For Christmas I received Richard Taruskin’s massive two-volume tome Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, and I’m finally reading it. I always knew I would eventually, but I put it off for years – because the book is bulky enough to serve as doorstop at Notre Dame Cathedral, because I was afraid it would tell me more about Stravinsky than I wanted to learn, and because after 2000 pages it only progresses up through Mavra, which is not my favorite period of Stravinsky. However, I should have realized that the brilliance of Taruskin’s writing would have made it difficult to put down regardless of topic, and the book has a tremendous amount to teach not only about Stravinsky but about musical progress in general. One of Taruskin’s tremendous strengths as a musicologist, beyond the panoramic sweep of his research, is his theoretical ability to correctly grasp and describe compositional process. Take a look at the following statement about Stravinsky’s youthful Piano Sonata in f#:
There is no end of decorative “trompe l’oreille.” Any dominant seventh can be resolved as an augmented sixth, and vice versa. Any first inversion can be treated as a Neapolitan. Any tone can be a “common tone” for instant links between “unrelated”chords. Colorful nonfunctional bridge progressions are freely concocted by means of chromatic outer voices in contrary motion (what is often termed “intervallic expansion”)… But all the harmonic novelty is surface embellishment; beneath the decorator colors the functional relations are pristine, easily followed, tame. [p. 116]
Reading that, and looking through the musical example on the facing page, any composer can grasp at a glance what Stravinsky’s early compositional modus operandi was. Damn few musicologists can offer compositional insight at that depth.
But what first struck me about the book was the history lesson it gives on the development of musical style, with parallels that offer mirrors of our own situation. One article quoted from the music critic Vladimir Stasov, written in 1861 as Russia was just beginning to form its own art-music culture, seems as relevant now as it was then. Dubious about Rubinstein’s attempt to introduce conservatory training, Stasov warns:
“Higher” institutions for the arts are an altogether different matter from higher institutions in the sciences…. A university imparts nothing but knowledge; a conservatory is not content with that but meddles in the most injurious way in the creative work of an artist trained there, extending its despotic power over the style and form of his work, attempting to force it into a certain academic mold, imparting to it its own customs, and what is worst of all, sinking its claws into the artist’s very mind, imposing on him its own judgment of works of art and their creators, from which it will later on be exceedingly difficult if not impossible for him to extricate himself.
…The experience of Europe teaches us that to the same extent that modest schools which limit themselves to the rudiments of music are useful, higher school, academies, and conservatories are harmful. Is this experience going to be lost on us? Are we then required to copy slavishly what exists in other places, so as to have the pleasure of boasting afterward nothing but an enormous quantity of teachers and classrooms, a fruitless distribution of awards and prizes, proliferating volumes of worthless compositions and legions of good-for-nothing musicians?
Of course, in the narrative of successive decades Stasov goes on to become something of a clown, jingoistically continuing to cheerlead for the Russian nationalist composers, those descended from the “Russian Five” or “mighty heap” (kuchka), long after their students and protégés have descended into patent mediocrity. And yet, on some level Stasov’s tragedy vindicates his thesis: the kuchkist faction declines in quality precisely because those composers gained power in the conservatories, and turned out generations of dutiful students taught to compose in similar manner. It’s a particularly clear object lesson in how a musical society turns rancid through access to power and excessive inbreeding. Composers of this group were published by the firm of the wealthy patron Belyayev, and of their later activities Taruskin writes:
By the turn of the century, then, Russian music had entered its “Brahms phase,” manifested quite literally in a cult around the Hamburg master such as never could have existed in Russia during Brahms’s lifetime…. This cultivation was in every way a hothouse growth, subsidized by the Belyayev fortune and increasingly divorced from the realities of the surrounding world. The combination of denationalization and safe conservatism proved utterly bland, and for most of the public and the press the name Belyayev came to be synonymous with the word boring. Attendance at the Russian Symphony Concerts [a kuchkist venue] was famously poor. [p. 65]
Taruskin details how quickly a young composer could gain publications and performances once accepted into the Belyayev circle, and comments:
