Okay, let’s put it another way.  How important is a top-of-the-line musical education to success as a composer?

Can a composer who went to, say, Houston Baptist University, Western Michigan University, and the University of Iowa be as good as your typical Sequenza21 Eli?

I ask the question because I was listening to WNYC2 (the best source of contemporary music on the Internet, if you don’t know already–playing Tehillim right now) and I heard a terrific piece called Edges by a composer named Luke Dahn, whom I’d never heard of before.  Awfully damned good piece.  So I googled him and discovered that his resume matches my hypothetical resume above.  Before you start with the “elitist” shit storm, let me say that I went to Marshall and West Virginia University and I’m sure that all of the places Dahn went have excellent music departments. But, they ain’t Julliard.

There’s a nice sample of his work here.

86 Responses to “Does Going to Julliard, Yale or Harvard Make You a Better Composer?”
  1. Tom Myron says:

    Guess that makes me the wild card. Amazing discussion here.

    -Tom

  2. Thanks for the hug, Steve.

  3. Steve Layton says:

    (Quick correction: Sharp’s piece *is* “Radiolaria”. It’s given wrong in the page & video title, but correctly in the text.)

    Nobody here (I hope!) wants this place to be some universal hug-fest; no matter what stripe, strong opinions and some passion are what make these exchanges worth reading.

    And Lawrence, we all know that *you’re* actually S21’s permanent resident milepost for sanity… ;-)

  4. Mr. S, whoever you’ve been, you are the sanest person on this site today.

  5. Eric Shanfield says:

    Mr Layton – once upon a time I was that horn player (I haven’t seen the video but I’m probably the guy next to Zeena Parkins, who always wears excellent socks) – but in the meantime I have been a crazy person. (Literally. As if that wasn’t clear.) But speaking of crazy, Radiolaria is incredible, I don’t know if the limited-edition CD is still available, but if you can find it it’s well worth the effort. Back in the day I had private lessons with Elliott, who is ridiculously underappreciated as a ‘straight’ composer here in America while in Europe he’s been taken up by Ensemble Modern a.o.; there’s a great CD of his orchestral music including Calling and Racing Hearts (which is about sex, apparently) but as with all his records who knows if and where it’s to be found.

    To put a cap on my part in this discussion, I just want to make clear that, although it might not be immediately obvious, personally I am 100% with David Toub. It’s just that all my close friends went to some combination of Juilliard, Yale and U Mich, and the experience made them awesome composers and better people without exception. So I’m stuck between defending what I know to be true about them while simultaneously defending my own sensiblilities. I know a few excellent composers outside that mainstream – Pat Muchmore went to CUNY, Tristan Perich to Columbia, Bill Brittelle had private lessons with Del Tredici – but CUNY, Columbia and Del Tredici are hardly slouches. I guess we all just have to decide what’s best for ourselves right this second, for only later will we be able to look back and shake our head at that idiot we used to be.

  6. Richard Mitnick says:

    I just heard about this site from Marvin Rosen during his just completed marathon.

    I noticed wnyc2 mentioned in this entry, and saw no comments about it.

    I am a WNYC music zealot.

    I want to say that wnyc2 is absolutely a revolution, especially at station that seemed for a while to deemphasize music.

    The efforts of George Preston, with the assistance Brad Cresswell, and with John Schaefer and David Garland lurking in the background have really paid off for us music listener/members.

    Now, with the addition of Terrance McKnight and his unique sensibility to Evening Music, we really have the best possible broadly based serious music programming available anywhere.

    WNYC’s music mottos are “Five Hundred Years of New Music”, and “Non-generic Classical Music”. The programming really does measure up to those mottoes.

    >>RSM

  7. Steve Layton says:

    I don’t know about compositions, but if Eric is the horn player I’m thinking of then you can catch him manning flugelhorn in this video of Elliott Sharp’s manically intense piece “Radiolara”:

    http://www.location1.org/radiolara/

    & even if I’ve got he wrong Eric Shanfield, the piece is well worth taking the time to hear.

  8. jamescombs says:

    “(and the media, including Sequenza21 and NewMusicBox)” – Rob Deemer

    And also *netnewmusic* which includes many visiting composers here as well.
    http://netnewmusic.ning.com/

    Lets face it, there probably will never be too many of these sites to go around. As my friend and composer, James Ross, reminds me, we are all we have.

  9. jamescombs says:

    Great discussion, Eric, and you’ve definitely made some good points (even if I didn’t agree) and grabbed our attention.

    I wasn’t being sarcastic about hearing some of your works. It would be a pleasure.

  10. Rob Deemer says:

    Paul – your question about film and TV music is pertinent here. As far as that goes, I’d repeat what Lawrence said earlier – what’s most important is the relationships you foster while you’re in school. You can attempt to make relationships outside of school, of course, but there’s nowhere else where talented, up-and-coming collaborators can be found in such density who aren’t already working professionally.

    Nowadays there are several good programs that help you with the nuts-and-bolts of scoring – USC & NYU are probably the top two, for different reasons – but just as in concert music, training only gets you so far. I went through the USC film scoring program years ago before I did any graduate work in concert music and while I learned a lot from the big names that they brought in to teach (Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, Chris Young, etc.), it was the 14 films I scored during that year-long program that was the most valuable.

    To comment on Jerry’s original question, it’s pretty obvious that studying composition at programs that are well-respected isn’t a bad thing, though I think the idea of two or three schools having a monopoly on the market is a little thin. Yale has been a leader for some time in the concert composing world, as well as Julliard, due to the combination of the connections and the expert teachers. However, there are so many good composers coming out of Eastman, Peabody, Princeton, Columbia, Michigan, Indiana, Texas, USC, Northwestern, Kansas City, Oberlin, Iowa, Rice, Stanford, NEC, and of course UNC…it seems that the more important question is how do we (and the media, including Sequenza21 and NewMusicBox) determine who the movers and shakers are in this arena of contemporary composers.

    Obviously some of it has to do with who’s getting played by the big-name performers, who’s getting hired, who’s getting commissioned, who’s getting reviewed, etc., but so much of that seems to be at least somewhat connected to personal relationships that it’s almost too biased – just like it is in so many other lines of work. What’s left is connected to what happened to Jerry – he happened to hear a work he liked and afterwards he discovered that the composer wasn’t from the typical pedigree. The more opportunities composers have to become noticed, either through radio performances, podcasts, articles or discussions such as this, the easier it will be for all of us to have a clear concept of what our own musical culture really is in this day and age.

