Where is Music Composition Going?

03 August 1992
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An article published in the American Music Teacher, official journal of the Music Teachers National Association, Volume 42, Number 1, August/September, 1992. In addition to the article, there were photos and bios of each of the MTNA "Composers of the Year" in the 1980's, and a chart listing the year they won, the names and instrumentation of their winning composition, publishing/recording info, and their present position.

An article published in the American Music Teacher, official journal of the Music Teachers National Association, Volume 42, Number 1, August/September, 1992. In addition to the article, there were photos and bios of each of the MTNA "Composers of the Year" in the 1980's, and a chart listing the year they won, the names and instrumentation of their winning composition, publishing/recording info, and their present position.

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Where is music composition going?  Some people might say "astray"--or worse, "who cares?"  As a music teacher, composer and active MTNA member for twenty years, I think I can honestly quote the pop song's lyric, "I can see the world from both sides now."

I remember in the early days of the MTNA Composer Commissioning program being able to relate somewhat to the grumblings of music teachers who felt that they had just been assaulted by the performance of a newly commissioned work that seemed bent on shocking or confusing the audience.  But as a composer, I also know the pain of being asked to confine myself to a very narrow range of stylistic devices or colors--the very tools of my trade.  That's a little like asking children not to draw designs of their own, but only to mimic those of recognized works of art.

It is a mistake to blame composers--as many people do--for what is sometimes perceived today as a lack of interest in, even a disdain for, new works.  We must remember that much of society--and not just in this country--was enticed into the cult of technology.  I'm a firm believer in the virtues of technology (including "high tech-high touch" and the like), but the cult of technology--the widespread abandonment of poets and seers in favor of fact and scientific experimentation--influenced us and did us harm.  We are just now collectively realizing that technology alone will not save us from ourselves.

For a while, composers--like some scientists--spent too much of their creative energies ridiculing the devices and techniques of their predecessors, while audiences continued to be moved by the insights of long-dead composers, whose techniques may indeed have become predictable, but whose poetic vision was clear and powerful.  Yet for current audiences to exhibit a knee-jerk reaction against all new works would be as senseless as failing to look toward new technology simply because we now feel that technology itself is not the ready-made savior we may have once thought it was.  We all live in this century together--poets and scientists alike--and are affected by its dynamics.

When I was asked, as the first of the ten MTNA Composers-of-the-Year in the 1980's, to write about these composers, I felt it was an opportunity to ask some pointed questions of nine other people whose compositions had been chosen as outstanding works written during a very eventful decade. I asked if the award had made a difference in the composers' careers; what had happened to the composers since receiving the award; and what they thought about composition today.

After a bit of hunting, I was able to ask those questions of all the composers except Nicholas Van Slyck, the MTNA Distinguished Composer of 1982, who is deceased.  Responses to questions about what has happened to the composers since receiving the award and the vital statistics about their winning pieces, including how to obtain copies or recordings, are included on p. 30 [ed. See information about original publication in intro text].

Most composers did not feel that the award directly resulted in additional performance or commissions, but several said that it helped to boost their academic standing and was a source of encouragement at the outset of their careers.  Samuel Adler said that the award did help in getting immediate publication of his winning work, and James Mobberly indicated that many good results--including publication, recording, and performances--were direct results of the award.  Michael Schelle wrote that the "award has helped with the work's life because of the recognition of the association.  It is a distinctive honor to include on my resume."

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Diversity Of Styles

When asked if they saw any trends in music composition today and whether they liked or disliked them, all composers except one mentioned the wide diversity of styles and the apparent lack of any dominant style or dogma.  Most found this invigorating.  Rand Steiger commented, "Composers are free to work in whatever style pleases them, without having to conform to any common practice.  There is a kaleidoscope of inspiration and influences."

Because of the rise in world-wide communication and the one-world view (as seen from space) that technology has given us--along with the widespread realization that technology is a means and not an end--there seems to be a flowering of humanistic interest.  We are exploring new types of artistic expression, new ways to relate to each other, and new ways to feel "grounded"  Adler felt that the present diversity of compositional styles will continue, since the arts somewhat reflect reality and people are looking for their "roots."

Mobberley aptly described the richness of this diversity:

The orchestral and chamber music fields are now joined by a resurgent electronic and computer music field, a blending of world musics, a blending of 'classical'  and 'popular' styles, performance art and other theatrical combinations, and the burgeoning world of music for video and film.

