“Academic Music” – What’s that?

Over at the Composer Forum, there’s been a discussion of the ‘pressures’ placed on composers to ‘toe the line’ stylistically in academia. Along the way, a couple of posters have raised the issue of ‘composing for the academy’ and, even more alarmingly, the idea that a teaching position is an easy career destination for composers. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the posts, but I think that the aforementioned opinions may be hopelessly chimerical.


As always, my compadre Ken Ueno has a ready retort in the form of a creative work. He sent me a video this AM:

His notion of academic music: music that takes place in the classroom! (great activity, BTW)

Let’s unpack this further. Here are a few composers who currently have academic careers:

William Duckworth
Kyle Gann
Jennifer Higdon
John Corigliano
Brian Ferneyhough
Bright Sheng
Judith Shatin

Pretty stylistically diverse, huh? Based on the above, it’s hard to assert that one can generalize ‘academic music.’ The lesson I take from this is to compose what you want to compose. Life’s too short for any other, less authentic, approach.


However, in terms of getting teaching work, there are a LOT of other things a composer must be doing in addition to composing persuasively. Publishing in a scholarly area (theory or musicology), conducting or otherwise performing, distributing your music and obtaining performances, winning grants/commissions/competitions, service to the profession and to your local community, belonging to a scholarly organization and attending/presenting at its conferences, developing a network of musicians – peers and mentors – with whom to discuss and develop your career goals, maintaining an excellent job packet, keeping your references in the loop about your activities, and, of course, working to become an outstanding teacher.

Once you get a job, you’ll need to do all of this and still more: committee work, student advisement, applying for promotion and (if your institution has a tenure process) tenure, and attending plenty of meetings, trainings, campus events, student recitals, and concerts. If you’re in my situation, that of a contingent faculty member, you’ll also need to remain on the job market until someone offers you a long term position. All the while, you will need to find time to compose!

I say this not as a complaint – I love having the opportunity to teach at my institution – but as a bit of a reality check about the requirements of the profession. The notion that being an academic is some cushy gig and an easy way out for those who don’t write film music or pop would be laughable – there are often hundreds of applicants for an announced vacancy in theory/composition – if it weren’t so pervasive.

Emerging composers need to be encouraged to find the career path that’s right for them, based on their own particular set of talents and their professional goals. What they don’t need are sugar-coated stories that suggest to them that finding employment as a teacher is a “safety net.” It does them no good and the academic profession no favors.

Particularly in these lean economic times, teaching isn’t a refuge for composers. It is a career and calling to which one should be strongly committed.


Update: Attention job-seekers – David Rakowski’s blog has an article with excellent advice for composers who are seeking an academic position. Thanks Davy!

20 thoughts on ““Academic Music” – What’s that?

  1. I’d go so far as to say that being an “academic composer” in the old-school sense (isn’t the moniker really just shorthand for composers in the style of Babbitt or Wuorinen?) is a hindrance to achieving all that you mention above. Proof or refutation could be found (by someone with more time than I) by surveying the stylistic range of those who have been newly hired in the past several years. Those names could be found in the academic jobs wiki.

  2. We have a couple of comments over at Facebook too:

    Armando Bayolo said, “Well, as someone with an actual academic job too, albeit an adjunct one (which, except for the money, may be the ideal way to be an academic composer), I really ought not to complain. I just see so many young composers being swallowed and stifled by academic gigs whereas I’ve found, ironically, that my lack of a TT gig has forced and allowed me to create opportunities for myself and pursue a fulfilling career as a composer and develop a language that is not beholden to the academy. (The academic careers of at least two of the composers on your list, BTW, consist of teaching one or two classes. As I understand it, Higdon herself may still be a part timer at Curtis, if she’s still teaching at all.)

    Now, Ken. Well, we both know he’s just a weirdo. ;-) (I love that guy!)”