  11. Eric Shanfield says:

    True enough re: Nancarrow. I wish I’d picked a better example, he’s just sort of the ur-outsider figure, and I wanted the authority of John Adams behind my initial remarks. He does deserve as much respect as Cage and Carter – or any composer for that matter; this is a tough business we’re in – and I think we give him that credit by taking his work seriously enough to consider it on its merits, with the implicit assumption that it’s well-known and influential enough to deserve the attention and sturdy enough to withstand any poking by obscurities such as myself.

  12. david toub says:

    Thanks for a good discussion.

    I don’t care if it’s a majority opinion that Nancarrow was great any more than I care that a lot of people seem to adore Elliot Carter’s ouevre. It just happens that I like the former’s music and not the latter. And Nancarrow’s music, to me, has immediate appeal. The underlying structures makes for interesting reading. But if it didn’t grab me musically I’d have little interest in it. Carter is the exact opposite. His written scores are complex and beautiful to study. It’s the music that bores me to death. So whether I like something has nothing to do with the complexity.

    I appreciate your point about presumptions. But I never presume anything I write is worthwhile prima facie. I might like it, and would hope someone else could as well. But to presume it’s worthwhile to someone else is, well, presumptuous.

  13. jamescombs says:

    correction:

    *Academics attempt to decide history, but sometimes a composer’s music lives on forever by its own merits. Nancarrow deserves just as much respect as Carter or Cage.*

  14. jamescombs says:

    I’ll drop the sarcasm for a second to mention that visiting a contemporary composer site and dissing Nancarrow is definitely going to push some buttons. Simply because of the BS he had to deal with during his life. Fucked over by our US gov. and left out to dry in Mexico where he had *no one* to play his works.

    Academics attempt at deciding history, but sometimes a composer’s music lives forever on its own merits. Nancarrow deserves just as much respect as Carter or Cage.

  15. Eric Shanfield says:

    I completely agree with Mr Toub that one cannot be taught composition; it’s my understanding that he himself did not study composition formally, and he’s pretty darn good at it. But composition isn’t just about writing MUSIC. It’s also about WRITING music. Classical music, almost by definition, unlike rock or jazz, requires notation of some kind (even if it’s just blobs or instructions or holes punched in a piece of paper), and making notes into music is not so easy, as anyone reading these posts surely knows. Not only that, but the very process of writing notes creates its own momentum as the material discovers its form or the structure begins to fill with material, and creates all sorts of horrible problems that need solving. One thing everybody seems to agree on is well-trained composers can make music that sounds good even if it’s dreck. I have been attempting to extend this argument, arguing the process by which one learns to make good-sounding dreck while in the company of smart dreck-makers can be exceedingly useful, in that it makes it easier to accomplish what you want to accomplish, both technically and in the world. A hack that attends Juilliard will not become a good composer, but it will make him a competent composer with lots of connections and opportunities for performance. A talented person that attends Juilliard will get all that plus skill, the ability to solve problems, and the perspective that will allow him to develop. Also: hot dancers with strong legs.

    Now, it IS presumptuous to say Nancarrow could have used some perspective; of course it is. That’s what opinions are: presumptuous. You presume to know better than someone else. You can understand that others’ views are equally valid, but you must be convinced of your own to hold them, or you’re holding nothing but the air. Judging artistic success is always the exercise of opinion, and every opinion is implicitly a claim that ‘my version would be superior’. Otherwise we’d be dealing with objective fact. It is objective fact to say Nancarrow has been hugely influential on composers; even Boulez in his recent Derive II name-checks him (!), but to say Nancarrow is good is not fact at all. Even if a lot of people tend to agree that Nancarrow is good, well, a lot of people agreed that John McCain should have been our next president. Do you think John McCain should have been our next president? That Nancarrow didn’t need schooling to compose complex canons is objective fact. That complexity is not necessarily interesting in itself and Nancarrow’s studies could have used a bit more development and focus is my opinion. It may look like arrogance, and maybe it is, but if we don’t think hard about things and believe what we think (at least until we change our minds), why bother thinking it? All art is arrogance in that it’s inessential. Not that art is itself inessential; it’s vital to our humanity. But paradoxically, each individual work of art is inessential. Why yours rather than someone else’s? Can you really be so sure what you’ve made is worth my time, or yours? Every composition is an opinion about how music should sound, and every composition arrogates a presumption that it’s worthwhile.

  16. David Toub says:

    for you to decree that I have been (and presumably anyone else who attended, or still attends, a top-notch school) indicates an enormous arrogance and a huge chip on your shoulder.

    I stand by my comment that it’s a waste of time vis a vis composition. Go get a good liberal arts education and compose music to your heart’s content, writing what you want to write. That would be my recommendation. And no, it’s not sour grapes nor arrogance. Asshholishness, perhaps (I’ve been accused of being one). But I think I gave an honest answer without any malice. If you didn’t view it as such, c’est la vie.

  17. David Toub says:

    I stand by my earlier comment: bullshit

    Look, I could care less if you like Nancarrow or not. Like I said, when I first became acquainted with Nancarrow’s music in the 80’s, I was impressed by his story and his innovation but his Studies didn’t grab me. My ears have changed since that time and I absolutely adore them (indeed, I have several different recordings of the studies). Similarly, I can’t stand Carter’s music. At all. Very small doses, perhaps, but that’s it. And I keep trying, out of intellectual curiosity more than anything else. But while I’ll say that I can’t stand his music, I would never say that he needs an editor.

    Cage had a few lessons with Schoenberg, and they had a sort of falling out, although my understanding is that they maintained a high level of respect for the other. But that’s irrelevant to the argument at hand.

    I do think it’s presumptuous of you to insinuate/state that Nancarrow would have been better with some editing, and imply (whether you meant to or not) that he would have done well to have had additional schooling. That’s why I asked how many rhythm canons you’ve composed. Not to be a smartass or to stifle contrary viewpoints. But because by definition, it’s presumptuous, even arrogant. Sorry, but that’s how it made me feel, and I’d be just as annoyed if you had made that comment about Carter.

    I take issue with the assumption that better schools = better technique or better self-assessment. I don’t believe at all that one can teach composition, only theory, notation and other mechanics needed to write music. That’s like saying one can really teach writing or painting. One can teach how to write proper English or how to draw in perspective, etc. But the actual act of composing/writing/painting? Not at all. I think immersing oneself in an academic monastery is not a useful way to find one’s voice as a composer. Learn theory and counterpoint so you can break the rules, perhaps. But learn how to compose? Nope. I find the notion that Nancarrow would have benefitted from more training to be an absurd, ridiculous notion.

  18. jamescombs says:

    Can’t say definitively, but seems Kyle Gann appears if his name is repeated three times in a row, or perhaps you have to say it backward. Nice discussion. Who knew a nice composer discussion would pop up from such a silly little question?

