Composing “Outside One’s Time”

I have an interesting and unusual student graduating this year whom I’m fond of, and I don’t think he’ll mind my writing about him here. Coming to college later than most, he was blown away by 16th-century counterpoint early in his education, and his music has remained intransigently tonal. In his more characteristic moments it begins to resemble the sustainedly consonant music of Arvo Pärt, with the same kind of self-conscious spirituality; at other times, it resembles a kind of diatonic romanticism, veering close to John Williams-type film music.

One of my colleagues, with whom I had a mild and friendly disagreement about him, considers it a problem that this student doesn’t seem to have absorbed the music of the 20th century – meaning, of course, dissonance, atonality, abstract structural techniques. I pointed out that not only has Pärt made a career out of diatonic music, but that one of the most widely-performed orchestral works of our time – Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers – is entirely couched in the D-flat major scale, with only one accidental in the entire piece, a D-natural in the violins. If living composers as disparate as Pärt and Picker can become incredibly successful staying within a single diatonic scale, who am I to tell my student that what he’s doing isn’t “modern” enough?

Of course, I am also sympathetic to my colleague’s point. A student composer should learn some versatility in college, and trying out different styles is part of the process of finding one’s own voice. (God, I hate that facile, heavily-laden term “a composer’s ‘voice,'” but that’s perhaps a subject for another day.) My colleague teaches a course in which students practice composing in the style of various 20th-century composers. But I tried many times to write a 12-tone piece in college, and could never manage to finish one. The limitations seemed arbitrary and ridiculous. I was the type of student for whom composing in a style I couldn’t feel as my own would have seemed a wasted enterprise.* Consequently, I feel that the place to expose students to 20th-century styles is in theory class, not composition lessons, and I try to make all the composers take my course “Analysis of the Classics of Modernism,” which starts with Socrate and The Rite of Spring and runs up through Rothko Chapel. I take them inside works like Gruppen, Quartet for the End of Time, Bartok’s Sonata for pianos and percussion, and Nancarrow’s Study No. 36, and figure, if they find anything that attracts them, they’ll incorporate it into their own music. I try not to send a message that this is how you’re supposed to compose – my emphasis is more, these are things that have already been done.

Of course, the bigger picture, as my colleague pointed out rather glumly, is that there is no longer a single route to one’s own musical style. What we call “20th-century music” is now a historical period. Why, at this point, is it any more necessary that a student composer internalize Messiaen than Brahms? What does either composer offer the 21st-century sensibility – or why not Brahms as much as Messiaen? My students may come up through Bartok and Stravinsky, but they are just as likely to arrive at their musical taste via Pärt and Reich; or Eno and Captain Beefheart; or Bjork and Sigur Ros; or Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman; or Sibelius and Britten. There is no longer a privileged mainstream. Yet what are we professors here for, except to lead them through some tradition they would never have discovered on their own?

And aside from their starting point, what about their ending point? It strikes me that my “conservative” student might do well writing film music, and even better tapping into the huge choral market that most college-trained composers bypass. Knowing as I do how few resources there are for the ambitiously avant-garde composer these days, why would I try to funnel him into the life of the same kind of “professional” composer as myself? I do tell him that he’s not going to make it in the academic composing world writing whole-note triads and elegantly resolved suspensions, and he gets it. But if he can head off to Hollywood and write like John Williams, why would I deflect him? Or if he’s one of the few people with smooth enough contrapuntal technique to compete with someone like Morton Lauridsen on the choral circuit (where copies of a singable psalm can well sell in the 25,000 range), why would I deflate his marketability by pressing him towards “modern” techniques that even I consider dated? Not every composer is aiming at Guggenheims, orchestral residencies, a Harvard teaching gig, and the Pulitzer Prize. Excuse me, I meant to say the goddamned Pulitzer Prize (which I’m certainly not aiming at myself, either).

