For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out where I (I meaning my music) fit within today’s cultural society? I’m not even talking about some broad topic, like where does classical music fit into our society or something like that – I’m talking about MY music. Where do I fit?
The normal course that composers take (for the most part) is, they get a doctorate in music composition, and then they go teach music composition in a university somewhere in utter obscurity, keeping the academic tradition alive. The university, for us has become our new patron. In the past, it might have been the church, or the King, or some rich Duke – but now, it’s the university that allows composers to keep writing this kind of music and still be able to earn a living.
I have to say that it’s a pretty dismal time to be a young composer in the United States right now – especially if you’re like me – 32 years old (young, but not young enough) – white (boooring) – male (too many of us in the field) – and pretty much after 2003, the worst possible thing I could be according to the rest of the world – AMERICAN. Not that I don’t understand, it’s just a shame that my reputation as an artist should be hurt by these assholes in Washington. And I’m not trying to say that I feel I’m getting the shaft because I’m white – that’s ridiculous. However, I’m just not what people want at this point in time.
Generally speaking though, it’s rough for everyone – especially in the United States. We’re being pushed away from all sides – even from within. I’ve talked briefly about the performer situation in a past blog. I would say that probably 90% of all the performers in this school can’t name a single living composer. This is perpetuated by their teachers – the attitude that it’s not important to play something new. To use piano again as an example – importance is put on playing mostly 19th century rep. This being Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, etc. However, during these composers lives, all they played was new music. If any of them had had the same attitude, we wouldn’t have any of that music – they would have all been playing Bach and Handel and Telemann and Domenico Scarlatti.
Speaking of outside the classical music world, we’re not even being pushed away anymore – that’s already happened – we no longer exist in the minds of the public. When the general populace thinks “composer”, they usually think “film composer”, or maybe some new age artist. Some of this is our fault, some of it isn’t. We can look to composers of the mid 20th century – especially to the famous statement attributed to Milton Babbit “Who Cares If You Listen?”. This was the prevailing sentiment of many of the top academic composers of last century, and because they had a safe income from the university, they were in fact free to compose whatever the hell they wanted, and didn’t have to worry if anyone liked it or not. As an artist, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, in theory, it’s great that they were able to pursue art outside of capatalist concerns – for arts sake. On the other hand, in practice, this served to alienate the general populace from concert music. This air of superiority seperated the general public even further – to the point where Babbit’s statement can now be taken from the other side, the public, but changed to “Who the Fuck Cares?”.
Also, classical music is hardly something for this day and age – being presented in the traditional fasion. I was thinking this at the last symphony concert I attended. I was sitting in this absolutely cavernous hall, with an orchestra on a distant, massive stage. The sound of the unamplified instruments dissipating in the vast space of the oversized hall. The sound itself was, to our 21st century ears, pale and distant. This was music presented as in a museum – not something new and exciting, but stale and old – something worth preserving, but not worthy of the resources (or effort in marketing or presentation) given to modern pop music. Even classical recording, save for film scores, are usually done as cheaply as possible, with maybe a few room mics to pick up the whole of the sound. To truly record an orchestra with the sonic depth given to any rock band would be a major financial undertaking, and would probably require a team of expert audio engineers – not to mention pay for the orchestra musicians and studio time in a large enough studio to accomodate such forces. I think the recording companies were well aware of this problem from the beginning – which is one reason (I think) this kind of music is never presented or marketed in any way to the public. It’s just not music of our time.
I’m not trying to make some kind of profound statement here (yet). I’m mostly just typing down my thoughts on the issue. It’s all very tough to deal with, because this is where my heart and soul is – this music – the music that I write, and it all definitely comes from this tradition. I don’t want to become just another academic sitting in my office in my university writing pieces for the university orchestra or the university band. Maybe some of you would tell me that I should be happy with that, and I could lie and tell you that I am very happy to have that opportunity. I have big ideas in my head, but it’s difficult to make them happen when there’s no resources. It’s difficult to write, for example, orchestra music when you feel that your music is not wanted, especially by the orchestras themselves.
This brings me to Schoenberg. How the hell does that bring me to Schoenberg? He really represents two sides of these issues. For those that don’t know, when you study music, you are evetually innundated with Schoenberg, and for the most part, composers in academic settings usually hold him in high regard. A long time ago, I said to myself “You know, I’m tired of pretending I like Schoenberg”. It’s true that, while I can appreciate Schoenberg’s music and the true genius that’s behind it, I don’t like it. But, I have come to appreciate Schoenberg in a very different way as of late. Basically, Schoenberg’s uncompromising vision for his music and his art is almost unparalleled in the entire history of art. The guy took more shit from more people than anyone else – not just over his music, but sometimes for just being a jew, and never once strayed from his artistic vision. In this school for example, I contantly see composers writing things, then being criticized either by their peers, or by their teachers, and instantly running back into their holes to try to rectify the situation – retreating at the first negative comment. Given the historical circumstances in which Schoenberg lived in, musical as well as political and racial, it is absolutely INCREDIBLE that he wrote the music that he did, and achieved the position that he did. To have this strength of will and this absolute confidence in artistic vision should be the goal of every artist, and every artist should look to Schoenberg as one of the greatest examples of this in history.
But, can this uncompromising attitude fly in this century?