Why Composers Should Drop Out of University (and What They Should Be Learning), Part 2

Photo CC by Takuya Goro on Flickr

A self-help guide to becoming a composer

In the first part of this article, I talked about some of the problems with studying composition in academia, and I offered some alternative ways that composers might cultivate their craft more effectively (and probably less expensively too). Here, I’m providing a sort of Top 10 list of life lessons for composers. Realizing that you have no reason whatsoever to listen to my advice, I’m trying to couch this in terms of wisdom I have received from others or that I can back up somehow, with attribution when possible. This is by no means comprehensive, but these are definitely issues that I think every composer needs to internalize for themselves in one way or the other.

It’s not about you

Music has never existed in a vacuum. The simplest way to contextualize this is the fact that we evolved as social animals and music is a part of human behavior. I’ve gone to talks by neuroscientists who study the musical brain, and I’ve read books by evolutionary anthropologists examining how music developed. Music fills certain biological functions for humans, and admitting that doesn’t make your music any less valuable. So whatever your take on the role of the artist in society, one immutable aspect of your role is affecting other people with your music.

Some interesting takeaways from various neuroscience things I’ve read/heard: Music is a group bonding tool. Music is used to create groups and define opposition against other groups. Music is primarily a way of communicating emotion to a group. Musical grammar is processed in the same part of the brain (and in the same way) as linguistic grammar. The ability to appreciate music is innate, but the skill needs to be developed in early infancy or it doesn’t appear (as does vision).

It’s all about you

Within any given social sphere, musicians hold a status similar to a shaman or priest. This isn’t to say that music is religion or can replace its social function, but for most people music does operate on a quasi-mystical level whose closest analog is religious fervor. We want to believe that great composers are endowed with some unique gift that can’t be purchased with money and that transforms our lives in wonderful and baffling ways. It has to be that way, otherwise music wouldn’t be such a powerful group-forming evolutionary adaptation.

So within whatever sphere of music you’re drawn to, you have to make a contribution that’s honest to who you are and goes beyond simple craft. Writing for other reasons, such as sucking up to someone in a position of influence, only leads to short-term gain. If you write to try to please others, you won’t be able to create transcendence; at best, you’ll generate some etudes. Listen to your instincts. Sometimes, the music will lead you in places you think you probably shouldn’t go—you need to go there. If the approach really does fail, you can fix it later, but more often than not, the “What? Did I actually write that?” moments lead to the greatest artistic growth. And people respect you for taking a risk and challenging the norm.

You may win competitions and build a career by pandering to others or copying your mentors, but what’s the point? Who do you admire most, Mozart or Salieri? Mozart wrote in 1781, “The only one who counts in [the Emperor’s] eyes is Salieri,” but in the eyes of my spellcheck, Mozart counts and Salieri is not a word…

Bach and Beethoven couldn’t exist today

The great composers are products of their own time. They exist not because some unique genius appeared only at one point in history, but because their personalities, coupled with the circumstances around them and the aesthetic tastes of the day, led to the careers they had. Those same people might have done something completely different had they been born today, due to the difference in cultural contexts. Or maybe they’d still be composers, but it’s hard to imagine that they’d have the same impact on history. Music just holds a different place in society today than it did at any point in the past, for a variety of reasons related to the mass market, communications technology, and the greater cultural plurality we’ve (rightly) come to  accept.

So while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with admiring the achievements of the great composers of the past, as role models they aren’t very useful. This applies equally, although to a lesser degree, to Debussy, Bartók, Schoenberg—even living legends like Boulez. In the 1950s and ‘60s, avant-garde artists were featured in mass-media publications like Time Magazine. (Amazingly, Time publishes articles dating back half a century freely online, including this review of Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique from 1965.) Can you imagine that happening today? You can’t measure yourself by the standards of the composers who came before you, and if you do, all you end up doing is becoming a pale imitation.

You learn about music from life

As I was writing this section, composer Christien Ledroit made this exact same point as a comment to Part 1 of this article. Music as a human activity did not evolve in classrooms, so if your only life experience is a classroom, how do you expect to write great music? It’s a disservice to artists to repeat the trope that art comes from suffering, but there is a kernel of truth to the idea that worthwhile things come through striving and effort, not by picking the low-hanging fruit. This concept applies across a broad swath of human activities outside of the arts too.

Many students interpret the heritage of the atonal, modernist tradition as a rationale for ignoring the question of what their own context is, because a context-free music was the aesthetic project of the modernist generation. The modernists thought they were writing pure music, free from the Western European cultural evils that they believed led to the Third Reich (note that the Second Viennese School had no such ambitions). Yet looking back, their music was so seamlessly integrated within the cultural context of the Cold War that they didn’t even notice they were a part of it. There are even U.S. government documents describing how the post-war administrations wanted to use modernist art, supported by government subsidy, to combat the Soviet threat.

