A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   September 18, 2006   next

Yesterday I received a lengthy email from composer Jacques Bailhé. Jacques was one of Kalvos & Damian's first guests outside Vermont, and a few years ago we had a chance to meet him in person. He's a fine composer, and a genuinely thoughtful and introspective person. Jacques writes to me very rarely, but when he does, it's sure to be meaningful. His comments came in response to the productivity survey published last week.

Below are his complete comments interspersed with my own, based on my understanding drawn from the full survey results and my experiences interviewing over 270 composers on K&D. My view isn't as pessimistic, but agrees with Jacques on many of the implications of his thoughts.

In my advertising and film work, I work with composers who are writing their butts off. Some have so much to write, they employ legions of assistants. They are not writing contemporary art music, or are they? Many of their compositions are as fascinating, inventive, artistically marvelous as anything I hear at Disney Hall. They just don't play it in a concert hall. It's played in a studio, then heard by an audience on film or over the TV or radio. They get little respect from the contemporary art music establishment, maybe because they make a living at it.

There are two different topics joined together here. First, film composers have come in for regular identification in these commentaries as the Mozarts of our time in terms of professionalism and sheer productivity. In fact, in a line edited out of the submitted version of my survey essay, I wrote, "For sure, film composers are fast and prolific, competent, the Mozarts of at least one of today's genres." In their responses, several composers said that universities did not prepare composers for a field in which productivity and knowledge of production tools were essential.

But the heart of Jacques' complaint seems to be the issue of respect, and in that regard he is correct. I believe there are several reasons why this is true. The first is that nonpop composers are not hired to do this work because their work has been increasingly driven (beginning with Beethoven, which makes it a long and deeply ingrained tradition) by self. Splitting creative drive between self and other is enormously difficult (which is certainly why for most of my career as a composer I have preferred to earn my income from writing articles rather than music, and why my experiment with respect to "We Are All Mozart" posits that it is possible to use the self as the motivating force even if the 'rules' for a work are set out by someone else). That split often subsumes the creative self into the needs of the employer.

There is also purpose. Nonpop is understood to be foreground music; it is for listening without distraction, and it has internal congruity that requires attention. Music for television, radio and film is background music. Yes, that's generalizing, because what is Star Wars without its music? What is much of today's advertising without an underpinning of unique sonic iconography? It is so important to the latter that watching television ads with the sound off is a different and deflated experience (I say this as one who loves well-done television advertising -- that wouldn't be "HeadOn" -- and could go on for hours about the interplay of sound and image). But what happens if that music is brought to the foreground before it is associated with the imagery? One can ask the same about film and television music, much of which can stand alone less successfully than a third-rate Baroque concerto.

Stripped of its medium, the music-making of film, television, and advertising is mostly made to fill time -- just as most of nonpop does the same. The difference lies not in its success, but in its purpose. The former must attract attention, or underpin images or words or plot, or set a scene, or entice or cajole. It is sound constructed for a purpose which it must serve both first and primarily. The latter, existing as abstract sound on a canvas of silence, must make its case for itself alone and, if it sets itself out to be art music, will find purpose in discovery and sometimes confrontation and challenge -- two aspects of art which are forbidden in the service-music paradigm.

There's more. Most films and television shows fail, in the latter case, with few getting past the pilot phase. Advertising is pointed toward increasing sales (or creating them, in terms of new products). Industrial films are vehicles of promotion. If any of these fail, the composers have still gotten paid even though they may have contributed to the failure with their music. By judging an artform exclusively intended for the ear against one in which judgment is rendered later on a combination of media (acting, direction, music, performance, cinematography, montage, recording, mixing, editing, etc.) is not a fair take, just as it would be unfair to play the score to a film in its entirety without the condensation into suites or extraction into songs. Under those inverted terms, it too would fail -- despite those composers working hard and having already been paid.

