Stalinists in Academia

I have to quote, in its near-entirety, this story that composer Jeff Harrington tells over at Sequenza 21, in a continuation of an ongoing argument, about professor pressure in composition grad school:

…This period is history and needs to be remembered. I was told throughout my student years, even during my graduate studies in 1987-88 at Tulane that I had to write in certain styles. During my graduate studies then, my graduate teacher told me that she would not give an MFA to somebody who wrote ‘tonal music’. I remember coming home to Elsie, my wife and she burst out in tears, ‘She can’t make you do that…’. I went on to write a Stravinskyan piece, entirely out of place with my current aesthetic (and I was 35 at the time and had been composing for 17 years) because I wanted that MFA. Strangely enough, that post-tonal Stravinskyan aesthetic is what I was later to embrace (with a few mods) and forms my current musical language. Ouch!

I had no choice as to whether to continue or not, we were broke living in New Orleans, and my only way out as I could see it was to go back to school and get a Doctorate. My sole income was the teaching assistantship.

When I told Elliott Carter that I had no interest in writing expressionistic music, that I thought expressionism was played out and pointless (I was writing kind of Vivier-esque pieces at the time, very slow and weird) he said I might as well give up composing as I would never have a career, never get performed and never amount to anything. He was adamant. Atonal expressionism was the future, period.

Again, we need to preserve these memories as it’s too easy to make it seem like a few bad eggs, when in fact practically the entire American musical education environment was Stalinist in this regard.

I’ve never met Elliott Carter, never wanted to, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about him being a dictatorial son-of-a-bitch and telling young composers that there was only one way to write music.

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