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 TWO
July 20, 2016
This post follows Part I of a three-part series where I argue standards of professional quality are necessary if composers want to be taken seriously as professionals. In so doing, I addressed the hypocrisy and feeble logic of dismissing the idea of such standards as “elitist”.
Part II here will address hypothetical contrary arguments to the points I raised in Part I. This series of posts comes as an extended response to the mercurial “Volans-gate” discourse from a couple weeks ago - some of the reactions being so bizarrely counterproductive to the cause of legitimizing our artistic endeavors that I felt compelled to attempt a comprehensive reply.
Again, I’m not saying that musicians, or anybody for that matter, should be dissuaded from exploring composition as a creative outlet - everybody has the right to free expression. What I do submit, without hesitation, is that if composition seeks to be taken seriously as a professional enterprise, then it’s *essential* for the products of such enterprise to reflect some competence and craft (just like all other professions expect of their practitioners). You would think, given how music is presented and disseminated in our current culture, that such sentiments would bear little risk of of provocation. And yet...
I did my damnedest to step out of my own shoes and play devil’s advocate, challenging myself to rationalize the viewpoint that argues against the necessity of quality training for professional composers. I wound up with five (5) premises that I imagine could be leveled as dissent against my opinion. I share them here, in no particular order, and critique each in turn:
a) The availability of notation programs & other software that facilitate the creative process.
Critique: Owning and using a CAD program doesn’t automatically certify one as a professional architect. As useful as these programs are in various stages of the composer’s enterprise, they’re merely a tool which require discerning input of content, especially in the case of professional activity. Don’t mistake the utility of Finale or Sibelius for the automatic credential-ing of a creative product.
[Note: I’ve back-burnered a boiling pot of “the pros & cons of notation software in developing the creative mind” and will share at another meal…]
b) Some aspects of the postmodern experiment- in particular, the use of irony as a disruption of high art
Critique: This response could easily take the form of a book on aesthetic philosophy, but I’ll be brief. Irony functions as a provocative, interesting characteristic of expression only if there’s a predictable “something” against which to be ironic. In the discussion at hand: the deliberate attempt to counter the tightly-organized, highly refined crafts of modernism with the flimsiest possible opposite: deliberately eschewing any kind of considerations whatsoever (if such a thing is even possible given our pattern-seeking, subconscious-riddled creative apparatus). Eliminate the alpha from the culture, and there’s little contribution left for beta to make on its own. Besides, there’s an inherent entropy in this breed of one-dimensional ironic juxtaposition - a kind of creative planned obsolescence - where each subsequent instance of irony increases the number of like appearances, thus shifting it on the artifact population scale from marginal avant-garde to run-of-the-mill mannerism- call it the “Urban Outfitters Effect”.
c) The rise of a pluralist arts culture that rejects mainstream style in favor of myriad modes of expression.
Critique: The apparent evaporation of a perceived mainstream certainly shouldn’t validate the existence and professional dissemination of art products lacking in a few universal, non-style•or•genre-specific quality points. Since I know you’re about to ask, let me restate (from Part I) the three basic ones that I use routinely in composition pedagogy:
•) 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.
I want to draw explicit attention to how these three points above are not promoting any particular stylistic approach to new music. All three can be applied to any compositional undertaking - from creating a short work for middle school choir to writing pop-influenced chamber music to composing a challenging hypermodern work for one of the world’s top orchestras. At the same time, they demonstrate a craftsmanly competence on the part of the composer - a competence that, to me, is demonstrative of the mutual respect that is paramount in a healthy, sustainable functioning of the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
And, as a quick aside that could easily turn into another essay: the true definition of pluralism would encourage creative expression in all grammatical/syntactical guises, not just the ones that are heard as the most hip or fashionable. Condemning someone’s expressive domain as old-fashioned, or irrelevant, or lacking in some unspoken hipness compromises the true spirit of plurality for a cultural populism that exhibits the same attitudes of exclusivity that is accused of the so-called “elites”, albeit in the opposite direction. Say an intrepid young composer hears the music of Charles Wuorinen and is moved to investigate how such techniques might amplify the idiomatic musical values of his/her/their voice. To automatically dismiss these efforts as too closely linked to an “80’s, uptown, out-of-touch academic style of"...
Sorry! That dismissal compromises the heart of the pluralist experiment. Again, I could go on, and may do so in a future post, but it’s simply discouraging to continually see/hear the United Church of No Gatekeepers reveal itself as a cultural extension of “I really listen to everything… oh, except rap, and country, and Spanish reggae, and (&c. &c…)”
Composed music offered as a professional-grade product should exhibit some awareness of those three quality points on the part of its composer. What does it take to for a composer to develop such awareness? The most obvious reply is through exposure to a broad swath of composed musical repertoire (via score, recording, and live performance); the technical study of instrumentation, orchestration, the singing voice, and digital sound sources; finally a bit of historical context to gain perspective on how art has functioned in other eras and cultures, which undoubtedly illuminates as much about our own epoch as it does of epochs past.
Admittedly this is not a minute undertaking, nor is it expeditious, and no doubt it would benefit greatly from the guidance and mentorship of trained practitioners. If only there existed a system which brought these things together with the direct goal of preparing composers for professional enterprise?
At which point (given the reaction to Volans-gate) warning alarms sound, cautioning us all against the false prospectus of higher ed composition programs. Such programs, according to some, are designed to kill your creativity, and besides, any useful information conveyed through collegiate study can now be freely accessed on the Internet!
Part III will dispel these last two claims (d and e), and offer a full-throated defense of composition pedagogy and its place in training professional composers, a subject near and dear to my heart.