What Writing Has Taught Me about Composing

Daniel Felsenfeld asks, as someone does occasionally, what is wrong with being an academic composer. I’m tempted to say, if you have to ask, then you won’t understand the answer; but let me try a new tack.

My wife is a professional arts administrator; she started out at the St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago, founded by David Mamet. She’s back in professional theater again now, but in-between she spent quite a few years presenting theater, dance, and music in academia. Her academic colleagues didn’t always appreciate why she was such a stickler for centralizing box office functions, training ushers, restricting stage access before a performance, getting the stage lights just right for a concert, and things like that. She seemed to be too much of a perfectionist in details that didn’t matter much from the presenter’s point of view. The reason was always that she wasn’t only looking from the presenter’s point of view: she knew how the theater experience looked and felt from the audience member’s seat, and what backstage rigor it took to give the subscriber a smooth, pleasant experience with no irritations to distract from the stage art. Watching her career and its occasional frustrations, I learned that academics knew how to put on a show, but they weren’t terribly concerned with what kind of overall experience the audience had. As long as everything went right onstage, the audience was just supposed to show up, find their parking spot and seat as best they could, and marvel at what was placed before them.

Likewise, I am a professional writer; but I am an academic lecturer. My lectures may sometimes be remarkable for their content, but rarely for their form or presentation. I am not a stirring orator, I do not hold an audience spellbound. I often have to correct myself, and add in information that I should have presented earlier. I mumble, struggle for words, and say, “ummm….” It’s acceptable because it is my students’ responsibility to show up, pay attention, ask questions when they don’t understand, and glean what information they need from my rather slipshod recitation. Oh, I’m humorous and energetic, and I’ve developed some tricks; I can tell when my students’ attention is flagging, and I drop in jokes and distractions to push the refresh button. But no one not vitally interested in my area of research would come hear me lecture just for a thrill. I wish I were an awesome lecturer, because I end up doing it occasionally, and I’m sure I could have become one had I gotten some training, had a professional lecturer give me tips and feedback and criticism. It never happened, because I’ve never had to depend on public lecturing for a living.

But writing was my sole living for many years, and my paycheck depended on my cascades of words being irresistible. The great schooling of my life was my first seven years at the Village Voice: editor Doug Simmons spent 90 minutes a week with me going over every sentence of my 950- or 1700-word column, sharpening the expression, clearing ambiguities, unblocking metaphors, changing the order of paragraphs to anticipate questions that whatever I said might raise in the reader’s mind. My medium, the process made clear to me, was not only words, but the psychology of the reader’s attention, which was fairly predictable, and which I had to learn how to navigate. It was my job to grab people’s attention with the first paragraph, and to keep them reading to the end.

For instance, look at my previous blog entry, on the Ives symphonies. Every paragraph after the first begins with a transitional phrase, usually one that picks up the topic from the previous paragraph and recasts it in a new light:

“What seems most indicative of a superficial view of Ives, though…”
“And so on and so forth for many pages,…”
“More importantly, the Ives First has held up very well…”
“That this has been so little acknowledged is a symptom…”
“The truth is that both of these stories are true.”
“Ives himself contributed to the problem.”
“But we, who ought to know better, are forced to choose…”
“It is not so rare.”

I can write for pages and pages like this, never once beginning a paragraph without a link from its predecessor to keep the reader reading. I do this consciously, or more accurately semi-consciously, because I am trained to do it. In my 4’33” book, which was intended for a more general audience than most of my writings, I even adopted the time-honored technique of using the final sentence of a chapter to pique interest in the subsequent chapter:

“Cage had summed up his life’s work to date: the percussion music, the rhythmic structures, the prepared piano… and it was time to move on to something new.”
“Cage – and who would be surprised by this? – wrote 4’33” very quickly. And then headed to Woodstock and braced for the response.”

Many people have told me that they read the 4’33” book in one sitting, which confirms for me that I knew what I was doing. I knew how to keep them reading. It’s a smooth read. One technique I use, when the venue is important enough, is to read my text to myself out loud, because my ear will pick up infelicities that my eye and brain miss. On a reread, I replace colorless words like “flow” and “smooth” with “cascade,” “irresistible,” and so on. I vary my sentence length. My general tendency is toward long sentences, but every now and then I throw in a short declarative sentence, or a series of them, and it’s amazing how much that energizes the text. It just works. (See?)

And I emphasize: I was not born writing this way, nor did I learn it by trial and error. I sometimes get credit for being profound, when it’s really that I’m simply well-trained to make my points clearly and colorfully.

Note that my professional tricks do not limit what I want to say. Quite the contrary. I write a lot of things that are counterintuitive or against the conventional wisdom, and I can make them seem inevitable by concealing my motivation until I’ve led the reader down a thought-path that can lead nowhere else. I am not a lesser or more superficial writer because I know how to keep the reader engaged, although academics often assume I must be. I do not have to tell the reader only what he wants or expects to hear to achieve my goal of getting them to read the entire article or book, and digest information that might never have occurred to them before. After setting down in draft the information I want to convey, I apply a lot of technique just drawing the reader through the article, and you know what? It doesn’t cheapen what I’m saying. In fact, as the prose grows more lapidary, my own thought grows clearer to me as well. The urge toward readability leads to clarity and truth.

In a moment I’m going to draw a metaphor between writing and composing, and I’ll let you start imagining it.

From these observations one could draw a definitional distinction between the academic and the professional. The academic is concerned only with content, not with presentation. The academic is not concerned with the reader’s or listener’s or viewer’s experience. The academic does not think about the audience’s psychology, and consoles himself with the specious platitude that everyone is psychologically different, and that he couldn’t predict it anyway. The academic thinks only of his own genius, or his data, and leaves the reader or auditor to puzzle out his meaning in painstaking and often repetitive reading or audition. The professional, however, puts himself in the reader’s place, and observes how the order of the information, his transitions, his emphases, the pacing and preparation of his surprises, leads the reader or listener into fairly predictable reactions. The professional shows the audience member where to focus, and does so with a backgrounded technique which seems effortless. The reader, reading a pro, is not aware of how the pro pricks and sustains his attention; he’s just curious to keep reading.

I don’t think I’ve yet said anything that should be controversial, but when we extend this analogy into the writing of music, hackles will rise. By our argument, the professional composer would be one who knows how to keep the listener engaged in the piece. Haydn or Mozart, both pros whose livelihood hinged on their musical entertainingness, will conceal a motive from the main theme in a slow introduction or subsidiary line, and when it emerges in the main theme, that theme will seem exactly right without our knowing why. Motive leads to motive, phrase to phrase, in a deceptively effortless way (Mozart’s “artless art”) that draws our attention along. In highly logical music we want to hear what happens next; in sensuously gratifying music, we are content if the nuances sustain the pleasure without interrupting it. Professional music grabs the listener’s attention and knows how to hold on to it.

What happens in academic music I need hardly spell out, we all know the trope so well: the composer bases a second idea on the same pitch set as the first, and though we can’t make the connection by ear, we’re just supposed to assume that the composer is a genius and knew what he was doing. The composer crafts a structure (Elliott Carter’s 175-against-216 structural polyrhythm in the Night Fantasies comes to mind, though any concrete example will rouse academic defenders) that looks elegant on paper, though the effect on the listening experience is nil. Or, more often these days, the composer builds a long and plausible tension-and-release form, but doesn’t put in the music any catchy images for the listener to care about, or foreground for the listener the musical ideas underlying the seemingly unmotivated angst.

