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 THREE
July 27, 2016
This is the last of a three-part series of posts where I argue standards of professional quality are necessary if composers want to be taken seriously as professionals. Part I addresses the hypocrisy and feeble logic of dismissing the idea of such standards as “elitist”.
At the core of this argument is understanding the necessity of professional training for composers. Part II takes on some “hypothetical” viewpoints to the contrary. (“hypothetical” in quotes because in reality variations and extensions of these contrary points pop up all the time when such issues are raised). I offer critiques of the first three imagined counter-arguments, dealing with notions of technology, pluralism, and postmodern irony.
Here in Part III, I’ll conclude by offering critique of the remaining two hypothetical challenges. I’ve saved both of these for last because (1) they are related, in my mind, and (2) they both reflect something that *really* troubles me about current attitudes in new music discourse - specifically, contempt for academia and attempts to discount/discredit any effective or relevant role it may play in new music livelihood.
Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying product of academic training for professional musicianship, and continue to be part of that world as a college teacher. Thus you may think of my motivation as solely of self-interest, but I’m moved much more by the positive, transformative results of creative training I saw in so many of my peers during our academic journeys- results that I seek to achieve with the students who honor me with their trust in coming to study the craft of composition.
So, you can understand my concern and dismay when I hear accusations of... (here comes the fourth hypothetical)
d) The reputation of US university composition programs as being disposed to a creativity-killing approach of compositional thought, and will force the student to write in certain ways, namely the ways of atonality and/or serialism.
Critique: How does the notion of professional training in compositional technique via academia still suffer guilt-by-association to the hyper-systemic musical language espoused by the postwar avant-garde in Europe and the US? I think, by now, we can dismiss such concerns as outmoded, given we’re surrounded by the creative fruits of more than a generation of composers who heroically escaped Room-101ish indoctrination by the emotionless serial boogeymen (overt melodramatic sarcasm intended). Surely there’s much *less* to technique than strict serialism, just as there’s *more* to it than just “winging it” and hoping for the best. Were any of the three quality points I suggested in my previous post the precepts of any particular musical catechism?
On the contrary, a healthy academic composition program is one that encourages a community of apprentice composers who thrive and grow in each other’s company; motivated not by the constant scorekeeping of competition and accolade, but of the shared journey of creative curiosity in an environment of numerous resources. These resources (curricular ensembles, peer performing groups, library access, career development centers, interaction with industry professionals) come together to foster the development of one’s ever-expanding artistic values, an incubator for imaginative acculturation. In such an environment, creativity is not cut at the stem before it flowers, but given water and nutrition and light, encouraging growth, flowering, and (hopefully) the perennial production of more creative seedlings on the other side of the diploma. I’ve had the privilege of learning my craft at two such institutions which continue to offer such nurturing (first here, then here), and neither of them limited my creative efforts to any particular stylistic bent.
Training in the technique of a craft need not be in an academic/university setting, although it’s inarguably the most efficiently comprehensive way to prepare for a professional career - which is why most other professional careers require proof of such training, either through a university degree or a certification from a vocational school or program. Isn’t efficiency one of the principal strengths of any startup professional enterprise? At the same time, though, it should be said (and again I invite comparison to any other professional enterprise) training takes a significant time commitment. Taking a semester of sax lessons doesn’t make you a saxophonist who is properly prepared to enter the professional realm. There’s so much that comprises the bare mechanics of what one will be expected to do as a professional composer that to assume it can be gleaned among a couple of elective courses does a disservice to the very notion of it having any wherewithal to professional enterprise.
What needs to happen is to broaden access of such collegiate programs, in terms of cost and availability, so that these opportunities are not limited to a cohort of particular economic status or pre-collegiate educational background. Speaking of which: of much greater importance is fostering avenues of guided mentorship in composition prior to the college level. These opportunities should offer challenges appropriate to the development of young minds, but in order to prepare any young composer for future professional enterprise in the creative arts, initiating basic guidance in concepts related to the quality points discussed prior. A good model for this is Peabody’s Junior Bach Program.
Finally, no discussion of education would be complete without the inevitable reminder that most academic pursuits are unnecessary nowadays, thanks to…
e) the Internet and all materials/scholarship/channels of information contained therein.
I’m admittedly consumed with curiosity and enthusiasm when it comes to the pedagogy of composition. This comes from the good fortune of being guided by mentors who took such matters very seriously. As someone who currently is honored with instructing apprentice composers at the outset of their creative journeys, I’m overly aware of the unique challenge that lies in unlocking each student’s individual brand of creativity.
A large part of my responsibility in this role is identifying the artistic and intellectual values of each student, and guiding them towards the specific resources that aid in bringing their values to life via their creative output (rather than shoe-horning their musical curiosities into my personal, particular stylistic rubrics, as apparently many think is the case). The Internet has become an indispensable aid in this responsibility, but it is one element among many that I bring to the table in my mentorship of apprentice composers.