    But now, Mr. Shanfield, you must link us to your music. Someone with such a strong opinion usually has something to say musically as well.

  19. Eric Shanfield says:

    Kyle Gann undoubtedly knows what and how much schooling Cage had, we should probably ask him…

    As for Hauer, who is a fascinating guy, as far as I know, there are basically three kinds of early serialism: Schoenberg’s, which is more linear and provides for extensive polyphonies (see: Violin Concerto op. 36), Krenek’s, which is more vertical and provides for neat chords (see: Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles), and then there’s Hauer’s, which I can’t quite get with… his rows just kind of go and go with no discernible purpose, a chromatic perpetual motion machine. Like Nancarrow, there’s not a lot of room for development and synthesis, only endless exposition, which is my main problem with his music. Schoenberg and Webern felt the same way, although they put him on their concerts until they fell out over questions of precedence.

  20. Steve Layton says:

    Cage would be the first one to defend the Schoenberg he knew as a teacher; but the general consensus is that he took only a few classes, almost all in theory and analysis. Which he seemed to have a number of issues with…

    (By the way, it’s only in German but anyone interested might check this short video of J.M. Hauer himself, in his own home, discussing his ideas):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXAM8nMua6I

  21. Eric Shanfield says:

    Yeah, and I find Chopin’s etudes sort of boring, too. And a lot of Bach, for that matter. Heresy! Anyway, I was just responding to earlier comments that ignored my main point (which nobody has really contested yet) in favor of arguing about specific examples, which were originally chosen to combat the implication that because they didn’t know who I was my opinion didn’t matter.

    As long as we’re on the subject, I think Nancarrow’s influence is greater and much more important than his music. And I don’t think you can necessarily replace “studies” with “works”, as they are very specific things that have had a very specific influence. It’s true, as I took pains to say, that I was just stating an opinion, but the reason I was stating the opinion was to make the point referenced above.

    Didn’t Cage go to UCLA? That’s a pretty good school… FYI, did you know Schoenberg was offered a professorship at Juilliard when he first came to America, and seriously considered it before reluctantly turning it down? And then he recommended for the job: Anton von Webern. Imagine if that had happened! Meanwhile, Hauer became so bitter he had a stamp made that read something like: “Joseph Matthias Hauer, the real inventor of the 12-tone method”, and stamped it on everything. I too would rather listen to him than Corigliano or Tan Dun, but that’s just because the relative scale of suck here begins at such a low point.

  22. J.C. Combs says:

    “Absolutely. Does every one of his player piano studies sound like every other one of his player piano studies? Pretty much.” – quote

    Chopin’s etudes all look alike to me as well ;) And no, that’s not a Polish joke, cut me some slack.

  23. Steve Layton says:

    Eric S. wrote: It seems to me like a lot here is hinging on Nancarrow, which confuses the argument, because I’m just not very impressed by his music. Was he original? Incredibly. Was his music technically proficient? Extremely. Was he a maverick operating outside the musical community, yet kept himself informed and in touch with new developments? Absolutely. Does every one of his player piano studies sound like every other one of his player piano studies? Pretty much.

    Just a couple quick reality checks:

    1)The thing is, replace “player piano studies” with simply “works”, and depending on the person’s taste this could (and has) been said about all kinds of composers, from Messiaen to Xenakis to Young to Glass to Coates to Feldman to Frey… for that matter, even Mozart!

    2) Considering the history of *how* Cage studied with Schoenberg, there was precious little that could compare with anything like going to Julliard or Harvard.

    3) I personally don’t think Hauer’s music sucks nearly as much as you paint it… :-) …Not that I think it’s the be-all and end-all, but I’ll take it on a concert over most any piece by, say, Corligiano or Tan Dun.

  24. Eric Shanfield says:

    It seems to me like a lot here is hinging on Nancarrow, which confuses the argument, because I’m just not very impressed by his music. Was he original? Incredibly. Was his music technically proficient? Extremely. Was he a maverick operating outside the musical community, yet kept himself informed and in touch with new developments? Absolutely. Does every one of his player piano studies sound like every other one of his player piano studies? Pretty much. Well, you can easily hear the difference between the jazzier early ones and the nuttier later ones. And rest assured, I have listened to them all, studied the several scores that are available, found their underlying structures interesting, and I enjoy listening to them for about a minute. Then they keep going. I did not mean to suggest that Nancarrow would have been better if he had gone to a brand-name university, although I did mean to suggest, and will say in as many words, that he could have used an editor, and if that’s presumptuous, so is having any opinion on anything, as opinions are in themselves a kind of virtual editing. I meant to suggest that he wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t find his way out because he lacked perspective. I meant to suggest that originality does not = good any more than school = good. Look at Joseph Matthias Hauer, who by process of convergent evolution came up with serialism alongside his then buddy Schoenberg. But Hauer’s music, which oddly enough sounds like 12-note minimalism, in a word: sucks, while Schoenberg came up with the Violin Concerto and his String Trio. Both of them were originals; both of them thought they were geniuses; but only one actually was. I didn’t go to a good school; I didn’t go to school at all. And BTW I’m not all that young. But to reject top-notch schooling because you didn’t hit that seems like sour grapes, just as academics who dismiss figures like Feldman do so at their own peril. There are advantages to going to school, and the better the school the bigger the advantages, I am arguing. There are also advantages to not going to school; John Zorn didn’t, Toru Takemitsu didn’t, and each not only developed an original voice but kept on developing from there. But John Cage did; John Cage studied with Schoenberg, for heaven’s sake, and if he’s not a maverick, I’m Sarah Palin.

  25. Paul H. Muller says:

    The discussion seems centered on the ability to write something artistic.

    What about something like scores written for movies or TV? This would seem to require more discipline technically.

    Any evidence that advanced schooling from name institutions is an advantage?

  26. david toub says:

    Seems to me there are a lot of generalizations being made here. If you are an autodidact, you’re an inventor and it will take awhile for you to invent something. If you’re academically trained, what you write might not be that novel, but hey, at least you’ll write some dreck with aplomb.

    And the social connection rationale sounds a lot like why some folks insist that you have to attend an Ivy-League school to be successful. Not so much for the education but for the social network

  27. re: “Robert, you’re wasting your time. My condolences.” [d. toub]

    You will recall in my previous post I did not criticise anyone for studying/composing in a non-conservatory or less than top-notch school environment; to do so would be silly. I have a friend (who shall remain anonymous) who is a highly commissioned and respected composer in the country of his birth (perhaps the most of his generation) without any post-secondary degrees, and I have great respect and admiration for his music and his musical mind (though we disagree from time to time). I hazard to say, that he has similar respect toward me, despite my terminal degree at a respectable institution.
    Neither of us have wasted our time (except for watching the occasional terrible movie), and for you to decree that I have been (and presumably anyone else who attended, or still attends, a top-notch school) indicates an enormous arrogance and a huge chip on your shoulder. Jealousy …, bitterness perhaps?
    My condolences to you, sir. And, though you may not believe me, best wishes in your composing career (and btw, I don’t think you’re wasting your time, as I’m not mine).
    Good day.