Money is an issue often regarded as beneath the dignity of a true artiste. And of course, many true artists live on peanut butter. I'm always amused by the anecdotes about Bach constantly complaining about being underpaid and conniving to increase his income. Art music today is supported by philanthropists and government hand-out. It's the death knell of any enterprise when it lives off charity. Contemporary composers are thrilled to win $1,000 bucks from some foundation and get a performance by third-rate orchestra - for which the composer must supply the parts! What we call contemporary music doesn't pay because so few people go to hear it. Most of it is dreadful and audiences have been turned off. It's become an academic, ivory-tower pursuit. Erica Muhl, an acquaintance of mine, is professor of composition at USC. She studied with Boulanger, received a Lifetime Achievement award a few years ago, has had her pieces performed by respected symphonies, and so on. I think her music is wonderful, but nobody outside a very small group knows who she is. Fewer have ever heard her music in a hall or even on CD.

Once again, two separately important points are joined together: who pays and who listens.

Art music has always been supported by patronage because most art music predated modern capitalism. Though they were hired to write, none of what Bach did made a profit, nor Mozart, nor Beethoven. Likewise, the Council of Trent could decree a stylistic change in music that would be impossible even by a Wal-Mart today. With the rise of capitalism came the rise of the impresario; with the invention of replication technology (player piano and later recording) came the ability to create pseudo-democratic measures of the capitalist 'success' or 'failure' of art as a product.

Orchestral music was not paid for by its inherent capitalist values. Even the great operas of the Nineteenth century which brought fans worldwide still did not pay for themselves in the concert hall itself, but were an item of competition and prestige among patrons and even the cities. Art and music flourished under the royal patrons, but even after their influence faded, other issues of prestige made subsidy de rigueur for costly music. That's why diamonds are priced well beyond their inherent value as carbon, even today when they can be artificially made.

It's interesting that Jacques brings up this point now, as the George Dyson book just discussed here addressed the problem more than seventy years ago.

As to the second point, visibility: product marketing gravitates toward safety after someone's initial moment of daring. Most products fail utterly. Hence the relentless imitation in television, film and pop music. Muhl's visibility in a contemporary context is impossible because music as an industry leaves "little or no room for the more tentative and more creative sides of the art," as Dyson writes. The purpose of commerce is never creativity, but profit. If creativity occurs as a byproduct, so much the better, particularly in a climate of hyperactive protection of intellectual property. That Muhl is not heard is more likely a consequence, not a cause. The cause is the über-commercialization of all culture.

Concert halls can't afford to program music audiences don't like to hear. Obviously, they go broke if they do, so they all play Beethoven and Mozart - again and again. The NY Phil is putting on a fabulously inventive series this year: all of Brahms symphonies. Besides an occasional warm-up piece maybe five minutes long, orchestras just will not program contemporary music because even the mere mention of it sends audiences running for the exits and music directors get bombarded with irate letters from subscribers canceling. This is, of course, old news. The interesting thing to me is that contemporary art composers haven't done anything about it - other than complain.

About the past, you are right. But four things they have done more recently come to mind:

  • First, they have simply stopped complaining, as the upper symphonic class in America and Europe has built its walls and prefers to stay behind them, even as slowly but surely orchestras go bankrupt without a clue as to how to save themselves.
  • Second, some composers have capitulated and written audience-enthusing works that still express a contemporary sensibility (as I did with my own Icecut -- a piece I wouldn't have considered writing twenty years ago). These new works can be heard in regional orchestras (the "third-rate" ones); composers are clearly working from the grassroots up.
  • Third, they have hired Eastern European orchestras and made recordings, because recordings remain the primary means of communicating new compositions. The Eastern Europeans learned to play the new material and are adept at it, and make it sound good in a way American orchestras are unable to accomplish.
  • And finally, composers have begun many more ensembles in the past decade than ever before, from small groups like Anti-Social Music through medium-sized variable groups like Alarm Will Sound right through large professional orchestras such as the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

These new ensembles are necessary because the symphony-attending public expects to hear repertoire from the past. That is what they have been taught -- even though they are perfectly happy to hear more advanced music in film and television scores, and even in the work of turntable/scratch artists. The same scratch material transposed to an orchestral concert would also send the audiences running. It's about context. So long as the context remains music of the past, no new music will be acceptable in the long term simply because it is new, whatever its musical merits.

