Every composer has to find hisorher own artistic path.

There are well-worn paths to follow: the orchestral track, opera, etc.  Then there are trails that need some blazing before they will lead anywhere.

I was a guest composer at two outstanding music schools last week: SUNY Stony Brook and Curtis.  On the surface, the two environments were very different.  But scratch underneath, and the same curiosities, the same passions were at work.

At Stony Brook, I was greeted by a cup of green tea and a couple of students discussing the merits of Arnold Schoenberg.  I was happy to see the familiar face of Phil Salathe, a doctoral student I worked with this past summer at Wintergreen.  We gathered in a library conference room, sitting around a large table with an impressive array of technological tools at hand.  Professors Sheila Silver and Perry Goldstein made me feel very welcome, and the dozen or so students had lovely insights and comments.  Much to my relief, I handled the Power Point and track cuing without any serious disasters.

The next day, at Curtis, Dean Mangan himself, a former theory student of mine, ushered me to the seminar room.  There I was met by David Ludwig, who made sure I was appropriately settled before rushing off to teach a Bartók class.  He explained that the faculty (Richard Danielpour and Jennifer Higdon) preferred to let the students meet with guests on their own, so as not to intrude on the interaction.  Turned out I was the first in a marathon of seminars: two hours of me, followed by two hours of Danielpour, then two hours of Lalo Schifrin, all in the space of less than a day.  I asked the students when they had time to compose, and they laughed – old story: we never have as much time as we’d like.

In both classes, I brought up the issue of artistic responsibility.  It seemed to have been something all of the students had given some thought to, which was very encouraging.  I hope I gave them some worthwhile things to think about, in addition to a couple of practical tips.  Our music says a lot, sometimes more than we realize, about the world we inhabit and the world we imagine.  We can’t simply focus on how we say things – we have to care about what we say.

Aligning career path with artistic sensibilities is one of many challenges all composers face.  On the one hand, you have to be ready to walk through the doors that are open to you.  At the same time, you also have to have the inner fire necessary to kick down a door or two that nobody else has noticed.

No way to know where any of the students in these two classes will end up.  From the questions and comments I heard, though, they are off to a good start — and getting the right kind of guidance.

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