At the heart of all this is something I wrote about recently, that professors desperately yearn to feel useful. We want to pass on what we know that was useful to us – and yet it comes so soon that the creative student is involved in a world in which our own knowledge becomes irrelevant. Of course it’s crucial that the student become conversant in the body of 20th-century music and its ideas of structure and method. It’s just a historical period, though, a toolbox of techniques. For that matter, last month was a historical period. In what possible way does it obligate us this month? “We are not slaves of history,” George Rochberg wrote; “we can choose and create our own time.” There is the dismaying possibility that a young composer will become a slave to the 19th century, or the 18th, or the 16th. I regret that, but why substitute one period of slavery for another? I do not agree with my colleague that a composer is under any constraint to write music “of his own time” – “his time,” that is, as defined by the ubiquitous clichés of the all-too-conformist composing fraternity. “Let no year go by,” intoned the great Harry Partch, “that I do not step one significant century backward.” We in the classical composition world cherish a little-examined theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that each student finds him- or herself by working his way up through the history of music (as indeed I did myself, from Copland to Harold Budd). But whose history? Which history? Some of my students are recapitulating histories that I’ve never lived through.

Another of my students wrote an “opera,” in the most unconventional sense, which turned out to be quite original and interesting. At a faculty board he said that he didn’t know anything about opera, but decided to try one anyway, and all three of us agreed that it seemed to be a good thing that he didn’t know anything about opera, because those who do know about opera tend not to come up with as intriguing results. And I thought, What am I doing here? If ignorance and experimentation, mixed with energy, are such fertile ground, why am I trying to remove the first and set limits to the second? Of course, I’m not, really. As a scholar I provide background which ought to be interesting to anyone, even if not useful. As a composition teacher (such a common oxymoron) I’m here to provide assistance when asked for, and as a reality check. And when the student is propelled by his or her own enthusiasm – even if it leads to music that sounds like Bach – I do my level best to stand out of the way.

*[Of course, the irony here is that since I hit my 40s I’ve taken a Stravinskian glee in imitating the styles of Billings, Brahms, Bud Powell, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, and so on.]


  1. says

    As a composition teacher (such a common oxymoron)

    My point exactly! Your approach is perfect, Kyle. And yes, ontogeny does indeed recapitulate phylogeny, in music as well as in developmental biology. Students (hell, anyone interested in new music) should have some grounding in 20th-century music, and earlier. But that is best addressed, as you state, in a theory class, not composition.

    Didn’t Igor Stravinsky do just fine for many years writing 20th-century neoclassical music based on much earlier styles and harmonies? No one would take the second music of his Symphony in C for 18th-century music, yet clearly he was writing music that was as much of his time as it was not of his time.

  2. says

    Good post, Kyle.
    Compositional pedagogy is a recalcitrant animal to train. It seems to me (and it’s easy for me to say, as someone wholly outside of academia) that the best plan is to find out where a student is, where she wants to go, and to point out somethings that might help along the way. And to suggest side trips that seem fruitful.

  3. mclaren says

    Film music is so last-century. He should get smoe gigs writing music for games. Many games now spend surprising amounts of money to hire full orchestras to record lavish scores — and, if you’ve ever heard the CDs for games scores like Halo, the music itself often proves surprisingly elegant and complex. Anyone who judges today’s game music by the beeps & bloops of yore just hasn’t kept up with the music of the 21st century.

  4. says

    Arvo Pärt and John Williams didn’t make music in the 20th century? All music of the 20th century uses dissonance, atonality and abstract structural techniques?
    Words and phrases get pulled so far from their original meanings. I still remember a couple of articles in the NYT that really drove this home to me. One referred to Roy Lichtenstein as a “contemporary” artist – two years after he had died. The other spoke of a composer who wrote in “the avant gard style.”
    By the way, if you’re going to spell it “Pärt,” you also need to write “Björk” and “Sigur Rós.” Those are not diacritical marks, they are different letters just as an “R” is not simply a “P” with a slash on it.
    KG replies: Have you had so little experience in academic music departments that you don’t know what a composition professor means by “20th-century music”? Was my apposite phrase not sufficient clarification of the intended meaning? And you do seem to have figured out whom I meant by Bjork and Sigur Ros.

  5. says

    Your points are fascinating. There’s no way to map them on to poetry, though — or at least it is hard to imagine any creative-writing teacher telling a student who writes only in seventeenth-century forms anything like what you told your student!

  6. says

    I’ve played with writing 12-tone music, and enjoyed it — but it struck me just another wacky sense of game rules to use in making music, rather like the people who limit the letters of the alphabet that they can use in writing text. It didn’t feel all that different from using the strictures that one might use in minimalism, thought it was much harder to come up with a result that I’d actually want to hear played.
    But I definitely raise an eyebrow at the cranky folks who think it’s the only way to write.