    Ken Ueno responded,”Hi Armando! You know that I’m a big fan of yours and everything you’ve done. I do, however, take issue with your stipulation that academia pressures one to compose in a particular style. Whether one be in academia or not, one should just write music that is honest to oneself! There are pressures to write in certain ways, certain styles outside of academia as well. I, for one, have found that being in academia has provided me with the freedom to compose whatever I want – and the support I have received from my academic institutions for my creative output has helped make many of my projects possible. Academia has helped me take artistic risks. Having time to compose is always a challenge. Aren’t there also many other life choices which put other demands on our composing time, though? By saying all of this, I am by no means saying that academia is for everybody (I have certainly encouraged many students to seek alternate means of sustenance – especially when what they really want to do is play in rock bands). Nowadays, one needs to find unique solutions to balance artistic needs with being able to have a roof over one’s head.”

    To which we have Armando’s rejoinder,”Ken, you certainly have a point and I am generalizing, of course. Every composer is different and every institution is different. My own path has kept me away from a stable, full time academic position where I can get the level of support I received in my two visiting professorships in the 00′s (at Reed and Hamilton Colleges). At the same time, while the level of support is VERY different as an adjunct, I have found a great support network at Peabody among my fellow faculty, administrators and students. Like you, though, I don’t think academia is for everyone and this is a lesson I don’t think I would’ve learned had I gone directly from my doctorate program into a TT position, which would’ve likely, knowing myself, led me to settle into a complacent routine. I see it a lot with younger composers and it’s something that I’ve talked about with some of my colleagues at Peabody as well.

    Todd succinctly expresses the kind of thing I’m thinking about (although the stylistic vein I’m picturing is not necessarily limited to Babbit and Wuorinen, and I also do not want this to stand as a comment on their music or reputations, which are deservedly important). The world, and the expectations of what it is to be a composer of “classical” music,, have changed a great deal since the three of us were at Aspen together, let alone since we were all undergraduates. I find, however, that many academic institutions are still presenting the options for the profession as being the same as what OUR teachers faced decades ago. Hopefully this perception will change as teachers embodying new attitudes rise among academic ranks. We’ll see.

    Thanks for pushing me to clarify my thoughts on this (if I have, indeed, clarified them). I’m not always certain I’m saying precisely what I mean to say when I let my passions get the best of me.”

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  4. I think the whole idea of an “academic” composer is an old and mostly defunct one. And it presupposes that 1) there is a unified way of thinking in the American School System and 2) that there is a unified way of thinking within each individual school. Granted, getting jobs might require a certain agreement amongst the faculty, and therefore single schools can be the place where a certain strand of thought emerges–I’m thinking of the time I spent judging the Morton Gould competition at ASCAP, and you could certainly quickly distinguish ideas coming out of, say, Stanford and those coming out of, say, Princeton–but I think this is due to a kind of student gravitating to a specific teacher. But imagine, if you’d like to go to school in America, you could study with Brian Ferneyhough, Bernard Rands, William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Tristan Muriail, Steve Mackey, Martin Bresnick, or Steven Stucky (and I just use these names as specific examples from a wide range of the “top” places), and if that list doesn’t represent a kind of diversity of style, I’m not sure what does.

    I think what this points to is that the word “academic” is loaded now. To many, it means a kind of soulless irrelevance, a kind of de-facto insult. But the idea of teaching is and should be separate from the idea of “being an academic” which of course is indeed something that happens–there are composers out there who do think narrowly on a party line and encourage their students to do same–but it is not the fault of the admittedly flawed system so much as it is an individual thing.

    Spoken, of course, as an adjunct who’s never looked for tenure.

  5. Christian -

    Congratulations on another wonderful column on a very serious issue.

    As a composer who’s gainfully employed by a major university, I must assert that my day job allows me freedom to compose what I want (when I want, for whom I want) without pressure.

    Every day, I thank my lucky starts that I’m not beholden to the pressures of the marketplace. Odd that we rarely seem to worry about the urge to please traditional audiences in the way that we worry about academia (and, yes, I do intend to write my thoughts on that issue soon over at that other new music website).

