Teaching Composition – What are we trying to achieve

In the process of learning composition I have spent time with a number of instructors who have encouraged me to write twelve-tone, pitch-class, electro-acoustic and other forms of experimental techniques. No matter how much I might understand and appreciate the work of other composers in the genres, these are not forms of music I resonate with. They are simply not forms of music I listen to and I struggle with the idea of writing them.

However, in a Master Class by Libby Larsen she made the comment, “Learn them all, because all forms of music have something to offer.” This I very much agree. There are elements of each of the above mentioned forms (and others) that I do resonate with. Berg’s Violin Concerto is a beautiful twelve-tone work, although it is possible to look at numerous sections of the music with a “tonal” analysis.

Another composer friend, Gary Bachlund commented that using these techniques can narrow the choices for how to compose a piece of work. If you look at the complete list of notes available (not even considering microtonality), all the various instruments, rhythm potentials, etc. you’ll go crazy trying to write something. By selecting a form with which to narrow the compositional focus, it makes it possible to actually create a set work.

What I do feel classical composition is missing is the use of modern art forms and study. Why do we study pitch-class composition and not jazz? The exploitation of “cluster” chords in jazz is extremely similar, and in many ways builds on the structures of previous compositional techniques (creating new names for chords which are already established). While jazz may not expect the detailed rhythmic writing of say new complexity, harmonically and stylistically it is very intellectual.

How about Hip Hop or Rap? Libby spoke about not being a “rap” artist herself, but thrilling with the exploration of the intricate rhythm structures in the music. Shouldn’t young composers be examining the music of their own generation to find what makes it tick and how to incorporate these elements into classical forms? Philip Glass speaks of the rock influence in his early music. Steve Reich has numerous pieces which have “pop” like elements. John Adams is the same. These are huge names in the classical world and they are incorporating contemporary music elements, but wouldn’t be able to do so if they didn’t first have a grasp of the art form.

Perhaps we don’t study contemporary “pop” forms of music because our classical educators don’t understand “pop” music. They have been steeped in the line of thought from serialism through post-modernism, without having the benefit of “pop” training. Unfortunately, when they continue to educate new composers without this benefit, we only continue to create composers without a connection to modern commercial music. It is possible to create “new” music and still be marketable. It is possible to advance the sonic world without losing sight of the fact that music needs an audience.

Two of the largest audiences for composed music are in Film and Video Games, yet composition for these art forms is rarely taught and then mostly under the ‘Pop’ strand of a given program. So, when it comes to classical music composition, are we simply training the next generation of educators? If there is no understanding of how to write commercial music, then the chances of a composer actually making a living with the musical education (outside of being an educator) is extremely limited.


Anonymous said…
"So, when it comes to classical music composition, are we simply training the next generation of educators?" Sadly, I conclude the answer to be "yes."

Some academics might as well be giving degrees in "Contemplate Your Musical Navel." If a degree, undergraduate or graduate, is to have any focus other than training teachers, then the practicality of working in a professional music situation, not music education, should be the goal and measure of a program. Do its graduates work in their field, outside the discipline of teaching?
Anonymous said…
The performance of your music by the Edinburgh Quartet is charming. Congratulations.
Chip Michael said…
Thank you! I enjoyed writing the piece and they enjoyed playing it - always a good combination!
Marcus said…
"Shouldn’t young composers be examining the music of their own generation to find what makes it tick and how to incorporate these elements into classical forms?"

Absolutely, but this is typically done individually. The minimalist composers you cite and their forbears had rather typical conservatory training. I doubt Persichetti schooled Reich on pop music at Juilliard, ditto for Adams' studies with Earl Kim and Roger Sessions at Harvard. There are composers who do emphasize training in pop/jazz (i.e., Christopher Rouse's pop history course), but has their been proof that this necessarily results in a composer more "relevant" to his/her generation?

Our duty teaching composition students is to perpetually reinforce that what they are learning in their university/conservatory lessons is only one facet of their evolution as a composer.
Chip Michael said…
I agree that some of the education and development of composition students lies on the shoulders of the students themselves. However, I also think it is important that Universities/Conservatories teach not just the stream of "avant-gard" composers and styles, but consider what is relevant in today's music - particularly classical music.

I could be wrong, but I don't get the idea there is a lot of attention paid to current composers like the above mentioned (or add to the list film composers of today like Williams, Howard, Horner...). These composers are writing marketable music, music that not only serves the film, but is enjoyable to listen to by a large segment of society.

Larsen, Higdon, Ades are all current composers who write "accessible" music. Are their music not as relevant that of Carter or Ferneyhough (also contemporaries, but of a style that is less accessible to the general public)?

I guess what I'm saying is I believe composition education ought to be a focus on marketability of music as it is on experimentation. I do not find this to be the case.
Anonymous said…
Avant garde is a funny phrase, and its use is even stranger. To be the advance guard in a military sense is to reconnoiter for some foray into enemy territory. But the musical avant garde of the twentieth century seems to have wandered into so many alleys, many of them blind, that one wonders what is so "vanguard" about making works about which almost no ones cares.

The enthusiasm to be viewed as a radical has become rather silly, and all too well-worn, especially as some of the avant garde academic composers of my acquaintance aboslutely want no negative reception for their "vanguard" work. In fact, the devotion to being a member of the avant garde has become an orthodoxy, bound and beholden to so many rules and strictures that breaking with the avant garde to actually be "avant garde" has often become taken as evidence of disloyalty to a style, a composer or a school.

The simple fact of art -- and especially the art of composing music -- is that there is no guarantee of being accepted, loved or respected. An audience will not be told what is right and proper, because an audience is free to enjoy, boo, wander off and even perhaps never return. Alas for the othodox avant garde who have found employment and economicy sustenance in universities because they believe they are being rewarded for such old fashioned and restrictive thinking as many of them evidence.

A horrid measure of music for the classical orthodox avant garde is that anyone but themselves and their insular world might actually not apperciate their magnum opus.

The greatest agony is a yawn, a ho-hum, and being ignored.
Chip Michael said…
Anonymous (13 Dec) - Great Comment!

It seems odd to me that there is SO much attempt at trying to validate something that is neither new or interesting. While there are a myriad of musical tastes, there seems to be a large segment of "educational" focus on those artists that have yet to be wholly embraced by the music world at large. One on hand they (the educational establishment) have create an audience for these lesser appreciated works. But on the other hand they are propping them up as if they are not only great works of art, but in many respects better works than other compositions that receive main stream appeal.

- When Luc Ferrari branched out into musique concrete, recorded sounds and ambient "noise" he was doing so to explore the sonic world. Ok, I don't actually happen to like what he's done, nor do I really consider it music - but I can appreciate the process of exploration. When Ferneyhough opted to write music some complex it is beyond perform-ability to the point actual performers need to pick and choose what elements of the music is performed and what is left out, there is a aspect of exploring the "limitations" of music that I appreciate (although, again I personally don't enjoy concerts comprised entirely of this style of music). Cowell explored extended techniques (while I consider many of these techniques rather like building a house using a pipe wrench to pound in the nails, possible but not particularly efficient and in the end who cares how the house was built?) what he wanted was to discover the limits of musical instruments.

Yet - what are the limits of orchestral tonality? Did Stravinsky write the last great tonal works, to the point can be no more tonal orchestral works that are nothing but pastiche of what's already been done? The popularity of Corigliano's "Red Violin" would suggest otherwise.


I am glad to see this topic getting so much discussion. If new classical music is to be composed - and therefore new composers educated in order to create it - we need to have this sort of dialog as to what they should be taught.

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