…[I]t is only natural that composers so favored will seek to perpetuate their favored status – or at least do nothing to jeopardize it. Within the Belyayev circle a safe conformism became increasingly the rule, and mediocrity flourished, especially as the need to fill four concert programs a year with new Russian works made it necessary to dip rather deep into the pool of available Conservatory-trained talent. As a result, the Belyayev circle became known for harboring a great multiplicity of “kleinmeisters” who were often far from meisters – “clones,” to use [Cesar] Cui’s kind but prophetic word… It was as easy to deride this group from without as it was difficult to rebel against it from within. [p.57]
A contemporary of the scene, the composer Nicolai Cherepnin (patriarch of a composing family that continues to its fourth generation today), wrote that there were no explicit rules that young Belyayevets composers had to follow, but that
…there most certainly and most naturally were such implied constraints on composers who were accepted into the [Belyayev] catalogue…
From them it was required – if only unconsciously – that the works presented by them for publication be more or less close – in sound, in esthetic, in the character of the musical ideas and workmanship – to the works of the builders of the catalogue…
There arose, and was even engraved in the Belyayev Charter, a certain qualitative yardstick: “No lower than the average item in the Belyayev catalogue”… This was to be interpreted as follows: “Look, we taught you to compose. Well, go ahead and compose as we have taught you, so that the general musical content of the catalogue shall be worthily augmented, continued, and developed along creative lines we have devised and marked out for you.” [p. 58]
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As a music educator by day job, it is uncomfortable for me to admit how much I share Stasov’s reservations: that “modest schools which limit themselves to the rudiments of music are useful,” while “higher academies and conservatories are harmful.” I’ve said here before that I sometimes find myself agreeing with the Harvard faculty who in 1876 tried to prevent John Knowles Paine from becoming America’s first music professor.
Certainly students around me are told, in a thousand indirect ways, often so subtly as to ensure the professor’s plausible deniability, that this composer should be admired, and that kind of music should be looked down on. Constraints are almost never explicit, as Cherepnin notes, but are pervasively implied and unconsciously implemented. Young composers are strongly urged to move their music in certain predictable directions, usually toward greater pitch complexity and notational specificity. Even more harmful, they are given historical tools and techniques that most of them, naturally enough, feel obliged to use in their own music – why else would they be paying to learn them? Of course some composers in academia are well aware of these dangers and scrupulously try to avoid sending out such influence vibes, but there’s no penalty for slipping up; I don’t feel entirely innocent myself in this regard. Some composition faculty, and I’ve seen it happen, even show a student how to deliberately write music that will win prizes, even writing the “right” notes into their score.
And what’s the result? The more compliant, eager, impressionable students go to the right conservatories and grad schools, get introduced into the system by their teachers, and are chosen for advancement on the basis of their willingness to continue in the style their teachers have marked out as acceptable. On recommendation of their teachers, they get commissions and prizes. So easily do the rewards flow that rebellion becomes impossible. And they are never quite as good as their teachers’ generation. Jacob Druckman was a weaker composer than Roger Sessions, John Harbison is kind of a watered-down Aaron Copland, and their students, their “clones,” are less distinctive still. And the new-music world revolves around a system of “fruitless distribution of awards and prizes,” Guggenheims and Fromm commissions and Prix de Rome, 99 percent of which go to kleinmeisters, people who might have started out with true talent, but who have learned not to jeopardize their status by independent thinking, and content themselves with safe conformism and mediocrity.
Kleinmeisters: an early 21st-century typology of the term would be easy to delineate. Kleinmeisters are those composers who get dozens of orchestra commissions, especially for concertos, and hundreds of performances. Most of them, virtually all of them, are very nice people – naturally, since they’ve made careers out of their ability to accommodate. (The younger generation of kleinmeisters is astonishingly good-looking.) Because the major-paper critics are part of the system, the kleinmeisters get incredibly positive reviews in the top 15 or 20 newspapers and music magazines. They excel at two genres: the ten-minute concert opener with lots of brass and percussive momentum, and the concerto whose solo part is visibly at the limits of endurance. Their music thrills with its virtuosity, its patent sense of difficulty; it is neither remembered nor asked for afterward. Frequently their performances are greeted with a vindicating roar of applause that is taken to attest to its quality, but is really either intended for the poor soloist having survived his ordeal, or else a reflection of the piece’s noise.
