Problems and Issues Facing a Young Composer

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Where is musical composition today? Whatever happened to all the exuberant manifestos of the fifties and sixties? Whatever happened to the generation who so confidently condemned every preconceived notion regarding traditional musical structure? What are the problems and issues facing a young composer?

We are no longer living in the post-Webern period. The music of the fifties and sixties was dominated by an innovative and experimental fervor which has by and large outlived itself. There is no mainstream or universal consensus of direction shared by a large body of composers. The contemporary scene is largely a pluralistic environment in which many different aesthetic positions and attitudes co-exist.

Many of the techniques, methods and conceptual approaches to musical composition which were proposed in the fifties and sixties are still commonly accepted today, however, the rigidity with which these approaches are adhered to has changed. The music written between 1950 and 1975 is unique in its almost universal emphasis on conceptual structure and technology. Unfortunately, much of what resulted was musically unsuccessful. How many works during this period possess the germ of an idea which may have initially contained some attractive quality but which through the relentless adherence to its own conceptual format, falls into a tedium of overtly similar static textures?

During this same period, many composers tried to avoid further connection with traditional musical structure by creating totally new notational systems. Unfortunately, this too became an end unto itself. Musical graphic arts impressed some composers to the extent that their works were more successful as visual art pieces rather than musical compositions. This was never so intensely impressed upon me as when I visited the Los Angeles County Public Library to examine Boulez's Third Piano Sonata.

I searched for an hour through the scores and archives, constantly being told that it had to be there somewhere. Finally I asked a librarian if there were any scores anywhere other than in the music section. Her initial response was quite negative, but shortly afterwards she suggested I go down to the Art section because there was an odd piece used in one of the exhibits. Lo and behold, there it was, sitting in a glass case with a number of other contemporary art works. Quite consistent with this whole experience has been my reaction to this piece over the past few years. Whether intended by the composer or not, I have always received a more satisfying aesthetic experience from viewing the score as a visual art object rather than a musical composition.

Many of the problems we encounter today as composers are a direct result from actions and attitudes taken by the previous generation. Since 1950, most serious composers have accepted the fact that their music cannot or will not be "understood" by a large concert-going audience. Milton Babbitt clearly stated the attitude held by many composers of the fifties and sixties in his article "Who Cares If You Listen?"1

And so I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.

The "Who Cares If You Listen" attitude, common over the past thirty years, has only managed to create more doubt and confusion between composer and listener. The result has been an audience which for the most part replies: "Who Cares If You Compose?"

This lack of concern for audience approval is of course nothing new to composers. How could our art change and develop if we were not allowed to digress from popular tastes? The main issue here has to do with change itself. The generation of the fifties and sixties became so exceedingly preoccupied with music as an historical and technological discipline that all other aspects of the art were considered less important. The aspect of audience approval was just one of many qualities inherent in the art which suffered during this period. Composers became so increasingly preoccupied with extending instrumental resources and exploiting new compositional techniques that they rarely considered and often tried to avoid any references to traditional concepts of musical form or structure. Musical change and development during this period often meant a complete disregard for tradition and a total reliance upon innovation.

Between 1950 and 1975 a curious development had gradually taken place. With this new emphasis on technology and innovation, many composers relied more and more upon the conceptual. The dogmatic adherence to the theoretical framework of any preconceived system became more important than the effectiveness of any specific perceptible aural structures. Many composers were intrigued by the idea of creating musical systems which did not involve aural selectivity as a determining factor. By not allowing themselves to participate aurally, they felt they could arrive at something which could not have been previously anticipated. The removal of aural discrimination as a compositional determinant became increasingly popular among many composers.

Another prevailing thought of the period was the belief that one could appreciate contemporary music if one could only "understand" it. The seminar mentality of appreciation through explanation was extremely common. The attitude that music has become so advanced and complex that it is incomprehensible by anyone but a few intellectuals, was popular among many. This attitude which was based heavily upon innovation, technology and a composer's ability to educate his audience might not have been so successful had it not been for the new patron of contemporary music—the university.