This may seem like a straw-man argument, but there is plenty of evidence that this straw man walks and procreates. One need only read the indignant posts on composer web pages whenever such an idea is broached: “Well, you have to listen to the piece more than once.” “I can’t water down my music for people who aren’t versed in modern music!” “Of course if you can’t follow Schoenberg’s music, you’ll never follow what I’m doing.” “It’s self-indulgent to write attractive music just because audiences like it.” “I can only write for myself.” And so on and so on. I remember the late James Tenney, whom I admired in so many ways, saying, “I can’t think about the listener, because there is no such thing as the listener. Everyone listens differently.” (It reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals,” equally intended to let the speaker’s conscience off the hook.) That a composer can’t think about the listener, or even shouldn’t because it leads him away from his lofty purity, is one of the field’s most widely aped platitudes.

One advantage of the definition I’ve spelled out here, I think, is that it makes very clear what the relation is between writing academic music and working in academia. Strictly speaking, there need be no link at all. It should be as possible for a professional composer to teach in a university as it is for me to continue being a professional writer while in a music department, which I do. But, as my wife’s experience has demonstrated, academics are unlikely to thank you for being professional. There is little incentive in the structure of academia to make work with the audience in mind, since the audience is mostly captive, the economics non-profit. The professors are the insiders, the privileged, the credentialed, and the audience is on its own. In fact, when my professional writing is “peer-reviewed” by academics, they slap me on the wrist for being too “breezy,” “journalistic,” and “colloquial” – they try to bring my professional standards down to their academic ones. This year I was secretary for the faculty senate, and my colleagues always had to tone down my minutes from each meeting to make them less distinctive. Academia fears communication that is too vivid and direct; clarity invites argument. And I guess that’s fine in the social sciences and other “real” academic disciplines: they’re writing for each other, and have a professional incentive to painstakingly navigate each others’ coagulated prose. (Still, look at Paul Krugman, whose trenchant writing style has clarified modern economics to an entire generation of lay readers.) But the artist, however academically trained, is not writing for fellow professionals, but for the wider world – there’s the difference.

In other words, working in academia will not make you academic, but to remain professional within academia you have to go against the flow and brace yourself to not be appreciated. The rewards given in academia do not require professionalism, and in some cases even discourage it.

Now, I am obviously not a professional composer in the sense that I make a living off my music and it has to be really good for me to get paid. Almost no one is. What we usually mean these days by a “professional composer,” and the meaning I have elsewhere used in this blog, is someone who can play the prize circuit, network well, and get commissions. The process has almost nothing to do with audience reaction; with occasional exceptions like Glass and Reich, most “big-name composers” are associated with an idiom that attracts a tiny audience at best. But in this professional-versus-academic sense I still try to keep – with my well-trained writer’s ear as a model – a professional attitude when I write music. I repeat catchy and identifiable riffs. I sometimes, even microtonally, play off of a harmonic background with predictable resolutions. I embed common melodic archetypes to guide the ear through my wild polyrhythmic schemes. I listen to each new passage dozens of times to make sure everything seems internally motivated, and I revise heavily. I constantly tell my composition students that their medium is not merely notes or sounds, but the listener’s psychology. I’m continually pointing out what their music leads the listener to expect, and tell them that they either have to gratify that expectation, or clearly deny it in favor of something even better that works on a larger level – but they can’t simply ignore expectations that they’ve created. They resist, and the academic music that surrounds them is full of enticing poor models.

And note that my professional tricks do not limit what I want to say in my music. I write a lot of things that are counterintuitive or against any conventional idiom, and I think I make them make sense. I hold that I am not a lesser or more superficial composer because I know how to keep the listener engaged, although academics often assume I must be. I do not have to give the listener only what he wants or expects to hear to achieve my goal of getting them to listen to an entire, often rather bizarre piece. I apply a lot of technique just drawing the listener through the piece, and it doesn’t cheapen the music, though my academic colleagues sometimes claim it does. My anecdotal confirmation is that complete strangers have come up to me at intermission to say how much they enjoyed the music, and I’ve seen audience members cry during my more intense choral pieces. Our 84-year-old department secretary, long inured to contemporary music that just seemed weird to her, was thrilled that my piano concerto was so much fun to listen to; and that delighted me more than an official prize would have. The academic composing community does not reward me, but I’ve sometimes gotten my reward from watching the audience. (And often from reviews: as someone wrote of Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, “Though all the pieces are fiendishly and impossibly complex, they are also easy to listen to….”)

Remember what Feldman said about the academic composers of his generation: “They have brought the musical culture of an entire nation down to an undergraduate level.” In the arts, the professional is a higher and more difficult standard to meet than the academic. An academic education is preliminary to professional experience – but it is not the final step.



  1. Lois Svard says

    This is such a deeply insightful piece of writing that it’s difficult to say anything except BRAVO! But you’re wrong about your lectures, Kyle. I have heard you lecture when you do exactly what you just did in this post or in your compositions – you very skillfully (and sometimes with great humor) lead the listener to a point of view or historical interpretation that seems as if it couldn’t be anything other than inevitable.

    KG laughs out loud: Well, thanks, Lois. Maybe I occasionally get lucky.

  2. says

    Thanks for this. I recognize some of our previous discussions, but here you punch them up in good shape with examples. It’s interesting that we share these ideas — perhaps because I, too, survived as a magazine writer for general audiences (some 600 technology pieces, not in music). It never occurred to me that my composer’s concern with the audience might come from my writer’s concern with the audience. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  3. says

    Fantastic post. I had a big debate on FB a couple of weeks about a very similar topic – the audacious idea of entertaining one’s audience and considering the audience’s experience. I had countless responses about how futile such acts are, since the audience is not a monolithic persona whose responses we can even begin to predict. So many composers make the giant leap from “It’s difficult to predict what the audience will respond to” to “Why even try?” with such ease. Seems like pure laziness.

    Here’s the thread if you’re interested, it was a pretty amazing discussion:


  4. says

    I do like your writing style (and techniques that you mentioned), but my favorite thing about your writing is that you always manage to figure out how to say the thing that is hard to say. I covet that the most.

    See you in Long Beach. The first ‘Glen’-anything is on me.

    KG replies: Deal!

  5. says

    The (unsubstantiated) assumption here: that the pressures of the free market guarantee a worthwhile artistic experience; conversely, academic institutions, by exempting practitioners from these pressures, invite flabby, unconsidered work. Thank God for capitalism — it seems that Mr. Gann agrees more with Margaret Thatcher than he realizes.

    KG replies: Not in the least. Completely false. Didn’t say any of that. Explicitly denied some of that, in fact. You were apparently exactly the target.

    • says

      Well, Jeff Academic, you certainly know how to copy and paste the same few ridiculous, inflammatory and hilariously misguided sentences directly from the comment section on my Facebook page where I posted this article to the comment section here! Kyle: this article is incredible – such clarity brought to a ubiquitous yet somehow elusive topic in the public sphere often relegated to angry hushed corners rather than productive, frank public forums. Thank you.

  6. says

    Thank you for so beautifully explaining (and exposing) the fundamental disconnect I often see between composers and the experience of the listener. I’ll take this a step further and apply it to the performer as well.

  7. says

    You have thoroughly and clearly explained what I argue in my own head almost daily (without nearly the eloquence you possess). It is easy – if not in the academia world – for a full-time professional composer to feel “left out of the club”. Thank you for validating the idea that “entertaining the audience” can actually be a result of acquired skill and experience. (see, I told you I lacked eloquence!)
    A great read.

  8. says

    Thanks for the well-articulated and insightful thoughts.

    As a composer of (mostly) jazz, some of it dense and challenging, I’ve always used a simple exercise to keep myself honest. If I were in the audience, I ask myself, would I stay interested? This helps me get past the questions of “how does this music feel to me as I compose or play it?” and “what are the hidden structures or gambits I am using?” These are essential but not nearly enough.

    Positing myself as the listener gives the listener credit for a high degree of sophistication and sympathy. But it also acknowledges that, like the actual me, the audience wants to be entertained and satisfied that it has committed time, attention and money to the experience.