    - David

  6. Yes. Smooke clears the air. The idea that certain styles of music are forced on composers by “academia” has become some sort of urban myth. Philistines insist that music they don’t understand must be the result of some kind of conspiracy.

    If you are a STUDENT you certainly may be required to demonstrate the ability to compose in a number of styles but those are exercises and can hardly by called infringements on one’s artistic freedom.

    Far more dangerous is the temptation to become an audience-whore. To have the Rautavaara-Part procedure done (a kind of musical lobotomy). If you write what you think your audience wants to hear then, as Xenakis put it, you “go pop”. If you do this cleverly, say all the right things, make all the right networking moves, and are VERY lucky, you might make a “name” and get to jet-set around with Salonen and his pals but you will not be long- or well-remembered. “Ars longa”.

    Further the art. Follow your Muse and nobody else. Actually all this advice doesn’t matter. If you’re a real artist you will have no choice. If you’re not, then in the long run you simply don’t matter.


  7. Danny Felsenfeld writes: I think what this points to is that the word “academic” is loaded now. To many, it means a kind of soulless irrelevance, a kind of de-facto insult. But the idea of teaching is and should be separate from the idea of “being an academic” which of course is indeed something that happens–there are composers out there who do think narrowly on a party line and encourage their students to do same–but it is not the fault of the admittedly flawed system so much as it is an individual thing.

    And that’s precisely what I had in mind in my various rants in the first place. I don’t want to be seen as belittling the need, advantages and necessity for musical education and variety in the academy, but it is that narrowminded toeing of the party line that is evident here and there still, that I think of when I berate the “academy.”

  8. So many good things have already been said…and all on point. I do think that so much of it has to do with the individual situations at hand – if a student has ended up at an institution where the teaching styles or the tastes of his or her colleagues do not mesh well, then that can lead to the sense of being stifled or other similar negative feelings. I took over the entire composition program at SUNY Fredonia three years ago and I’ve had my fair share of students who disagreed with my teaching style, curriculum choices, and expectations – it took everyone a while to get used to the amount of music I was expecting each semester and the inclusion of deadlines – but there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve happily helped students find other schools that were more in line with their own needs, and I still have a fairly thriving studio that will hopefully provide choice opportunities to students who feel comfortable here.

    As far as the moniker “academic”…personally I just think of that as describing music that sounds like an exercise/assignment/project/etc. If the work has musical value, the fact that it was written in someone’s apartment when they got home from their day gig for a commission that might help them pay their rent or in their office on campus when they found some time away from students, committees, administrators and colleagues for a commission that might help them get tenure means absolutely zilch.

  9. I would like to offer the following definition of “academic” music:

    Academic music is music written for performance forces primarily available in the “academy” and, usually, nowhere else.

    For instance, 8-channel surround sound is an “academic” medium as most people at home have 5.1 surround sound. Clarinet choirs, tuba/euphonium ensemble, double-reed band, cello orchestra, etc are wonderful training grounds for young musicians yet find very little performance opportunities or venues outside the academy. Music written for these kinds of groups are, necessarily, “academic” in the sense that only those in the academy will ever see, hear, or perform these works. This is NOT a comment on stylistic or aesthetic content but rather an observation of where these performances happen.

    I might further the definition, possibly too far, by stating that any solo piano work with extended technique inside the piano would fall into this category as well. Again, I cite this because the academy is where this kind of performance happens and not due to any artistic content.

    You may now commence my public stoning.

  10. Daniel,

    Thanks for your post. It’s amusing to me that you cite ‘inside the piano’ work. I’ve just started a commission for a theatre company. The medium – prepared piano! Is it that you can’t take the academy out of the fellow or that you shouldn’t let the fellow out of the academy. ;)


  11. Yeah, Dan, I’m not sure I’m with you on this. The venue of the performance doesn’t matter to me, but, like Rob and Danny have pointed out, it’s a certain style/approach that we’re thinking about. Music that sounds like an exercise, or that sounds like the composer is going through a checklist of things that will appeal to other composers/theorists, etc.

