Philip Glass tells a funny story about his days as a composition student in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. At the time Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 Tone 'Serialism' Composition Method was the only legitimate path to follow if one was a composition student. The music produced by this strict, contrived compositional method is generally so alienating to audiences that it only appeals to composers and academics that get more intellectual than aural satisfaction from it.
Glass’ story perfectly illustrates this.
In a Julliard Student Composition concert one particularly dense, complex work was being performed to the general displeasure of the audience’s ears. Glass amusingly observed how he saw one student turning to another to declaim without any hint of irony ‘This is actually a much better piece than it sounds.’
Glass uses this story to illustrate that when academic composition reached this point it broke the camels back and so by the late 60’s and early 70’s many composers were breaking away from the Schoenberg method to return to tonal and modal music, thus liberating the rest of us future composers.
It’s not quite as simple as that though, since there now exists a whole subculture around this kind of Composers’ Composer music. This is music that certain types of composers, normally a large majority of those who study composition academically, tend to appreciate for the technical aspects more than the actual musicality of it. Such works are usually defined by pretentious titles, complex technical programme notes and a dry, academic approach which favours technique way above intuitive composition methods. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are ‘free improvisation’ works where anything goes and everything is left to Cageian chance.
In both circumstances 'composery' composers tend to act very interested indeed, in fact they’re often heard to say with Steve Davis like drollness ‘That was very interesting’. Very rarely will such music illicit an emotional response ‘That really moved me’, ‘That gave me great joy’, ‘That was really exciting’ etc. In this sense this kind of music is really unique in the general music world. What other form of music is composed with such an emphasis on the intellectual over the emotional? Some modern jazz is getting to this point, but it's a fine line.
If you’ve ever been to a standard symphony orchestra concert where a new work by a contemporary composer is performed there’s a 90% chance the music will fall into this category of 'composers' music'. Curiously the general audience appreciation for such music is very different in Ireland and the UK than it is in the home of classical music, central Europe.
When Irish and British audiences first encountered arrhythmic, atonal serialist based music in the early 20th Century they reacted with horror. Now, 100 years later, audiences have become so used to the fact that their evening of Mozart and Brahms will be interrupted by another ‘awful’ contemporary work that they seem to lazily accept it and politely applaud the music and musicians when it’s over. The one or two enthusiastic yells one might encounter after all such performances are undoubtedly coming from the eggheads in the crowd, the composery composers.
On recent trips to see the Berlin Philharmonic I noticed a curious difference in the audience response to more ‘intellectual’ technical music. They seemed to really appreciate the technical aspects of the music and gave a long ovation to a solo violinist who performed a hugely technical violin concerto which seemed to me nothing more than a technical showpiece devoid of any emotional depth. Upon speaking with a German colleague afterwards I raised this issue and he confirmed to me that modern German audiences not only have an appreciation for technical, intellectual music, they often have a preference for it over emotional, intuitive music.
Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or perhaps it’s just a reflection of how the central European classical tradition has moved so far from its roots in folk music into the world of academia that audiences are losing sight of the intuitive, emotional and natural human characteristics of music. Germanic audiences it seems, place technical perfection way above the very emotional response that less technically conscious music can provide.
I’ve often found myself bored by technically ‘perfect’ performances and technically brilliant compositions because the concentration of the artist has gone 100% into perfecting the technical aspects at the expense of spontaneous, emotional responses. Classical music competition winners so often fall into this category, technical perfection is awarded over emotional genius.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this strange, scientific musical sub-culture is the dogmatism that still plagues it. Practitioners of this form of music tend to be hopelessly elitist, like Pierre Boulez. Their way is the ONLY way forward, they are the true innovators, the true composers of new music and anyone who doesn’t buy into this is either openly mocked or treated with a kind of silent, shunning disdain. They’re treated as intellectually inferior and unenlightened.
The reason I mentioned Philip Glass at the start of this article is that he is usually the number 1 hate figure for the composery composers. They can't get any intellectual stimulation from his music because it is, in relative terms to the music they appreciate, incredibly simple. When I was a composition student I found myself drawn to his music simply because I liked how it sounded, the technical simplicity of it didn't bother me.
However I did become very self conscious about the fact that it was just not 'cool' for a composition student to say they liked Philip Glass. It was something to be embarrassed about. I remember giving my first radio interview as a young composer and it took me a huge effort to overcome an almost paralytic fear of telling the interviewer that Philip Glass was one of my favourite composers. But I did and more and more I've learnt not to be ashamed of that at all. Glass is a compositional genius, he has done what so few composers have been able to do, create a distinctive, instantly recognisable and contemporary sound from the most basic of building blocks. The fact that he earned worldwide fame and fortune from it is a testament to his perserverance. He was an obscure composer driving a taxi for a living until his early 40's!