  7. Robert Jordahl says

    A wonderful article, Kyle! I wish that I had had you for a theory/ comp teacher.

  8. Rodney Lister says

    Well, just as in the larger world, there doesn’t seem to be any uniformity in style and/or outlook in academia. If you look long enough and hard enough you can find some composition teacher in some college whose music is more or less in the manner of John Williams–my impression is it’s easier to find the Williams style than the Babbitt style.
    My first real composition teacher, Malcolm Peyton, used to say that if you thought you didn’t have a style (voice, what have you), try writing a piece in the style of Bach.
    Maybe there was a time when composition teachers were supposed to steer their students to some style or other (which seems to me to be a rather repugnant idea), but I think especially in a time when there such a range of things going on, the role of a composition teacher is to help a student learn how to shape a piece and to make sure that the use of whatever language she or he decides to write in, whatever it is, is consistent–at least as consistent as it seems to need to be. Making sure that a student at least has had a nodding acquaintance with a lot of other styles is a pretty good goal as well.

  9. says

    I agree with you very much on the premise of this article: composition teachers should never seek to impose a style on students, but just help them to realize whatever their compositional goals are. But I do feel quite differently about the “exposure to 20th century styles” issues that you’ve brought up so eloquently.

    I think it’s important to get students to try out a whole lot of different styles in their compositional training, just as I think it’s important to help them learn how to revise, and how to get music from their heads on to paper. Left to their own devices, the majority of young composers will have One Way to write music (sitting down and going from start to finish) and One Approach to developing musical material (keep writing, and if you get stuck, wait for inspiration to hit). And that’s a fine way to write, but will never work ALL of the time. So you develop backup plans. You come up with different ways to write music, ways of approaching a piece when inspiration is not at hand, ways of thinking about your musical material that will help you develop new ideas when your usual tactics aren’t working.

    In addition to this practical tactic, I just think that listening to various kinds of music isn’t enough to really get the flavor and feeling of it. To me, it’s like someone who grew up in, say, Phoenix trying to decide where to spend their life. Looking at other compositional styles in theory books is like looking at tourism guidebooks for other cities. They look interesting in books, but none of them is as vibrant as your own flesh-and-blood home. I think you really need to live for a little while in those other cities, experience them like a local, get to know their quirky little nooks and crannies.

    I, personally, began my education as a tonality-loving composer, and am now… well, a tonality-loving composer. But I learned a great deal about music from writing a 12-tone piece or two… And my tonal music is more effective now, because I understand that which came before me, which traditions I’m following, and which ones I’m bucking. All this is why, when I taught composition, my students tried writing a 12-tone piece, a minimalist/process piece, an aleatoric piece, a tonal piece, a set-theoretical piece, a pop-influenced piece, and so on. It’s a very different thing to hear a musical style than to inhabit it fully from the inside. And even if you don’t eventually make much use of the style you’re writing in (and most of the students won’t cling to all of those styles), it’s incredibly informative and exciting and useful to expand your writing experiences into all sorts of different arenas.

    I guess, for me, this all boils down a bit to an argument that seems to come up a lot in undergraduate theory classes. So many theory students get cranky about learning theory because it’ll “ruin the music.” But it never does. You just get a richer experience out of it. Knowledge of music does not destroy music. I believe that very firmly.

    The story you tell of the student writing an “opera” I think is wonderful. But I also think it’s an anomaly. Much more common than that, I think, are stories like those of some students I used to know a few years back. They wanted to create some quasi-theatrical musical performance art, but didn’t really ever look at what had been done before. So they felt very avant-garde in presenting their performance… which was a near-verbatim re-creation of things that were done better 40 years ago. Not that it’s wrong to do things that aren’t completely original, but a little knowledge of the works that came before them would have helped them to not re-invent the wheel, but use the wheel as a jumping-off point for inventing new things.

    Okay, really long post. Apologies. Great article, Kyle. Just can’t help spilling some ornery thoughts on to the page.
    KG replies: In theory, I completely agree, Scott; and if I may say so, you represented an extreme case of someone who could churn out a lot of notes and felt free experimenting in other styles. But there are other composition students who, for whatever psychological reason, feel wedded to every note, and can’t stand to put a note down unless they arrived at it without outside help. They tend to build up their own style little by little, and can’t stand to have it contaminated by outside influences. I was one of them – and today I sometimes pour forth notes at an alarming rate. I have found so far that trying to push those people outside their comfort zone produces little more than anxiety, and some of them turn out just fine when left alone. So you’re right, but I think allowances have to be made for different kinds of students.