  28. Bill, I don’t think that’s so sad. It makes sense that the most impactful parts of your education are the people who challenge you, nurture you, compete with you, and support you.

  29. Bill says:

    Sad that the strongest defense for going to these schools is that you’ll make some ‘connections’.

  30. jamescombs says:

    Thanks for answering, but we still have yet to understand “rut” in technical terms. I.e., how does one listen to Nancarrow and the speculate that he hit a rut at one point? If it is that apparent, I would like to know what you are hearing technically. If we can figure out a way, put our minds together, maybe we could cure the world of its misunderstanding of contemporary music. But, once again, thanks for your reply.

  31. Eric Lin says:

    To add to Eric S’s wonderfully thought-out post, I’ll add this: I think it comes down somewhere along the lines of what Adams (and a few other commentators) describe as a (I don’t remember the exact terms) difference between being an inventor composer and a synthesizing composer. The conservatory or formal training tends to produce better synthesizing composers while lots of inventor composers tend to be auto-didacts. All those four-part writing, counterpoint and voice-leading exercises have to do something right? The drawbacks? As Eric S stated, the auto-didact or ‘inventor composer’ goes through periods of trial and error until they get something that works. The well-trained composer from Juilliard can churn out something that sounds pretty decent using the solid technical training they’ve been given. Neither guarantees great or even good original music. Badly done music by auto-didacts tends to be terrible, while badly done music by conservatory composers can be boring, derivative and completely lacking in any originality but at least sounds polished and ‘right’ on the surface.

    Again, both categories have countless notable examples so neither is inherently better. And of course, it’s completely possible to not attend a name school (or any school) and become a technically proficient composer. Takemitsu and Rimsky being only two examples. Likewise, a inventor composer like Feldman ended up with a professorship. Go figure.

  32. Eric Shanfield says:

    Someone asked about my ‘rut’ theory (not what deer do when they get horny – see above), which allows me to maybe have a go at explaining what I mean one last time.

    It is a well known phenomenon among artists and athletes that after progressing for a while, you hit a plateau and get stuck right where you are. After some persistence, suddenly there’s a breakthrough and you’re able to progress again. This is inevitable and happens to everybody. The question is, what do you do when you get stuck?

    There are three approaches you can take when you get stuck. 1) Prayer. In other words, just keep doing what you’re doing and hope something happens. This can work, but it’s not very proactive, tends to take awhile, and usually proves frustrating while providing no guarantees. 2) Perspective. This means stepping back and saying, where am I? Where do I want to be? What am I doing and how am I doing it? The good thing about this approach is you don’t actually have to do anything; you can ask other people for their opinions. 3) Technique. This means getting into the nitty-gritty of the material, pushing and pulling it out of shape until something happens.

    Let me give a few examples of each for both composers (a) and performers (b), without pretending to be exhaustive. 1a) Force yourself to keep writing, perhaps on a schedule, generating as much crap as possible until something breaks, or go to another part of the piece and try working on that instead. 1b) Practice until your fingers hurt. 2a) Every work of art is necessarily a palimpsest; every artist destroys his ground, overwriting what was originally in his head with the actual piece. This being so, you can always ask yourself, well, what was my original idea? Is that still what I want to do? Am I making the thing I want to make or am I just making the thing that’s being made? You can draft in friends and teachers to give opinions, or look to other disciplines – art, science, politics, whatever – to try and find inspiration or a new slant on your work. 2b) Ask yourself, how am I approaching my interpretation? Are my tempos and touch speaking to me, or are they just repeating convention? Or even, is this the work I want to be performing right now; what does it have to do with where I am as a person? 3a) Work your material. If your melodies aren’t working, try putting them against new harmonies, lengthening or shortening periods or rhythms. If the piece doesn’t seem to be coming together, try a different structure, a different number or sequence of movements or sections. If your material isn’t quite working for, say, string quartet, try using an oboe and seven horns, or percussion quartet, or chamber orchestra; even if your commission specifies the instrumentation, this will provide a new way of looking at your material. In short, take what you have and do something completely different with it, not necessarily because you want to go in that direction, but because it will give you fresh eyes and ears. 3b) Try different tempos, a more staccato or legato approach, more or less rubato. Do the opposite of what you have been doing and see what happens. There doesn’t need to be a plan here, only experimentation which might yield some fruit.

    These prescriptions should be pretty obvious, but, weirdly, they allow me to address the original point of this thread, whether going to a ‘name’ school really matters so much. It seems to me that these three approaches are often better developed in composers who attended Juilliard or Yale, for instance. First, when you go to such a school, you better get your game up, or you’ll be squashed, so you learn to plug away or get passed by. The usefulness of persistence cannot be underestimated, and at smaller schools there can be less exterior pressure, so unless you’ve got a real fire inside, complacency is an easy trap to fall into. Second, going to a better school means that you will be around a lot of smart, capable people who will be able to give pertinent advice and provide a useful peer group where you’ll be a small fish in a very big and brilliant pond, which is both humbling and inspiring and provides a lot of life-perspective in itself. And even at a conservatory like Juilliard there will be people working in many disciplines floating around, and you’ll be exposed to a wide range of influences emanating from experts in their fields. Now, it’s true that John Adams, for instance, didn’t write much of interest until years after he left school, but I imagine his years at Harvard being around a lot of smart, ambitious, talented people left him with a broader, deeper background from which to draw when he finally came to the point where his ability became commensurate with his ambition. Plus, if you got into such a school, you’re probably no dummy to begin with, although I do know a lot of idiots who went to excellent schools… As for technique, better schools first of all tend to have more experienced and more famous teachers. Famous is useful because that means they tend to be the best at what they do, and presumably you’re studying with them because you want to do something at least related to what they do. But more important is the consistency and quality of the education. Good technique solves more intractable problems faster, and the ability to recognize the problem and know what to do with your material is key. I have heard many compositions by obviously talented people that start strong with arresting material, but quickly sputter out because they just don’t know where to go with it, what to do with it. When you get stuck – and you will, eventually – being able to draw on the reservoir of experience ‘name’ schools provide may not make you any better, but it may well get you where you want to go faster, and cumulatively over a career that could put you considerably ahead of the competition.