So to return to our composery composer types and their dogmatic followers, what such people often fail to understand is that composers and audiences who reject the way of the composers’ composer are often just as, if not more intelligent as they. Some of us have even gone to great lengths to try to gain an appreciation for such music, spending hours studying it in college, sitting patiently at concerts, reading the technical notes in detail, always waiting for that revelation, that Eureka moment ‘Ah yes, now I get it!’
The truth is however, for the vast majority of people, no matter how intelligent they are, they are never going to appreciate such music, no more than they’ll appreciate complex mathematical equations or other scientific theories. Composers’ composers do not compose music as 99% of humanity defines music, instead they either create scientific sound or something more akin to performance art where the theatricality and social implications of the artistic statement are much more important than the actual sound of the music. The emphasis is not on musicality, on moving people emotionally with music, the emphasis is on making a scientific or pseudo-intellectual statement through sound.
Due to this I like to make a clear distinction between what I do and what they do. I compose music, music that is meant to be listened to and appreciated on an emotional level by those who listen to it. If some fraction of the audience gains intellectual stimulation from it that’s all well and good, it’s not in any way the aim however. So if I ever compose a work where the only response from listeners is an intellectual one, then I have failed in my duty as a composer of music.
Composers’ composers do not compose music in the traditional sense. They create scientific sound or sound art which will only ever be appreciated on an intellectual level. For this reason I believe such ‘music’ should be evaluated and disseminated in a completely different sphere. Funding and support for scientific/academic music should come from the scientific/academic community, not the Arts community. Then the more theatrical, performance art music, so inspired by John Cage, should surely be supported as performance art, a form of theatre rather than a pure style of music composition.
There are certainly audiences, though small, for such forms of music, so I’m not advocating censorship of any kind. Instead, for the good of all concerned, I’m advocating the creation of a clear line of distinction between the different composition aesthetics. After all, I don’t want my music compared to Pierre Boulez’s music, it’s not just a different style of music we’re involved in, it’s a whole different vocation, he is a sound scientist, I’m a music composer. He doesn’t care if people enjoy his music emotionally, I do and I’m not ashamed to admit it either.
And before anyone levels that old chestnut that I must be therefore compromising my art to appeal to an audience, my retort is straight and simple. I only compose music that I would like to listen to myself, if the audience appreciates the music, as they often do, all the better. If I compose a piece that I don’t enjoy listening to yet composers’ composers do, then I have failed and compromised my art.
Composers like me are as uncompromising as so called ‘uncompromising’ atonal composers. We just have different ideals that we refuse to compromise.
24 June 2014
1993, aged 16, Zappa zapped onto my TV screen. I didn’t touch the zapper once through the BBC documentary.
The hour that followed, followed Zappa zipping through his life, zipping through solos, zipping through zealous views, zipping through almost every single musical genre in existence. I couldn’t zap Zappa, Zappa’s zealous zipping zapped me.
I could have channel-hopped but I stopped to watch him genre-hop. That hour was the most important hour of my musical life.
Prior I was an angst-ridden teenager who dreamt about being dreamt about by Heavy Metal fans. An angst-ridden teenage heavy metal dreamer was I.
Zappa changed my dream.
Zappa’s music didn’t grab me, it doesn’t grab me still but his genre-hopping grabbed me and it grabs me still.
From ‘Cocktail Lounge Combos’ to The Mothers of Invention, wild guitar solos to complex jazz fusion, satirical disco to Ensemble Modern and Tuvan throat singing with The Chieftains. Extreme eclecticism defined in one extremely eclectic definer.
Zappa’s definitive creativity, as restless as his solos and his sardonic, no bullshit humour, resonated with me hugely, dug deep into my sixteen year old subconscious mind. It resonates with me still.
As time moved on I couldn’t relate to those who couldn’t move on, those who specialised in one ‘main thing’. The blues guitarist who just plays the blues; that idea gives me the blues. The composer who just composes; the thought makes me decompose. The fiddler who fiddles the same tune, the same way, each and every day; the very notion makes me nauseous.
Why stick purely to apples when you can have pineapples too?
That is why I do what I do.
Zappa inspired me not to follow one dream but to follow them all.
Dave Flynn May 7th 2014
This is Dave Flynn's personal music blog. All posts are written by him!