This is the first post of my SoundMakers composer-in-residence position with Soundstreams. The residency is rooted in the idea of making the act of composing more visible, more tangible, more participatory. This is the main challenge for musical creators in 2014, and a subject I’m very passionate about.
We don’t live in a very composer-centric time. Celebrity chefs have taken over the cultural role composers used to play, and the performer-focused nature of the pop music scene has downplayed the importance of the composer’s craft. To most people, composers are a relic of a bygone age, or perhaps ultra-specialized craftspeople who serve at the pleasure of a film director. We are abstract and far removed from daily concerns, like the engineers that design traffic signal algorithms, and for that reason composers and composition receive scant attention from the public at large. (more…)
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. (more…)
The challenges of learning composition in academia
I’ve always said that I learned despite my education and not because of it, and after my master’s degree I decided to put my money where my mouth was and not pursue a PhD—much to my relief, the commissions and composing continued anyway. A few months ago I read a great article in Slate by William Pannapacker that really struck home for me. The basic premise was not that new: universities are making themselves irrelevant in the humanities, arts, and sciences. What was refreshing, however, was that this wasn’t an anti-intellectual rant, it was just an honest examination of what higher education as an institution is trying to do and how it thinks it should fit into society. So what if your goal is to be the best composer possible and to have your music heard by other people who are interested in similar types of music? Should you get a degree in composition? (more…)
Recently I discovered the amazingly addictive new website Quora, where people ask questions on certain themes. After a basic setup, I was instantly directed to a very intriguing question for me: Why do people study music theory? I argued that music theory helped performers make more informed interpretations. I also argued that composers were generally hindered by music theory, because it’s a retrospective discipline and composing is inherently forward-looking. Lots of people disagreed with me of course… Still, I’m going to advance the idea that if we want to create better composers (though I’m not sure we really do—the competition is already pretty fierce), we need to reduce the emphasis on music theory, increase the emphasis on general analysis skills and critical thinking, and make music history the cornerstone of musical education. (more…)