    As far as ensembles and venues go, the academy serves a purpose similar to what the church and courts used to until the early 19th century: they provide support and livelihood for musicians while allowing them a modicum of freedom (depending on what the teaching load expectations might be). I don’t consider myself an academic composer, but I’ve accepted performances and commissions from academic groups, and my own group has benefited a lot from the generosity of the Catholic University of America and its composition department, and our residence there.

    But, I think, if nothing else, we’re demonstrating the nebulousness of these definitions. (And as Paula points out, no one complains about the marketplace and its needs and what that does to certain composers, named or not.)

  12. Armando,

    When you say “music that sounds like an exercise, or that sounds like the composer is going through a checklist of things that will appeal to other composers/theorists, etc.” I see a straw man being built. Exactly who determines what music fits this bill? Other than student pieces, I’d be hard-pressed to find a single composer who thinks that they are writing via checklist and in order to appeal to an audience of theorists.

    On the other side of the equation, however, I have seen a great many students who try to ingratiate themselves to the lowest-common denominator. And many career composers who continue to do the same (somewhat rare to find those in concert music since they can actually make money in film scoring and the like, but still, if you’re can construct straw men then I will build an army of homunculi).

    Can we just agree that, to you, academic music is music that you don’t like? Fair enough, but it’s probably also music that I like.

    Best (as always),

  13. I know the music that you like, David, and I like a lot of it. I don’t know that I want to name names online, nor that I really could. But you are right about one thing: it all comes down to taste.

    So…where does that leave us and this discussion?

  14. It seems to me that there may be several straw men. One discussion I recently had in the minimalism class is, I think, on point. Kyle Gann routinely vilifies Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Carter in _Music Downtown_. He so often talks about them as if they are a ‘modernist mafia,’ that the students asked if I thought he was right. They noted that I’ve studied with two of the aforementioned and did my dissertation on the third. Yet I assigned the Gann book as a text in the course. I pointed out that one doesn’t have to agree with everything that an author says in order to feel that they are an important scholar who is worthy of attention and consideration.

    My response to the ‘modernist mafia’ question was this: Certain minimal and post-minimal composers doubtless have been criticized and marginalized at times in their careers by their modernist counterparts. But on the grand scale Gann seems to allege, the ‘evil modernist hypothesis’ just doesn’t hold water. As Joe Straus points out in _12-Tone Music in America_, there was never a time in American history where 12-tone composers were even 10% of the music on classical concert programs. The notion of a hegemony is greatly overstated.

    Are there ‘evil modernists’ out there? By evil, I mean teachers who expect their students to adhere to a polemicized version of musical discourse. Sure, but are there ‘evil minimalists,’ ‘evil totalists,’ and ‘evil tonalists’ out there too? I’m sure that there are.

    Unfortunately, the currently ghettoized nature of new music means that we have several pockets of influence and stylistic agendas afoot in various institutions. In large programs, oftentimes more than one!

    One of the challenges for students – finding their own identity as a composer – is only made more difficult when teachers impose their viewpoint and, worse, their compositional fingerprints. This isn’t instruction: it’s proselytizing. When I studied with Lukas Foss, he frequently said that his goal was to ‘make students sound more like themselves.’ He didn’t coin the phrase, but he certainly lived it. I think that the whole notion of academic music we’ve been discussing is intricately interwoven into these questions of power, authority, and stylistic partisanship. We aren’t the only area in the academy which wages internecine wars over subtleties in an increasingly imperiled discipline, but we’re one of the most proficient.