There don't seem to be many ways to rectify the situation, as far as I can see. You can't make money from something nobody wants. OK, so what do they want? Well, seems to me they'd like a melody now and then. They'd like some rhythm. They'd like some interesting orchestration. Contemporary art composers, as far as I can make out, refuse to deliver those things on principle. I went to hear John Adams recent atom bomb opera in its premiere in San Francisco. It was a dud - and he's actually pretty good. We, as a group, can either change our tune or simply stop singing. We can't keep doing what we're doing.

I'll withhold my opinion of Adams, save to say that I call John Luther Adams "the real John Adams." In truth, the former Adams has written some convincing material that audiences enjoy. The problem is simply a breach in experience and Jacques is right -- there aren't many ways of rectifying it on the present terms.

I don't agree that "nobody" wants it . People do want it, just not enough to pay the bills. But Mozart doesn't pay the bills either. All orchestras are money losers on box office alone. So let's just say that something has to change. Yet... it does change -- has changed, and has continued to change, at least in terms of composition. If audiences mistake a piece of 1930s atonality for 1950s modernism for 1970s minimalism for 1990s postmodernism, then there has been a failure to communicate the intrinsic feel (if not appeal) of the styles, whatever they have been. There has been an abandonment of the thread of nonpop, an unwillingness, and a complete and total lack of courage.

The abandonment has been done by a symphonic stratum that has accepted the Top 40 mentality. Whether in pop or nonpop or Forbes, what is outside the Top 40, Top 100, or Top 500 is at risk of economic failure. We are merciless vultures in disembowling small- and middle-tier companies that do not meet expectations for profit, however much quality their product may have. And we have transferred that mentality to our art and culture. But this still doesn't answer Jacques' question. An extended answer is found last month.

Some time ago, a famed NY critic announced that the NY Phil no longer mattered to the cultural life of New York. A scandalous assertion with which I have to agree. The orchestras are dependent on grants and donations. The cultural life of the city expressing itself at the box office doesn't support them. They play famous old music to mostly old people. If you see someone under 50 at a concert, they're probably there under protest. As you said, the whole cosmos of concert hall music seems to have become effete. Criticism has devolved to comparing last night's performance of "the" Mozart to one conducted 50 years ago by Furtwangler - that and some mention of whether or not the legato technique of the keyboardist was appropriate given Mozart's détaché style. This all seems preposterous to me since Mozart never played a grand piano, but I guess the critics have to say something in the two column inches allotted by the paper's editor.

I've had at critics in these commentaries, and with Jacques' observation I agree totally. But I don't know what matters to the cultural life of a city. I don't live in one, and when I did thirty years ago, it was a decaying post-industrial city in New Jersey with a mediocre symphony orchestra that attracted small audiences. New York was my "real" city, but the New York Philharmonic didn't matter then, either -- except as a point of civic pride that brought Lincoln Center to town by means of a massive investment. Culturally relevant? No. (Profit making? Nope.)

But as to the question of grants and donations and "what matters" in general: If we pull the grants and donations rug out from under all cultural events -- all of them -- what would be the consequences? All bequests, all gifts, all foundation grants, all government support from cash to tax breaks to extra police protection ... gone in, say, one year. All of them. What would be the consequences beyond the symphonic concert hall? (Perhaps this is a thought experiment for a future commentary. It feels, um, juicy.)

