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. I have written a longer essay that addresses several broader artistic and academic issues, if you would like to request a link to it.

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. Perhaps the best example of where I am on this journey is my newest work, my Symphony No. 2. (Click on the link above to hear a mock-up.)

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, 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.

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 no one else knows or likes. 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. 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 eighty countries and with a third of a million streams of my last album so far, 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 academic composers who believe that the fewer people who like a piece of music, the better that music is, 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 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 now.

You could say this is simply because it is no longer in fashion now, and if so, one could expect it to return in due course, 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 like me devotes himself to becoming self-taught in that art through assimilating and synthesizing into a personal voice the scores of the great past masters. (Yes, I believe there is “greatness” and people who have “mastered” it. Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, but also can inherently reside in the thing beheld. For example, a glorious sunset is, in truth, objectively beautiful, whether or not someone beholding it agrees. It is self-authenticating, and so is much great music. We can have a jolly discussion of that!)

Finally, on a related topic, the current concern for a diverse, inclusive, and global art is nothing new to me. The people in over eighty 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. Yet, remarkably, this inclusivity was accomplished using a particular kind of style (mine) and not by using hybrid style mixtures and crossovers, which some literal-minded experts erroneously presume must be the only way to qualify a work as “inclusive”.

How can it be that music in the style of just one culture can be inclusive of others? Is it not, ipso facto, exclusive? Is sharing it with other cultures not colonialism? This faulty premise is behind the desire for hybrid styles, overlooking the fact that there is such a thing as the “universal”. A particular style, like mine, produced by any one particular culture from anywhere, can sometimes hit upon universal qualities that genuinely speak to, and are desired of their own choice by, many diverse cultures. The same is true of certain foods produced by a particular culture, like pizza, which is loved worldwide. We don’t need to put a sushi roll on a pizza to make it more inclusive, it is already universal in appeal. No one is imposing pizza through colonialism! It is non-Italians themselves who seek it out, dream of opening their own pizza parlors, and consume millions of pizzas every year. It is an entirely apolitical food. It is “universal” due to the taste buds of the human race. And so are some traits of music.

What musical characteristics do make a certain piece of music inherently inclusive and universal to almost all human ears? The traits that actually appeal in all cultures are simpler and have nothing to do with hybrid mixtures, arcane complexities, contrivances, or politics. Those traits are, essentially musical: 1) a tonal center; 2) genuine human emotion; 3) a memorable tonal melody, whatever the style; and 4) excellence of craft in composition or performance, as opposed to second-rate work, as perceived by the listener.

Therefore, the only way to determine whether a certain piece of music is universal is to let the listeners of the world, the ones we hope to “include”, be the ones who determine what is and what is not inclusive. It cannot be determined by those who, in their effete certitude, pronounce it inclusive, by academic fiat. Put another way, inclusivity is not determined by the style of music, but by the diversity of the people who like it and actually choose to be included in it. Something is NOT inclusive, by definition, if people don’t want to be included in it! It matters not that you think you are including them or think they ought to feel included in what you have composed. If they simply don’t want to be included in it, I’m sorry, it is not inclusive music. In fact, it is the real colonialism, because you presume they ought to like it and wish to impose it on them.

Without intending any personal offense, I think it would be wise for those hybridists with all those pieces for minimalist string quartet plus bongos and gongs, which few are listening to, to check their own listener statistics before calling someone else non-inclusive. I am grateful that people are listening to and, simply by word of mouth, recommending to their friends in ever-increasing numbers my clearly tonal, melodic, classically crafted music — in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Qatar, Iceland, Ghana, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Maldives, Belarus, Bahrain, Suriname, and Vanuatu, among many other places.

However, I believe the most important key to being truly universal and inclusive is this: You, the artist, must first know who you are and be genuine as an individual. You must be true to your own personal tastes as a listener, and compose your music as if you were writing it to share with just one other kindred spirit, not for the masses. That is because inspiring art always speaks from one individual person’s heart to one other individual’s heart, and then to another’s and another’s, one person at a time, till there are many. Inspiring art does not speak with formulas recommended by a committee at a conference, proposed in the latest musicology book, tacitly expected in order to earn tenure in composition, or otherwise calculated to appeal to groups as a whole.

This 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, an interior act both on the part of the individual composer and the individual listener. Secondarily, when listening with others, it can also become a communal act. Like group prayer, it is then based upon sharing one’s personal interior experience with other listeners who have genuinely had (or are simultaneously having) that same interior experience.

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