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.