Assembling an anthem, with assistance from Whitman
July 3, 2017
"An Die Musik" premiered in Fredonia
December 4, 2017
Elitism and the Making of Professional Composers - PART ONE
July 13, 2016
A serious question (not hypothetical): Name a professional enterprise outside the creative arts where the idea of developing a solid, versatile technique is met with open disdain from some of its practitioners? A profession where the desire to cultivate a progressive set of skills enhanced through guided mentorship is routinely laughed at and ridiculed as elitist and irrelevant?
Okay, follow-up question: Can you name a professional enterprise outside the creative arts that is constantly and unapologetically mistaken for a hobby?
Artists bemoan the inability of the public to realize that professional artistry takes training, specialized skill development, and a unique kind of mind-balance between intuition and intellectual curiosity. We laugh and shrug and make memes ranging from goofy to passive-aggressive to begrudging in an attempt to understand why people think that “artists don’t need any skill background in order to be professionals”.
And yet some among us make that very claim- loud and proud, as if standing up to some great unseen oppressor; a posh ivory tower censorship program that gets no greater thrill than trampling upon the free expression of those whose sole transgression is a fascination with art that leads to an artistry unencumbered, virginal, pure unto itself.
The misconception starts at home. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
If we publicly advertise the professional artistic enterprise as “something anybody can do; no formal training necessary”, we capitulate to a thin, insular spirit of false democracy, and compromise our ability to clearly define to non-practitioners what being a professional artist entails. What greater disservice could we stick to the legitimacy of our cultural offering than to freely admit the efforts of our pros offer no guarantee between amateur and trained levels of technical facility? And for some of us to question the necessity of such training outright - what signal does that send to our potential ticket-paying audiences, or to those from whom we hope to fundraise?
By now some who read this may be thinking “...of course? What an unnecessary argument to make! Graphic artists, tap-dancers, cellists, recording engineers, they all need evidence of professional training to sustain and advance their careers!”
Time for a hypothetical question: Why has it become acceptable, even fashionable to not expect the same of professional composers?
Perhaps because of its abstract “something-from-nothing” nature (or perhaps because I’m overly aware given it’s my primary field, both as artist and pedagogue), it seems the notion of professional music composition is particularly susceptible to such sentiments.
Even among the performing arts: acting, dancing, instrumental or vocal performance, stagecraft, production- all of these clearly require technique to be taken seriously at the professional level; an inarguably conspicuous technique which is unhesitatingly respected. But there seems to be a growing skepticism bordering on contempt for the idea that professional composers require training of any kind; in point of fact, numerous claims tantamount to the exact opposite were floating freely amidst the social media ethers in the wake of last week’s online discourse which (with respect to space and word count) I’ll call “Volans-gate”.
Such claims often carry telling terminology which, as is often the case, speak more to the prejudice of the author than to the point of argument. In this case, the go-to word was elitist/elitism.
Given the pervasive right-wing use of the term, it’s curious to me that artists, overall a socially progressive demographic, would choose this term in the way of an unsavory implication. To my ear, it sadly rings of the all-too familiar conservative Europhobic anti-intellectualism that I thought was an adorable trait limited to America until recently. That’s why I found it “funny” when some among the anti-Volans camp equated his opinions with the rhetorical brand of the current GOP nominee (here I use the word “funny” in the same way that a botulized can of tuna tastes “funny”, or the way that Damien kid from the Omen movies acts “funny” from time to time).
The word “elite” comes from the Latin eligere which means “the deliberate exclusion of all things fun and easy in the pursuit of…” no, just kidding. It simply means “to pick”. It led thereafter to the more discerning élite (French), meaning “to select”. And, like it or not, all artists are selective in their tastes and trajectories - and professional artists more so by the necessity of their livelihoods. We narrow an immense body of performing literature to the few choice works in our repertoire; we seek out collaborators with unique artistic values that resonate with our own; we present ourselves in certain venues in an effort to communicate with various kinds of audiences. All of these require some consideration of quality, and some point of yes/no decision. (By the way, eligere is also the origin of the world “election”).
Moral of the story: all artists are elite, all the time. To use it pejoratively not only engages in false logic but also allies that criticism to the very brand of close-mindedness that it seeks to indict.
Professional enterprises all have standards of quality. In the arts, quality is a touchy subject given the subjective experience is of ultimate consequence, and notions of objectivity are malleable in light of style and genre. Yet, as someone who teaches composition to college students, I have to maintain such quality standards among a studio of unique creative minds, each with their own highly individual life experiences and artistic/intellectual acculturations. Such standards would need to transcend style, genre, and be applicable to life-cycles of creativity that undergo constant metamorphosis. Of course, I have the best interests of fruitful careers in mind, and so the standards must be realistically be applicable to the professional enterprise, rather than pedantic pedagogical prescriptions. Here’s three that do the job:
•) The form of the work and its content are related. The overall length and rough architecture of a work should be linked to its local-level material.
•) The language of the work reflects a musical self-consciousness Composed works can feature one kind of musical language or many kinds, but the composer should be aware of the communicative potential of either end of this spectrum, and all the in-between, and should exploit this potential as best he/she/they can.
•) The work is written at best advantage for its presentation Idiomatic conditions for voices, instruments and digital sound that reflect an awareness of the demands asked in bringing the work to life.
So, vis-a-vis the above, let’s create a hypothetical worst-case-scenario composition: a work by a professional composer that rambles on for too long, where the performer is struggling with music that doesn’t belong on his/her/their instrument. (Sadly, I’ve heard such a piece on more than one occasion at professional new music events. Have you heard the same?)
I submit: should the fact our current culture fosters the legitimacy of multiple styles allow for such a work to be considered an equitable professional effort to a work which makes no such transgressions? Are they equitable exemplars of 21st century compositional enterprise? Should their commission fee have been the same? Is it fair for presenters to charge the same ticket price for access to either performance?
I do not question the right of such a work to be heard - all artists have the unquestionable right to free expression - but I reject the notion that such works should be held as equal examples of what’s expected of a professional composer, given the present conditions of presenting and disseminating music in our time.
Does this prohibit any individual from exploring music composition as a creative outlet? Not at all. And, if such explorations lead to a desire to undertake composing as a true professional enterprise, then follow that calling by all means! But part of that undertaking, like any profession, involves training - an elite kind of training which, tough as it is to admit, does not spring forth as automatically as the sparks of inspiration which grace our creative minds from time-to-time. Composers: if we expect the same from all other professions, we should expect as much of ourselves. That is, unless you could think of an satisfying answer to my opening question - which, after days of quizzing friends and family on all sides of the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener, still leaves me empty-handed and unsurprised.
I’ve given a lot of thought to what I anticipate could be contrary arguments to my sentiments expressed here. In two subsequent posts, I’ll critique those arguments, as follows:
Part II will focus on arguments regarding our current culture and technology; Part III will focus on arguments against academic training for composers, and specifically in defense of effective, composition pedagogy that effectively prepares professional artists.