Everything Is Possible

I received interesting responses to my post on the “Post-Prohibitive Era,” about why some composers still push their students to write music in mid-20th-century styles.

Matt Malsky quotes Cage’s paraphrase of Sri Ramakrishna in Silence:

“Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words, with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time)?”

Cage’s ambiguous answer [Matt continues] is, “In order to thicken the plot.” But, in a
post-prohibitive age, what is the plot? And what thickens it?

Carolyn Bremer, prof at Cal State at Long Beach, has kind of a stunningly simple answer as to why the big music schools hire more intransigent modernists than the less well-known ones:

University faculties are hired by university faculties. At big composition programs, search committees are stacked with composers. They’ll hire someone they like, which too often translates into someone who will like their music.

At smaller programs, search committees are staffed with musicians of all sorts: performers, conductors, historians, whatever. They have no trouble with diatonic music.

It’s certainly true that you get a more diverse search committee in a small department. It’s also true that search committees made up of composers invariably claim that they’re looking for diversity in the make-up of their department. But they never mean it.

Rodney Lister of the Sequenza 21 crowd notes that each of the schools I mentioned offers at least one professor who will be receptive to whatever style of music a student wants to write in. That might be true. But why is that good enough? Why should, for instance, any student encounter a single composition teacher who tells him he can’t use key signatures, when some publicly successful music has been written in recent decades with key signatures (I might mention Steve Reich’s Octet, or Adams’s Nixon in China)? If a student went to school for chemistry and four of the chemistry professors wouldn’t deal with any element in the periodic table higher than Plutonium, because that was the highest element when they graduated, why should that student be forced to seek out and only study with the fifth professor, who’s heard of Bohrium? Shouldn’t those other professors be pushed into retirement if they can’t keep up with the field? And shouldn’t a composer who seeks to prevent others from using key signatures, majors scales, etc. have the onus placed on him to provide a rational justification for such prohibition, or else put a lid on it? Besides, a lot of damage can be done if the first professor a student encounters lays down some ridiculous law. I had the chutzpah to blow off my teachers’ mandates, but not every freshman is so confident.

Rodney feels that the New Romantic composers have been, in general, more dogmatic than the serialists, and from what little evidence I have, that might be true, too. He and I agreed, though, that the problem is often not intrinsically stylistic, but a result of composers trying to turn their students into clones of themselves. There are two possible motivations – increasing one’s fame down the road by virtue of one’s apparent influence (or simply keeping one’s style current), or the laziness of not having to get inside another creative person’s head. Personally, I find the tactic very foreign. I find it easier to teach a student whose music is very different from mine, because I can come up with more objective solutions to their problems. If a student’s music has a lot in common with mine, I’m too tempted to show them what I’d do in my music, which ends up being a distortion of what they’re trying to do. Of course, for a lot of composition teachers, succumbing to that very temptation is probably exactly the point.

And although Shostakovich and Britten are two composers I never personally warmed up to, I like Lawrence Dillon’s suggestion that their music should have been analyzed in composition departments right along with Carter and Cage, as important members of the same generation. Certainly the ideological bias with which academia separates out acceptable composers from unacceptable ones bears some self-examination. Even the pre-20th-century ones: Brahms is the darling of academia; Bruckner, a genius of large-scale harmonic structure, is ignored, and Liszt, a protean figure who wrote a ton of groundbreaking music among his lesser works, is scornfully dismissed, except for his Sonata. Schoenberg, of course, is rated many times higher in college music departments than he is elsewhere on the planet. Music professors are occupied with primarily the left-brain aspects of music: structure, syntax, motivic development, pitch set transformation. This encourages them to neglect half of the musical virtues, and for most music lovers, it’s the more important half. Given academia’s miserable track record at turning out composers of enjoyable music, they could certainly stand to look their left-brain bias square in the face and make some correctives.

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