  9. says

    “to remain professional within academia you have to go against the flow and brace yourself to not be appreciated.” — i like this a lot, and i think you’re totally right. i just don’t see that big of a difference between the academic community and any other community of listeners. some have more diverse audience populations than others, yes, but to be a good artist you should pretty much always go against the flow and brace yourself to not be appreciated.

    no matter who you’re writing for, if you feel appreciated all the time you’re probably surrounded by yes-men, and if you constantly feel underappreciated, you may be taking yourself too seriously.

  10. Scott Keegan says

    I think maybe the line you draw between professional and academic is too harsh. As you look really thoroughly through the 20th century, generalizations become more difficult, and I feel that the more I look through modernism and postmodernism, the less clear dividing lines become. Ives is a good example, as I’m sure you know. Even serialism has good examples of this blurred line. For every Boulez and Webern, there are lyricists like Dallapiccola and Berg, or late Stravinsky and Copland. Berio is another great example. His more experimental pieces might be too “academic”, but then there’s Folk Songs. Even Sinfonia is highly engaging, as academically complex as it is.

    I think you’re also missing that people like many of these “academic” composers of the 20th century. I would much rather listen to a crazy Berio or Messiaen piece than anything by Mason Bates. And this isn’t because I dislike him for his accessibility, I just don’t like modern pop music. There is an audience for modernist/postmoderist (much more accurate terms that “academic”) music and I think the composers in those fields understand that they are catering to a niche audience, but an audience nonetheless.

    KG replies: Since all the composers you name besides Bates predate the confluence of modern music and academia, I’m not sure what your argument has to do with mine. You would call Messiaen and Berio academic? I’m not using academic as a synonym for dissonant or atonal.

    • Scott Keegan says

      Also, considering you use microtonality and Google tells me people also search for Nancarrow, couldn’t you be considered an academic? I don’t mean to criticize this (I really enjoy and use microtonality), but I’m just afraid that people over generalize the nature of modernism. Perhaps it’s the adversarial nature of composers that is more harmful.

      KG replies: Again, since I make my living teaching in a college, I could certainly be considered an academic. Modernist, academic, microtonal, atonal, difficult – these words have overlaps, but they are not synonyms, or all wrapped in one tight little bundle.

      • Scott Keegan says

        I’m unclear on what your definition of academic is, then. Is it specifically the Boulezian attitude of “my way or the highway?” My perception is that attitude is dying off, but obviously I don’t have yoyr personal experience to back that up. I hope your point isn’t that academic music has ruined art music. That’s such a tired argument by this point.

        KG replies: Well, at least in this context, I mean by academic all the values instilled by collegiate institutions, which, at my college at least, are pretty specific. The performing arts here are all pretty much geared toward educational purposes, which is fine – but it’s still a big jump from there to the professional world. I am certainly not making the point that dissonance and complexity have ruined classical music, if that helps.

        • Scott Keegan says

          That is helpful. I know different schools have different ideals, though, so again, I think you’re overgeneralizing. You also contribute to your school’s ideals, maybe more than you seem to think. Even the notoriously “uptown” schools have loosened up, as you know (speaking of Mason Bates…). I’m also not convinced that “academic” music is really an actual problem. “Academic” is a classic dig against the integral serialists (rightfully so), but that scene has faded. I think the worst effect of the academic composers has been a strong reaction against intellectualism in composition. I wasted my undergrad not exploring the depths of really intellectual composers because of all of this black and white rhetoric. As a not-that-great composer, I also find that a shift in attitude toward or away from audience doesn’t necessarily change the quality of composition. Trying to appeal to audience isn’t going to make me a better composer, because I’m just as mediocre in that regard as using dense intellectualism. Maybe the real problem is that some composers try to hide their shortcomings behind the wall of intellectualism. However, the best intellectual composers and the best populist composers are where they are because they are talented and skilled (for the most part). Composers like Carter and Boulez are relevant because they attracted followers and because they’re very good at what they do/did.

          KG replies: Well, to repeat my point, I am not using “academic” to refer to a musical style but to a complacent and non-rigorous creative attitude. There are plenty of academic pieces that are what we’d call stylistically quite conservative, in the most diatonic sense. Modernism certainly has its detractors, but I would not tar all serialist music with the brush of academicism. I certainly wouldn’t call Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli or Stockhausen’s Gruppen academic.

          • Scott Keegan says

            Wow, that was rambling and had no point. What I meant to get across is that times are changing and the composers who hide behind academia #1. don’t matter in the long run and #2. are growing fewer in number and relevance, and maybe instead of complaining about academia, we should let people write what they’re going to write and stop making a fuss about whether some other composers don’t care about audience.

          • Scott Keegan says

            I meant that I had rambled, not you. I’m on my phone because I don’t currently have internet, so this is more difficult to work with.

            KG replies: I knew what you meant, but your previous comment came while I was writing an answer. Thanks.

  11. says

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay, Kyle! I’ll admit, though, it does raise my hackles. I find it a little surprising that you say stuff like “The academic is not concerned with the reader’s or listener’s or viewer’s experience. The academic does not think about the audience’s psychology, and consoles himself with the specious platitude that everyone is psychologically different, and that he couldn’t predict it anyway. The academic thinks only of his own genius, or his data, and leaves the reader or auditor to puzzle out his meaning in painstaking and often repetitive reading or audition,” and then follow it up with “I don’t think I’ve yet said anything that should be controversial, but when we extend this analogy into the writing of music, hackles will rise.” My hackles were already pretty darn twitchy before you started talking about music.

    It doesn’t seem un-controversial to me AT ALL to say that academics are all narcissists concerned with their own genius and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks. You say that your wife was an academic for some time. Did she stop caring about audiences the moment she walked through that door? Sounds like some of her colleagues did, and that definitely happens (don’t get me wrong, I have some problems with parts of academia), but her paycheck coming from a college didn’t make her ignore her audience, did it? I’m not an academic myself, but my wife is a theatre professor in a small pre-professional theatre program and cares deeply about the audience experience for the same reasons your wife did when she was in academia. And her coworkers agree with her!

    I could ask these same questions about many people teaching composition out there, like John Corigliano at Juilliard, William Bolcom at Michigan, Fred Frith at Mills… who are most definitely not ignoring their audiences.

    I do get that, on the average, an composer getting his or her paycheck from a college or university is more likely to have the blindnesses and narcissistic tendencies you describe. I just don’t think it’s true to say “academics have these problems” any more than it’s currently true to say, in 2013, “people who work in uptown Manhattan write this kind of music.” There are tendencies for sure, but I don’t think we should equate all academics with a certain attitude, because academia itself is so incredibly diverse, and in disagreement with itself, and full of some people who treasure its “academicness” and others who are just there for a paycheck so they can write more music…

    KG replies: Hi Scott. Well, I see your point. And as I say, I didn’t lower myself to academic writing standards when I became a professor. I do talk explicitly about professionals, by which I mean people who maintain professional values, in academia, my wife included. When I say “The academic is concerned only with content, not with presentation,” I thought it would be clear that I was contrasting people with academic and professional attitudes, whether or not they happen to get a paycheck from a college. So, yes, there are people who maintain professionalism in a teaching position – Francine Prose is my favorite living novelist, and she teaches one day a week at Bard. But the structure of academia does not really require professionalism, and so the institution tends to instill academic attitudes and reward people who hold them. Hooray for those who teach in academia and uphold professional standards, and it’s usually easier for them if they’ve had a professional life beforehand. That better?

    • says

      Thanks for the response, Kyle, and I really appreciate your clarification. I guess what makes me squirm is that I feel like your definition of academic here is so negative (“The academic does not think about the audience’s psychology, and consoles himself with the specious platitude that everyone is psychologically different… The academic thinks only of his own genius…”) that it’s hard for me to read that as just describing SOME people who work in academia. I love so many things about higher education (including my wife!) that I’m automatically on the defense when I see these judgements made against it.

