[Ed. note -- please welcome a new contributor to S21, composer Joseph Dangerfield.  As a Fulbright Scholar, Joe spent time at both the Moscow Conservatory and Maastricht Conservatorium, and is currently Assistant Professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.]

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The act of composition, by which I mean the act of artistic creation, is, in reality, very private.  We all have private thoughts and ideas, some of which we share with others; some we keep to ourselves.  During the conception of those ideas, do we share our train of thought with others?  I would say, not typically.  So, why was I worrying about what an audience might think of a piece that I had not yet written?  Upon careful reflection of the question, my answer astounded me: I considered the audience in the early stages of my work because the academic environment in which I was typically surrounded virtually demanded it.  In other words, I felt the subconscious need to “please” the local academy with my work, for various reasons.  While lecturing and composing on a Fulbright Grant in Europe (2009-10), I felt no need to consider the academy, the audience, even in a peripheral sense, or anyone else.  I was able to focus on my musical and artistic intentions, and compose while thinking only of myself and the performers for whom I was writing.  The end result was a piece that I am very proud of, which received an exceptional performance, and an outstanding response from the audience.

While abroad, I also did a lot of reading, which I normally cannot find the time to do in the typical academic year. However, the most engaging book I encountered this year was Glenn Watkins’, The Gesualdo Hex.  One of the passages that I found particularly enlightening, with regard to my current quandary, was about composers and serialism, and how the discussion about the merits of such a doctrinaire system ensued during the 1950′s and 60′s.

Watkins begins by stating that Schoenberg, after the period of composition for which he was strictly “serial,” became less interested in allowing the system to control what he wrote, referencing Schoenberg’s late style, and his lengthy correspondence with Leibowitz.[1] The communications between them are quite telling, and give an excellent insight into Schoenberg and his music.  Watkins further provides evidence that Boulez was only interested in strict serialism for approximately two years (1950-52), following which he warned composers against such ” arithmetic masturbation.”[2] Berio eventually also agreed with this statement saying that serialism lead to a “tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance.”[3] Watkins goes on to state that according to William Bolcom, “Milton Babbitt’s scientism in the United States came from a different perspective that ultimately congealed in the university composer, who was challenged to provide an intellectual cachet to match that of engineering, philosophy, or science departments.” Watkins further quotes Bolcom: “Composition had to become ‘intellectually respectable’…and serialism felt like science.”[4] Watkins concludes by providing other examples of composers who went through a window of system-controlled composition to find their unique voice.  One element that appears to be consistent is that each composer at one point determined that a system was not a replacement for artistic creativity, rather it was one useful tool that could be changed and manipulated to meet one’s artistic needs.

Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between Watkins’ statements and the internal debate that I was having, which led me to the following questions:

1)    Are we as composers, today, pressured to write in a particular way or ‘style’ that is perpetuated by the academy, our teachers, or even the audience?

2)    If so, how do we overcome the pressure, use what we find relevant, and set out to create an art that is uniquely our own?

Now before you say: “Yes, yes, Joe.  We are well aware that serialism can be arithmetically stifling,” I want to point out that the most interesting part of my current conundrum is that the pressure that I feel at home is not to write music of the so-called avant-garde, which I like, but to write more conservative music.  At the college where I am currently an assistant professor, concerts of contemporary music receive an audience of maybe twenty; most of them begrudging students that are there to meet specific course requirements.  I am told that is because it is a “conservative community,” and no one is interested in and/or understands new music.  That statement concerns me as an educator; others are willing to simply allow that moniker to be the reason for not trying to expand the community’s understanding of ‘music as art.’  For instance, while living in Cologne, Germany last year, I worked with German composer/conductor Robert H.P. Platz, a protégé of Karlheinz Stockhausen.  The city of Cologne is a beacon for contemporary music.  There are concerts presented daily, and usually, to full halls.  Robert and I had several discussions about music, modernity, and how fortunate he was to reside in such a place.  He told me that “Cologne was not always a center for new music – It is so now due to the forty years that Stockhausen worked to educate the public.  He also invited innumerable composers to Cologne for concerts, thereby exposing everyone to a variety of new music.  Now there is a network in Cologne that is sustainable.” 

