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.). For the sake of brevity, 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 as a listener — or the taste of the vast majority of educated classical listeners, truth be told. I hasten to add that I know and have friends among those who like and write music in a modern and postmodern style for a minuscule audience who seldom seek it out for a second hearing, and they are perfectly welcome to do so. I only write here about what I personally prefer to compose, and why, not to tell others what they should or should not compose. Perhaps the best example of where I am on my own journey is my newest work, my Symphony No. 2. (Click on the link above to hear a few short samples, soon to be available in a live recording.)

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, Delius, and others like them! Yet they are still essentially dismissed 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 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, they have already outlived and eclipsed their Modernist contemporaries — the ones who supposedly 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 postmodernism, timelessness is surely the antidote, the “postmortem of postmodernism” (with thanks to a friend who coined that phrase).

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. 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 and seem to be wired to desire a series of goals, even a spiritual purpose. Likewise, 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, symbolizes aimlessness and purposelessness or even nihilism in life.

However, 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 concisely and 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. 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 and with over a third of a million streams of my last album so far (and growing every month), it seems my tonal work is speaking to people more than my previous work did — which had no listeners in no countries!

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 that music must be, and if too many like it, it must be mediocre or motivated by pandering. Such a cynical view, it seems, is 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 see no reason why it is not, in theory, possible to achieve it, but only a matter that it is not being taught and truly mastered by classical composers now.

A few great film composers come closer, but that medium itself generally does not allow for the long symphonic forms of the past, due to the frequent scene changes and dialog on screen. There can beautiful melody and orchestration, to be sure, but not always time for an extensive, modulating, contrapuntal, developmental narrative. One of my conductor friends has commented that, whereas film composers borrowed the style of the early 20th-century symphonists and adapted it for film work, I seem to have done the reverse — taken their film music and made it symphonic again. I can see how it might appear this way from our day’s perspective, though in reality, I simply have hoped to join the ranks of those early symphonists directly, without getting back to them through film music. I have not tried to emulate any film composers and don’t believe my music sounds like that of any particular film composer, only within some aspects of that style tradition, but rather it has been directly influenced by the symphonists mentioned above, whose works I listen to regularly.

You could say the expert craft of tonality is by no means exhausted but simply no longer in fashion in classical composition now. If so, one could expect it to return to fashion in due course, like wide and narrow neckties come and go, even if that happens a century or even four centuries from now. And if tonal composition can return in four centuries, I see no defensible reason it cannot be allowed to return now, if someone devotes himself to becoming self-taught in that art once more.

Finally, on a related 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 is in my own style tradition, it has traits universal to not just one race but to the entire human race and all musical cultures — a tone center (regardless of what scales), human emotion, linear “story-telling” through melody, and attention to some particular kind of craft that must be mastered.

I believe that another hidden key to making music with universal appeal is this irony: Inspiring art cannot be made for masses of people or through generic cultural appeal. In my experience, inspiring art always speaks from one individual musician’s heart to one other kindred spirit’s heart, and then to another’s and another’s, one person at a time, till there are many. 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.

Perhaps that is the secret of the spiritual intimacy of art, which, like 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 the individual listener. Secondarily, when listening with others, it can also become a communal act. But even then, like group prayer, it is based upon sharing one’s personal interior experience with other listeners who have genuinely had (or are simultaneously having) that same interior experience.