What us composers are talking about

My good friend and mentor Stuart Saunders Smith and I coorespond via letters.  Letters!  He recently pointed out that I have been incorporating more vernacular elements into my music.  This was not a calculated choice, though—certainly not a calculated choice regarding money or fame or something like that.  If I wanted money I’d work on WallStreet.  If I wanted fame I’d try to act in Hollywood.  No, what I really love is experimental music.  Or avant garde or whatever term we choose to use.  Perhaps “personal” is the best term.  I like music that is unique and personal and struggles to make sense of the individual in the larger world, especially the modern one, which I find fascinating, inspiring, noisy, disturbing, and exhausting by turns.

But “personal” can come in a lot of shapes and sizes and in a lot of different genres I think.  When I was in school I remember feeling that my composition and theory professors were pushing a very subtle but real attitude that only music that is written down and ostensibly “complex” was worth anything.  While I could sort of agree with them intellectually my gut told me otherwise.  Sure, Webern’s music is inspiring and gorgeous, but so is John Coltrane, and so is Sharda Sahai, and so is Aphex Twin or Autechre or Meshuggah.  Over the years I’ve realized that I have an omnivorous appetite for music of all kinds and shapes and sizes. And I’ve become more comfortable pointing out the emperor with no clothes. Just because something has the sheen of seriousness and complexity (i.e., complex notation, on a classical concert series) does not make it so.  Some of the music I hear at new music concerts has depth and complexity, but much of it is simple-minded and only has the appearance of complexity.

Of course I can’t comment on my own work in this regard.  Many people love it, but I’m sure there are just as many who think it is terrible.  But that’s true for every living composer and most of the dead ones too!  I do know that when I compose I don’t make charts or graphs and I don’t think much about the structure of the piece.  I stopped reading music journals like Perspectives of New Music for that reason.  Those articles were polluting my mind, making me think I needed to have some sort of hidden  architecture so that down the road some poor Ph.D. student would write a dissertation about how marvelously complex my music is and I would then be handed the keys to the pantheon of Western classical music.  I could almost envision the bust of my head in the hallway at the Eastman School of Music!  How noble and sagacious I would look!  A pillar of Western culture!  I respect the intellectual rigor that goes into those articles and on the resulting “mind play” can certainly be enjoyable, but in terms of my creative process I found them destructive.

When I’m composing well I’m assimilating and processing in an organic fashion the world around me, and the “canon” I’ve built for myself in my ipod.  In my canon you won’t find Brahms because his music just doesn’t speak to me.  But you will find Evan Parker.  Tons of it.  You’ll also find Bach and Victoria and Machaut and Xenakis and Metallica and Aesop Rock and Stuart Saunders Smith and all sorts of other stuff.  (I suppose I am truly a product of the internet age . . .)  Sometimes that means I write 4-4 beats and sometimes the writing is more “classical.”  I don’t worry about it too much.  The only time I get worried is if I start making a chart or a graph.  There’s a big difference between a piece of music and a piece of music theory.  I hope I’m creating the former.

At any rate, this does bespeak of a type of apolitical attitude that pervades my generation.  The good thing about this is that the walls are truly down now.  No uptown, no downtown, just music making.  The vigorous dialectics of the past—which seemed to me mostly had to do with egos and competition of resources—have been mostly subdued. However, the problem is that it can be difficult to discern whether the omnivorous appetites of composers of my generation are genuine or a result of laziness.  Are we really assimilating all that’s going on and creating a true “maximalist” style?  (Sorry, Charles Wuorinen, I couldn’t resist, but it really does apply to us more than you.) Or are we just slapdashing things together?  Copying and pasting our way through each composition?  A little of this and a little of that and a whole lot of nothing?  Are we hiding our lack of technique and thorough training behind a façade of eclecticism?

I don’t know.  But again I don’t worry about it too much.  I’m not a historian or a politician and political music has never had much traction with me.  I’m interested in sound.  And if I can put together a few moments of genuine, personal, wonder-inducing sound—even if just once in my whole life—then I will rest easy that I’ve made a valuable contribution tohumanity.  The only way I see it possible for me to do that is to get up each morning and write music.  Get it played.  Get it recorded.  Then move on to the next piece.

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