Curriculum for Composers

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In January of 1980 I was prompted to respond to the College Music Society's call for papers to be read at the annual meeting the following November. I was concerned by the way composition is taught today, or more aptly by questions of style and technique brought to me by my students that seemed to lie outside the traditional limits of compositional curricula. My letter to the program chairperson suggested a panel discussion on the general topic of curriculum for composers whereby I had hoped to share some of these concerns with other interested colleagues. Perhaps they would share their own in return. Having studied with teachers who felt strongly that composition could not be taught (the principal exponent of this position being Nadia Boulanger), as well as with those who felt that they could (and generally would) correct each phrase (if not each note) I brought in, I had further suggested in my letter to the chairperson that this in itself might provide an appropriate point of departure for a discussion which would include such diverse but interrelated topics as style, theory, performance of student compositions, tradition as opposed to innovation.

Sample questions might include the following:

1. Given the multiplicity of compositional styles prevalent today, utilizing techniques from chance to serialization and everything between, should teachers expose students to all and expect them to write representative examples of each, much as students formerly were required to write exercises in sixteenth- or eighteenth-century contrapuntal forms, or in the traditional tonal forms of sonatas, rondos, and the like?

2. Is a thorough familiarity with today's vastly expanded body of theoretical knowledge important to the training of the young composer? Should he or she be expected to act as theorist, writing essays on works of other periods or other composers, or questions of a general theoretical nature, as complementary to traditional studies of harmony, counterpoint, and other subjects of a technical nature?

3. Should performance opportunities for the sake of experimentation or improvisation, essentially asking the young composer to act in place of the composer's pen or pencil, coexist with traditional performance practice in which music is written and conceived before being brought to the performer?

4. In short, what is the role of tradition in today's curriculum? What is the role of innovation? Where should the line be drawn, if it is to be drawn at all, and who does the drawing? Succinctly, does the student decide questions of style, and consequently decide as well questions of technique? What are the relationships between the two in today's curricula?

As luck would have it, my topic was approved, but the panel discussion was lost in the shuffle, between my original proposition and the response which was received later. I still had the same concerns nonetheless, and if I could not throw them out to a group of colleagues, anxious as I was to elicit their responses, I could point them out for general discussion, hoping that others would seize upon my premises and perhaps force a debate.

As luck would further have it, the debate had been engaged rather decisively in a New York Times interview of Luciano Berio by critic John Rockwell on Sunday, October 19, 1980. Towards the midpoint of the article Mr. Rockwell wrote:

Because of the teeming anonymity of American culture, and the need to distinguish oneself both in the market place and in public awareness, Mr. Berio feels that composers here are unduly concerned with establishing a personal style.

He then goes on to quote Mr. Berio:

Many American musicians adopt a concept that is borrowed from the visual arts. The typical fear of the painter is that he has to continue to do the same picture, or otherwise they won't recognize him any more, and he won't sell. . . . Style is a commodity. Once you start even thinking in terms of style, you're lost.

There is nothing new in this line of thought. I first heard of it 25 years ago from Nadia Boulanger, who maintained that it was useless to give too much thought to style. She insisted that all one had to do was to direct one's attention exclusively to the study of craft, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and the like. I remember very distinctly a conversation in which she said, "I cannot teach you what or how to compose, but I can teach you what you need to become a composer." She would definitely have agreed with Berio. I suspect that she chastised more than one of her American students for thinking too much about style, much in the same manner as Berio's admonition. I remember another conversation, this time about Jean Françaix, her most successful student of composition. She would cite him as the perfect example of a composer completely master of his craft. "Whatever one could say of the quality of his music," she would maintain, "there could be no question that it was well written and put together. Every note was at its place."

There is explicit in this line of thinking the presumption that style can be considered independently of craft (or technique) and consequently unrelated to how a piece of music is composed. Perhaps in one way Mademoiselle Boulanger was responding somewhat defensively to many of my own generation who felt the music of Jean Françaix to be of less consequence than that of many other composers of whom one would not contemplate separating craft from style. I doubt, for instance, that if hard pressed she would have maintained such an inflexible view towards Stravinsky's music. I remember another occasion, on bringing to my lesson a score of Stravinsky's then recently composed Septet and pointing out its embryonic use of serial technique. I was literally stunned by her reply, "It is merely an old man playing with his jewels." She could not bring herself to admit that stylistic considerations had brought Stravinsky to the verge of accepting a compositional technique which up to that point both Boulanger and Stravinsky had totally rejected.