The most exciting aspect of this "anything goes" atmosphere is the possibility that composer, performer, and audience may find a new relationship that will be closer, more human and more fun, without sacrificing the needs or interests of any member of the triangle.

Jeffrey Wood noted that he did not see nearly so much of the virtuoso elitism, "the production of works of frightening technical difficulty, both compositionally and in terms of performance," that used to exclude the listener and all but the most committed performer.  Several composers spoke positively about the current loosening of "artificial academic complexities" and about the greater freedom that younger composers now enjoy--much more than the composers interviewed felt they had experienced.

The public is not likely aware of the kind of peer pressure and academic coercion directed at those of us who were educated during the sixties and seventies.  The sweep toward mind-boggling, technologically beautiful but largely inhuman complexity was highly esteemed.  Almost any other musical language--especially that which borrowed from the traditions of tonality or the resolutions of tensions--was ridiculed as pedestrian and passé.  Even now the standard of "modernity" is usually upheld in the choices made by almost all judges of composition contests.  As national chairman of the MTNA student composition contest, I was once told by a judge that he liked a more conservative piece very much but was afraid to choose it.

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Some Concerns

Though we welcome the positive aspects of today's compositional scene, we are also concerned about its problems.  Mobberley pointed out that there are fewer "quality controls" on this expanded musical world.  Greater freedom must go hand in hand with a greater individual striving for excellence.  Schelle was concerned that young composers may get a false sense of security from the "published" look of computer music manuscript programs and may also be a bit too enamored with so-called "art" pop music.

Michael Echert drove the point home eloquently:

Many more composers are now writing for the public (or trying to), and in my view this has resulted in the composition of much more or less superficial music, often based on banal harmonic material.  The criteria for 'success' in composition seem to be increasingly those of the cultural marketplace rather than what I call 'connoisseurship,' or cultivated listening.

Several composers expressed concern over the future of the "field" of composition as a profession.  In some ways, they said, it has become more like a hobby than a viable profession, even though, as Eckert stated, "more people than used to can now make a living as 'professional' (i.e. non-teaching) composers by putting together grants, residencies, and the like."  There seems to be a consensus about the futility of the present academic job market for young composers, especially given the number of graduates we keep turning out.

More Interest in Composition

One would think that these problems would discourage young people from trying their hand at composition.  Exactly the opposite seems to be happening.  More independent music teachers of pre-college students are using composition exercises as a tool for improving students' musicianship by seeing music "from the inside out."  Teachers have discovered, often by accident, that this perspective engages the "whole" student in the study and performance of music.

For two years now we have held a "Composers Day," sponsored by our local association, where fifteen pre-college students attend morning "bag-of-tricks" workshops, followed by lunch with adult composers, afternoon open rehearsals of both student and adult works, and a public recital of these works at which the adult "mentor" for each student introduces to the audience not only his own work but also that of the student with which he worked that day.  The response has been very positive.  But the most surprising response was the enthusiasm of the adult volunteer composers--even those who at first feared that they might have trouble relating to, or communicating with, children.

My own experience, and that of my students, tells me that those of us who compose do so for the sheer excitement of the joyful moments of magic that occur during the creative process, even though we also need the acceptance, recognition, and monetary reward.  Balancing these needs with the hunger for regular doses of magic is a trick difficult to learn and even harder to teach.  But to quit trying is to allow a mass-produced, non-idiosyncratic aesthetic to rule our lives and the lives of our children.

To say that we must not "smooth off all the rough edges" does not endorse any particular style, since even the most experimental devices become predictable after much use.  My own motto is not a new one, but an old balance:  "Same but different."  Whether as a guide to developing form-building in a particular piece, or as a blueprint for an overall style, it is a simple phrase that seems to help me respect human convention while trying to find a distinctive, but honest, voice of my own.

As to the future of the process of composition, let me quote from an interview with Paul Hindemith in ETUDE (reprinted in THE BOOK OF MODERN COMPOSERS, edited by David Ewen and published by Alfred A. Knopf):

Social changes, politics, and war may affect the composer's life, as they did the lives of every master from Palestrina to the present day.  But just as the spring continues to flow and the trees and flowers throughout the world continue to bloom, so more and more will music continue to be created, despite philosophies, ideologies, isms, airplanes, submarines, and a world of strife.