      Maybe you’re describing The Pedant, a certain sort of academic? To me, it just gets me all rankled to see “academics” described this way when so many of my favorite musicians and artists take paychecks from academia. I may be getting caught up in semantics a bit… it just seems like what your describing is more a particularly crappy attitude that often breeds in academic institutions, NOT a fundamental problem with the institutions themselves. Like, germs breed much more easily in warm, moist environments… but that doesn’t mean those warm, moist environments cause disease, the germs do! Okay, terrible analogy. But I mean that just because academia is an environment where this kind of artistic arrogance can proliferate, that doesn’t mean academia IS that arrogance.

      In any case, thanks for the conversation, and for being so willing to have these discussions with us reader-types, even when you’re probably ready to move the hell on already. Much appreciated!

      KG replies: Well, look, I’m not saying academia is a terrible place. I’ve had some wonderful music history teachers who were great stores of knowledge, if not very exciting lecturers. I have academic colleagues in the sciences and social sciences who are great teachers, even if my eyes glaze over when I try to read over their articles. It is not those people’s mission to seek a wider audience. The point is, my colleagues in the creative arts and I are continually aware that the arts are an uneasy fit in academia, and that we have to struggle to keep the general academic structure from unfairly limiting our students’ creativity. Look at how many music professors have agreed with me here. Colleges are great places, many professors are wonderful. But if you go through school as a creative artist without realizing how inapplicable the academic regimen is to art-making, you’re likely to come out a little distorted and unrealistic, as indeed many do.

  12. says

    You make important points in an engaging piece of writing. Wait, check that:
    I was dazzled by the way you slashed through a dank forest of decrepit pomposity to suggest the rescue our dear ravaged muse from the clutches of coarse egoism. It rocked.

    KG replies: A+

  13. says

    Give artists a safety net like academia and you remove the risk and you encourage self-indulgent formalism (both tonal and atonal). Today’s new music scene, is in large part stylistically frozen because of its ‘management’ by academia. It’s stylistic plasticity has been lost, sold for the guarantees of tenure and crony-connected network performances. We’ve created a world where competence is good enough and that, frankly, is not a real art world.

  14. says

    This is the most insightful and well-written article on this issue that I’ve read. Thank you, Kyle! It answered so many questions about my own struggles with academia over the years with a clarity that I could have never expressed on my own.

  15. Michael says

    Thanks for a very interesting and compelling piece. I’ve always wondered what it means to say “I can only write for myself” – which self? An experimental self who wants to hear “what THIS might sound like”? An antagonistic self who wants to alienate the audience? A self who wants to engage an audience, and/or a self who wants to make music that would actually please oneself?

    I’m not a composer, really, just an amateur musician who has occasionally played in front of others, once in awhile for money. I like to hear “what THIS might sound like.” I like to write songs I would want to hear. Sometimes I just want to make something up to capture a feeling… which do I want to present? That’s up to me, but I have to live with the consequences.

    My point is I think contemporary music over-emphasizes a sense of experimentalism, which is especially deadly when the experiment may have already been done, or just emphasizes complexity because it somehow signifies intelligence/craft/skill.

    There is a place for everything, but it may not be in front of an audience. My general feeling with an audience is, you should present music you yourself would want to hear. I wonder how many academic composers would really want to hear the music they are presenting, or whether they are motivated by something else.

    I don’t see why anyone would put music, or any other art, in front of an audience if they don’t care about the audience. Or are people mainly interested in communicating the fact that they are highly trained in a specialty and the audience isn’t?

    I couldn’t agree more that there is no intrinsic link between depth (or quality or honesty or profundity or whatever word one might use) of expression in art and the difficulty of the audience in appreciating it. I have a feeling that for many, opacity is a way of concealing the inability to write something engaging AND deep.

  16. Justin says

    Name-calling, eh? It would seem the only debate that’s allowed around here is amongst your music scene pals, who will have to peaceably decide who’s allowed to heap you with the most adulation for this lousy and arrogant article.

    KG comments: Good to know I’m still being read in academia.

  17. Chris Gable says

    Love this. Having written a book, I totally agree that the act of writing itself clarifies ideas in the writer’s mind. I think it works in writing music too…one motive leads to the next, etc. I notice this for myself that this magic happens to a much greater extent when using pencil & paper, rather than composing on a computer. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something real and more organic about the ol’ pencil lead scratching on paper. I find that my students who only compose on the computer have a much smaller creative range than those who don’t. Curious to hear your comments on this.

    KG replies: That’s an interesting perception that I’ll start looking for. My feeling about this is tinged with guilt, because I believe in the pencil and keep trying to pick it up again, and too quickly get seduced back to the computer. I like to say that as long as you were trained on the pencil you never lose the feel for it, but that may be what the Viennese call (to quote Ashley) wishful thinking.

  18. says

    Great post. I’ve had the same friction when writing for academic audiences (“too casual”, etc.). But the journalism-music analogy only works if you want to tell a story in your music (in the sense of carrying the listener through a beginning, middle, and ending). What about poetry: what does that teach one about composing? I could see poetry being a more appropriate writing analogy for composers like Cage & Feldman. Considering poetry also reveals more nuance to the question of the balance between personal vision and public utterance, I think. A poet is freer than a journalist to be more obscure, to write in the service of a more personal truth, a more uniquely individual vision.

    KG replies: Hi, James. Of course you’re right, and I started off making this post much, much longer, only to realize that I couldn’t deal with every possible available paradigm without writing an entire book. The paradigm by which a piece is intended to spell out some narrative form is not the only one, but it strikes me as perennial and very common – and for some people, it’s the only paradigm they’ll take seriously. I actually thought-tried working I Am Sitting In a Room into this argument, and Broadway shows, and Music of Changes, and it was just going to need another 30,000 words. So I streamlined.

    • says

      Streamlining for impact & clarity — those good writing habits die hard! And I have to say, I don’t agree that the nature of academic writing has to do with being focused on content over presentation. I think it’s just a style of bad writing that has developed in the culture of academia. I was asked to referee a paper for a journal and I had to send a note back to the editor apologizing that I just can’t read that style of writing any more, so I couldn’t make any kind of evaluation of the content.

      KG muses onward: I was impressed in my college days by Buckminster Fuller’s assertion that the principles of quantum physics could be explained in terms understandable by a six-year-old. I know just the kind of article you mean, and I’ve long since taken a stance that if the ideas are interesting, they can be explicated clearly.

  19. says

    This is a fascinating entry, one that will have me thinking for awhile.

    One thing I’m thinking about now is the distinction you draw between content/information and presentation. While we can fairly easily make such a distinction in language, I find myself skeptical that a similar dichotomy can be applied to music It seems to me that, at least to a large extent, presentation in music IS content, and vice-versa. (I’m sure there are those who would argue that no such easy distinction can be drawn in language, either, but let’s leave that aside.)

    Would it be possible to compose a musical work in two different manners so that it retained the same musical information, but differed in its presentation? To offer an example, could Milton Babbitt have re-composed any of his pieces so that they would retain their distinct musical identity, but be more accessible to a non-specialist audience?

    KG replies: Well, that is a traditional argument, even one running ambiguously and unanswerably through Ives’s Essays. But I have a simpler thought-experiment for it: all the pieces I’ve revised, and that I’ve gotten my students to revise, in which I felt the content stayed pretty much the same and the presentation became infinitely clearer. For me, often the content is a set of rhythmic and/or harmonic constructs that I find perceptually incommensurate, and sometimes my first pass through them doesn’t get the idea across. I could imagine a presentation of one of Babbitt’s super-arrays that would be fairly easy to follow – and I take from his lectures that he doesn’t want it followed. You’re right, this is a place where language blurs into music and the analogy is not as close as we might want. But I’ll add my favorite Schoenberg quote, from “Brahms the Progressive,” which might prove relevant:

    “Evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, repetition, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony and even logic – none of these elements produces or even contributes to beauty. But all of them contribute to an organization which makes the presentation of the musical idea intelligible.”

