called “great” music is somehow a projection of that larger spirit, while not denying that it is also a projection of your unique personality, is to say that the music is tapping into the realm of transcendence. Lasting art, for me, belongs to that realm, far beyond and above and outside such worldly concerns as the so-called culture wars or factions of today.

But, you may ask, isn’t art, by definition, a part of culture and bound to engage the discourse of any current culture? It certainly may do so, but it is not required to do so. Lasting art will also be transcendent centuries from now, when that culture may be unrecognizable to anyone now living. Could anyone in Bach’s culture even have imagined our own culture? And yet The Well-Tempered Clavier still speaks powerfully today. I cannot claim to know if my work will last beyond me, but my point is that, as a creative attitude, I feel I must nonetheless strive to write music as if it were completely outside, above, and beyond today’s concerns — and, more to the point, regard it as something out of time altogether that essentially belongs to the realm of transcendence.

Although it may be said that I champion traditional musical techniques in the abstract, I do not wish to align my music in a way that is construed as representative of any organized faction or movement of today. I would wish for it to be listened to with the ears and the mind but heard with the soul and outside of time. It will be for others, perhaps in another century (if I’m lucky), to judge whether I succeed in this. This is perhaps an idealistic goal, but for me it is simply a lovely thing to try to do, and a lovely experience to compose in that timeless frame of mind.

“His work is still alive and does not stop believing.” — Sonagrama Magazine, Barcelona (Nov. 2022) (Review of my Symphony No. 2)