Although I’m no longer in the weekly class for composers, I’m still on the class list. An email was distributed Friday in which a “game” will be played next week. Normally, the “game” consists of a bunch of “drop the needle” examples of contemporary pieces, which the students have to guess. It’s an interesting diversion, although I have issues with “drop the needle” tests, but that’s another blog entry for another time. Next week’s version requires students to write a short piece in the style of some contemporary composer, and the rest have to guess who the composer is emulating. I have Issues with this as a pedagogical tool.

There is a tradition of such things in how composition is taught. It used to be that if you wanted to study with a particular person, you were expected to write music like him or her. One of my teachers studied with Berio, and he expected his students to write a certain way. Anything else wasn’t even considered. During my Master’s, I was to study with another composer of that generation, and it was expected that I would only write the kind of music he produced. Now, the individual in question was not a horrible person–far from it–but old pedagogical habits die hard.

Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives.

They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint. For many absurd reasons, they are convinced that they are obliged to become somebody else who died two hundred years ago and who lived in circumstances utterly alien to their own.

They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems or possess somebody else’s spirituality. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 98)

A former teacher, quoting Morton Feldman, said that in teaching composition, there are only two things to keep in mind: that the student knows what he/she wants, and that he/she gets it. One of the hardest things about being a composer is learning to trust your own intuition and voice. It’s an instinct, of sorts. It’s terrifying and liberating to be confronted with a blank sheet of paper (or blank text editor, as the case may be). Instead of confronting and overcoming this nothingness, writing someone else’s music is an easier way to avoid it. People may write good music this way, but they’ll never mature into the composer they were called to be.

Perfection is not something you can acquire like a hat–by walking into a place and trying on several and walking out again with one on your head that fits. Yet people sometimes enter monasteries with that idea…

If they do this job thoroughly, their spiritual disguises are apt to be much admired. Like successful artists, they become commercial…

Such “sanctity” may perhaps be the only fruit of mutual flattery. The “perfection” of the holy one is something that reassures his neighbors by comforting them in their own prejudices and by enabling them to forget what is lacking in their own communal mentality. It makes them feel that they are “right,” that they are on the right way, and that God is “satisfied” with their collective way of life. Therefore nothing needs to be changed. But anyone who opposes this situation is wrong. The sanctity of the “saint” is there to justify the complete elimination of those who are “unholy”–that is, those who do not conform.

So too in art, or literature. The “best” poets are those who happen to succeed in a way that flatters our current prejudice about what constitutes good poetry. We are very exacting about the standards that they have set up, and we cannot even consider a poet who writes in some other slightly different way, whose idiom is not quite the same. We do not read him. We do not dare to, for if we were discovered to have done so, we would fall from grace. We would be excommunicated.” (New Seeds, 101-102)

Although it’s nice to have a piece which speaks to another person, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing what other people want to hear. It’s also easy to like those who don’t challenge us or challenge our notions of what “music” is. There are those who spend their lives forging ahead, without becoming enslaved to newness, yet never get the recognition they deserve. And there are those who write according to the status quo.

Ethically, I don’t see how I could require another person to write music like I do, or in some other style. I see those who teach composition as tasked with the nurturing and development of another person’s voice. (Thankfully, I had great teachers.) It’s a heavy responsibility, and forcing a student to write a particular way won’t develop it. (Although short exercises in different styles might be good for getting over “writer’s block” or helping the student learn what he/she wants, never as the sole method.)

I’m thanking my Maker I don’t have to do that assignment for next week. There is something deeply sacramental about sitting in the presence of a piece from a composer who’s in touch with his/her voice. It may or may not be a good piece from him/her; but while listening to it, you can’t help but feel as if you’re being drawn into the composer’s presence. The exposition of a composer’s voice is a sacred thing, and would-be critics would do well to respect this.


~ by Jen on May 1, 2006.

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