I had a similar experience working at the Moscow Conservatory with Ukrainian-born Russian composer Vladimir Tarnopolski and the Ensemble Studio New Music.  Tarnopolski, now a professor of composition at the conservatory, was once a student of Edison Denisov.  After Denisov’s departure from Moscow to Paris, due to the stifling atmosphere created by the totalitarian regime, Tarnopolski worked tirelessly to bring contemporary music to the forefront of the Russian consciousness; A difficult task following the Soviet era.  In 1989, he initiated the Association of Contemporary Music in Moscow.  In 1993, he formed the Centre for Contemporary Music in Moscow, and its premiere ensemble, the Ensemble Studio New Music.  The conservatory even created a special department to house the centre and the ensemble.  In 1994 Tarnopolski began an annual festival of international music called the Moscow Forum, the main focus of which is the integration of Eastern European contemporary music with contemporary music from Western countries.  What began as a single-minded effort is now a tireless force.  The Centre, its ensemble, and the festival all enjoy enormous success, and perform works by some of today’s most interesting and vibrant composers.

Now that I am back in America, I have renewed hope and vigor, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, which I believe I allowed to wane over the past few years.  A colleague and I have formed a new ensemble, called ensemble: Périphérie, whose mission is to promote contemporary music by presenting stimulating and inspiring concerts of new chamber works, by commissioning new works from both emerging and established composers, and by inviting audiences to join us in recognizing great art of our time. One of the primary goals of ensemble: Périphérie is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected–that is, music that lies on the periphery.  Our hope is, that with time and effort, we will be able to help bring contemporary music to the forefront of American culture, in the same way that contemporary art has enjoyed prominence here. 

for more information about ensemble: Périphérie, please visit our website: http://www.ensembleperipherie.com/Index.htm  for more information on Joseph Dangerfield, please visit: http://www.josephdangerfield.com/index3.html or his blog: http://domainemusical.wordpress.com/

[1] Glenn Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125-128.

[2] Michael Hicks, “Exorcism and Epiphany: Luciano Berio’s Nones,” Perspectives of New Music 27 (1989): 254.

[3] Luciano Berio, “Meditation on a Twelve-Tone Horse,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 July 1968.

[4] Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125.

13 Responses to “Academic Pressures and Their Effect on Artistic Decisions”
  1. Joe, (weren’t we at Aspen together in 1998?) I think the problem is academia. Academia, while providing composers with a refuge equivalent to what the church and the nobility provided composers from the 9th through the 19th centuries, is stifling to true artistic innovation. It is an irony, really, given the role that education must play, but not surprising either, given that conservatism is enshrined in the very term, “conservatory.”

    (That may be bitterness talking, though.)

    That said, I am with you in pursuing a grass roots approach to promoting new music through the foundation of an ensemble. Presenting music that is often–if unfairly–characterized as thorny or unfriendly to audiences in a way that is actually inviting and audience friendly is, I think, the best way of educating audiences. I wish you luck and look forward to hearing about your activities as the ensemble grows.

  2. J L Zaimont says:

    Your two question presume much. Let me respond with two answers:

    -In my 36 years of college teaching ( mostly Comp.) , I never encuntered a faculty colleague who required any certain style from any particular student. But there are developing composers who gravitate to work with an established composer whose music speaks in a certain way.

    - Contrast this with a previous period in undergrad and grad studies: Here, style mandates were encountered, and regularly. *But* never with the Comp. professors!
    Usually it was some acolyte in performance who was all hot to champion obscurity, veiled emotion, and clean-ness, discovered in the manner of some composer of 30-40 years back.

    During my undergrad sophomore year I listened every night to the Ravel Quartet and Berg Sonata Op1. And my grad student years at Columbia made plain that music has got to live! – That the music reaching me was what I paid to hear at NYCity Ballet (all that Stravinsky – yay!) and the constant cycling on my LP of all 6 Bartok quartets, some Varese, the Martin Preludes and the Britten Serenade – rather than anything choked to death in an analysis class at school.

    In short, students should be encouraged to search out the music that chimes with them! Keep in mind that there are two parts to this:

    The search — wide, deep, constant , ever ongoing
    The finding and realizing it – when it happens: Magic!

  3. Lanier says:

    Armando, could you clarify how exactly academia stifles artistic innovation? Speaking from within academia, it’s hard for me to see how this is so and particularly how the sponsorship of academia is any more stifling to the composer than that of the church or the nobility was.