  20. Mike says

    Wow. That little temper tantrum of yours was a little unnecessary don’t you think KG? I would have enjoyed more thoughtful discourse between you and Jeff, but I’m sure you’ve blocked him. Why so hostile against polite critical dissension?

    KG replies: Sorry to offend, but the *impolite* snark of “blanket dichotomies supported by anecdotal evidence” – meant to sum up my 32 years’ rich experience in the professional and academic worlds – was more than I’m inclined to put up with at this point in my life. And my blogging experience is that to continue giving such people a platform is a downward spiral. Look through my blog, you will find loads of polite dissension, including on this page.

    • Isaac says

      I am starting to wonder if there is a generational divide here that is perhaps unbridgeable. Unburdened by years of living and working in what was by all accounts a very difficult time to be a composer of anything but serial music, I don’t feel the opposition of the “academic” and “professional” worlds in the same way. In fact as the economy and higher education erode at roughly the same rate, all the young creative people I know seem to exist at the periphery of both worlds. So this way of thinking doesn’t resonate with me at all, unfortunately.

  21. says

    Kyle: this is off-point of the primary issues being debated, but, as a “lay listener” myself, I appreciate most of all efforts by composers and musicians to invite me in to the contemporary music conversation and help me learn more about what I’m hearing along the way. (I am, by the way, one of those who read No Such Thing As Silence in one pleasurable sitting.) I do think universities, like any other institutions, can tend toward insularity, yet I’ve also experienced directly, through the MOOC phenomenon, what can happen when a well-designed program, conducted from within a university, reaches out beyond its borders to engage people all over the world. The MOOC I took, and which proved to be the single most exciting educational experience I’ve ever had, was Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo), one underlying purpose of which, I’m sure, was to build an audience for this poetry, some of which is pretty “far out,” to say the least. The course was extremely well constructed, moving from Dickinson and Whitman through successive schools of poetry (Cage was part of the course, by the way) and concluding with an extensive survey of current poetic trends. An important thing to know about the course is that it was not lecture- based, but highly participatory, fomenting critical thinking and avid engagement with the poems and poets under review. ModPo attracted 36,000 participants and built a worldwide community of poetry-reading friends. (Al Filreis, at UPenn, constructed the course and talks about it here http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=CO49eWk7o7Y , starting at about 21 minutes in.) I can’t help thinking how wonderful it would be if Bard, as an example, undertook to build a worldwide community of listeners through a ModPo-like MOOC in, say, Modern and Contemporary Classical Music (or whatever terminology suits). I’d sign up in a heartbeat.

    KG replies: Whew. There’s a lot of excitement about MOOC’s, at my school and everywhere else. Some of us find it scary. Not a danger to education, just scary.

    • says

      Kyle: It’s this, particularly, in your post, that led me to think about listener engagement and how best to achieve that. “The professional, however, puts himself in the reader’s place, and observes how the order of the information, his transitions, his emphases, the pacing and preparation of his surprises, leads the reader or listener into fairly predictable reactions. The professional shows the audience member where to focus, and does so with a backgrounded technique which seems effortless. The reader, reading a pro, is not aware of how the pro pricks and sustains his attention; he’s just curious to keep reading.”

      It’s gratifying to me as a listener to read a point of view that includes the listening experience in the compositional continuum–and it’s clear to me that you’re not in the least advocating to try and write to what the listener wants, but rather to have composers be thoughtful about what they’re trying to communicate toward the end of creating a work that achieves that communication. (Of course, embedded in this is the assumption–which I hold to–that music is a communicative art.) As perhaps an addendum to this, and as a listener who had not the slightest experience in listening to contemporary classical music until about 2 years ago, I’ve come to recognize that even the most brilliantly realized work may not communicate to me without some help in understanding its “language.” For example, I didn’t “get” In C at all until I learned a bit of its importance historically (that helped me to appreciate it, at least), then heard it performed live by joined forces of Contemporaneous and the students and faculty of Poughkeepsie Day School, and, as icing on the cake, had the good luck to have Dylan Mattingly write about it on my blog in his compelling way. Lucy Dhegrae, in her profile on my blog, also wrote something really useful in responding to a comment I wrote to her about my nemesis, Lachenmann: “I think with some pieces you need the trifecta experience: listen to it, hear it live, and listen to it with a score. It wasn’t until I sat with my husband Shawn and we listened together with a score that I really LOVED Grido. At first I appreciated it. Then when I heard it live I was moved and intrigued. Then when I sat with the score I realized that so much more was going on, and I was totally in love.”

      I don’t know that I’ll ever share Lucy’s love for Lachenmann, but her joyfulness and passion, like Dylan’s and David Bloom’s and every single musician and composer I’ve met associated with Contemporaneous has made me into a joyful and eager listener of contemporary music and thirsty to learn more. I really do think I’m not the only one out there. The question is how to demystify the listening experience, how best to invite listeners to participate in this thrilling community. So, not to burden your great post, you, or this conversation further, that’s what made me think of the ModPo-style MOOC. I think it could be an engine to build an engaged and excited audience for all kinds of current classical music. (About it being scary, BTW, I can sure understand that. I’ll only weigh in one last time to recommend that Bard sit down with Filreis–it will save a whole lot of trial and error. He knows how to do this really, really well, and in the humanities, which is a whole different ball game than in, say, the sciences, as you know all too well.)

      (Here’s Dylan on In C: http://prufrocksdilemma.blogspot.com/2012/06/guest-post-in-c-gospel-accordingly-to.html, and here’s Lucy’s profile: http://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/this-life-in-music-soprano-lucy-dhegrae/)

  22. Seth says

    My previous post was full of arrow-brackets (ersatz italics—such bad style!), which made all the words inside them disappear. Here’s the cleaned-up repost (ignore the old one):

    KG, I think you make some fantastic points here—in characteristically buoyant, elastic, solid-ass prose, which took me so much less time to read than the crappy academic article I was taking a break from. And as an academic who struggles mightily to write like a communicative human being while many colleagues and peers wonder why all the fuss, I couldn’t agree more with your first claim (complaint? plaint?): an undiluted academic environment can do amazing things to soften, blur, and eventually cataract someone’s otherwise clear vision (or hearing). And once the vision is blurred, the unconscious ideological demands of the institution (in the greater sense of the word) can work to protect and proliferate the fuzzheadedness—by example, by reward, by punishment, by all the old Pavlovian mishigas.

    At the same time … since I am an academic, and haven’t yet quit in complete disgust and disillusionment, it’s pretty hard to stomach some of your generalizations. On a couple fronts, which, since you’ll surely demand coordinates, I’ll detail:

    1) You surely already know this, even if you don’t write it here, but there are a lot of academics who care quite passionately about communication, and about audience, and about style. Maybe not yours, but they care. Your own portrait of the academic is a parody, and a broad one at that. I have no doubt it’s backed up by experience; but it may also be the “fault” of your own rhetorical skill and understandable writerly impulse to consolidate complicated networks of difference (which always threaten lucid prose) into brighter, harder, louder oppositions. This is where the nobler virtues of professional journalism—at least, the kind you put forth—can hit a rock. Bringing in the complications would render your argument a lot more difficult to make, and to make with gusto. (One example that is a big big deal: younger academics writing these days are often tormented by a kind of sub/pseudo-free market which, however involuted, mirrors the extra-academic markets in its incessant, remorseless desire for quasi-newness, which then ends up becoming its own form of planned obsolescence. Despite any claims to ivory-tower autonomy, the labor is in fact overdetermined by the Big Other: same shit, different field ‘o production. Another example: music journalists—at least the pros still hanging on to their jobs—can write the most fatuous, useless pap while their prose pops the obligatory wheelies. And this isn’t a minor complaint: everyone wails about it, on all “sides” of the—fence? Vanishing kernel of infinite dimensionality?)

