What Sort of Classical Music Should I Write? - Part 2

Should be it be Innovative (or avant-garde) or Accessible

a follow up for What Sort of Classical Music Should I Write?

An on going series of posts into what sort of composition is "good" classical music

As I mentioned in the previous post, there are numerous styles of Classical music, and camps of people who favor one over another. In this week's post I want to talk about innovative music vs accessible music, or music that pushes the bounds of what music is as opposed to music "joe blow" on the street might be willing to listen to - more than once.

There are plenty of quotes from major composers of the 20th century who take the camp of "I don't care what the audience thinks" or "It's better if they don't like my music at first. It means I'm really doing something new." (both paraphrased, but you get the idea.) The attitude of these avant-garde composers implies the audience has no real value to them. Music is the higher goal. Milton Babbitt said, "I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media," suggesting that a composer is better served by not responding to the public, but rather withdrawing into his own world of music.

It is this lack concern for the audience that always surprises me. Art, by its very nature, is to be experienced. Music is an auditory experience, meaning it has no purpose without an audience to experience it. If composers write music that has no concern or interest in the audience and their auditory experience, then IMHO, it isn't music. It doesn't fit the primary function of music.

That said, it is possible to create music in a cave or as a hermit and then present it to the world; but eventually it takes an audience to realize the potential of a composition as music. If, the audience doesn't respond to it, or rather chooses to never want that experience again, the composer may have created a moment of music, but failed at creating lasting art.  Besides, living in a cave how is one suppose to understand the current of modern thoughts and ideas, which music should reflect?

Arnold Schoenberg said, "Great art presupposes the alert mind of the educated listener." To me this suggests that great art(music) is only great art(music) if and when the listener is educated as to what they should be listening to. Hmmmm, again, that seems to miss the point. Children who are exposed to Bach or Mozart for the first time can still experience a sense of wonder about the music. In Bruno Nettl's book "The Study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-one issues and concepts" he discusses the effect of aboriginal children on hearing Mozart for the first time, their wonder and appreciation for music that is in no way similar to what they grew up hearing. Does this mean Mozart's music isn't great art to them because they are uneducated as to what they should be hearing? Of course not!

On the flip side, Anton Webern wrote while writing his "Six Bagatelles for String Quartet" Op. 9 (1913), "While working on them I had the feeling that once the twelve tones had run out, the piece was finished." This work has been studied and discussed in numerous books, dissertations and papers. So, we can therefore assume (based on Schoenberg's quote), it must be great art because so many educated people have studied it. Nearly 100 years later, these pieces aren't performed anywhere close to the same amount as either Beethoven's string quartets (100 years prior to Webern's) or Shostakovich's string quartet's (written after Webern's). Why? Because the general audience (no matter the state of their education) still has no connection to the music. After 100 years of the educational community trying to gain an audience for Webern's "Six Bagatelles" that audience still doesn't exist. Therefore I suggest, Webern's "Six Bagatelles" might be interesting intellectually, like a puzzle, but they are not great art. Music needs something more than just intellectual stimulation for musicologists and theorists to ponder over.

I'm not suggesting that Webern wasn't a great composer, or we should stop studying him. His Passacaglia for orchestra Op. 1 (1908) is a beautiful piece. The Second Viennese School and the 12-tone technique are hugely influential in later 20th century music. All of these are extremely important to study. But to say the pieces that are intellectually stimulating are great art is simply false --one does not equate to the other.

Another quote from Babbitt, "As for the future of electronic music, it seems quite obvious to me that its unique resources guarantee its use, because it has shifted the boundaries of music away from the limitations of the acoustical instrument, of the performer's coordinating capabilities, to the almost infinite limitations of the electronic instrument." Ok, I understand that creating music that is beyond the limitations of the performer has certain appeal. I certainly spoke about wanting to write acoustic music that pushes the bounds of what performers can do last week. But, just writing music that can't be performed by live musicians doesn't make it great art.

If you go out to YouTube, you can find thousands of budding artists creating music with their home computers. The whole point of House Music is to take pre-recorded sounds and mash them together to create something new. Predecessors to this like Luc Ferrari and Steven Reich used reel to reel tape machines to create a new sonic world. The work they did in their early careers paved the way for a host of electronic gadgets which digitally create reverb, chorus, delay or other effects. These are common tools for artists like Imogen Heap whose albums are heavily effected to create a whole new sonic world that is still very much music, albeit in the pop genre.

Ferrari's Hétérozygote (1963-4) borders on the realm between music and sound design, which is to say, the listener is taken on a journey of recognizable and unrecognizable sounds, but no clear form or structure is apparent  if a sense of narrative is present, it doesn't come across in either a rhythmic or melodic way.  His "Plaisir-desir" is on the same album (2001) as his "Far West News, Episode No. 1." The first, "Plaisir-desir," is very musical and performed by Orchestre National De France; the second falls into the realm of sound design. The difference is one has rhythmic pulse and a sense of movement which seems to propel the "sound" forward. The sound design pieces are interesting auditory experiences, but take the listener on a different type of journey, speaking to the listener through recognizable and unrecognizable sounds to create a sense of place or images. Music (IMHO) can have sound design, but doesn't necessarily expect the listener to recognize the sounds as that specific sound, rather as an impression of the sound, an illusion or analogy.