    Having said all that, I didn’t attend any such school, so my argument is just a general sense I’ve arrived at after spending some years on the scene. Somehow all of my friends went to Juilliard, Yale or the University of Michigan (I don’t know how that happened), but me, I’m basically an auto-didact and proud of it. There is a proud tradition of mavericks and loners making some of the most interesting music around, and I do not doubt many readers of this post see themselves that way. But we should not forget that being different is not a virtue in itself. Plus, when you do something different from everybody else it’s harder to get perspective, harder to know where you’re at and where you’re going because there’s no road signs, no map. Fucking with your material may just make it more conventional or turn it into something else entirely, which is hardly the point, while persistence sometimes does nothing more than dig a deeper hole. Mavericks tend to take longer to write worthwhile music and end up producing more or less the same thing over the course of their careers. Moreover, loners or students at a smaller or less good school have fewer opportunities for performance and even fewer for good performances, which is the only way to really know how well everything’s turned out, while simultaneously driving your career forward.

    But I guess all these questions are just academic, so to speak. Going to a top-notch school can turn you into either Nico Muhly or a purveyor of treacle or derivative goop, and while Nancarrow came in from the desert, how many hermits died alone out there in the wilderness, and their bones have never been found?

  33. Steve Layton says:

    Hey, I liked school; I put in six years and would have happily done more, just for the resource availability (people to play stuff, halls to play it in, instruments, scores, studios laying around) and time to think about, say, Xenakis or Harrison rather than production deadlines and invoices. And from a technical standpoint, we all need to study with *somebody*, who can fill us in on practical, solid aspects of orchestration and notation.

    But that path’s possibilities do work within their own mostly-closed loop. Sometimes obvious but often subtle, it reinforces a whole mess of assumptions that are increasingly irrelevant “outside the walls”. It can still make for a highly satisfying *career* judged in its own terms, and if that’s what a budding composer’s looking for then more power to them.

    For all it’s allure, I could feel slightly moldy air surrounding even the most “creative” work, and and just couldn’t take the path.

    When it comes to core *aesthetic* vision, exploration, creativity, competence, execution… schools, teachers, connections and resources don’t matter. Someone with none of the formal “accreditation” but possessing these qualities can make a great piece with two rubber bands and a stick, that can work at the highest level.

    For a *career* in music, pick whatever you can afford that best matches your goal and use it to its fullest extent. For a *life* in music? Well, just get busy already! Look, talk, listen, and most importantly DO!

    Oh — and Merry Christmas, y’all!…

  34. david toub says:

    I agree, except that I really do believe that the academy is stifling with regard to creative fields. Again, occasional exceptions exist. But just consider Philip Glass. His academic works are, by his own admission, unworthy. The stuff he wrote after seeking knowledge outside of the academy through Ravi Shankar is what made the difference. Yes, he also worked with Boulanger, but Shankar was the disruptive influence.

    The traditional paradigm (go to music school, get a DMA or PhD or whatever, teach, get commissions, record on a CRI-ish label, eventually get celebrated as an eminence gris, then die) generates “traditional” composers who don’t necessarily think out of the box. The academy could never have generated a Harry Partch or any of a number of “mavericks” (I hate that word, now that Sarah Palin corrupted its meaning). Even the folks who were initially in academia (Young, Reich, Riley, Glass) fled from it, finding their real lessons from jazz and non-Western musics.

  35. Joseph L. Edwards says:

    Oh, and the flip side…
    Not attending a school can give similar experiences. You have to work hard to determine your voice/style. You have to find performers and organize the concerts or recordings, etc. All of these things, when attempted personally can teach you things that a school cannot. This would be considered a more “hands-on” approach. It works for some, yet not all.
    That is where I find it important to point out, that the choices we make determine who we become. It is irrelevant whether it is done in an institution or by one’s own hands.

  36. Joseph L. Edwards says:

    What an incredibly exhausting comment string… I do not necessarily celebrate Christmas, however, it’s funny how many others are blogging now.
    Now my comment:
    I view myself lucky to attend a university such as North Carolina School of the Arts (which is more of a conservatory than a university; despite the name change). I feel that any experience counts, contributing to who and/or what one becomes. As others have said, schools are social networks where connections are made. It does not matter where you attend… they all teach something. The “better” the school’s name does not really mean you will be a “better” composer/artist. However, it is pretty much an accepted fact that these schools get money, turn heads on your resume, expose you to “better” names and posses a higher caliber performer. This is all subjective and possibly totally untrue in certain circumstances. All it comes to is the experience. We actively choose which schools to apply to and attending these schools are more-or-less the result of our acceptance or decision to attend.

  37. david toub says:

    Ah, you should have stuck with the U of C. Yes, the winters are cruel, but they have an awesome paleontology dept, if you’re into that sort of thing. But I digress…

    I’m confused. It sounds like you’re agreeing with me that you were better off not taking the university route, but then say that university-trained composers (while many do indeed write “derivative crap”) are better at being self-critical. I don’t know that to be true at all. Sure, there are some autodidacts in any artistic endeavor who didn’t know when to shut up or how to cull out the crappy portions of their work. But I wouldn’t say that of Shapey (for the most part), or Feldman, or Partch or Nancarrow or Ives, for that matter. Boulez intimated once that Ives would have benefitted from a more professional musical training. I strongly disagree. I think Boulez would have benefitted from less musical training and more instinct/feel. So far, all I’m sensing is that music schools are good places to make social connections and all that. I’m not getting the feeling that they’re good places to actually learn how to compose, and that’s confirmation of my opinion that one simply can’t teach or learn how to compose. The mechanics of composition, yes. But that’s all. One is better off just listening to a lot of music and looking at the scores if possible. Then you develop your own style. If you’re honest with yourself, then it’s irrelevant where you went to music school, or if you went to school at all.

  38. jamescombs says:

    Eric Shanfield,

    The “rut” theory is an interesting one. If you are willing, could you explain that in technical terms? I suppose I’ve interpreted works in that sense playing a piece, but I am sure that is my rut in the interpretation process.

  39. Eric Shanfield says:

    The sad part is, Mr Toub, I listened to a few other pieces too; the alto flute piece, the Darfur thing, the brass sextet, I just didn’t get through them all as after a while midi drives me crazy. (On the other hand, as a composer it does help give me a pretty good idea of how the piece is supposed to sound.) I guess I’m just a masochist; I love listening to new music to begin with, and I’ll listen to pretty much anything if it’s free.

