On another friend’s blog, someone remarked, “We would do well to remember that only as a living tradition are we the sacrament of salvation.” It was one of those comments that hit me in the gut, in a good way, and made me hopeful. He was speaking of the Catholic Church and tendencies towards unthinking legalism that seem to be popular among the twentysomethings, but it dawned on me that he could be speaking about what it is to be a composer.
All composers are part of a living tradition. The common notion about composers is that they operate in some mythical, romantic past, and that every piece they make is some sort of masterwork. (Whether or not the concept of a “masterwork” exists, is another blog entry for another time.) But popular notion aside, at any given moment, there are people out there (still breathing), who’re writing music. The act of composition can be seen as a kind of repetition. And like the earlier post on repetition, there is a danger of being trapped in either slavery or rehearsal.
Since we have almost a thousand years worth of tradition, it’s easy to become enslaved to it. The model of music theory is one of rules and empiricisms (think basic theory), and, to an extent, part of the legalistic model of music theory is used to teach composition. In it, a student must learn certain stylistic rules of different historical periods, and then they make music based upon it. Composition becomes like part-writing or counterpoint exercises. They might make some good music this way, but they’re trapped to a bunch of rules, which really don’t exist. The joy of creation becomes a part-time job.
It would be wrong to say that music theory is only the analytical material one would find in a first or second-year theory text; and it is criminal to teach composition along these ways. Outside of a first or second year theory class, nobody cares whether or not you resolve chords, if you use chords at all, or if you do a perfect sonata form. The only thing that matters is the piece, itself. The degree to which the composer conformed to some stylistic practice is secondary.
The other type of enslavement is when everything is new. In this type of slavery, the composer-to-be is obsessed with only producing “new” things. They are in the process of perfecting their “art,” which means obsessing over that which hasn’t been done previously. They have little concern for those who came before, and every work they produce must be one which breaks these connections. People in this extreme can also make good music, but there is the danger of becoming imprisoned in one’s own ego.
I don’t write music in a vaccuum. I studied with various people, who studied with various people. I listen to music. There are sounds all around me, and I can’t write in an anechoic chamber. I can’t deny that they are a part of me when I write, so there will be elements of other people in my music. Another joy of composition comes when I realize that these people are so a part of me that they flow into what I do unthinkingly.
It’s only when I’m aware of my roots and conscious of what possibilities are out there that I’m free to be the composer I’m meant to be. It’s the “un-self-ish”ly opening towards some larger and unconfined end that is what it means to be part of a living tradition. If my future were determined by some past tradition, I’d be just as enslaved as if every possibility were open. Without some final cause, which retains some element of mystery, I become trapped in either extreme.