Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005
What's Important?

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Music is a tapestry. The idea of music as some sort of Darwinian evolution from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms and on down the line is to choose a thread among quilts, which is what theorists and musicologists are paid to do.

The Beatles never won a Pulitzer, nor did Duke Ellington, yet their influence is far-reaching. Major mainstream awards have been and are still typically reserved for the composers who most resemble the judges sitting on the committee--until John Adams wondered aloud if receiving the Pulitzer meant the end of his career. Well, thing change, even there… But even the greatest of classical music composers is unlikely to reach as many people through generations as a single Britney Spears tune does in a week. She’s rewarded with money and fame, and as a commercial targeted marketing construct, she is herself a work of genius, however short-lived.

Academic composition is a market too. Composers choose their markets, either academic, elitest, populist, ethnic, or whatever, whether they cop to it or not. They choose to swim either with or against the prevailing currents. But when something begins to catch hold from the edges—and Thomas Kuhn would suggest that’s where the really interesting work is done--then it runs the danger (or gains the blessings) of being co-opted by the mainstream.

Grunge. Serialism. The new simplicity. The new complexity. Rock. Hip-Hop. They are all symptoms of our times, and have more in common as social phenomena and are subject to marketing forces much more than we would like to admit. Would composers be writing much complex abstract music if academia were not footing the bills? I doubt so many would, except for those who felt some authentic internal drive to do so. But the real composers will write what they hear, what they themselves are interested in regardless. Maybe.

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