    Now, I was not trying to say Nancarrow or Zappa’s music is overly long. In fact, many of Zappa’s pieces are refreshingly short; those are actually some of my favorites. I like Nancarrow and Zappa. I’m just suggesting from personal experience that auto-didacts tend to get stuck in a rut of their own making – a fascinating rut, but a rut nonetheless – while composers who possess a university training are more likely to acquire earlier on important skills such as perspective and the technical ability to work themselves out of the ruts every composer falls into eventually, with the result that they get better faster. I’m not being categorical, only writing from experience. In point of fact every opinion is just that, an opinion, and I thought I had made it clear I did not take the university route and was better for it. While most of the university people I know write music that sounds fantastic, a lot of it is just derivative crap. How many mini-Mahlers and Can-Bangers do we really need?

    Now, my point about Adams was in response to Mr Toub’s earlier intimation that because he had never heard of me (possibly a good thing), and I had never written complex canons (I tried, my friend, and boy do I suck at it), my opinion was not therefore meaningful, or anyway less meaningful. Assuming someone would respond much as you did, I used Nancarrow and Zappa because I had Adams’s rejoinder waiting, but I could just have easily substituted, say, Gerald Barry or Helmut Oehring, who developed outside the musical establishment yet represent two of the most original talents around. Taste often has little to do with talent; Adams thinks Michael Gordon is the key composer of his generation, which while not impossible – he’s a great composer and a great guy – there are many other possible candidates, and just because it’s Adams talking doesn’t mean he’s right (plus you just know he’s going to pick some kind of minimalist to begin with, although his reference to Haas, who’s amazing, is heartening).

    (BTW, my favorite Adams is his ‘neo-minimal’ period from the Chamber Symphony through Guide to Strange Places, which the latter has got to be the single best orchestral piece of the last two decades not yet available commercially. He’s back in that mode, though: have y’all heard Son of Chamber Symphony? Nothing new, but oodles of fun. Also BTW, I almost went to the University of Chicago to become a paleontologist, but that core curriculum scared the shit out of me; I went there in the winter one time and: no thanks!)

  40. david toub says:

    good point: how do you compose anything new in a conservatory environment? I say, you can’t, unless you want to get really unpopular, really fast.

    Eric, my wife thinks that the fact you like my music is proof that you have questionable musical taste. I have to agree with my wife; she is my wife, you know 8-)

  41. jamescombs says:

    I’m curious how someone benefits from a college of the arts when they want to write cutting edge material? Something too new for school.

    I got a kick out of this story I heard. Someone said they took a class under Glass. And there was this one student who was composing purely with noise, pink and white. Well, one day Glass said something to the effect of “what are you going to do when you get tired of that?”

    That was the moral to the story. HOWEVER, I would like to ask Glass. What are going to do when you get tired of minimalism. There is no point to this, but you guys are talking so much minimalism, thought I’d toss it in LOL!

    I love minimalism, so take that with a grain of salt.

    I also want to make a quick mention of The MacDowell Colony.
    http://www.macdowellcolony.org/

    Don’t know anything about it, but it looks cool. Nature, music, hot girls, come on what else to you need???

    I didn’t proof this so any mistakes….

  42. david toub says:

    Eric, I’m really glad you took the time to listen to ushabti and for philip glass, and actually listened to them in their entirety. That’s a real accomplishment; seriously.

    I’m not trying to harsh anyone’s vibe here, but the point you seem to be making, that Nancarrow and Zappa wrote overly long music that needs the type of musical self-criticism that only a conservatory/academic education can impart, strikes me as overreaching, inaccurate and, at worst, patronizing.

    I don’t want to get into a “juilliard is better than podunk university” argument because my point is that more composition education is not necessarily better, at either a high-end or low-end institution.

    I don’t care what Adams says about Ives or anyone else. He’s entitled to his opinion. I miss his earlier music that seemed, to me at least, to be much more honest, much more innovative, etc. But I wouldn’t say he needs “editing.” Again, I can dislike someone’s music without impugning that they are musically undereducated or incompetent.

    Yes, Nancarrow is an acquired taste. I am the first to admit, as I have in a recent review, that when I first heard his music in the 80’s, I was less than taken by it. I have since changed my opinion, and suspect many of us change our opinions of what we once liked or disliked. That’s the nature of personal musical growth. But even when I didn’t adore his Studies, I would never say that Nancarrow was being overly long or self-indulgent because he lacked the contact with musicians that a conservatory necessarily brings. And to be honest, I suspect that his being shamefully blacklisted by our government had a lot to do with his need for self-exile in Mexico City. It should also be mentioned that despite his isolation, Nancarrow kept abreast of musical developments by reading a lot of current articles and journals.

    So if someone feels he/she benefits from a conservatory education, that’s all well and good. I’m sure it does provide opportunities for performance. But please don’t dismiss someone because he/she didn’t attend the “finer schools,” or any music school at all. In the same vein, I know a lot of colleagues who didn’t graduate from the same level of college and professional school as I did. And I also know plenty of folks who believe they went to better schools than the U of Chicago (as if!). But we all tend to judge one another on our overall performance, not where we went to school.

  43. Eric Shanfield says:

    Let me begin by saying that although I don’t know Mr. Toub, I have been to his website and looked at/listened to some of his music–I spent nearly three hours with “For Philip Glass” and “Ushabti”–and liked a lot of it; I’m a big fan of the whole Glass + Feldman thing, Kevin Volans is a personal favorite. However, I cannot agree with some of his opinions, not because he does not back them up, but because I find his arguments wanting.

    First, you do not know who I am because I am young and live in New York, like a thousand other young composers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be right, that just because I haven’t composed a canon in complex ratios I can’t pass judgement on it, or at least offer my opinion. After all, I can say I worship The Rite of Spring without being able to compose anything as good, and neither can you.

    That being said, have you tried listening through all five Nancarrow player piano CDs? Completely interminable. You say, but just listen to one piece. Okay, they impress me technically–no, I couldn’t do that, but so what? is complexity an end in itself? I thought we were writing music, not correcting math proofs–but the later the work and higher the number, the canons often become too complex to be audible, and it just becomes a question of style, as with total serialism. And stylistically, Nancarrow for me wrote basically only two works: the early sort of jazzy one for player piano, and the later sort of abstract one for player piano. Yvar Mikhashoff’s transcriptions are wonderful, in fact for my money better than the originals in that they make audible through timbral differentiation the various lines, but these are all of earlier works as the later ones become too notationally complex for human performance. (Although see: Ferneyhough. Did we ever figure out how to pronounce his name, anyway?)

    As to Zappa, his concert works, while generally pretty entertaining, seem to me like weak “Classical” with a capital-C versions of his brilliant rock music. And most of the stuff for Ensemble Modern, probably his most famous classical works, were not arranged by him at all, but transcribed from synclavier works by Todd Yvega and arranged for ensemble by Ali N. Askin.

