Way-Back Wednesday: Manifesto from an Angry Young Composer

As I continue to work on my novel and prepare a long-form essay about leaving academia, here’s another piece of non-blog work. I wrote this one as a master’s student in composition and music history. Looking back, I find it’s actually a pretty reasonable precursor of my doctoral research. There are all sorts of things “PhD me” would tell “new grad student me” about sociology and power structures and different kinds of capital. PhD me, though, is much less in tune with the aesthetic and creative issues that drove me back then. You could probably predict, too, that I was headed for musicology—why else would I put so many references in a manifesto?


How many times have you (or I) walked out of a contemporary music concert thinking “this or that piece was well-constructed, but it didn’t really do anything for me.” Craftsmanship does not equal quality. Style doesn’t equal content. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Too often, I think, composers write to show what they know, to show off this or that theory or technique that they have developed/adopted/adapted/refined. The worst cases in my experience are often serialist pieces wearing their tone rows on their sleeves. You listen to the first twenty seconds and have a fair idea of how the next twenty minutes will go. In the very worst cases, you’re actually right.

The development of music theory as an independent discipline has produced a variety of interesting new ideas about what music is and how music works. These ideas, though, are completely divorced from any sort of context. Music theory becomes a game of numbers, not of sounds. Numbers alone do not make good music.

Yet many composers insist on mastery of theory and numbers. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I ignore set theory or serial technique or even (gasp) “common practice” tonality. Composing music requires some way of understanding and structuring sound. Theory is a good way to do that. Learning music theory gives the composer tools.

It does not give the composer music.

Mastery of theory and other compositional techniques (formal balance, orchestration, et cetera) does not automatically lead to good music, let alone great music. Writing music to display one’s mastery of theory leads, at best, to mediocre music. The composer must control the tools, not be controlled by them.

(my) Good music has something to say. It needn’t be a profound philosophical statement. Existential angst doesn’t make for good music to any greater extent than music theory does. The composer can be saying something as simple as “this is beautiful” or “have you ever really heard cracking ice?”

“Emotional” content is not automatically something to say. Listen to good movie scores in context (with the movie). There’s your proof, if you need it, that music can be used as a tool to stir emotions. Writing emotionally loaded music of that variety is ultimately just as craftsman-like as producing a competent neo-serial work.

As Modernism took over cultural authority from Romanticism, much was made over the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Modernism praised the former and distinguished it from the latter. The sublime, by this line of thought, is vast. It is the ineffable, the brooding purple mountains glowering against the sunset. To create a sublime work of art is a form of escapism. Flee the trials of the everyday and take refuge in the delights and terrors of pure emotion. Modernist beauty, on the other hand, aspires to what T.E. Hulme poetically calls “dead crystalline forms.” It is an art of geometry, proportion, of clarity and balance. (For a more thorough description of the beautiful versus the sublime, see Richard Taruskin’s “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past” in Text and Act or Authenticity and Early Music.)

I believe that good music cannot dwell wholly in either of these camps. Life has sublime moments, but it is not made of them entirely. The excesses of Late Romanticism pretended that it was, and created towers of stacked thirds and unresolved dominants that eventually toppled under their own weight. But life is not dead. It is not still, nor is its motion wholly the precise, ordered motion of Modernist machinery. There is room and need for both the rational and irrational in music.

All this comes around eventually to showing what you know versus saying what you have to say. The modernist path has led to ever more precise, more crystalline forms (reaching their stereotypical apex in the works of Milton Babbitt). Emphasis on rational thought and structure forced more and more detached thinking into music. (It is no coincidence that when Babbitt was creating compositional machinery to control every aspect of a musical work, John Cage was turning his compositional machinery over to chance operations. “Total” control and “non”-control produced works that are, on occasion, strikingly similar.) This detached thinking accelerated the growth of music theory and its place in composition. More theory and more rationalism led to a music of display: contrapuntal technique, serial technique, you name it. To be taken seriously as a composer, you had to show that you knew your stuff. You did this by writing pieces demonstrating your mastery of “new” theories (serialism was hardly new in the 1970s). The legacy of that is composition focused on complexity, on demonstrating that one has the knowledge to produce and control that complexity.

Instead of the product of knowledge, music should be the product of thinking. Pondering, if you prefer, for pondering is not so loaded with rational modernist connotations. Think and feel your way to the sounds and through them. Don’t discard your knowledge; while craftsmanship isn’t a free pass to writing good music, it is a necessary step. The necessary balance is not inherently one of form or content. The necessary balance is one of cold construction and the unruly chaos of indulgent feeling. Somewhere in that balance, there is something to say.

That something is the serious side of music. Earlier segments of the manifesto state that music should be fun. I have hardly forgotten that, but it’s a discussion for a different moment.

Further elements in an ongoing conversation:

I don’t have some magical resolution to offer on the issue of listening versus hearing, nor on coping with opened ears…I caught myself wanting to transcribe the squeaking of a particular door in the library the other day. The point about horses and water is a good one. I want something clever to say about putting carrots in the water (or apples, because all the horses I’ve known have preferred apples to carrots), but I don’t have any substance to match the analogy to. Upon reflection, I believe that part of my argument is about leading the water to the horse. Too often, “art” music pools in the concert hall, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a horse will come along. If the horse actually stops to drink, that’s cause for celebration. Music that goes (to get back to one of my favorite terms) is water that flows or springs up someplace closer to the horse and doesn’t wait for the horse to wander by or for someone to lead the horse in.

Reflection has also led me to believe that my statement about “saving music from itself” was unnecessary hyperbole. I didn’t even mean it at the time, at least not the way that it came out. I am most interested in saving my own music from itself, from getting tangled in too much theory and too much academic scene. There are times when I just want to buy a banjo and sit on the sidewalk and play and tell stories. But I theorize a bit much for that. A product of those reflections on saving music from its academic inclinations appears above.

As this is, after a fashion, a conversation in letters, allow me to jump to a different point, the point that the last volley closed on: immediacy. “Does the immediacy, or physicality of a performer’s presence make something more musical?”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t that immediacy or lack thereof makes something musical or prevents it from being musical. It is that immediacy and uncertainty create engagement. It’s just as true for a circus act, theatre, or sports as it is for music. Not many people watch recordings of old baseball games. (I admit that some do, and that the correspondence is not exact, but this isn’t an exercise in rhetoric yet. Never mind the question of watching baseball games that are recorded and end up on your television a fraction of a second later.)

I can’t say that electroacoustic music or symphonic music or any other kind of big/boxy music is unmusical. There are incredible electroacoustic pieces and there are incredible orchestral pieces that take full advantage of their respective media. Immediacy is not a criterion of musicality per se. I believe, though, that it can be an important advantage for music.

Much of music exists in the space between people: the space between the composer and the performers, the space between one performer and another, the space between the performers and the audience. Music lives in those spaces, not on a printed score or on a recording. [I point out as an aside that pure electroacoustic music changes these spaces considerably, virtually eliminating the space between composer and performer and, as mentioned elsewhere, transforming the space between the perform(ance) and the listener. This is by no means an automatically bad thing.] Scores and recordings are useful. The best recordings capture some of the lightning of those spaces (although the slicker the production, the cleaner and more thoroughly edited the recording, the smaller and less meaningful the spaces become).

Music that goes aims at revitalizing spaces. For the space between performer and listener, immediacy and a dose of the unexpected can be vitalizing agents.


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