But this was a quarter of a century ago, when neither of them was confronted by the multiplicity of stylistic considerations with which we must contend today, along with Mr. Berio and Mr. Rockwell. To continue,

Mr. Berio himself will never be accused of sticking stubbornly to one technique. Indeed, his career has been marked by the omnivorous embrace of styles and ideas. Traditionally trained by his musician family and at the Milan Conservatory, he turned to serialism in the 50's, then to electronic music, then to indeterminacy and performer choice, then to historical eclecticism. It is hard to think of a contemporary technique he has not investigated in depth, and very often supposedly contradictory techniques flourish side by side in the same work.

And once again to Mr. Berio:

I am trying to discover unity between points that are very far apart. I think it is a duty for a musician today—and not only for a musician—to be aware of the multiplicity of things. Maybe that comes from being Italian—the tendency to bring things together, to harmonize conflicting things.

I suspect that Mademoiselle Boulanger and Mr. Berio would have parted company by this time. Surely the shopping basket approach to the compositional supermarket was as foreign to the distinguished French teacher as would have been the systematic approach to traditional harmony and counterpoint to the no less distinguished Italian innovator. However, I do not believe that there would be difficulty in establishing that the studies of harmony and counterpoint are complementary. This seems to be the premise on which they are taught. Nonetheless if we are to believe Mr. Rockwell the same could be inferred about the study of indeterminacy and serialism, since Mr. Berio has done it. Consequently he has fused them. Or has he?

Traditionally harmony and counterpoint are part of the craft of musical composition which is studied over the years until a certain mastery has been achieved. A similar conclusion could be drawn regarding the study of both serialism and the fundamentals of electronic music. Like the study of harmony and counterpoint, they are techniques to be learned over a prescribed period of time until a similar level of mastery has been achieved. However, indeterminacy and historical eclecticism—whatever the latter may refer to precisely—are primarily stylistic considerations. They are far less techniques that one learns than they are approaches which one adopts, as Mr. Berio has adopted them in many of his works, not the least of which is Coro, the subject of the interview in the New York Times.

I believe that the error in Mr. Rockwell's and Mr. Berio's premise is that they have confused style with technique. I would assume that a knowledge of traditional harmony and counterpoint would be essential if one were to compose in what is referred to as historical eclecticism, otherwise one would be unable to emulate composers of the past, particularly the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries. This would presume a study of style as well. Conversely it would not appear as necessary to study indeterminacy to compose in that idiom. Indeterminacy is, in fact, more a style than a technique. By definition it seeks to eliminate predecided or predetermined techniques. Consequently what Mr. Berio is proposing is the fusion of a multiplicity of styles, not techniques. What Mr. Rockwell is telling us is that he, Berio, has not held on "stubbornly" to one style, but has purposely sought to embrace many.

The confusion between style and technique is prevalent, however. The interview with Berio is regrettably not an isolated case. Style and technique obviously cannot be fused. They are different, as different as the proverbial apples and oranges. They can be separated, as Nadia Boulanger professed, but they must be brought back into focus, since their separate lives are basically sterile. However, they are inconceivable one without the other. Both Nadia Boulanger and Luciano Berio are wrong when they tell us not to think about issues of style. The style of our music is what we are about ourselves. I would agree that we can spend too much time worrying about it. We are what we are. But to exclude such questions from our creative thought would be to exclude ourselves from our composition. Berio may well legitimize the fusion of a multiplicity of styles. The creation of one individual style is no less legitimate an aspiration, whether it be the result of a conscious game plan, or a concept which is taken for granted as we progress from one work to another. For most of us a personal and identifiable style will be an unrealizable aspiration; we may in fact never come near its threshold. However, we cannot be deterred from striving for that feeling of oneness with our composition from which a personal style can evolve. It is the vocation of the artist, at least on one very deep level. We need not continually acknowledge this aspiration; we need to know that it is there.