    But of course you don’t have to agree with me. You’ve never heard of me, after all; who am I? I picked those two composers for a reason, though:

    “I was always uncertain about Zappa and remain puzzled by him… There seems to be a quality issue with Zappa’s ‘serious’ works that cannot be gotten around.”

    and

    “I was especially enchanted with the earlier Nancarrow studies… The later studies, those composed in the 1970s and 1980s, felt to me exactly that–studies.”

    Have you heard of John Adams, Mr. Toub? Because those quotes are both to be found in “Hallelujah Junction”, in which he discusses at some length composers he does and doesn’t like–he admires Michael Gordon, Thomas Ades and Georg Friedrich Haas (how’s that for an eclectic list!), but finds Zappa and Nancarrow as well as Ives “problematic”.

    Finally, though, I want to say a word about my initial point, the one that made me want to post in the first place. I know many, many composers here in NYC, and it cannot be denied that those who went to the better schools are technically more accomplished. Whatever you think of, say, Judd Greenstein’s music, you cannot deny it is flawlessy executed. And I can assure you, having applied for and watched my friends apply for positions in those schools, acceptance to undergraduate programs, at least, hinges heavily on the ability to realize figured bass, do species counterpoint, orchestrate a simple piano piece, know the ranges of instruments, etc. The actual pieces you write get you an audition; they already know you have something going. But they need to know where you are and how succesfully you’ll be able to negotiate their program. The more prominent schools have difficult curricula, I can assure you–anyone who has faced Ms. Cox at Juilliard can tell you ear-training horror stories that will curl your toes–and many students who possess raw talent do not yet possess the ability to harness it effectively. That’s all I was trying to say; remember, “setting aside the question of talent”. There are many talented people out there who do not go to big-name schools or to school at all. But that wasn’t my point.

  44. David Salvage says:

    As someone who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and who later taught at Brooklyn College, I think I can speak with some authority on the two kinds of places we are discussing.

    Because of the human and financial resources available at Harvard, I was able to get performed two small operas, a choral motet, two string orchestra works, a piano concerto, and numerous other smaller pieces. These experiences made me a better composer. They are not experiences guaranteed to student composers at Harvard. But I was able through diligence and friendships to make them happen. In other words: just because you graduated from Harvard doesn’t mean you had the same experiences I had.

    At Brooklyn College, student composers simply do not have the opportunities I had while at Harvard. The pool of musicians to choose from is smaller, and they generally play at a lower level. Composers at BC, while they can learn the important lessons of keeping music simple and practical, do not have the chance to spread the wings creatively the way Harvard composers do. Nor is there much money around to fund larger projects.

    No one here will deny that a degree is a guarantor of nothing–not even of “connections”; it is, after all, where you finish, not where you start. Where you went to school becomes less important every year you spend out of school.

    But there’s no sense denying the substantive advantages schools like Harvard, Yale, and Juilliard offer through the depth of their talent and financial pools. And there’s no sense in letting well-intentioned political correctness blind us from the fact that, yes, composers entering these elite schools tend to have had more music education and thus tend to have better chops when they enter. The knowledge of my colleagues in Theory I at Harvard far outstripped that of my Theory I students at BC. I mean no disrespect: both were wonderful groups of human beings.

  45. david toub says:

    I was being succinct…I thought that was a virtue! ;-) My other comment would have been ‘WTF’ but I thought that would have been redundant.

    Do I need to refute your claim that Nancarrow and Zappa are in need of editing? Really? And I’m sorry, but you are who, exactly? How many rhythm canons have you composed in irrational ratios?

    I have nothing against blasphemy, but let’s be real—what exactly is overly long in anything Nancarrow ever wrote? Have you actually heard his stuff, Eric S or Eric L?

    Look, I may not be a fan of, say, Elliott Carter (talk about blasphemy; and in his centennial year, yet). But that’s a matter of my own personal preferences and taste. At no time would I ever state that Carter is in need of “editing” or even a refresher course on composition. That’s ridiculous. One might not like someone’s music, but to criticize Nancarrow’s skill or self-criticism capacity because he wasn’t trained in a conservatory is, well, bullshit.

    Now, I think Bernstein’s Third Symphony is overly long and in need of editing. And he was indeed trained at Hahvahd. Do I think that is reflective of academia? No—I think it is a reflection of Bernstein’s own choices when he wrote that piece. But it’s not a big deal and not worth bringing up, especially since overall, Bernstein wrote some great music. So why is it fair or reasonable to dismiss Nancarrow for lacking the personal musical interactions from academia that would have given him what you think is the necessary insight to criticize his own music accordingly?

  46. jamescombs says:

    “Look…I don’t completely disagree with either you or Eric S. But, to comment “bullshit” without anything else to back that up is…well…as you say, “bullshit.” – Eric

    Let me just add, not speaking for anyone, that its blasphemy to speak against Nancarrow. I reserve bringing him up for examples of great composition and craft.

  47. Eric Lin says:

    Hey David,

    Look…I don’t completely disagree with either you or Eric S. But, to comment “bullshit” without anything else to back that up is…well…as you say, “bullshit.”

  48. david toub says:

    Robert, you’re wasting your time. My condolences.

    Setting aside the question of talent, let’s not forget that the people who get into Juilliard, Harvard, Yale, etc., are generally more knowledgable and technically competent to begin with than those composers who do not, which stacks the deck from the get-go.

    Bullshit

    …it should be no surprise that figures like Nancarrow and Zappa should be loved and influential, but whose actual music could have seriously used some quality editing,…

    Also bullshit

    have you heard Adams’s work before Phrygian Gates or Glass’s Juilliard compositions? No, because they’ve been suppressed because they’re mostly terrible.

    See—that’s what happens when you attend a conservatory/university ;-)

    Lawrence, as usual, I think we’re in complete agreement. Sure, there are opportunities and networks that one has through music schooling that can be useful. But I also think the Web has become a good equalizer. The connections one can make through S21, NetNewMusic and even Twitter or FaceBook can indeed be helpful. None of my music would have been performed over the past few years otherwise. I’m currently writing a saxophone quartet for someone I have never met except online.

  49. Eric Shanfield says:

    Setting aside the question of talent, let’s not forget that the people who get into Juilliard, Harvard, Yale, etc., are generally more knowledgable and technically competent to begin with than those composers who do not, which stacks the deck from the get-go. Additionally, choice of college reveals composers’ predilections–it’s simplistic but not totally untrue that post-minimalists go to Yale, neo-romantics to Juilliard, eggheads to Harvard, eclectics to U Mich, nutbars who put trashcans in their pants to CalArts–and at their chosen school learn how better to do what they already know how to do.

