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”. Mediocrity in tonal composition may be exhausted, yes, but it is not tonality’s fault that it is difficult to master!
These composers still do sound fresh to most educated listeners now, over sixty years after Adorno said that. For me, even this handful of examples demonstrates 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 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 postmortem of postmodernism” (a phrase coined by my friend Joseph Pearce).
One thing that techniques like melody and harmonic progression, both being linear by nature, can impart to music is a greater perception of narrative, pulling the ear forward and striving toward a goal, which has been diminished or 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. But the miracle is that it is also still possible for someone with talent and true literary craft, using that same language, to write a fresh, unique, and original novel, and to do so without needing to create a bizarre new language 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 feel 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 — 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 for 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 also a worthy goal.
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 naively (and I think superficially) presume must be used to qualify a work as “inclusive”.
Put another way, it is the listeners of the world, the ones we hope to “include”, who get to determine what is and what is not inclusive, not we who pronounce it inclusive, because we say so! Adding bongo drums and gongs to a contemporary string quartet on a campus new music concert may be a well-intentioned gesture, but the painful truth is that people are simply not streaming those pieces worldwide, because they don’t like them, because most of those pieces sound weird and contrived, like putting a sushi roll on a pizza. However, people are streaming my rather straightforward tonal music in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Qatar, Iceland, Ghana, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Maldives, Belarus, Bahrain, Suriname, and Vanuatu, among many others, and that is what is wanted.
Something is not inclusive, by definition, if people don’t want to be included in it. The traits that do appeal in all cultures are broader and have nothing to do with hybrid mixtures. Those traits are, simply: 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.
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. Then compose your music as if you were writing it for just one other person, 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 calculated to pander to groups as a whole.