What Composers Taught Me | Aaron Gervais, composer

What Composers Taught Me

Karl Friedrich Abel

I recently decided to try to encapsulate major lessons I learned from other composers’ music over the years into short one-liners. Sort of like the personality surveys that go around Facebook, but more about the musical personality of composers (perhaps my personality more than the people listed here). Anyway, this is what I came up with, in no particular order:

  • Mozart – Variety is good, so don’t take your motives too seriously.
  • Machaut – Rules are for theorists, not composers.
  • Bach – Most people are content with a repetitive, symmetrical pattern.
  • Vivaldi – History doesn’t always remember your best work.
  • Palestrina – Pretty is always in style.
  • Beethoven – Seriousness only gets you so far.
  • Messiaen – There’s nothing more expressive than a long, held note.
  • Debussy – How you say it is more important than what you say.
  • Stravinsky – People like to compare every other composer to Stravinsky.
  • Bartok – Logical structures are accessible, as long as they are audible.
  • Lachenmann – You can write moving phrases with almost no material.
  • Ligeti – The overtone series only takes you so far.
  • Brahms – You don’t have to be good at everything.
  • Steve Reich – Your material needs to be engaging.
  • Jacob ter Veldhuis – Music is about culture.
  • Chopin – Great music should be moving.
  • Webern – Modernism doesn’t have to be heavy, and it is better to go too short than too long.
  • Berg – Drama is an intrinsic part of all great music.
  • Puccini – A great melody is an amazing thing.
  • Grisey – The ear is mightier than the computer.
  • Xenakis – Sacrifice the system and write from your gut if it makes the music better.
  • Carter – Craft is boring without meaning.
  • Feldman – You don’t always need to pay attention in order to have a great musical experience.
  • Boulez – Ideas do not great music make. (This applies equally to many other composers but Boulez epitomizes it for me.)
  • Andriessen – Some things really do sound better loud.
  • Stockhausen – Everyone has hits and misses.
  • Richard Aryes – Happy, sad, and funny are pretty much the only emotional concepts you need to think about when writing music.
  • Wagner – People are impressed by big productions.