Not at All Obvious

Last week I visited the University of Virginia at the invitation of composer Judith Shatin. Listening to music by her students, I asked her if she agreed that student composer concerts today are infinitely better than they were in the 1970s when we were in college. She did agree, emphatically, but we came up with different explanations. My memory was that young composers back then were all trying to imitate people like Boulez and Stockhausen and Carter, composers of extremely complex music wildly beyond their technical capacity. Sophomores who knew Led Zeppelin better than they knew Bartok were trying to mimic the musical personas of 50-year-old Europeans who had studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, and who had all European history at their fingertips. The results were ludicrous, unlistenable. Judith’s explanation wasn’t contradictory, but complementary: that in the 1970s there was an intimidating prohibition on doing anything obvious in your music.

Whether or not it’s a better explanation, I think it’s one that remains more relevant today. There’s still a reluctance in some music circles to allow anything obvious. Some of the most tedious music by famous and oft-performed composers seems to spend all its time busily hiding its underlying idea. Doing something obvious – a memorable melody, a clear chord progression, a rhythmic groove – makes you vulnerable, because it’s something that the listener can latch onto and criticize and make fun of if it sounds stupid. But it is only the courage to be vulnerable that endears you to an audience, and today’s young composers have that courage more than we did. Why was my generation so afraid to be obvious? Was it a fear imposed on us by our teachers? our peers? or did we do it to ourselves?

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