Intellectual Music vs the Rest of the World

I am studying for my Masters in Music in Composition --Classical Music Composition. Part of this instructional process is reading and writing about music, studying what makes 'great music' which generally means analyzing it and showing the 'depth' and intricacy (intellect) of the music (or said composer). Another part is attempting to write music that we (as composers) consider great. This creates a problem: if the music is truly difficult any performance of it seems to fail, if we write something less, we're not learning to write at a professional level.

The conundrum is even more complex because the definition of "good" classical music varies a great deal from what is popular classical music. Brahms, for example, is very popular in the educational environment because his music can be categorized and analyzed, layers and layers of interweaving lines of melody can be shown to be related to each other. Brahms is only moderately successful in terms of audience appeal. Dvorak, on the other hand, is extremely popular with audiences and deemed to be too popular, too repetitive, too "fluffy" to be "good" music. Yes, Brahms Fourth Symphony final movement is a brilliant passacaglia, but how often is that programmed compared to Dvorak's Ninth Symphony. Dvorak uses complex rhythmic ideas with slight variations to make the music accessible and yet still give it a sense of development. Schoenberg said a motive must develop enough to retain interest, but retain enough to sound familiar. So who really is the better composer?

Popular music tends to be summarily dismissed by the intellectual classical music world and yet, what makes it so popular? There is a course on Bruce Springsteen at my university. I've not taken it - and regret it. Is his music intellectual? Does he use more than just three chords or speak to an audience over the age of 10? I'm guessing there are complexities in his music that 'intellectual music' lovers don't grasp, enough to warrant a musicology class, still it isn't classical music. Modern hip hop artists (whose language can be rather fowl, but can also include a vocabulary of complex words and concepts that defy simple analysis), are layering music and rhythms with a sense of inter-connectivity that rival Brahms or Bach. Will their music become part of the pantheon of "art music" in 100 years? Doubtful, but there are certainly examples of the intellectual process.

Jazz is often lumped together with other 'Commercial' music genres. Are the jazz charts I write are not classical? They are part of who I am as a composer. Every 'great' composer of classical music in the 20th century dabbled in writing jazz. Are these not also part of their music? Are they're jazz pieces somehow less or inferior to their 'art music?' I think Gershwin, Copland, Shostakovich, Babbit, Brittan, Maxwell-Davis, Adams and Glass would disagree.

There are numerous discussions about the death of classical music. As per article/review by Charles Rosen, "Classical Music in Twilight" (Harper's Magazine Mar98), the demise of classical music has been predicted for centuries, and depends greatly on what we define as classical music. The local professional symphony is suffering with the recent economic down turn (as are all major classical music organizations around the US). They are, however, selling more tickets to their concerts than ever before. This hardly suggests classical music is dieing. Some feel the symphony has sold out, playing too much of the boring old stuff. Interestingly enough, the Vivaldi concert was one of the biggest sellers this season. Obviously the old stuff still sells. The symphony also plays new works and seldom heard works as well, not as much as I'd like, but they have to please a broad spectrum of society to sell tickets (and they are selling tickets) so I can't fault their decision process.

Art houses which play 'new music' promote their music to small audiences. New Music groups like "Bang on a Can" are reaching new audiences and creating their own excitement in terms of their music style. Are these New Music groups are closer to pop music than to classical as their classical music is much more accessible than avant-garde music groups? (What do we really mean by avant-garde anymore anyway???) What of avant-garde music which gets a few devotees, but seldom packs the house? Are they really successful?

Some classical musicians are touring solo concerts with reasonable success. They may perform older works, but often these concerts include newer works as well. Every year a new classical work wins the Pulitzer Prize. Jennifer Higdon and Steve Reich are the last couple of winners, composers who are writing challenging music in very different styles and yet both Higdon's Violin Concerto and Reich's Double Sextet are very popular, particularly consider classical music is suppose to be on the decline. Charles Rosen suggests in his review, music will always exist as long as there are people willing to perform it; I agree. But are our educational institutions creating musicians who will succeed in the world of music? Will these musicians be able to find work in their chosen fields and not just become another cog in the educational institution (i.e., become educators themselves)?

The top 5 or so conservatories in the US are attempting to do that, create a class of classical musicians that actually find work in the field. Graduates from Juilliard, Eastman, Manhattan, San Francisco or Yale dominate the biographies from those prominent in the classical music industry. Greg Sandow even teaches a class at Juilliard on the Future of Classical Music, so these musicians are not only being taught to succeed in the "real" world, but being challenged to re-think what the "real" world really is for them upon graduation.

Many other universities enlist top flight professionals to teach the performance students. They are working with, learning from instructors who are actually working in the industry. When students graduate they have been exposed to what it takes to be a professional; they are in a small way being prepared to succeed as a musician. Whether they choose to take that education and work in the industry is something else, but at least they are being given the skills.

Composition, however, is a different beast. On one hand we're taught to write intellectually, but also encouraged to find student performers to play our works. The problem with this paradigm is that student performers are often too busy working on their own progress to give these new compositions much practice. If we, as composers, write down to a playable level, we're not learning to push the envelope. If we write what we think is really challenging material it's difficult at best to get the pieces performed well. We're discouraged from including elements of jazz or popular music, and steered toward more atonal or electronic forms of music creation, which means our audiences are considerably smaller than other performances of more "main stream" music. Why? Is there evidence to suggest these "avant-garde" pieces are more commercially viable forms of classical music?

In this major US city there are several professional recording studios, a couple of advertising agencies which utilize composers to new music for TV and radio ads, and numerous performance groups which like to perform new works. The video game industry has at least two companies in the area which hire composers. Lots of other video game companies allow composers to work remotely, so location isn't necessarily a consideration. Right now, no video game programming courses are offered. There is a short film composing course, but not part of the classical music composition program. Currently, the classical music composition program is not focused on real world experiences or with any consideration for real world skills.

Composers need to learn to be viable in the music market. Classical music should just be about being commercial, but if we do not learn how to succeed in the market place, if that isn't at least part of our education, than our choices are to continue the plight of the educational community and churn out more unsuccessful composers, or to find work outside our field. The composers that do succeed are the ones that find their own way either by self determination or dumb luck. We shouldn't rely on luck to produce good music. Haydn taught Beethoven resulting in one of the greatest composers ever. Teach us to succeed and we will yield results the world has yet to imagine.


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