Music on Main composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock recently interviewed me and a series of other composers, ranging from Louis Andriessen to David Lang, Gary Kulesha, and Kaija Saariaho. The result is her fascinating Compendium of Ideas About Form in Music, which I would encourage you to read in full.
In Morlock’s words:
I asked some of the leading composers of our time to tell us their thoughts on form in music: what form means to them, how they structure their music, if/how they make formal plans, thoughts on repetition, audible structure from the listener’s viewpoint, and how their ideas on form have changed over the course of their careers.
Her narrative weaves together bits and pieces of the composers’ responses. She also includes the full responses at the end, though they’re a little hard to navigate, so I’ve reprinted my answers here as well: (more…)
I read a great book recently, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, which is essentially this fantastic global theory of poverty and progress that works flawlessly across all of history and the world. One of their key concepts is creative destruction, the idea that any innovation that improves living standards (e.g. printing press) destroys what came before (e.g. demand for hand-copying), which leads to conflict because some other group will have an interest in maintaining the status quo (e.g. scribes).
That’s also basically the story of experimentalism in music, so I began to wonder how far the parallels go. Well, upon reflection, it seems to me that there’s a biologically determined limit to this process as it applies to art, and this inherently creates a limit on experimentalism itself. We’ve reached that limit. It’s no longer possible to be an experimental artist in the true sense of the term. (more…)
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Hans Abbing’s Why Are Artists Poor?, which formed an important source in my last two articles. Abbing is an economist and a visual artist, and he tackles the broad question of artist poverty from the perspective of both disciplines, trying to filter out the biases and myths that color traditional interpretations.
As a part of his discussion, Abbing brings up the question of what constitutes a professional artist. According to economists, professionals are people who earn some non-negligible portion of their living via their professional activities. This definition works for a lot of the activities humans do, but it’s problematic in the arts. (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…)