I, Academic Composer

What have I been doing instead of blogging, instead of letting you know what’s going on in the exciting world of new music? Why, composing, of course. And more particularly, confronting the scary fact of being a composer in academia and trying to figure out how to cope with it.

“Academic composer” became a harshly negative term in the 1970s. Technically, to the extent that it refers to composers who teach in colleges, I’ve become one, and now that I’m tenured and really settled into the life, I struggle on a weekly basis with the nature of the beast. There are truly many dangers to one’s musical creativity associated with teaching for a living. They’re on my mind a lot, and perhaps the most entertaining thing I can do at the moment, in the absence of other stimuli, is outline them as best I can.

The most common connotation of “academic composer” is someone whose music and musical opinions are relentlessly highbrow and intellectual, who has contempt for any music that can be easily understood. This stereotype never really applied to composers at most colleges, and it probably applies to fewer today than it did 20 years ago. It applies most accurately to composing faculty at some of the more “prestigious,” hoity-toity music schools – which there is no need to list here. In the ’70s and ’80s these were by far the best-known “academic composers,” and they gave the group a really bad name. But their influence, like that of the Neocons, is definitely on the wane, and for similar reasons. They led us into quagmires.

Even so, there are more widespread psychological difficulties that face any creative artist who teaches in an institution of higher learning for a living. Some of the more obvious ones I’m pretty much immune to – perhaps because I spent the first 16 years of my post-college life earning my living outside academia. One is the tendency to get your ego strokes from the fact that 19-year-olds find you brilliant and your knowledge impressive. Some professors get so used to reflections of their encyclopedic wisdom in the awe expressed by inexperienced young people that they lose perspective about where they stand in the adult world. My students, for instance, may think it’s amazing that I can refer to all of the Beethoven string quartets by opus number off the top of my head, but it isn’t: it simply indicates I’ve been around for awhile. Might as well be impressed because I know all the street names in my neighborhood. I’ve known a couple professors so intoxicated by the admiration of their students that they grow uncomfortable in the company of other professional adults, and start shunning adult contact to hang out with their students and continue being the Big Man. It’s good to keep in mind what Morton Feldman said about the hardcore academic composers: “They have reduced the music of an entire nation to a college level” – a reminder that the level of college discourse is, or should be, intrinsically lower than that of the post-graduate professional world.

A related danger is the temptation to start thinking of your college population as the real audience for your music. It’s difficult and rare to get truly objective feedback on your music from your students and especially your collegiate colleagues. The latter are pretty much guaranteed to pat you on the back without giving you much critical thought, and student admiration is mixed up with all kinds of extraneous influences, including the extent to which you present a similarity or contrast with their parents, and how they feel about them. Much, much more edifying to have a performance for a roomful of lay strangers who owe you nothing, and to watch their reactions and listen to their particular praise and what they reject. I never encourage performances of my music at my own school, which do nothing for me professionally; at best they provide a pro forma validation to the community that my authority as a teacher is grounded in some practical ability. But I have known professor-composers whose entire career has pretty much taken place within the confines of the college auditorium (augmented by performance-exchange programs with other schools). This leads to a kind of debilitating solipsistic smugness, since your music draws loads of lukewarm praise and almost never any outright rejection.

This much I can avoid, but there are other influences more insidious. One is the pervasive proximity to music theory. Like most college composers, I spend a lot of time teaching theory, preoccupied on a daily basis with musical phenomena that have names and can be defined. This is not good for one’s composing, and it keeps me in a state of daily resistance. Pivot-chord modulations, augmented sixth chords, and the like are tools developed by long-dead composers for music very different from ours today, and while you need to spend your life developing the specific tools you need for the job you’ve created, it is difficult to resist using tools that you have lying around your mental studio floor so ready-to-hand. The ongoing tension has given rise to a rainbow of solutions and compromises, and has been responsible, I think, for a general stylistic change in my music over the last seven years. Teaching music history, interestingly, which I also do, doesn’t present the same mental bind, and though it’s more time-consuming for me, I recommend it to those so inclined. I’m perversely lucky, by the way, that I am considered the theory/history teacher at my school, and not the composition teacher: my music can exhibit a simplicity, direct emotional appeal, and vernacular influence that goes against the grain of the more musically intellectual types without tarnishing my professorial authority. I’m not really a composer, you know.