The colleges and universities became the primary centers for the creation and performance of new music. The university has become the patron of living composers. By and large, most serious composers today reside in the academic environment. The university with its emphasis upon research and theoretical speculation gave new life to the new music movement. The baby boom along with the Vietnam War saw a virtual explosion in the number of students attending college. This allowed for a great deal of growth in opportunities for composers in education.

Today we are faced with quite the opposite problem. Those composers who have survived the tenure process have become and will remain the pillars of those institutions. By and large, they consist of those same composers active in the fifties and sixties. The universities are now faced with their own dilemma: they are experiencing a decline in enrollments and government subsidies and they have enough difficulty sustaining their present faculty much less creating any new positions. Thus we are faced with another extremely difficult situation: for the most part, the vast majority of young composers will not find refuge in college teaching.

Generally we are experiencing a somewhat universal decline in interest and concern for contemporary serious music. The symphony orchestra with its own concern for survival performs fewer and fewer recent works. Those performances which do occur are largely token events for a small group of well established composers. In fact, the performance of new music by relatively young unknown composers is so rare that some orchestras have gone so far as to publicize such events as unique and unheard of happenings. This is a sad commentary on the state of new music making in the world today.

The orchestras are not entirely to blame. The poor economic conditions of the past ten years have forced most orchestras into a more conservative and traditional form of programming. Beyond this, the contemporary composer must share in the responsibility for the declining conditions we face today. Since 1950, audiences have been subjected to more senseless pieces and absurd aesthetic positions than could have been previously imagined. The constant emphasis upon the new and experimental has resulted in a certain shock-oriented atmosphere which audiences will no longer tolerate. What was once esoteric and audacious is now passe and antiquated. Probably the single most significant aspect concerning the contemporary scene is the fact that there is no avant-garde.

The problems facing all composers but especially the young unknown composer are clearly pronounced and profound. We are no longer living in the post-Webern period. The formalistic, conceptual and experimental mentality which was very popular among academic composers during the fifties and sixties has long since outlived itself. The young composer today finds himself largely outside the secure environment of academic life with little or no audience and few if any colleagues who share any common interest in his work or frustrations.

What is clear in the current crisis is the need for a new music which can exist outside the academic environment as well as one which appeals to a relatively large concert-going audience. For many, the minimalist movement is one possible alternative. The music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass demonstrates on the part of a number of composers today their reaction to the hard core formalists and conceptualists of the fifties and sixties. For many this specific solution is not palatable, however, it is in the solutions of these kinds of problems which will create new alternatives. The post-John Cage period, which for want of a better name, represents the current stage in the new music movement. It finds the young composer in search of both a contemporary and forward-looking form of musical expression as well as a place where this new music can be performed. Over the next few years, we may find many of our leading composers residing outside the professional and educational environments. We may find an increasing number of composers organizing their own ensembles and performing their own music more and more.


1High Fidelity 8, No. 2 (February 1958), 34-5.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

Harry T. Bulow

Harry Bulow was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. He received his B.A. with distinction in music from San Diego State University (1975), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in music theory and composition from UCLA (1978, 1983). Bulow also holds a Performer’s Diploma in Saxophone Performance from Trinity College of Music, London, England. His principal composition teachers include Aaron Copland, Peter Mennin, Henri Lazarof, Roy Travis, David Ward-Steinman and Henry Mancini.

His works have received numerous awards including 1st Prize at the International Composers Competition in Trieste, Italy, the “Oscar Espla” Prize from the city of Alicante, Spain, a National Endowment for the Arts Composer Fellowship, and 32 consecutive ASCAP/Plus Awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Bulow’s compositions have been performed by the Omaha Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Honolulu Symphony, Eastman Wind Ensemble, New England Conservatory of Music Wind Ensemble and the Moscow National Symphonic Band. His music is published by Alfred Publications, Northeastern Music Publications, Imagine Music and Silver Mace Publications. Recording are available on Nonesuch Records, North/South Consonance Records, Society of Composers, Inc. and Crest Records. He has held positions at the University of Hawaii, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. He is Professor of Music and Head of the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

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