    Now, at any school composers will be exposed to many kinds of music and people, so it’s not like they don’t have the opportunity to branch out, but social groups do tend to confirm prejudices, and there are prejudices galore in every academic community. Being an auto-didact may work for some, but auto-didacts don’t know what they’re missing, and often lack objective criteria to determine the worth of their own work; it should be no surprise that figures like Nancarrow and Zappa should be loved and influential, but whose actual music could have seriously used some quality editing, someone to say, “why this and not this?”, to pull them out of their own work’s ass, which is something that peers, a school or a teacher will do. I myself dropped out of MSM after barely a year, and I am certain my work and my ability to have my work performed suffered for it. On the other hand, I wonder if I’d be a better composer if I’d continued on that path: honestly, I don’t think so, although it’s hard to know.

    In the end, choice of school has an impact, but let’s not forget that thereafter comes the great equalizer, time: most composers do not break through until at least their thirties, by which time school is just a line on your resume; have you heard Adams’s work before Phrygian Gates or Glass’s Juilliard compositions? No, because they’ve been suppressed because they’re mostly terrible. They were smart enough to begin with to get into Harvard and Juilliard, but it’s what they did after college that made them who they are. Most of us are not Mozart or Ades, and it will take a while to combine any natural talent with learned ability and put them together with a group of competent performers able to represent your work well enough to communicate it to the world. While college can provide a jump-start, it is ultimately the composer who must make the connections and do the dirty work required to pull out of the pack.

    And if you don’t manage to, you may be a genius anyway, so keep working. Remember: Feldman never went anywhere and ended up a demigod in Buffalo, while Webern had an impeccable scholarly pedigree and was admired throughout Vienna for his musicological skills, but could never get a job, and died having never heard almost any of his pieces.

  50. jamescombs says:

    “such as having ones blog listed on the side bar here…..” – jamescombs

    oh wow, I just noticed I’m on the side bar. There goes that theory. I’ll be sure to link back. Thanks!

  51. Rodney Lister says:

    I think the issue is that you don’t have to go to a famous school with a big name to get a top-of-the-line musically education (which is not a thing to be in any way despised, incidentally)–nor, for that matter does going to one of those famous schools necessarily guarantee that you’ll get one. And in any case, neither is any sure fire indicator that you’ll be a good composer.

  52. re: Actually, I think a “top-of-the-line musical education” is a waste of time [david toub]

    Come on, calm down. You can’t possibly believe that studying at a top school where one receives buckets of first hand experience, advice, performance and recording opportunities, not to mention meeting a slew of interesting and intelligent people, is a wate of time.
    If so, I’m glad I’ve been wasting my time away over the past … six and half (yikes!) years.

    Good or bad composer, however, that’s another matter.

  53. jamescombs says:

    Correction, last paragraph, first sentence. good not better.

    So no, I don’t see why a small great music program couldn’t do just as good or better.

    But I agree that the “name” might help to schmooz into getting nice perks, such as having ones blog listed on the side bar here…..

  54. jamescombs says:

    It would be a pleasure to have the likes of a Morton Feldman or Kyle Gann teach me. Of course, it would be preferable if it weren’t such an expensive school. Wouldn’t want to get out with a house-sized debt.

    I was listening to London Notebook by Mozart, this particular work from age 5. Wasn’t bad. Perhaps there are preschools with great music programs ;)

    I definitely believe going to one of the above named colleges would help you become a better mainstream film composer since that is based on mimicking every known style, or at least most, to achieve an effect the director desires

  55. David,
    I don’t think you and I are in disagreement. The best thing about a great music school is the relationships one forms, which can lead to success on both levels – by which I mean that you find yourself interacting with people who challenge you, which can deepen your artistic vision, and you form relationships with people who will champion your work, which leads to performances. These relationships can be found in other ways, but music schools are the easiest place to find them.

    The relationships won’t make you a good composer – or a bad one, for that matter – but they aren’t negligible enhancements.

  56. david toub says:

    Actually, I think a “top-of-the-line musical education” is a waste of time and has nothing to do with writing good music or, to a lesser extent, “success” (whatever that means). Some of the crappiest music I’ve ever heard came from folks who had all the right credentials. And some of the best music I’ve ever heard came from composers who were either total autodidacts or had minimal instruction outside a conservatory or academic environment (eg, Partch, Feldman, Scelsi, Shapey). Yes, going to a conservatory or academic dept gives someone the appropriate credibility, but at a cost.

    I’d hate to think that those of us without such credentials, either from a “top-of-the-line institution” or any institution whatsoever, lack street cred on this site. So consider this my anti-elitist shit storm.

    I don’t care if someone went to Yale, Juilliard, Wesleyan or Bumblefuck State. Any institution presents the risk of parochialism, conforming to the status quo and playing it safe. Sure, I’m going to get a ton of responses reminding me that “this institution” and “that institution” encourages open-mindedness, experimentation, blah blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, the vast majority of conservatories and academic music depts foster conformity. The less time one spends in that sort of environment, the better. I don’t define “success” by how many commissions one gets or how many performances one gets in an academic institution. By that measure, a lot of academics’ music should be well known. But most of them are not.

  57. zeno says:

    Jerry, Cindy Cox has her Phd. from Indiana (I think) which I recall was once esteemed as highly musically (or almost as highly) as Juilliard, Harvard, or Yale. She is now an Associate Professor at the University of California – Berkeley (after some journeywoman teaching, I believe, at one of the Texas universities).

    I agree with you that Luke Dahn’s ‘Perumbrae’ is a very nice score, as are the two works by Cindy Cox that I have heard live.

    Let’s hope that the new era brings some ‘blind’ new music judging so that if one happened to go to Occidental or Columbia or Howard, one can still be evaluated fairly. (They actually played Oberlin and Cornell-trained Musical America’s 2009 Composer of the Year Christopher Rouse’s ‘Karolju’ on the local PBS public radio station, in prime time, last night.) [Also, two of the most brilliant Phd. development economists that I know went to the New College of Florida and the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.]

    (This is not to say that I don’t personally believe that John Adams, Marin Alsop, Peter Sellars, Phillip Glass, and Alex Ross , among others, have been aided by their
    Juilliard, Harvard, and Yale pedigrees. And David Robertson was probably aided in his conducting career by heading off to London to the Royal Academy fairly early on.)

    *

    Best holiday wishes to all reading today or tomorrow!

  58. Christian says:

    I think excellent training can happen in many different venues. Equally important is what you do with the training you’ve received.

    Lawrence is right, certain schools are door-openers from a career perspective.

    But in the long run, having craft, knowledge, perspective, and vision are what a composer needs.

    Many different educational experiences can help foster these.

    Merry to all.

  59. Jerry, I think you have to distinguish between being good and being successful. Going to a recognized music program won’t necessarily make you a better composer, but it will open up more opportunities for success.

  60.