Archive for April, 2012

Yesterday was the last day of classes.  Exams next week, then commencement.

We have five composers graduating this year.  Three are going on to further studies at other institutions – Cleveland Institute of Music, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and University of Kansas – and the other two are going the free-lance composer route.

A lot is being made of the choices composers have coming out of school these days, with some coming down vehemently against the pursuit of graduate studies.  It’s a healthy change from days of yore, when the options were graduate school or the end of composition as a pursuit.

I’m a big fan of avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach.  All composers have to find their own paths, and the perfect path for one can be a dead end for another.

Here are some problems with continuing studies in composition:

  • Debt – without good financial aid, a composer can accumulate a lot of debt paying tuition and expenses.
  • Academic pressures – some graduate environments feature heavy academic requirements that can take a double toll: they can take time away from composing, and they can skew your perspective on what really matters to you as a composer.
  • Sheltered environments – some programs feed on themselves and avoid exposing their students to any outside influences.  Their students can end up with unviable notions of how the rest of the world operates.
  • Job market – if your primary reason for going to grad school is to get a teaching job, it’s important to realize that there are far fewer jobs than there are graduates.  Of course, that’s true for a lot of professions these days.  Keep in mind that there is a funnel shape in operation: every grad department has a few openings each year, with far more applicants than there are available slots.  Very different, narrower scenario in the job market: an institution has one job opening, many applicants, then the position is filled for, like, 35 years.

Since I’m hearing such a clamor against graduate school, though, I want to offer a few reasons why it can be a good option.

  • Social construct – some people are more aggressive socially than others.  For those who tend to be more passive, school can offer an environment where you are constantly bumping into like-minded people, where you can have conversations about things that are of mutual interest – art, politics, whatever.  You are with people who have followed a path to the same destination, and often for similar reasons.  Online relationships offer some similar opportunities – but they are not the same as “hanging out” together.
  • Structured composition – the academic year can impose an annual rhythm that encourages completing projects in a timely manner.  That’s not a good thing for everyone all the time, but it is a good thing for some people some of the time, especially at early stages in their compositional growth.
  • Higher learning – I know, I know, we are deep in a period of our societal development in which it has become necessary to harp on the evils of higher education, when it has become important to celebrate the accomplishments of the do-it-yourselfers.  I understand this, and I don’t have an argument with it.  However, there are still myriad corners of higher education where wonderful people are delving into fascinating subjects in a way that isn’t possible in any other environment.  That kind of detailed study is still worth celebrating.
  • Teaching jobs – sure, there are fewer than in the past, but if it’s something you really want to do, getting a graduate degree is the way to get from here to there.
  • Mentors – some teachers take a deep and abiding interest in their students’ art and professional well-being, which can be an invaluable boost for a young composer.
  • Easier now than later – I’ve known many, many people who have left the academic world for a number of years, then felt like there was something worth returning for, but found that they were too far removed from earlier studies and their earlier selves to get their bearings and continue.  There are exceptions – people who have successfully returned to school after a number of years away – but it’s harder than it might appear.
  • Experimentation – some grad programs offer a safe environment in which to experiment with your art form, which – done correctly – can be a very healthy process.

To repeat, I’m glad there are more options than in the past.  As teachers, we have to be sensitive to the individual directions of our students, and help them achieve their goals.  That’s why I point with pride to the five students we have graduating this year – 3 continuing their educations, 2 stepping directly into the profession – all of them making the right choices for their particular circumstances.  Bottom line: listen to advice, but listen mostly to yourself, and do the thing you need to do.

It’s been 27 years since I graduated for the last time.  I’ve seen a lot of composers since then take a lot of different paths.  Some have been bitterly disappointed by the results; some have thrived.  It doesn’t seem to be a simple matter of taking the right path – whichever way you go, results are mostly determined by talent, attitude, relentless work, capital, making good connections and a fair amount of luck.

By the way, where did the dichotomy I often hear about between “academic world” and “real world” come from?  Is “real” the same as “commercial”?  That would be a bit disturbing, on so many levels.


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There are a lot of things one can complain about when it comes to getting older, and I’m not about to dismiss their significance.  But there are some undeniable perks.

A student of mine was rehearsing a new piece recently.  The music was written in an excruciatingly slow tempo: 1/8th = 55.  She had deliberately chosen this tempo in an effort to get at an extreme sense of the passage – or non-passage — of time.

The ensemble rehearsing the piece was made up of musicians roughly twice the composer’s age.  They bristled at the unfamiliar tempo, assuming that the composer, who is actually quite sophisticated, was ignorant of basic musical protocols.   My student patiently explained what she was after but, despite her best efforts, was unable to get the musicians on her side.  They made a couple of attempts, but never really got close to getting the tempo and the affect that was indicated.  If they had, they might have discovered that there was more to the piece than they realized.