I think we fail, and it can't be called anything else in my view, because:
a) We don't write sing-able melodies - leaving the audience no way to follow and remember the piece.
b) Our music doesn't engage the emotions of the audience, so they don't relate other than intellectually and that must be the definition of "dry."
c) Our music is largely academic and frankly un-musical. Tone rows are soporific. Stevie Wonder rocks.
d) The players aren't very good, perhaps owing to little rehearsal time and so on, but I think more likely because they've been stupefied by playing the same music over and over again for years. Early on, I was told by a top professional player that technique had risen to such a high level, I shouldn't really worry about what I write. "They can play anything!" Then I was advised by some who know better, "Keep it as simple as you can - these guys can't play for beans."
e) And lastly, I don't think it's loud enough. Eight string basses, the whole orchestra for that matter, is absolutely inaudible compared to one guy playing a Fender Bass through an 800 watt head and four 12" Altec Lansing speakers. That's sound that shakes your solar plexus, drills into you, nearly lifts you off the ground. People listen to really loud music these days - in movie theaters, on their stereos, in their cars. Most art concerts sound dinky - even here at the vaunted Disney Hall. And if someone thinks the masters didn't want it loud, count up Beethoven's smashed pianos, consider Mozart's glee at once having 30 violins.

This is a very broad set of criticisms. The first is, I think, kind of a strawman because there's no singable melody in hundreds and hundreds of symphonic works beloved by the old classical public. Beethoven's 3rd and 5th symphonies (first movements) and 7th symphony (second movement), Mahler's symphonies, many movements of Brahms, certainly Wagner. The "singable" composers are a subset of the Top 40 classical composers -- Schubert, Mozart, Rachmaninoff are among them. Memorability comes from something else, and it's just as much found in music from the past eighty years. But it's extremely rare to remember what you've only heard once (often poorly), and that's the condition under which most new nonpop exists.

As to engaging the emotions of the audience: I find this the most difficult question. If my emotions are engaged by a new piece, what does that mean? That I am not an audience? Not a typical audience? Not the audience that listens to classical music? A psychological aberration? If someone else's emotions are not engaged, what does that mean? That they are cold? That their expectations are to be left cold? The engagement of emotions is acculturated, even if, according to Manfred Clynes, we have cross-culturally consistent sonic seeds. Music is not simple. Even Mozart is not melody alone, but a combination of contrasts and developments that engage audiences (but not me). There was a time (within my lifetime) that Bach's music was considered intellectual and religious, and Mozart's drew little public interest. The Pachelbel Canon so popular today was re-introduced to the public consciousness less than fifty years ago by a record company giving it away as a premium -- after it lay dormant as a study piece for two centuries. There is a public emotionally overwhelmed by Michael Bublé as well.

Academic, unmusical music is problematic. Jacques and I certainly agree about a kind of nepotistic musical approach in the university, but that is also a place for avoiding the commercial pressures of the marketplace. New discoveries can take place, such as the entire world of electroacoustic music (and its pop progeny) that owes its very existence to the academy. On the other hand, the academy doesn't know when to let its children go. (Tone rows are so over.)

The capability of players varies, but all players are initially schooled in playing techniques developed for classical music, jazz, or pop. Advanced techniques are for advanced players, or players willing to learn -- and not on the clock. That's an advantage of those third-rate orchestras, by the way, especially the ones populated by excellent amateurs. They'll actually practice.

Not loud enough? You bet. But pop's dynamic range is terrible. There is a great deal to be learned in both directions, all for the audience's experiential gain.

It's a pity we have these wonderful concert halls and fantastic orchestral and other instruments at our disposal and can't seem to write anything anybody wants to hear. It's the failure of the composing that's at the root of all this. If the music were good, quiet or not, audiences would come and the money would be there. We just need to write music that involves the audience emotionally, says something to them, moves them.

Here Jacques and I diverge entirely. I don't feel composing has failed at all -- it has just continued to move on a path not functional within a hyper-commercial environment. Do I like it all? Hell no. But at this very moment I watching the opening art & commerce sketch à la Network on the new show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip ... that commerce has eviscerated art. So commerce mocks itself, and makes tragi-comedy of it. Entertainment focuses on the tools of entertainment. Television shows are about television, and depend on television references. (With this level of nepotism, how dare I criticize the university?)