Rhythm, pitch, form, and theory are inconsequential elements of music

We talk about these things because it’s easy to analyze and describe them, not because they actually matter. Going back to biology, what matters is how people react to music. Animals can’t even recognize music as a distinct category of sound (with the exception of Snowball the dancing cockatoo). The fact that musical grammars are learned in the same way linguistic grammars are learned also speaks to the ephemeral nature of the elements of music. The building blocks are a byproduct of creating a successful musical expression; they aren’t the expression itself.

The extension of this point is that you shouldn’t take your ideological leanings too seriously. People have created great music in any number of ways and by breaking any number of rules. Maybe you think it’s “wrong” to use tonal harmony today, or that atonal music was a distraction that hurt Western music, or that minimalism is annoyingly repetitive, or that pop-inspired chamber music is the future—good for you. Someone else is bound to use the exact opposite stance to do something amazing and world-changing. There’s no shortcut to writing masterpieces.

The score is not the music

Write your score and parts as if you were writing IKEA assembly instructions: make them as straightforward as possible, minimize the use of words, and be succinct. Big print, conventional notation, and good page turns will win you friends and performances. Reinventing the wheel will get you an invitation to speak in front of a bored group of grad students.

This is one of those issues where people never tire of debating the philosophical and psychological implications of what one notation does over the other. I’m going to put my foot down and say that this isn’t one of those unanswerable, shades-of-gray questions: the right answer is to stick to convention whenever possible.

You want your music played well. You want performers to understand your intention. They’ve spent their lives learning how to draw nuance and interpretation out of the flawed system that we have. You’re not going to get a better result by making them learn a new system; they’ll basically just be translating back to convention in their minds as they play anyway. Some even rewrite the parts themselves into conventional form. Unnecessarily complex notation is like asking an actor to play a part convincingly in a language they don’t speak, or writing an English play with the Cyrillic alphabet because you think it adds a certain je ne sais quoi. The problem is that when you do that, personne d’autre ne sait quoi non plus.

True, sometimes you do need to create something new, but 99 percent of the time you don’t. And when you do create something new, you should be able to explain it in 10 words or less. Otherwise, go back to the drawing board because what you’re actually doing is being lazy and hoping the performers will finish the idea that you couldn’t be bothered to develop yourself.

Don’t fall in love with your material

Often there will be some great musical idea that serves as the genesis for your piece. That’s great, but as the piece progresses, you may very well need to throw that out. The best composers are ruthless self-editors. Approach your scores with the question, “Can I delete this?” at every measure. You’ll write better music as a result. Sometimes a passage that you worked on for ages and that you really love just doesn’t fit into the piece anymore. A focused piece is always more successful than a piece that tries to do too much. You’ll get another chance to use that cool idea. Better to leave the audience wanting more than groaning that your piece was long-winded and uninteresting.

The audience does not have a collective mind

I read this great article on the problem of understanding and defining what the audience actually is. As I’ve said, your music obviously needs to be about other people and group building, but you can’t predict how any one person will respond. So many composers make the mistake of typecasting their audiences. It’s simplistic and counterproductive. Give people something you would be excited to hear, and write music that you are proud to present. Then let them judge as they will.

Serendipitous circumstances are a major part of success

Harry Partch rode the rails and lived on the streets. Aaron Copeland couch-surfed between commissions. John Cage wrote for instruments that most people at the time would have considered to be garbage, simply because he didn’t have access to anything else. Just make the music that matters to you. That’s the best way to ensure that you’re going in a direction where you have a chance of creating something meaningful. And if you’re lucky, someone will recognize you for that contribution.

Becoming popular is about marketing and public relations

The “general public” (to the extent it exists) has never recognized great artists for their own merits. Most people don’t have the time to look for great art, and even in their spare time, they don’t have the mental energy to grapple with a challenging work of art. This was true 500 years ago and it’s true today—being able to expend energy on art is a luxury, even though of course most people believe art should be accessible to all. So most people most of the time focus on the art that is able to cut through the background noise of daily life.

Composers and performers do too. In fact, musicians are some of the busiest people you’ll meet, so if you want them to appreciate your music, they need to know about you and be reminded about you regularly. Nobody likes to be spammed though, so here is where creativity and tact come in. To repeat a cliché, don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Start projects and be a part of your community.

Art is about making life worth living

The uselessness of art is its greatest virtue. Art is something people do that has absolutely no connection to physical survival, and yet everyone loves it. African American plantation workers sang as they worked. In Brazil, escaped slaves developed capoeira first as a means of defense and then as a competitive dance form. Even in concentration camps, people make music and art—Messiaen wrote Quartet for the End of Time in one.

I think this supports the theory that music is a group-building tool: it helps people function better collectively and overcome their challenges. Hopefully you’ll never have to go through such harrowing experiences, but it’s useful to remember that art is about quality of life. This is why I think transcendence should be the goal of every piece. It’s also why there’s nothing wrong with trying to make music people will like, although you should get to that music through your own interests, not by second-guessing the non-existent “audience”. You’re a person, so follow your gut: would you go to hear this piece if an unknown composer with no relation to you had written it? That should be the standard of excellence that you set for yourself.

(Research assistance: Carolyn Smith)

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