Steven Reich recently won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his "Double Sextet" --which is BTW an acoustic piece. However Reich's Come Out (1966) is an interesting exploration of sound and tape delay. Again, like some of Ferrari's pieces, I don't consider Come Out necessarily music, and yet, part way into the piece it's hard to describe exactly what it is. Interesting yes ... music .... ???

The difference between sound design and music is nebulous at best. Certainly pieces like Beethoven's 6th Symphony have elements of sound design (the peal of thunder in a distant storm), and elements of sound design can be musical. What I disagree with is labeling all sonic experiences as music. In a pair of previous articles, Film and Music Acousmatique & Tonal Music and Atonal Music - what are they really? I discuss how sound-scapes (or sound design) has become a field of its own in the film industry, worthy of its own awards and artistic merit. In my opinion, to combine music with sound-design is to lessen both categories. The reason the Grammy's have so many different categories for awards is because what it takes to create a great Classical Ensemble Recording is vastly different that making a great Rhythm & Blues CD. In this case, both are music, but can't (and shouldn't) be compared with the same criteria. I believe the same is true of sound-design and classical music.

Ok, I've ranted enough about what is or is not music... but what sort of Classical Music should I write? I don't believe I should live (or compose) in a cave. The music I write should be understandable to those who get the chance to listen to it. Jennifer Higdon comments that few composers today get the luxury of having their pieces heard by an audience more than once. Just getting a piece performed in today's classical music world is difficult at best if you're not one of the few elite composers out there. So, if the audience is only going to hear your music once (as opposed to the hundreds of times they will listen to their favorite pieces on iTunes), it has to be something the audience will want to hear again.

Ensembles are struggling to find enough audience to make a living. If they program a piece and the audience doesn't like it, it's likely to have an adverse effect on their ticket sales - particularly if they try and program that same composer again. I feel very fortunate the Boulder Symphony asked for yet another work of mine for their 2011-12 season. They performed two of my works last year and could easily have said, "thanks, but we'll go with somebody else this year." They certainly have plenty of composers to choose from. The fact they came back to me says they not only liked playing the music, but their audience gave positive feedback --want to hear me again.

This is what I am striving to achieve --music that is both fun (and challenging) to play, but has audience appeal. One of my most popular pieces is the 3rd movement from my Symphony No. 1, "You Can't Catch Rabbits With Drums." It is highly rhythmic and while it has melodic elements, it is almost 3 minutes into the piece before you really get a sense of melody beyond just snatches. In another work (yet to be performed) Chasing Dark Dwarf Galaxies I definitely had a sense of sound-design in mind when creating the piece and yet a melody is quickly present. There is no specific narrative to Dark Dwarf but there is a sense of what the theme might sound like.  Oddly enough, "Rabbits" is written in a very classical tonal style, whereas Dark Dwarf was done using pitch class sets in a more modern "atonal" approach --although atonal doesn't really fit. Insecta, like Dark Dwarf doesn't have a specific narrative, but did have a sense of sound-design in the composition process. The key for me, in these pieces, as with anything I write, is to make it accessible for an audience on first hearing while giving enough depth of compositional structure and voice to reward multiple listenings.

I would like to create great art.  I believe in order to do so, it must be something listeners respond to and desire to hear again.


Chip Michael said…
I had a great twitter conversation with @JACKQuartet who, btw, disagreed with most of what I had to say.

@chipmichael I understand some of your points, but disagree with most of what you wrote. By your logic, popular artists such as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga should be considered greater artists than say Beethoven just because more people in the world listen to their music and buy their CDs.

@chipmichael Also, Webern's 6 Bagatelles is an incredibly beautiful work of art, a true masterpiece. The music is so fleeting the average listener won't always pick up on its beauty on one hearing.

@chipmichael Falling in love with a piece of music after the first hearing does not make it better. It took me years to make any sense out of late Beethoven but his late quartets are some of my favorite pieces of music.


These are all great points. I don't think popularity is the only identifier of great art (far from it). However, if after 100 years, a piece still hasn't been accepting into the main stream (i.e., Webern's Six Bagatelles), when will it be - or does that not matter?

Maybe it doesn't. But in our sound-bite world, composers struggle to get played once let alone multiple times. Maybe there is something to be said for art for arts sake - but there are numerous composers who wrote thousands of works and are forgotten because they just couldn't get enough exposure.

Maybe I'm being self-serving --wanting to get noticed for my work. (yes, I do want that!). But at some point popularity of a composer validates their output. Mine might not come until I no longer even worm food (Bach certainly is more popular now than he was in his own lifetime). I am just trying to figure out the criteria for myself... what is great music, and how does mine compare.