Commerce is not the entire world -- and it is not art. Artists and composers have been cowed by the notion that they need to be commercial, and a domino set of strawmen has been set up to diminish artists' accomplishments ... until they can be parlayed into profit. (Never forget that Disney stole that dissonant & unlistenable Rite of Spring for a cartoon.)

We might like to defend ourselves against these baseless insults and criticisms with a rosy critique or a prestigious $500 prize, but that's nonsense. We must confront the fact that we're writing un-listenable drivel. Until people camp out the night before to get tickets, until our contemporary music engages contemporary audiences, we're not contemporary at all. We're irrelevant.

We certainly have work to do, to write more, to be more public, to understand better what it is about our work that speaks directly, indirectly and not at all to a broader audience. Not all of us, but some of us. Great artists will be found without self-abuse. Nevertheless, being attentive is valuable.

But I think the time is almost right for those who have truly failed -- the gutless administrators, promoters, music directors, and conductors of the classical establishment -- to be turned out. But commerce will ultimately do that on its own. And suddenly that irrelevancy Jacques feels will disappear in a puff of cash.

Cross-country drop jump
Cross-country drop jump at the Green Mountain Horse Association. I took a day off with Stevie to watch. She was a fence judge. It took me years to learn how to 'listen' to these equestrian sports.

Jacques wrote this morning, and I leave his comments below in their entirety.

You write that contemporary concert music, "... existing as abstract sound on a canvas of silence, must make its case for itself alone and, if it sets itself out to be art music, will find purpose in discovery and sometimes confrontation and challenge -- two aspects of art which are forbidden in the service-music paradigm." You continue, "...nonpop composers are not hired to do this work because their work has been increasingly driven (beginning with Beethoven, which makes it a long and deeply ingrained tradition) by self."

Ballet, opera, and other composers also work with forces other than self: the story of the opera, the desires of the prima ballerina, producers demands, and of course, time, what can be afforded, and so on. But more importantly, film composers, just as any artist, must reach into their self to find music. It isn't in the script. The composer is asked to respond to the story and the images that tell it, then write music that sometimes is background, but that sometimes "tells" the story. A crude example might be the theme to Jaws. Pictures of dark water don't tell us much. But with the "shark" theme, we know what's happening. I don't see that the issue of "self" separates pop and nonpop composers. And I cannot agree that the purposes of "discovery" and "confrontation" are forbidden for pop composers. Talk to some and you'll see. They are no less artists than we contemporary composers and they pursue their art for the same reasons.

You suggest, "The difference [betwixt pop and nonpop] lies not in its success, but in its purpose." Both pop and nonpop have purpose and both experience failure or success. What's the difference? The defining difference?

Seems to me purpose is one aspect of a composition. Success or failure is another. All my music is written with the highest purpose I can conceive. But, dang it, that does not seem to effect its success or failure. My artistry as a composer determines that. The purpose for a piece of music - movie, ballet, concert - does indeed bring different criteria of judgment to bear. But the point I was trying to make is that film and other "commercial" composers are writing a lot of very good, highly listenable, and wonderfully creative music. Danny Elfman is an interesting example.

It would be my guess that movie soundtrack albums far outsell any contemporary concert music. Using that as a crude measure, they succeeded. Of course, many awful things enjoy commercial success, but the fact that people buy soundtrack albums in large numbers suggests film composers are writing music people want to hear. The reverse seems to be true of contemporary concert music which more often is released in extremely small CD runs and even then, a great part of it finds its way into the discount bins. It is completely reasonable for a composer to not give a twit whether anybody likes or even hears their music - if that is their purpose. But my comments are trying to question why more contemporary concert music isn't programmed or doesn't create the same clamor and excitement as Bob Dylan's latest release. Why is our music in a backwater? To gage public interest in our music, I look for simple measuring sticks: album sales, number of performances, the desire of the public to hear it as expressed by ticket sales. In all those crude measurements, it seems contemporary concert music just does not find an appreciable audience. Commercial success isn't the root of my question here. I'm asking why we don't create public interest. But commercial success is a fair measuring device of public interest, and also something that was on the minds of many of the great composers.