What’s lacking with the kleinmeisters is any sense that their music is taken seriously. It is praised, usually in vague and unconsciously patronizing terms (“X really knows her way around an orchestra”), but it is not discussed. Its methods are not problematized. It may be considered thorny, but no one pretends it presents a new perceptual paradigm. Reviews most often cite as praiseworthy its orchestration – in other words, its professional clothing, not its content. Most of all, there is no buzz about the kleinmeisters among younger composers. Harbison, Chen Yi, Penderecki, Higdon, Zwilich, Sierra, Paulus, get to command vast musical resources, but no young composers heatedly argue the merits of their pieces. Their names don’t come up in internet discussions. No one acts as though they hold any key to the future. After all, these composers write in styles in which far more vivid music had already been written decades ago. The kleinmeisters of 19th-century Russia were ridiculed by the musical intelligentsia outside that circle, but today’s American kleinmeisters have a whole Potemkin music scene built to support them and protect them from reality – reality being that their music is drab, unoriginal, and cared about by no one, for good reason.
Of course, for some young composers, a trip through the kleinmeister factory is exactly what they want. For those perceptive enough to be dubious about that route, the potential advantages of higher music education can be difficult to tease out. Given the realities of the world today, I don’t see that there’s much of an alternative for a young creative artist to getting an undergraduate degree, or at least starting one. But grad school is a danger that I urge a student to approach carefully. When a student shows interest, I always ask why he wants to go to grad school. If the naive answer is, “To study and get better as a composer,” I tell him to forget it – that if you improve as an artist during grad school, it will be in the face of the pressures to conform, not because thinking outside the box is encouraged. I emphasize that education, even under the best of circumstances, is something you have to do for yourself, and that great composers (Cage, Feldman) have often had no degrees at all. If the student has the personality to go out and start giving concerts and making partnerships and getting people to collaborate with him, those activities will do more for him than more schooling.
There are, however, a few graduate schools that can be trusted not to do damage; we’ve had positive experiences sending students to Mills College, CalArts, and Hartt. And I do admit three reasons to go to grad school as a composer:
1. to make connections with people who can help your career (in general the kleinmeister route, though there are different kinds of professors and assistance);
2. to idle away some time because you don’t have anything better to do with your life, and don’t have the aggressive personality to get out and be a performing musician (this was my rationale); and
3. to get a doctorate if teaching college is specifically what you want to do with your life.
I also recommend as a possibility going to a non-prestigious grad school, which is what I consider the secret of my own success. I had a couple of great teachers at Northwestern – Peter Gena for composition and theory, Gary Kendall for electronics, plus Ted Karp as a musicology mentor – but Peter, who encouraged my most avant-garde enthusiasms, got denied tenure because he was too far out. The rest of the faculty was so many decades behind that they didn’t push 12-tone music because they were still a little dubious about Hindemith. All that “sinking its claws into the artist’s very mind, imposing on him its own judgment of works of art and their creators”: didn’t happen to me, because I was into Brian Eno and Morton Feldman and Harold Budd and other people they’d never heard of, and they didn’t know what to do with me. I was so rebellious and sure of myself that I can’t imagine what would have happened had I gone to some high-powered department where the faculty had stylistic expectations. I probably would have just dropped out. If you have a personality like mine, you can’t pick a grad school for reason #1.
I don’t know what kind of educational system, or apprenticeship, might be more helpful than the university and conservatory system we’ve got. One recommendation I’d make is that college departments should try to hire more “outside,” less credentialed, even older and more street-experienced artists, to get some new blood and ideas in and keep everything from getting so inbred – but the prejudice against any such idea, not only within music departments but even more within university administrations, is so ingrained as to ensure that that’s not going to happen within my lifetime. One of my former students studies in Calcutta with a guru now, and thinks it’s wonderful – but he admits he has to hide his electronic music equipment when his teacher comes over, or he’d get bawled out for practicing something besides tabla. So I don’t know what the answer is. But Stasov’s fears about higher music education echo to me 145 years later as very real concerns.