  15. First, I want to say how much I agree with Paula and I’ve enjoyed this discussion.
    Returning to “academic music.” I’ll suggest that “academic music” is a pejorative term coined by those whose music, by necessity, sought its legitimacy and monetary support from outside the academy, where it was presumed that composers wrote music that had no connection to an audience beyond specialists. (On a side (money) note: that documentary about Phil Glass pointed out to me two things: 1) you could get an apartment in Soho for $40/month in the late 60s and 2) Glass paid his rent with a family share in a parking lot in Baltimore)
    I think “academic music” was and is a straw man and a particularly throwback straw man. Straus’ article “The Myth of Serial Tyranny” is useful reading, as well as the alternate opinion in an unpublished paper on John Halle’s website. Historically I think it relates to the expansion of music departments in the 60s and 70s. As Joseph Kerman points out in his book “Contemplating Music”, the 1960s and 1970s saw an enormous increase in music departments, especially composition and theory departments, in university settings. As Christian says, and it is still true, being a teacher at the university level requires the composer to be involved in things beyond composing: theory, administration and the like; theory articles are easiest written about works that are easy to tear apart. Over time, through discussion, writing, citation, etc this builds upon itself – particularly in a period when this is blossoming (read 1950-1970). When these “academic” guys were hired, there were others who through age or not being a part of the club were not hired – these were the “non-academic” composers. Why we still use these old terms is baffling. The scene is so much more balkanized now.
    I also agree with Ken – being part of an academy gives the composer a certain legitimacy, freedom and, for lack of a better word, support that can’t be found on the outside, particularly for those of us who write thorny music. In my own experience, I could always count that even the most difficult of my pieces would be played at least once when I was in the academy. Since then, pieces I’ve written outside of the academy that are equally difficult (or easier) have a much harder time getting out of my drawer.

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  17. In response to the question: Is there an “academic style” or “academic aesthetic?”

    I know I’ve used that phrase colloquially among colleagues but, as mentioned before, the definition ends up in a murky gray area. Methinks, perhaps, we all have our own pet list of “academic” works we like to trot out for such arguments. Would it be too much for me to suggest we compile a list on here that, once exposed publicly to the light of day, can help steer us all in the same general direction?

    As one other thought, I’ve had this same discussion with composers but used the phrase “contest pieces.” In many respects there seems to be a lot of similarity in usage between “academic work” and “contest piece.” Any thoughts?

  18. The war is over! It’s been over for many years, in fact. There was a time, several generations ago, when Uptown and Downtown composers bashed each other. From our current historical vantage point, however, we see that modernist, minimalists, academic, and non-academic composers have all won. And lost. They won, as they are all historical facts. And composers of my generation have been influenced by all of their musics. They all lost, in a sense, as however much we continue of make light of our musical differences, we are all (no matter what style we write or how successful we are) functionally avant-garde. We are all fighting for a modicum of social relevancy. (Even John Adams, our most prominent composer, once told me that, compared to Madonna, he felt socially marginal!) There are those who made their mark by fighting the old wars, and, since they are so invested in the old wars, they continue to perpetuate those conflicts. Alas, the disease of validating one’s work by invalidating others’ continues. There is no music that is more heroic to compose than any other. Composing music is devastatingly difficult for everybody. How can we ever presume what anybody else’s real motivations are in composing the music that they do? The world cannot be reduced to the best of all possible worlds, nor the worst of all possible worlds. What remains, in this post-stylistic (to borrow a term from John Adams) world, as it has always been, is for us all to tend to our own gardens. Shall we all agree now to let the label “Academic Music” rest in peace, and return to our own private studios and work?

  19. Ken, bravo! Holy cow that was a great summation!

    I do have some questions, though: don’t we have a responsibility not just to tend our own gardens but to fight for the social relevancy that we have lost? (Did we ever really have that relevancy, or did we lose it sometime at the turn of the 20th century?) When future generations (provided we survive as a species longer than another century) look back at our culture, will they ONLY see the Maddonnas and the Lady Gagas and other such “culturally relevant” (i.e. financially succesful) musicians? If so, what will they think of our society and its values (I suppose that depends on THEIR society and THEIR values)? And, is that a bad thing?

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