You write, "Though they were hired to write, none of what Bach did made a profit, nor Mozart, nor Beethoven" and factors which gave rise to "the ability to create pseudo-democratic measures of the capitalist 'success' or 'failure' of art as a product." I differ. The particular masters you mention were, perhaps more than most, concerned with the economic success of what they were doing. The stories of Bach politicking and conniving to increase his income are endless. Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for the low-class theater because he needed the dough. He wa given a percentage of the ticket sales and so knocked himself out to write something people would pay to hear. Beethoven's financial dealings are sometimes questionable, but throughout his life, there is a stream of evidence demonstrating his concern for and desire to make an income, especially regarding publishing royalties. And, as I remember, he was one of the first composers to produce a concert of his music for his own profit. This economic issue was, I thought, one of the interesting points from your survey. Responses seemed to suggest that if composers could get paid for their work, maybe even make a living at it, they'd write more. Whether by patron, from publishing, or ticket sales, reward for the labors of composing seems to have been on the minds of composers since Corelli and before.

You ask, "If we pull the grants and donations rug out from under all cultural events -- all of them -- what would be the consequences?" The consequences seem obvious. Those that are supported by public interest, the public being willing to part with their hard earned money to pay for a seat, will continue to flourish. Those supported by grants will die off. It's that simple. Would it be a good idea to stop charitable funding? Of course not. We keep museums open for their educational value to the public. But are we writing contemporary music for its educational value? Maybe we are a pile of broken pottery shards from a long extinct culture. I had hoped we might be meaningful in the present day - not an artifact of a bygone era.

Don't want to digress into a discussion of creativity vs. commerce, but it seems you think the two are incompatible. "The purpose of commerce is never creativity, but profit." I think history shows it's creativity that creates profit. Yes, you can produce a "me too" product and make a profit. But it is creativity that markets respond, whether it's cars, movies, or art. I think you'd agree it'd be foolish to argue the creativity of Steve Jobs. Certainly, he's trying to make a profit - otherwise he's out of business. But it's his creativity that has led to the marvelous products he's created and the profit generated - profit that sustains his enterprise and allows him to attempt to create more products. Contemporary composers who disavow economic aspects to their work may indeed be creative, but as your survey indicates, they may find themselves with a tough row to hoe. They can't make a living at it, so must have a day job which is a distraction and saps their energies. They'd like to write more, but can't find the time. What they do write, if they hold to a non-profit philosophy, seems to inherently disregard audience appreciation since they don't care whether people will pay to hear it, and as such, is unlikely to please an audience. Mozart didn't get his commissions by writing overly intellectual, un-listenable sound experiments. He wrote to please his patrons so he could get the next commission. Why should we be any different?

You suggest a larger problem than economics. "So long as the context remains music of the past, no new music will be acceptable in the long term simply because it is new, whatever its musical merits." But Gorecki found a huge audience. The piece was, albeit, traditional, but it was not old as in written 300 years ago. The problem with "new" music doesn't seem to be that it's simply "new." The problem seems to be that so much of it just doesn't attract, or even repels an audience. When a philharmonic bill uses the word "new," audiences don't feat that it's new. They fear that it's going to be more dodeco-atonal-incomprehensible noise. Even a casual survey of non-composer friends will bear this out. In advertising, we'd say "Contemporary music has a serious brand image problem."

Sometime around the 1920's composers began searching for new expression. Since that time, composers have, with some notable exceptions, taught audiences that any new contemporary concert music is going to be hard to listen to, non-melodic, and that to "understand" the piece, you need to understand the formal aspects of the composition. Contemporary music turned into some kind of science experiment and boldly proclaimed that even if it "sounds" awful, it's actually very good. Liking it, being able to hum it's theme on the way out of the hall, or even making musical sense to the audience - none of these things were any concern of the composer. In a way, composers said, "Screw you, stupid audience." And, as history shows, the audience returned the same and left.