    2) You talk about “the listener’s psychology” as a direct object of the composer’s care and motivation, and then give some examples: “catchy riffs”, “common melodic archetypes to guide the ear”, preparation and gratification of expectation (or denial—if it leads to “something even better that works on a larger level”). I think you’re absolutely right to call the bluff on that claim that, if you can’t figure out exactly who your audience is in its entirety, then you might as well give up caring at all who any of them are. But at the same time, I don’t think any listeners worth their salt is going to let their psychology—aka (here at least) cognition-working memory-aural processing, etc.—trump their psyche—aka that thicket of seriously unknowable, intensely specific knots of libido, drive, desire, taste, sexuality, etc. There’s a ton of super-clear, stunningly psychologically optimized music out there—nowhere more than in film, television, and chart-topping pop—and while its pellucid construction may grease the ear for prime reception, it won’t catch fire in the mind and body without something-else-and-more. That something-else-and-more, however humiliating it may be for any artist trumpeting that good art is good-put-together art, will always trump. And, in my experience, a composer’s/musician’s ability to connect with a listener on that level is simply not instrumentalizable. You can’t aim to do that, not without shamelessly fantasizing your listener. I mean, you can, but then you’re Don fucking Draper, hollow-man master-of-the-unconscious, trying your best to seduce the lady you think you’re talking to, while the actual woman is someone you’ll never know. I think any maker of music can try to optimize the receptivity of his or her temporally organized sounds. But trying to figure out what your listener wants? You might as well be Freud with feminine sexuality. He didn’t get too far. And I don’t know that any critique of “academic music” (and seriously: might you name pieces and passages? I’m an academic, see, and must have names and passages) will get much farther unless it stops making thing about who-can and who-can’t, and addresses the fact that any music which flourishes (in however hothouse an environment) is giving some constituent what it actually wants. The terrifying inscrutability, eccentricity, and tenacity of desire—especially that desire which is “not my own”: this is, I think, the bigger question. Perhaps it’s always the same question: the question of the neighbor.

    Lastly, not to end on a sore note, but your treatment of “Jeff” was kind of a big bummer. His comments were admittedly testy and dukes-up. But you’ve been at this game a while: if you write an essay this pushy and oppositional, and then respond to the stung responses it provokes by calling their authors “targets” and “assholes”—and then block them from the conversation!—well, that’s pretty thin-skinned. And aggressive. And preemptive. Because 1) “Jeff” is kinda right; you do have some pretty complicated contradictions to unpack re: the market as redeemer of professionalism, and professionalism as care-for-the-other, and 2) more importantly, it’s in your treatment of a “Jeff” that anyone with eyes to read will see the biggest problem in the write-for-the-listener ethic: it can all-too-easily turn—not into pablum, but something much worse! It can turn into an aggressive, preemptive fantasy about someone you yourself would actually rather not listen to, someone who may be quite different than either you or your idea of different-than-you.

    (Sigh) KG replies at length: OK, Seth. I thought this would be a little more obvious, and certainly a lot of people seem to have gotten it. But I’ll build it up from the beginning, brick by brick.

    I have published over four million words on music: probably a fourth of them in academia-sanctioned publications, most of the rest in commercial newspapers and magazines, and I don’t know what you’d call this blog; five books, well over 3000 articles in what was 45 different journals last I counted. I have been edited academically, and professionally, many, many times. The general differences between editing in an academic publication, and that in a commercial publication, seem very, very clear to me. That does not mean that all academic editors are the same. It does not mean all commercial editors are the same. The differences in expectations between commercial publications and academic journals are very, very clear to me. That does not mean that all academic journals are the same. It does not mean all commercial publications are the same. Nevertheless, I perceive very strong general differences between the two sets.

    If with a sample that large I am not allowed to distill my 32 years’ experience into a broad generalization about two areas of the publication world which are, after all, socially kept pretty distinct, then all hope is lost for human communication. If someone of my experiences can’t talk about the differences between academic and journalistic music publishing and editing, then you’re going to have to find someone with more experience, or else it’s clear that this is a subject that can never be broached. We will have to start telling young scholars that academic and professional are identical, that there are no conceivably discernible differences between them. (And I guarantee they will go out in the world and find themselves at a disadvantage.)

    So, for sake of argument or else we give up right now, there is an academic set of expectations in publishing, and a professional set of expectations. I can characterize an academic mindset in this regard, and a professional mindset. Writers who have the professional mindset do, indeed, sometimes get hired by colleges and universities. My own school, in the arts, tends to hire people who have had a professional career first, as they did with me – exactly, I think, because the President is aware of this distinction. So there are arts professionals working in academia. Many of them, including some people who have agreed with me in these comments, have struggled to maintain a professional viewpoint in their teaching jobs. And it is always a struggle, because the administration, of even such an enlightened institution as my own, tends to set goals and standards according to the bulk of the faculty, who are historians, social scientists, the sciences and math. The methods of these other disciplines are relatively easily subject to quantification. The creative arts are not subject to quantification, and so – as my arts colleagues and I discuss on an ongoing weekly basis – we don’t fit in very well. We keep having to explain to the dean, as we put it, that our disciplines, and our students, have to be treated a little differently. This is not just me talking, this is a wide array of arts professors I’ve worked with over 18 years. Some of them “get it” in terms of differentiating the professional attitude from the academic, and some of them have not.

    So, my “broad parody of the academic,” based on 100,000 experiences over a lifetime, is actually a functional characterization of the academic mindset versus the professional mindset. They have different goals, values, and concerns. The interaction of the arts professional working in an academic environment inevitably seems to produce a certain friction, a set of goals counter to the goals of the institution as a whole. If I truly were saying that every college professor in the world was a fatuous pedant, then I myself would be included in that characterization. Shorter KG: I and everyone else who has ever taken a college teaching job became a fatuous pedant the moment he/she accepted that job.

    Do you really, really think this is what I’m saying? Really? Judging from the general tone of your letter, I doubt it.

    Let’s go on to number 2. I don’t believe I have ever, in my entire life, uttered or written the phrase “give the listener what he wants.” The listener has no idea what he wants until the composer makes him want something. I don’t know how I could have made it any more explicit that I train my student composers to satisfy somehow the expectations they’ve created in their own music: NOT the expectations the listener may have had before the piece started. I literally can’t even think how to make that any clearer. I can only restate it again and again and again.

    Your comments on film music and pop music are spot on, and in my first draft I attempted to deal with that world as well. But it was just too big to include, and my own limited familiarity with it prevents me from thinking that my insights on the topic would be terribly valuable. Yes, those are indeed the “professional” composers, the ones making money at it. If the situation were indeed pure free-market, not corrupted by massive corporate promotion of certain easily-sellable musics, it would be a lot easier to talk about. That’s a topic for another author, or at least another day.

    As for the argument you defend, let me parse it:

    Step 1: The author believes that the best way to get good at a skill is to practice it full-time and in circumstances that push the person to achieve high professional standards.


    Step 74: The author believes that artists should be abandoned to the free commercial market, and that those who survive will by definition be “the best.”

    You may notice a few steps missing. None of those other steps were stated in my blog post. For the record, I have always been an outspoken supporter of the NEA, and have all my life strongly argued that creative music needs government and institutional support. The fact that I also believe that composers will get better if they receive an unfiltered view of how audiences react to their music in no way contradicts those positions. Nor is there any kind of direct line leading from one to the other.

    As for the common internet game of “Hey, he used a phrase Margaret Thatcher might have used, he’s just like Margaret Thatcher!” – it is beneath contempt. I used a phrase construction similar to one of Donald Rumsfeld’s a few years ago, and a blogger used it to prove that I’m indistinguishable from Donald Rumsfeld. This kind of childish, intentionally insulting wordplay is beneath my notice and yours.

  23. says

    Thank you so much for this insightful article.