But the worst condition of the “academic composer” is the amount of mental and emotional energy siphoned away from creativity and into administrative and pedagogical concerns. Every professor will tell you that teaching is by far the best and easiest part of the job: what requires and consumes far more energy is the committee meetings, the politics, the territorial and curricular disputes, the power grabs to be resisted, the bookkeeping demands made by the administration. It used to be, when I was young, that I could make a three-hour road trip and spend almost the entire time engaged in what I can only call acts of sonic imagination: where should this melody go, what would this rhythm sound like against that one, what succession of keys or harmonies would make for a satisfyingly organic structure? When that mental energy gets harnessed instead into composing in your head a memo to the Dean, or listing arguments to shore up a defense against encroachments by some department chair, you’re in trouble. You find yourself obsessing about things that, in an earlier sane moment in your life, you would have realized are of absolutely no consequence. The issues you’re getting passionate about are, in point of fact, academic.

And that’s the real danger of composing in academia, even for the most open-minded and well-intentioned artist, that takes all one’s powers to be aware of and resist: it threatens to turn you into a dilletante. You write a piece over Christmas break and another one between conferences in the summer, and composing becomes more a respite from the rigors of your teaching career than the central focus, the meaning of your life, the defining end of your personality, that it used to be. Composing infrequently leads to a too-easy satisfaction with your current technical prowess. You use a few techniques in one piece, and, forgetting in the whirlwind of the semester what that was like, six months later you use those same techniques in another – and it seems sufficient. You don’t become immersed enough in your own creative process to grow dissatisfied with it, to damn your own limitations, to be struck by your own repetitive reflexes. You don’t work yourself into a creative crisis, as you can writing several pieces in quick succession, that demands that you break through to a new plateau. Your music ceases to communicate – because you’re in an artificial environment in which failing to communicate carries no penalty. The built-in college audience cushions you from a real-world response that would make this painfully apparent.

Don’t mistake this for a complaint about my cushy life. Such dangers are not entirely confined to academia – to a certain extent they are the nature of day jobs. The worst thing I could imagine is having an exhausting, 9-to-5 job outside of music, one that would leave little energy left at the end of the day and on weekends to remember what I wanted to compose and why. I couldn’t do what Charles Ives did. If I had to wake up every morning and devote myself to something that wasn’t about music, I’d shoot myself – some composers are different, and relish the diversion. Even inherited wealth, as Virgil Thomson pointed out, harbors dire pitfalls for the creative mind. I know composers who live their lives pretty much being composers, and they expend about as much energy applying for grants and commissions and awards and trying to line up gigs as I do teaching. That kind of life isn’t open to me: I don’t ask for things well, I rarely make good first impressions, especially on someone I want something from, I don’t toot my own horn gracefully, and I’m not good at hiding the resentment that accompanies what can only be called institutionalized begging. These are my shortcomings, and it proved more practical to work around than fix them. I like the paycheck deposited into my account every month without me having to humble or exalt myself to get it, and criticism and teaching have both afforded me that. Committee meetings exact a milder toll on my creative process than financial insecurity used to.

The evil of the academic creative life is that the dangers come with so many rewards, that they are so seductive. You have prestige, and a position. People kowtow to you on the basis of your laurels, without ongoing achivement being necessary. Sit back and recycle your paltry information, and a certain mild level of honors will flow to you automatically. You write a chamber piece, it will be played by people you know for people you know, and it takes energy and ambition to tell yourself every day that that’s not enough – that it’s not anything, in fact. The danger of teaching (and of criticism as well), unlike plumbing or working on computers, is that you’ll start to identify with your role, a role in which authority is conferred on you by an external institution. That assumption of an authority that does not come completely from within, from one’s own personal powers of persuasion and decision, is fatal, I think, to an artist. It is the static authority of a Salieri as opposed to the irreverent vulnerability of a Mozart.

I do not, however, join the chorus of people who say that creative artists shouldn’t be given tenured positions. I utterly reject the paternalistic treatment of artists whereby they should be kept starving and insecure “for their own good,” the ludicrous idea that some administrator knows what my soul needs for its sustenance. Every artist, no matter what his or her day job entails, is responsible for learning and applying the mental hygeine appropriate to it. The history of creative artists in academia is a brief one, when you think about it – John Knowles Paine created the first music professorship in America in 1876, and composers didn’t flood into academia until the 1960s. It’s premature to conclude that we can’t learn to deal with this. I ground myself in musicians who had no academic aspirations, from James P. Johnson to Harold Budd to Morton Feldman to Bob Dylan to the Residents; I keep my composing career separate from my job and cultivate it away from colleges in general; I refer to teaching as “my day job” every chance I get, just as a reminder; and in the months I can I compose like a Tasmanian devil, trying to make a year’s worth of music in a summer. I chose this life because 1. I didn’t like the way creative music was treated in the university and I wanted to change things, and 2. the world of print journalism was crumbling and I needed a place to jump to. It’s up to me to make it work. As Erik Satie said, “If I fail, so much the worse for me; it’ll mean I had nothing in me to begin with.” In the meantime, I’ve learned something that doesn’t particularly surprise me: that composing in academia without sliding into becoming an “academic composer” is really, really difficult.

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