You "... don't agree that 'nobody' wants it. People do want it, just not enough to pay the bills. But Mozart doesn't pay the bills either. All orchestras are money losers on box office alone." Well, let's think about that. Orchestras are money losers because they can't draw big enough audiences at big enough ticket prices to support themselves. Rock concerts sell out 50,000 seat stadiums three nights in a row. So what's the problem? How come you and I don't do that? I say it's the music. If our music had any drawing power, orchestras would be fine. Mozart's problem is that he stopped writing and we've heard all his old stuff. I think orchestras would attract larger audiences if they could program "new" music people would like. I cancelled my seats at the Hollywood Bowl because they program music I've heard hundreds of times. The Mona Lisa is very nice, but contemporary painting is thriving. Why isn't that true of contemporary concert music? We composers can point to a thousand possible causes, but we never seem to point to the MUSIC.

You seem to disregard the cultural irrelevancy comment by the NY critic. I think it hits the nail on the head, tragic, and hugely significant. What he meant, of course, is that the NY philharmonic has no meaning to anyone. And that is, I think the great failure of contemporary composers. What we're writing doesn't draw audiences. We have no real impact on the people around us. We are irrelevant to the development of contemporary culture. Ouch! That stabs me in the heart, but I think it's true. We've wandered off into overly intellectual nonsense that nobody cares about. Our mistake.

Have to disagree with your "singability" arguments. Every school kid can sing you the principal theme of Beethoven's 5th. I question whether it's "extremely rare to remember what you've only heard once...." That is, I think, the point of what we sometimes term "a catchy tune." It's also the basis of theme and variation and restatement in sonata form. The point I'm trying to make is that contemporary music eschews melody, with all its inherent implications of tonic and so on. I suggest that's not just a stylistic issue. Melody is, in my mind, the essence of music. It's the organizing principle of tones. Serialists attempted to substitute numeric sequence, but that didn't seem to capture anyone's fancy. Esa-Pekka Salonen's Wing on Wing or Bodies are marvelously orchestrated, just ain't got no melody. Contemporary composers seem to believe melody is old fashioned. I think it's fundamental to what we call music. No melody? That's often called noise. Sure, there're all sorts of wonderful pieces that are just percussion, or use another aspect of music to organize the piece. But in a general sense, melody is an essential component of music that contemporary composers have abandoned and that appears to be a mistake.

The question of emotion is also fundamental in my view. Your argument seems sophistic. We are primarily emotional beings - not rational. Pit the two against each other and emotion wins nine out of ten. Music can certainly be intellectually engaging. I always hope it is. But we live by emotion. It's emotion that makes drama work. Excitement is an emotional response - sometimes to an intellectual thought. Emotion stirs our souls. Pure rationalism may have a place in science, but not in art. Art at its most basic level is emotional.

You wind up with "But I think the time is almost right for those who have truly failed -- the gutless administrators, promoters, music directors, and conductors of the classical establishment -- to be turned out." And here we diverge. Those people are charged with taking a composition and presenting it to the public. If the composition pleases or displeases the audience, it is the composer that did that, not the administrators. Certainly conductors have considerable effect, but assuming the conductor does the average job we hear on a Mozart, or Beethoven piece, it's the composition that matters. And here again, I think we as contemporary composers are simply unwilling to take responsibility for the fact that people don't really like our music. Throughout your response, you've used the terms "nonpop" and "pop." And to me, that's the point in a nutshell. Contemporary music is "nonpop," literally, not popular. People don't like it. And that's the problem - the problem only we composers can fix.

I suggest we do that not by writing pap in an effort to slavishly please our masters or make scads of money - an effort sure to fail with the public. We do that by writing music that is compelling in its creativity, originality, its emotional connection with, and meaning communicated to audiences. If we could do that, we would no longer be irrelevant and, blasphemous as it may sound, we might even become popular.

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site