    When I ask laymen (educated amateurs), “What does ‘academic music’ mean to you?”, the answers are typically “serial music”. Serial music can be very beautiful, but there maybe many which are not, and unfortunately the not-so-great-serial music might have gotten exposed too much. That could be the result of “academia”, the kind of grants college-employed composers can get and concerts they can afford to present, because of their affiliations. The not-so-great music of any kind has a meager chance of survival in the professional world without these affiliations these days. I don’t think “non-academic” music means popular or commercial music, but the kind of music that are put out there and surviving or even appreciated, without the institutional support, or consumer/economic necessity. And those can be “serial music” too.

    Your closing comment: “In the arts, the professional is a higher and more difficult standard to meet than the academic. An academic education is preliminary to professional experience – but it is not the final step.” rings painfully true. I will be sure to pass onto my students, as I am starting to run a summer program in Maine called “Future Music Lab” at Atlantic Music Festival. https://atlanticmusicfestival.org/the-institute/programs/future-music-lab

  24. says

    Thanks for the article, Kyle. As I was reading your essay, I was wondering when you were going to bring in “Boola Boola,” and it was gratifying to see it sneak in there at the end.

    I apologize in advance for my unorganized writing. I just wanted to add a bit to the discussion.

    I have often marveled at the unwillingness of academic AND outsider composers to see themselves from a professional angle. For example, I don’t know any IT consultants who say, “Well, the reason I never get paid well is because my IT style is too advanced for the unwashed masses.”

    And, as soon as you draw people’s attention to that fact, you get people who are understandably very defensive of the value of their $200k, 10-year long academic pedigree. However, I think it’s so funny when people like Jeff (who is a friend of mine) don’t just say, “Oh yeah, well, I don’t do the professional music thing. I do a different thing.” I have so many friends who make really interesting music, and part of my interest in it is that it completely eschews the professional concerns that you discuss above in favor of spending more time/effort/energy on the weird self-concerned genius bits. I’m glad they do what they do.

    I can only think of a few composers who have the work ethic required to simultaneously address professional concerns and gaze deeply at their own genius-navel. Do I think that we could all learn by aspiring to that? Maybe. Do I think less of people who shift weight to one side or the other of that equation? Nope.

  25. Rodney Lister says

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. I agree with you that having a very complex structure (“Elliott Carter’s 175 against 216 structural polyrhythm”, for instance) is no guarantee of anything (except maybe incredible industriousness) in and or itself, however I don’t see that that’s a guarantee, in and of itself, of it’s being elegant only on paper and having nil expressive content. And if it is, to you, meaningless, I’m not sure that the fact that it has that structure, in and of itself, is the reason that it is meaningless (to you). Nor does the fact that it doesn’t speak to you mean that if somebody else says they do find it meaningful they’re either lying or brainwashed. If one has some kind of aural image–some sense of a sound he or she is trying to produce, which in turn is intended to evoke some kind of expressive idea–there’s no reason why he or she shouldn’t try to produce it with a 175 against 216 structure polyrhythm and no reason why he or she can’t with that polyrhythm realize it. And I’m not sure the music that is being produced these days that I find unsatisfying is unsatisfying anymore because it’s dealing in meaningless complexity than it is that it’s trying to produce catchy images for an audience to care about.

    Related to your Tenney quote, there’s a Babbitt quote: “When I write I try to satisfy that most demanding of audiences, myself.” (or word to that effect). I don’t think that’s some kind of statement of elitism. As far as I can tell the only listener who’s reaction to something one can have some sort of certainty about is oneself. A lot of the trouble comes with trying to second guess what somebody else will think about it.

    KG replies: Hi Rodney. I myself use large-scale polyrhythms, and 1. I make sure they have some aural impact, and 2. I don’t rely on them for the primary musical interest. Yes, there’s no accounting for taste. I think I have read almost all of Babbitt’s writings, and I’ve always found his claims for his extremely high standards (so, so much higher than any of the rest of us) somewhat self-delusional and certainly self-congratulatory. Sorry, but you brought it up. And you clearly don’t agree that a composer can make any assumptions about how someone will hear his music, as I admitted most composers today don’t. You are in a very comfortable majority, and need not fear me.

    • Rodney Lister says

      1) Don’t fear you at all.

      2) Babbitt’s high standard, of the lack of them, was not the point. Surely you got that. My point was that I’m not sure how one can make decisions about what’s good–beautiful–effective–whatever any way other than how it strikes you and tickles your fancy or doesn’t. I think that when you’re writing your music, your going for just that–how much it tickles you–makes you feel, in the words of the O’Hara poem “here I am–the center of all beauty–imagine!” rather than some version of what a student of mine who was ten or eleven at the time saikd “I don’t think they people who come to hear the Wellesley Symphony will like that”. In any case, I know which of those two paths I’d rather follow. A composer can and should certainly make assumptions about how someone will hear his music, but all his calculations inevitably, I think, will be base on how he or she hears music. Maybe if you’re writing jingles you could get into a situation where it’s o.k. to say to yourself “well I don’t like this much, but THEY will” or the other way around. I suppose it’s superfluous to point that Babbitt’s writings about music and his music are two different things, and although a lot of people manage to confuse them and be confused about the difference, I wouldn’t think you’d be one of them. I can’t, incidentally, remember any place in Babbitt’s writings that are self congratulatory–but I suppose that’s the sort of thing that’s in the eye of the beholder.

      3) I’m not sure that Carter didn’t think his large scale poly-rhythms had aural impact–but I suppose once again the ear of the listener. I just feel that anybody should be given the benefit of the doubt about his honest intentions.

  26. says

    Excellent article. Given your definition of a “professional composer”, does it then follow that conservatories whose composition faculty tend to be well-networked prize-laden big orchestra commission types offer composition students a more “professional” perspective than non-conservatory institutions?

    KG replies: Hi, John. Well, I handled that in the third paragraph from last. Perhaps in a certain sense.

    • says

      That you did, and I appreciate the distinction between the conventionally accepted definition of a “professional composer” (prizes &c.) and a composer who takes a “professional attitude” towards composition. One can do the latter without being the former, though the converse is not always true.

  27. says

    Excellent post Kyle, I agree entirely.

    However regarding the Thatcher quote it is invariably taken out of context. I think it is difficult for people in the United States to understand the ‘culture of entitlement’ we have in the U.K., where everything is inclined to be someone else’s fault or responsibility. I think the context is that people in the U.K. will say things like “let the government pay for it”; however the government only has money they collect from individual tax payers.

    Here is the quote in context:

    “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

    KG replies: Hmm. Interesting, thanks, I’ll keep that in mind from now on. Still don’t like her, though.

  28. says

    I’m not a composer, but I am an academic who studies new music, and so I’ve been eavesdropping on this fascinating conversation. I was moved to contribute something to the discussion of professionalism in academia by this honest moment in Kyle’s original post:

    “I wish I were an awesome lecturer, because I end up doing it occasionally, and I’m sure I could have become one had I gotten some training, had a professional lecturer give me tips and feedback and criticism. It never happened, because I’ve never had to depend on public lecturing for a living.”

    Well, I have that job. They call me a “professor,” which I decided early in my career I couldn’t help but take literally: I became a person who professes things — who lectures — for a living. I certainly didn’t get my first academic job because those who hired me agreed with my crazy ideas or liked my writing that much. I was told later by my colleagues that it was the students in front of whom I lectured on Schoenberg and Webern who said, “please hire that guy” — that and the fact that when asked about my performance later that day by the search committee, I immediately launched into a worried recitation of all the things that hadn’t quite worked, and how I would change them if I could do it again. (I did get a chance to do it again about 15 times in my six years there. By the end I was really getting in the groove.)