Far more important is my role in assisting them as they sort through the endless and ever-growing body of materials online, and directing them to those things which are of most potent relevance to the challenges along their labyrinthine routes of creative curiosity.
Of utmost importance: teaching composers to be virtuosic listeners: demonstrating how to enhance the tools of aural perception so composers can effectively glean what they like (or, just as importantly, DISLIKE) from the experience of listening to a work. This is inarguably the foundation of all craft and, in my personal experience, a common strength among those whose musical endeavors I find to be the most imaginative, the most communicative, the most effective.
If you don’t think that a solid foundation of technique is required for professional composers, and there’s nothing I can do to change your mind, I accept your right to that opinion. But I’ll ask - no, beg of you, just one thing: please stay as far away from the teaching profession as you possibly can. Perform, administrate, advocate, fundraise - do any number of things that will facilitate essential parts of the whole package that makes new music thrive. But please don’t teach. Why on earth would you want to? Your beliefs certainly negate the utility or necessity of such a venture, by your own admission. A teacher, in any subject, who has no faith in the power of acquiring knowledge or developing applicable creative skills is literally poison to the corpus of creating a well-educated populate; it compromises any hope of fostering the potentially vibrant, curious culture of a citizenry. So, again I pose what is not hypothetical: why would one teach? You’ll forgive me if I conclude that such an estimation of the teaching profession is revealed to be merely means to a consistent paycheck, nothing more. Either that, or for the perverse pleasure of thumbing one’s nose at an institution (from within its walls) with which he/she/they have no faith, in a kind of pedagogical adolescent rebellion - which requires no further commentary from me regarding the maturity or morals of such actions. Such individuals would do well not to mistake themselves as "badass" teachers. At such a point, they’re just a bad teacher - and an ass.
It would be easy for me to dismiss such ridiculous behavior as an extension of the now-sadly-cliché American anti-intellectualism which is part-and-parcel of the culture all around us; some who agree may even think I’m beating a dead horse. But (and forgive me the added drama, but imagine my voice getting higher and louder here) what signal do we send to students, professionals, audiences, &c, when these claims come from within academic environs? What possible interest would any artist have in discrediting the pursuit of knowledge, craft, technique, in the interest of advocating what remains - the “luck-plus-market-equals-career” doctrine? I wish I could convey the maddening bewilderment I’ve experienced sitting through this dichotomous routine of shallow wisdom many time before *within* the halls of learning. It doesn't make sense, and from what I've gathered, it leaves the students currently amidst their academic pursuits much more confused and disenfranchised, rather than inspired and validated as young artists. Shameful.
Bringing this to a coda, I’ll return to the first question posed: What profession outside the creative arts fosters contempt for the idea that their practitioners should be well-trained? I posed this question to a friend, and after a moment’s hesitation, he grinned and replied “...prostitution?”
If the creative arts are to survive at all - and survive beyond the misinformed perception that its active practitioners are merely lucky hobbyists - then I submit that all artists must themselves advocate not only for professional quality, but for professional credentials for all its practitioners, composers included.
We already do this for performers in the wide avenues of the concert world: we seek artist-collaborators that have demonstrable chops, and we rely on resumés detailing education and experience to inform us of making the elite choice of who gets hired, since professional engagement is a significant investment. To not expect the same when pursuing the investment of new music creatorship is blatant self-sabotage to the legitimacy of our calling. If we want to be seen as pros, treated like pros, and (relevant to the recent Volans-gate discourse) paid like pros, we need to acknowledge a definition of professional qualification for composers - and that definition, like it or not, needs to include some basic tenets of product quality. As we’d expect from other professionals, this comes not from mere exposure to available technology or the Internet, nor from moving the goalposts or playing Calvinball with the idea of product quality, nor from deliberately forsaking accredited training in an academic environment - so we must expect the same of ourselves.
Is it possible that a person with no craft training or experience could create something which thrives with the same expressive communicability as the creative work of a trained practitioner? It’s probable, though in my experience/opinion, finding such a work that is at all comparable to a professional effort is an exceedingly rare event. What’s all the more improbable is the likelihood that luck of such a work can be recreated, the happenstance of disparate elements falling together in remarkable complement - lightning striking twice - without a solid foundation in craftsmanship. What hope is there in sustaining such finger-crossed coincidence to the extent that a professional career demands?
So, composers: the next time you find yourself interfacing with someone outside the creative arts who makes plain their attitude that your job is nothing more than an extracurricular activity run amok, ask yourself:
Do I advocate the same kind of integrity for my professional enterprise as I expect of all other professionals?
If the answer is “no”, then, unfortunately, you’re left to swallow this bitter pill: anyone who tells you that your job is just a hobby is staring the source of this deception right in the face.