Was age a factor?  I can’t help but feel that these same performers would have been more willing to dive into the piece if it had come from an older composer.  Some level of deference would have been in order.

The older I get, the more I find myself working with, not surprisingly, musicians who are younger than I am.  I welcome the change.  I’ve learned a thing of two from older colleagues over the years – not nearly as much as I’d like, to be sure, but enough to give me a good head of steam – so now it’s great to get into rehearsal with younger players, explain what I’m looking for and immediately get it, no questions asked.

In fact, I hate to admit it (because it’s more fun to complain), but it feels like I’m at an ideal point these days.  I still have a ton of more experienced musicians I can look up to, but I’ve also amassed enough mileage that there are a lot of gifted young musicians who look up to me.

So for any younger musicians out there who are afraid of ossifying when they get into their 50s: be afraid, be very afraid – ossification is definitely something to guard against.

But know also that there is a great deal to enjoy in the ride.

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When I’m getting started on a new piece or a new passage, I frequently let my imagination wander unedited, just putting down ideas with as few preconceptions as possible.  Then I look at what I’ve done with an analytical ear, trying to find patterns I can develop into larger musical gestures.

That second stage of analysis and development is crucial, but it’s also dangerously addictive.  Too many times I’ve found patterns that generate attractive music and fallen prey to the seduction of system.  I’m never happy with the results.  Systems have the power to make me forget that I never want to be smarter than my music.  I always want to find new relationships and connections I hadn’t imagined were there, as opposed to laying down processes that get me predictable results.

But what fun it can be to plug in a process you know will get interesting results and sit back while it does the work for you!

Reminds me of Vonnegut’s youthful novel Player Piano, in which a machine-run dystopia has made human life meaningless.  Much of the plot revolves around the organization of a rebellion, culminating in the destruction of all machines.  At the conclusion, though, a crowd gathers around a mechanic who is attempting to fix a smashed soda dispenser.  When a coin finally gets an aluminum can to plunk down, the crowd cheers, and the cycle of mechanization begins again.

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One of the ongoing challenges facing a composer is how to get from idea A to idea B.  Some composers give a great deal of thought to this question – in fact, it’s fair to say that, for some composers, getting from A to B is the most interesting part of composing.  For other composers, getting from A to B is of so little interest that they feel perfectly comfortable ignoring the question completely.  Their preferred method of getting from A to B is to stop doing A and start doing B with exactly zero fuss.

The result – an abrupt change in direction – fascinates me.  But, to be fair, it is only one of many things that fascinate me: I can’t imagine ignoring all the other possibilities.

Transitions are, for me, one of the most challenging things about life outside of music.  Starting a new relationship, moving to a new home, losing a loved one – these shifts in life’s reliable patterns tax me to my core, and of course I am not alone in feeling that way. The temptation to ignore life’s transitions is powerful, but they cannot be willed away.

In the same manner, directional shifts in music can be unmooring, disturbing, disorienting.  I like the fact that I have so many expressive variants at my disposal.  Sometimes the rug needs to be jerked out from under the feet; sometimes a gentle embrace is more appropriate.  Whatever the choice, life and art inform one another, learn from one another.

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Our composition students have a recording session coming up with Forecast New Music Ensemble on Saturday.  Here’s the lineup:

  • Kenneth Florence – Fugue
  • Michael Anderson – Greenway
  • Noah Ferguson – Begin DST
  • Zachary Polozune – Virus
  • Alicia Willard – The Sun Also Dies
  • Ted Oliver – Andante and Allegro
  • Bruce Tippette – Evening Glimmer

It’s another group of works demonstrating that there is no house style here – composers write the music they need to write.  We just provide guidance and opportunities.


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In my career as a composer – and yes, the word “career” is less than ideal – I’ve come into contact with a wide range of new music communities.  One of the challenges in my career has been the fact that I haven’t settled comfortably into any of them; instead, I’ve drifted through and around them.

Every community provides its citizens with a sense of belonging, as well as a system of mutual support.  Composers embedded in a close-knit community reap the benefits of membership: performances, grants, commissions, promotion, camaraderie.  Some communities are more exclusive than others, but 100% inclusivity is seldom possible.  When I interact with an unfamiliar community, I usually get a cordial response, but the lines of separation, though never visible, are always tangible.

New music communities inevitably see themselves as benevolent entities, and often see one another as fenced-in properties, greedily protecting greener resources from outsiders.  It’s a perfectly understandable point of view, one that has been noted countless times before.  Human nature, that occasionally transcendable force, inhibits us from properly valuing what we have.  I’m no exception, I’m sure.

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