Thanks to JACKQuartet for the wonderful dialog. My search isn't over, but I the discussion certainly helps.
Malcolm said…
Composers should, first of all, be true to themselves and not copy some latest fad or fashion. He or she should have something to say that will give the music a real purpose, a reason for being written.
I consider myself successful as a composer if I get more pieces performed each year, or even repeat performances, and if those performances are reasonably well received.
I agree that the test of time will tell if a piece is considered great, but there are also a large number of works from all periods that are great but unknown because they have not had the exposure.
The problem today is that of competition - true we have the internet to help us promote ourselves, but we also have a large number of composers competing for success. That's our dilema. Comments welcome.
Chip Michael said…
Well put, Malcolm -

Part of what I disagree with the fads in composition is that we don't really look at the quality of the craft, but the uniqueness of the gimmick.

Extended techniques can be interesting and add a depth of color to the music. But if they are there just to say "Ooh, see this extended technique I used???" it becomes a gimmick and fails to impress me. Yet, it's been my experience that those are the pieces that are getting the exposure, the recognition right now...
Janet Bordeaux said…
I totally agree with your final statement. When I write a piece of music it is because it is something I want to play, over and over. It is something I want to hear. It is something I want others to hear, and play, and enjoy. I want my listeners to be moved, inspired, uplifted. I understand the folks who feel a need to "push the envelope." And I accept that that is something that is necessary for growth of any artform. But for myself - I experience music as something to feed my soul. So no "cave writing" for me. And I probably am not listening to the "cave writers." Great article, Michael!
Craig Marks said…
Hi Chip,

Thanks for asking.

Shortest answer I have is to write what makes your heart soar. If it has no meaning for you, it probably won't resonate with listeners.

That being said, the goal is communication, right? Rules are made to be broken, but at the same time, they are rules for a reason. Romantic, melodic music communicates something completely different than genre-expanding experimental assemblages of sound, but they both cause a response.

To me, technique in music is much the same as vocabulary in language or writing. Having a large store of rarely used SAT words doesn't necessarily make you a better communicator - it might just make you a pompous ass who constantly wants to impress people with their knowledge. However, when you know what you want to say, having that large vocabulary at your disposal will make it easier for you to communicate the idea precisely and effectively. So it goes with music.

Atonality, aleatoric writing, extended techniques..... all are terrific tools in the composer's arsenal, as are tonality, melody, harmony, etc. Without an idea to communicate, however, it all falls flat and turns into a sort of reference book. While encyclopedias and dictionaries are powerful, useful tools, they don't encourage passion or imagination. And you certainly don't want to curl up and read them for inspiration or comfort!

With a vast arsenal of techniques at your disposal, you can become a ninja composer - sneaking up on the listeners and utilizing whichever technique(s) will best communicate your idea. You may even expand the listener's horizons without them realizing it!

My $.02.
Chip Michael said…
Craig - really loved the comment
Chip Michael said…
Craig - really loved the comment
Glenn James said…
A question I'll ask myself for years to come I'm sure. Great insight. I'd have to side with writing from the heart. The initial creative and emotional connection to the music almost always has to be there; it's essential for transmitting the idea and grounding it in something real. It's the composer's job to put listeners through some sort of experience, to grab and hold their attention (or force them to pay attention!) Isn't that what made music stand out to us in the first place?
Chip Michael said…
Glenn, I like your desire to have an emotional connection in the music. So often, during my studies, I felt composers moving away from this connection, searching for some new "gimmick" or intricate "formula" to tie their piece together. Emotions were rarely discussed (not by these composers anyway).

Yes, our music should grab the listeners.

For more on THIS topic, see my post GettingHeard.


Steve Hicken said…

If I were your teacher and I came upon these posts, I'd tell you to get out of your own head, quit thinking about "should" and "function" and all of that stuff, and write the music you want to write, the music that is inside you and that needs to come out. As long as the music is playable and professionally presented, the rest of that stuff will take care of itself.

I do have one specific comment about this post. I think you are completely misreading the Schoenberg quote: "Great art presupposes the alert mind of the educated listener."

Your comments following the quote indicate that you are replacing Schoenberg's "presupposes" with "requires", which change radically changes the meaning of the statement. When an artist "presupposes" the kind of audience that Schoenberg describes, she is making her art aimed at an audience with the most interest and committment to the art that a listener can have, not that only such a listener can appreciate it. This presupposed audience may have only one person in it, but experience and history teacxh us that that audience is, in fact, large.

The fact that children can appreciate someting in Bach and Mozart (as in your example) doesn't mean that the music wasn't intended for more educated audiences. As for "alert", my experience tells me that children are often very open to new sounds, sometimes moreso than more experienced listeners, who often look for comfort, and who like what they know.

So Schoenberg isn't showing disrespect for a philistine audience. Quite the contraya; he is "presupposing" an audience receptive to the music he felt.

For my take on what Babbitt had to say about these issues, see http://burningambulance.com/2011/02/01/on-milton-babbitt/
Chip Michael said…
Steve -

Good point... since graduating I have been working on music I like as opposed to what was expected of me in graduate school (very different music). So, in some respects I am doing just what you suggest.

Another good point... changing the word does make a huge difference. Thanks for pointing that out!

I haven't read your post - but I will.

Thanks. Points well taken!

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