Teaching Artists to Fail

A composition student of mine, mature and centered beyond his years, wrote a song cycle this semester. He wrote all the voice lines first. When it came to write the accompaniments, we threw around a lot of ideas. His ultimate choices were the simplest ones possible: arpeggiated triads in one case, changing drones in another. I had two impulses. One was a sense of disappointment, that I hadn’t been able to get him to try something a little more complicated and “artistic.” The other was that his solution was effective, that it would be immediately grasped and allow the emotionality of the vocal line to come through. In performance, my second impulse proved right: the songs sucked the audience in with their nakedness and vulnerability, their reception exhibiting none of the distanced listening that other, more clever and complicated pieces elicited. I admired his courage for selecting ideas that would foreground the depth of the poems, not the impressiveness of his compositional bag of tricks. 

I wonder if this is what Feldman meant in saying, “For music to succeed, the composer must fail.”


  1. says

    I don’t think that’s what Feldman meant, Kyle.
    What he probably did mean was that in order for the music to become real music, the composer really had to stop imposing his or her will over it – Feldman just didn’t mean – go with what you think is best – which is what your student did here.
    But everyone fights over what Feldman meant in my opinion, so my thinking is just that – my own – I hope it helps others form their own conclusions.

  2. says

    While your student was courageous for selecting those ideas, his teacher didn’t seem to mind allowing the student to risk “failure” by not reacting to that disappointment…a courageous act in its own right.
    Perhaps it should have read “For a composer to succeed, the composition teacher must fail.”?
    KG replies: Good thought. I think composition teachers have to fail so often that courage is no longer required after awhile. Just bemused resignation. But thanks for the laugh.

  3. says

    I have to disagree with Dean Rosenthal that your student merely went with what he thought was best. I think at the core of this issue is fear and insecurity rather than thoughtfulness. Your student was courageous because he had enough confidence in himself to choose his own audience. He did that, then he made aesthetic decisions informed by that. Since whatever Feldman meant by such vagary apparently isn’t decipherable in plain English then he must not have thought it important enough to relate. Or maybe he was afraid that being clear would make him seem too simple. But if he meant that a composer shouldn’t impose his/her will on the music because it takes away from its directness or clarity, one could say the same thing of his quotable quotes.
    KG replies: I shouldn’t try to be so literary, I guess. I didn’t truly mean I *wonder* what Feldman meant: I consider it perfectly clear, and elegantly expressed. Dean is right in his interpretation, but I think he’s too restrictive, and a wider latitude is possible. Feldman’s English is the clearest of any recent composer, even when expressed as paradox.

  4. says

    Thanks for the kind words. I suppose I was too restrictive. Sometimes I realize what I say has implications and that is something I’ll be sure to remind myself always of as I continue to express myself unrestrictedly. Sweet History! Sweet Freedom!
    Latitude is suggested, but not only possible, it’s proof of the possible. But I stand by what I said – restrictions or no. I think I was misunderstood, hence my “probably” – I left that in there to give myself a little wiggle room.
    The rest of the thinking about this is not worth the wait, but I’ll explain to everyone that what was exceptional about this idea – composers failing, music succeeding – to return to the English – was the anxiety behind it.
    Feldman really had been concerned, by all accounts, about the nature of music and, too, of composing – in a way that many composers just were not at the time, of course.
    One reason I know: he devoted a lot of time and energy to making clear the reasons why and “how” he composed (he didn’t know how, he related in the very real story he told of his first get together with John Cage, as everyone reading this knows)- and although I wasn’t there – wish I could have been – the music of his really is devotional in a way that not a lot of music from that era is. At least, not to me, music from that era, that is to say.
    But there’s definitely much more to be said here, of course – no restrictions, I feel. I feel gassed out – but truly reassured I so really am acknowledged. I get the literary part – me, I had genuinely been concerned that you were just asking. Feldman’s voice still speaks to us.

  5. peter says

    The British composer Peter Maxwell Davies recently called Felix Mendelssohn “the prophet of light”, and described him and his music as being lit from within (“claritas” was the quality he mentioned). I think the same is true of Feldman’s music, unlike most other music written since 1945, which is perhaps what Dean meant by saying his music is devotional.

  6. says

    I mean that Feldman’s music is devotional in the normal sense of devotional – the way people understand the word – of worship. Everything else that follows from a statement like that is really up to everyone else to interpret..think of it as a performance..
    “Songs from the Japanese,” has a devotional quality – not much more to it than that – have a listen.
    There really are no restrictions. Feldman helped us achieve that for the sake of beauty, honesty, and sensuality. By “helped” – I mean that there were plenty of others who helped, too, probably. Probably! For me, there were others who did.
    I would name Cage, Johnson, Reich, Kline, Young, Cowell, Ives, Crawford, Partch, Polansky, Oliveros, Billings, Foster, Wolff, Copland, Adams, Braxton, Crumb, and Monk.

  7. says

    I should clarify that when I wrote, “really no restrictions,” I meant that it is still possible, but pretty darn improbable. I was informed that the way I put it might be misinterpreted as restrictive of the possibility of restriction and since I’m still getting the hang of saying what I mean…

  8. says

    “I would name Cage, Johnson, Reich, Kline, Young, Cowell, Ives, Crawford, Partch, Polansky, Oliveros, Billings, Foster, Wolff, Copland, Adams, Braxton, Crumb, and Monk.”
    I would also name Bathory-Kitsz, Byron, Swinchoski, and so many others…