  10. says

    KG replies: Have you had so little experience in academic music departments that you don’t know what a composition professor means by “20th-century music”? Was my apposite phrase not sufficient clarification of the intended meaning? And you do seem to have figured out whom I meant by Bjork and Sigur Ros.
    Actually, I’ve spent no time at all in academic music departments. Anyway, I was being disingenuous in order to agree with your point.
    KG replies: Sorry, I would have gotten it except for the accent corrections. Unlike many bloggers I try to make sure the grammar’s correct and the English words are spelled correctly. You want any more than that, you gotta start paying me for it.

  11. says

    KG replies: Sorry, I would have gotten it except for the accent corrections. Unlike many bloggers I try to make sure the grammar’s correct and the English words are spelled correctly. You want any more than that, you gotta start paying me for it.
    No problem – it’s just as a Swedish speaker, legal resident and soon to be citizen and musician, I’m particularly sensitive to the Nordic languages, which are tonal like Chinese.
    Björk means “birch” and is pronounced something like “Byerk.: Bjork would be pronounced something like “Buk” and doesn’t mean anything.
    Sigur Rós means “Victory Rose.” Sigur Ros could possibly mean “Victorious Viking.”

  12. says

    “But there are other composition students who, for whatever psychological reason, feel wedded to every note, and can’t stand to put a note down unless they arrived at it without outside help. They tend to build up their own style little by little, and can’t stand to have it contaminated by outside influences. I was one of them. . .”
    I fit the model Scott describes pretty well — I started school very attached to tonality, was given a guided tour of some key 20th century techniques, and then I abandonded them and returned to tonality, and ultimately discovered minimalism. The 20th century techniques helped me write better quasi-romantic music for a year or two, and have helped me write better Postminimal music ever since. Given that you’re describing a type of student for whom you think that strategy would backfire, I’m curious about what strategy you think does work, or what strategies were helpful to you. The kind of resistance to outside help you describe would presumably apply not just to training on how to write in 20th century styles, but in training on how to write in any style. If you have a student who’s comitted to writing music that sounds as much like Beethoven as possible I’m all in favor of helping that student achieve his or her goals and not imposing somebody elses, but if the student doesn’t want outside influences that presumably also means not wanting you to suggest that “Beethoven would probably use a Neopolitan there instead of the iv chord you’re using”.
    Obviously there are many things a good teacher does besides help with the fundamentals — proposing challenges to be solved, asking the questions that the composer hasn’t figured out he needs to answer, suggesting other pieces to refer to for inspiration, etc., but how do you help with the fundamentals? Or do you just get out of the way and focus on offering other kinds of help?
    KG replies: That’s a good question, Galen, or rather, a number of weighty questions, and I was already considering another blog entry based on Scott’s comment. I’ll tell you one thing, though (as my father liked to say), if a student is going to write in functional harmony, I get strict. I will insert a plagal cadence to get relief from authentic cadences, I disallow excessive returns to the tonic, and, just as you suggest, I will stick in a Neapolitan or augmented sixth where more intensity is needed. You cannot, I tell the student, you *cannot* bring an obvious model to the listener’s mind and not do everything possible to compete with that model at the highest level. If you want to write that way, that’s the price you have to pay.

  13. says

    There are several general references to the manner and style of the music of John Williams, a style and manner that is anything but general. The thing that impresses me most about John Williams is the fact that he can write in any manner and style and make things work. He “borrows” orchestration from all the right people (like Strauss, Ravel, and Wagner), takes other people’s melodies, twists them a tiny bit, and they instantly become themes that are inseparable from the films they bring to life. He does it over and over again, and now we have come to recognize a John Williams score by its quality (and yes, by its tried and true use of orchestration), and less for its style and material. Listen to the score of “Catch Me if You Can,” and compare it to the score for “Schindler’s List.” My personal favorite is “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” because it is all about music, particularly a series of pitches, but who cannot be moved by the music from “E.T?” When I try teach my music appreciation students what a musical motive is, I play them the two note motive from “Jaws” (you know the one). Even the complete novices understand.
    A glance at the John Williams page in the international movie data base will surprise you. He is so good at what he does because he has been at it for so long and has spent his career in excellent company.