Returning therefore to the questions which were raised at the beginning of this discussion, perhaps we can now propose some answers. Given the multiplicity of styles prevalent today, which ones do we teach? I would answer none. We do not teach style, we teach technique, and new ones should be studied as carefully as old ones. Composers need to write exercises, to learn the tools of their craft, those which have disappeared and those which have reappeared.

Is a study of today's expanded body of theoretical knowledge important to the training of the young composer? Here I would answer yes, by all means. Such knowledge requires a study of style as well as technique, and shows the interrelationships between composers' styles and techniques, and how they evolved. What better way to prepare ourselves for a process which we also may have to undergo as we seek our way through the hidden paths of our own stylistic evolution?

Should performance opportunities include improvisation and experimentation? Of course, but have not composers always done just this to some extent? There is much less new in improvisation groups than meets the eye (or ear), and is there a better way to stretch our minds (and ears) than to let our fancies roam individually and collectively?

What is the curricular role assigned to tradition? And to innovation? I really do not know, and I hardly care. Once we have made a distinction between style and technique, the question of whether a student writes in a style which is innovative or traditional is principally a personal one. I am not certain that as a teacher I have the right to interfere. I can comment on a student's technique and whether or not it seems to be stylistically consistent or relevant to the intention of a proposed piece. I can only give personal opinions on the stylistic relevance. I will try to point out areas in which a student's gifts seem to lie, and this may be of some help in determining questions of style. However, it would be independent of whether or not the style in question is avant-garde or conventional, at least to my way of thinking.

I guess, therefore, that I am among those who believe that composition can be taught, that techniques can be learned, and that issues of style must be raised and discussed. In fact, I would consider this to be my credo as a teacher. I am not so sure of it, however, that I would not wish to discuss it with other teachers and composers. Questions about the teaching of composition are serious ones, and even after considerable thought they can remain confused, as the examples I have raised above may have demonstrated. For this reason alone they merit our continued attention, and deserve to be reexamined from time to time. I do not believe that we want to run the risk of misleading our students. Nor do we wish to feel that they have been shortchanged because we have failed to place new developments such as indeterminacy in perspective, or neglected to redefine old ones such as historical eclecticism which reappear in unaccustomed ways. I believe that we must show them the ways to technical mastery, and show them how to distinguish between questions of technique and style with which, in all likelihood, they will be confronted throughout their lives. It seems to me that if we have done this, we have done our best. There will always be new directions in both style and technique. It is our task as teachers—and as composers—to know which is which, and to go on from there.

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Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

Donald Harris

Donald Harris served on the faculties and as an administrator at the New England Conservatory of Music (1967-77) and the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford (1977-88), before becoming dean of the College of the Arts and professor of music at Ohio State in 1988. In 1997, after a thirty-year career as a senior-level administrator in higher education and the arts, he stepped down as dean and rejoined the OSU faculty in composition, becoming Professor Emeritus upon his retirement in 2010.

From 1955 until 1968, Harris lived and composed in Paris, France, where, among other things, he was music consultant to the United States Information Service, and produced the city's first postwar Festival of Contemporary American Music. Harris earned bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from The University of Michigan, where he was a student of Ross Lee Finney. He also studied with Lukas Foss and Boris Blacher at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood), and with Nadia Boulanger, Max Deutsch, and André Jolivet in Paris.

He has received numerous commissions, including the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Radio France, Cleveland Orchestra, Festival of Contemporary American Music at Tanglewood. He is co-editor of the W. W. Norton publication of the correspondence between Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, for which he received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award (1989). He has been the recipient of both a Guggenheim and a Fulbright Fellowship. In 1991, he was honored with an award in composition from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which led to a retrospective recording of his work on the CRI label (1994). His music is published by the Editions Jobert in France, and in this country by GUNMAR Music, a division of G. Schirmer/AMP and Shawnee Press, and Theodore Presser, Inc. In addition to CRI, his compositions have been recorded on the Delos, Centaur, and NEC-Golden Crest labels. In 2010 his Second Symphony was premiered by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. In June of th same year, the Ohio State University awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his “distinguished career as an internationally recognized composer, arts administrator, teacher, and musicologist.”

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