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.]