    Where did I learn how to do this? Well, I was a teaching assistant and watched some wily old professionals (Joseph Kerman) and some brash newcomers (Richard Taruskin). I myself taught sight-singing to tone-deaf undergraduates and Pascal to poets. (You gotta eat…)

    I’ve done reams of research in my life, largely (I confess) to make my lectures rock. I backed my way into being a pop music scholar around 1998 because I thought I could teach a killer class at UCLA on electronic dance music. (It was killer – for me. Thank God the Tower Records in Hollywood was open until 11pm every night.) As soon as I get interested in a new subject, I start scheming about how I could structure and deliver a new set of lectures on it. Nowadays most articles I write can be traced back to an undergraduate lecture or (whole different post, not for today) a graduate discussion.

    The live academic lecture is a situation of maximum and instantaneous feedback. If one gave a concert of new music in which the audience felt free to come in whenever they felt like (late seating for everyone!), to whisper or fire up their mobile devices when the content or style failed to hold their attention for even a moment, and to leave at will no matter what might be happening “onstage,” that would not probably be seen as an “academic” situation, would it? In my early days, many of my classes were required, so technically it “didn’t matter” if the students appreciated my lectures or respected me as a person; but for a sensitive soul, the congealed contempt and disinterest of a roomful of musical undergraduates was simple an unendurable burden. By now, most of my undergraduate classes are “General Education” electives, at a school where students have literally hundreds of other choices if my class is weak or lame. Trust me, I live in a real world of very clear consequences if I fail to communicate clearly and compellingly about subjects that matter to my students.

    I’ve always gone to great lengths to communicate, and take almost nothing for granted. I no longer need to write out the entire lecture — but I used to do it. (I would never read out what I wrote; the work was for me, for my professional pride.) I still worry about things like which font to use on my PowerPoint slide for the word “disco” so that it will be memorable; whether the music example should start 3:34.5 or 3:34.6 into the song to get the right effect; should I deliver the next paragraph from the other side of the stage, to help students intuitively perceive a break in my argumentation; are they getting it now? And now? And…now? And — after 110 minutes — even now? If I let my arm drop before the music reaches the key cadence in my key example, which I’ve planned to hit one minute before the end of class, will someone start packing up their computer? Can’t let *that* happen…


    Oh, yes, the administration and my colleagues also want to know, once every five years, how much writing I’ve done. And whether it’s any good. It’s possible that Kyle and I are the perfect dialectical pair: given that he’s admitted being an amateur lecturer, I’ll confess to having a certain amateurishness about writing. Not the actual prose — I take great pains with that — but I’ll never match the fluency and productivity of a truly professional writer. And yet I believe that, as an academic, I have been a hard-nosed professional when it mattered most (to me): in the classroom.


    Nowadays, I sometimes speak in front of parents and alumni of UCLA. I give them a trimmed down version of what I have always done for students, complete with visuals, audio, talking, singing, playing, and even some dancing, if the situation requires it. Some of them seem very impressed, and they try to pay me a compliment by saying that I should “do something” with my lectures. I assume they mean to compliment my professionalism as a speaker, and I always thank them sincerely. But I also point out that I already *am* doing something: I’m professing their children, and training the next generation of professors.

  29. says

    “. . . their medium is not merely notes or sounds, but the listener’s psychology”. What a great formulation!

    You talk in this post more about the “audience” than I can ever remember, which gives me the opening to ask something I’ve wondered about for a long time. The Tibetan lamas say that our motivation for any action (karma) is what makes it positive, negative, or neutral. (One way to look at the issues you address in this post is just to see that why one writes music or words will greatly color the product.)

    Why do you compose music? Does your concern for “the listener’s psychology” extend beyond keeping them engaged? Since I’m a music therapist, what’s happening with the audience is paramount, so I have no interest in what I guess the academics might call “pure music” that only they can parse.

    Could you put in words what effect you hope your music has on an audience?

    (If you ever stop blogging, I will be happy to pay a subscription fee to have posts like this one show up in my inbox in whatever astrological frequency suits you.)

    KG replies: Hi Lyle. Normally I think I wouldn’t be able to answer that question, but I’ve had a thought recently. When I was a kid and really, really enjoyed something, I had a tremendous urge to do it myself, to *own* it, so that it was me doing it and not just receiving it. (Geez, sorry it comes off so sexual.) And so I think I have to do to other people through music what music I love does for me. I can’t tell whether that distinguishes me from any other composer in the world (I guess clearly it must). But it would certainly explain why I would never consider the audience reaction irrelevant.

    • says

      Kyle, your response is exciting and insightful. It should have been a trivial connection from my reaction to someone’s music to another listener’s reaction to mine, but I never made it. Of course I want to ‘own’ it! That was the reaction on hearing on hearing my first piece of classical music at age 13: “I want to make that music! I want to do that!” A whole audience of “interestings” doesn’t match a single “how did you do that?” (= “how can I do that?”).

  30. says

    Kyle, thanks for the great article. Another validation of my decision, upon receiving my undergraduate degree in theory and composition, to go to the city and play guitar rather than pursue my previously assumed trajectory through academe. I’m quite happy to have ended up as an amateur composer and player with a fairly direct engagement with my (few but valued) listeners. It can be very tempting to follow head over heart (and even over ears), but that’s not where music comes from. Not that I have anything against academia as such, but perhaps it’s better for artists to establish themselves in their art before becoming part of that environment.

  31. Mark N. Grant says

    Kyle, I think your analysis is superb on both issues– first, academic vs. professional music; second, how journalistic writing helped “improve” (I use the word in quotes so as not to suggest there was something with) your composing. I relate to your tale from my own personal experience, having been divided all my life between the two muses of writing and composing.

    I was a journalist in my 20s and 30s at the same time I was intensively studying music and beginning my composition efforts in earnest. For several years I contributed articles on a regular freelance basis to the Los Angeles Times’s “Calendar” section (equivalent to the NY Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section), including an interview with Joe DiMaggio that was nationally syndicated. I published many articles in other newspaper Sunday supplements and some national magazines on a wide variety of topics that had nothing to do with music, although I occasionally wrote musical criticism as well. These professional experiences helped me hone narrative and continuity skills that helped me in the kindred narrative and continuity skills that are part of the process of composing music. (Yes, I know there are non-narrative and non-continuous processes of composing, but for the sake of the present argument….)

    May I note that, as I moved more commitedly into music composition as I got a little older and more experienced musically, I found a reciprocal effect evolving as well: my composition modus operandi began to affect, and change, how I wrote prose. I tend to work slowly and carefully composing music; I like expressive density, do not like to create on the level of facility. And gradually, my approach to writing prose has changed accordingly: it has become more freighted with thought and meaning, more excogitated. When I was very young I could write glibly and facilely. I can still do so, but don’t like to now, particularly when I write libretti for my own dramatic and vocal works. When I write my own texts for musical settings I feel as if I’m composing music, not writing.

    KG replies: Very interesting, Mark. I must say, if pressed to say how my composing has affected my prose, I’m not sure I could come up with anything. I’ll have to think about it more – but I think if I started trying to impose prime-numbered rhythmic structures on my prose, it would create a mess. I’ve never felt capable of writing lyrics or libretti. But I did once, in my early years, write an article on women body builders (for a benefit given for a Chicago women artists’ gallery). Thank goodness I don’t have to do *that* these days.

    • says

      “but I think if I started trying to impose prime-numbered rhythmic structures on my prose”

      That is possible of course as the Oulipo group demonstrated, although as far as I know they didn’t use that particular technique. This article about the group in wikipedia seems accurate:


      Their techniques seem analogous to the techniques used by some composers.

      • says

        Actually, it’s often done! A haiku is a verbal composition based on prime numbers: 5-7-5.

        As Oulipo members often pointed out, literary formal restraints are as old as literature.

        I’ll add that I also found writing for an audience a good influence on my music. Also, performing in commercial theater, and learning the stagecraft of timing, pointing dialogue, evoking applause with a button, etc. Not all of these are applicable (or desirable) to composition, but stage time is quite instructive.

        KG gives it the old college try:
        I could be the first
        to do musicology
        always in haikus.