Composition in the 21st Century: Another View

February 28, 2002

Blessed are the ones in music who discover at a very early age what they are destined to do throughout their lives. Mozart, I surmise, was one of them. The majority, however, struggle to decide or accept what the future will bring to them. Searching for a profession is something which most individuals experience from childhood on. Should they pursue a career in law, medicine, business, or math? These careers certainly look safer than the arts. Or perhaps they should start a small business as backup security while they follow their strong inner voices and any wild dreams they may happen to have.

In music, majoring in composition promises a vague future; hence, the study of an instrument or acquisition of a degree in music education along with composition might supplement their ultimate desire to organize new sounds with some financial protection. After all, there is the possibility that their sounds will send messages to no one. In addition, there is the option of a double profession (the Charles Ives Syndrome): making a living doing something else and using nights and weekends to work out their inner voices in the hope of artistic immortality. Somehow some of these available choices parallel professions other than the arts. Second and third chances are common nowadays as a long list of learning institutions and broad government support provide numerous possibilities.

In the music profession in general, and composition in particular, there are two major areas where the artist may be accommodated: 1) academia, and 2) the free lance career. The first choice offers more security; thus experimentation in making new sounds is more easily indulged and musical talent or lack of it is more difficult to distinguish. The audience is not desperately needed in the process, in contrast to the case of free lance endeavors.

Academia by nature expects tough and harsh stylistic approaches (which presumably fit the intelligentsia), such as ugly and incomprehensible soundssounds the public does not want to hear. If and when the academic composer needs some audience approval, changes might be adopted. He may desert, at least momentarily, the harsh academic approachleaving it for his students to carry on the torch while he himself searches for some public acceptance. In this case, usuallyif there is no talent to begin withits lack is even more evident. The stylistic changes are rather drastic. Unpleasant sounds are replaced by over-simplicity, absence of harmonic and rhythmic fluctuation, no counterpoint or coloring of existing material, and awkward motivic transformations. In short: monotoniapresumably easy music for the audience to enjoy.

Lately another recipe for composition has come to my attentionthe simultaneous "double composing": one for academia, the other for the people. The first is as ugly as it can be and the other extremely simple and boringa sensible compromise to justify the existence of an active composer!

On the other hand, the free lance composer has none of the above mentioned luxuries, and so he tries his best to woo public acceptance with more sincere meansa method to which the composers of the past adhered.

It seems that all the above-mentioned gimmicks of current academia have no historical basis. They are artificial in nature and probably products of our time.

I do not believe that composers of the past thought anything like this. They just composed the way they felt with no stylistic compromises. They had a message and they gave it to us as well as they could. The good ones survived; the others did not.

Let us return to this natural and unpretentious approach to making music: honest music coming from our hearts, imprinted with our special personalities. The twenty-first century may need this return of individuality to produce composers of the stature of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Bartók.

During the recent composition concerts of the conference of the College Music Society, I experienced a wonderful feeling about the quality of the music I heard. It was apparent to me that the projection of personality is becoming, however slowly, the force behind the creation of new works. I hope that this will prevail everywhere. I felt a hunger for free expression in our young composers.

The prospects look good for the 21st century.

2070 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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