    Joseph, to answer your questions, my impression is that stylistic pressures these days seem to be more individualized. I think most composers, myself included, feel compositional pressures that reflect their values. Clearly it’s important to you for your music to find an audience of a reasonable size whose interest derives from something more than class credit. That’s a noble endeavor and I applaud you for founding an ensemble to address it. Whether or not it’s a pressure that needs to be overcome, I suppose, again reflects what you want to get out of composing.

    My impression from observing peers and from my teaching experience is that education really is the key. The more digestible information audiences receive about a piece, its place in the world of music, and the people responsible for composing and performing it, the more likely the seem to be give the piece an aesthetic chance. In that regard, I think academia is invaluable as its one of the few places that people can actually devote time to providing that information. I’d love to see more ensembles spend time really educating their audiences about what they’re about to hear/hearing.

  4. Lanier-

    I think Judith answered the question of how academia can be stifling by describing “the music reaching me was what I paid to hear at NYCity Ballet (all that Stravinsky – yay!) and the constant cycling on my LP of all 6 Bartok quartets, some Varese, the Martin Preludes and the Britten Serenade – rather than anything choked to death in an analysis class at school. ”

    I suppose academia itself isn’t guilty of choking music to death, but it sure can have that effect on music and musical careers.

    (And yet, every year I keep trying out for academic jobs and continue to teach theory courses at a major conservatory. Go figure!)

  5. Lanier, the end of your comment to Joseph raises a question in my mind: how does academia help the members of the audience who are not aspiring musicians? One thing I’ve found, stradling the fence, as I have professionally for a few years now, between academia (part time) and freelance life (almost full time) SOLELY as a musician (no non-music day job here), is that academic audiences are mostly made up of other music professionals or those aspiring to be music professionals (i.e. students). How is that a healthy situation for the state of our craft? We, as musicians, cannot afford to continue raising solely other musical professionals. Audience building cannot lie solely with academia (or, I’d venture, principally). The fact that Joseph is starting an ensemble to address this is a start. Building audiences has to come through performance and advocacy. When one is a strong advocate for one’s own work and the work of others, then the process of educating an audience–through pre-concert talks, appearances, media presence, etc.–can really begin.

  6. Thank you all for your thoughtful remarks. I hope I am able to address each point in turn. I am certain that you will agree that much has changed in 36 years – it is undeniable that there is a proliferation of “schools of thought” in the USA, and it is equally easy to “spot” compositions composed within those particular schemas, because they all contain a stylistic, or aesthetic signature, which, at times, makes them indistinguishable from one another. Which in my opinion, is allowing the whole to exert undue influence on the individual. I know of several composition instructors who impose their stylistic and aesthetic ideals upon their students. I was very fortunate not to have studied with this type of composer.

    My essay, however, is not really about aesthetics, rather it is focused on how we, as artists, can best go about our work as creative individuals. To say that the academy is not stifling, or that those pressures are “self-imposed,” seems a bit naive. For instance, if tenured faculty ‘X’ says to un-tenured faculty ‘y,’ that “your music is interesting, but the conservative audience that frequent our concerts will not like it, so you should make it more like your predecessor’s music,” then faculty member ‘y,’ wonders what to do: 1) Smile and go on doing as s/he has always done, because in reality, composition is a deeply personal journey, or 2) alter the aesthetic in order to please the tenured faculty member, and obtain tenure? This is not a self-imposed pressure – this is an external pressure that exerts force on the self. Yes, one could choose not to be involved in academia. However, there are many aspects of academia that are very attractive, as al of you have stated.

    I had a discussion with a well-known and well-respected composer recently where I posed the following question:

    “Do you consider the audience when composing?”

    His answer is the best that I have yet to encounter:

    “…a composer should also take note of their audience. I say take note. We write “to” or “for” ourselves”. If we are lucky, we write for specific musicians. The first we have complete control over. The second, less so. As for audiences, forget it. No control. So why try? My belief is that if you are true to yourself, the audience will sense the same and go along for the ride.”

    I will add to his response, that we must do more than ask them to “go along for the ride.” We must educate them, and help to remove the inhibitions that the general audience maintains against so-called modernist music. Furthermore, if we write “for the audience,” for which audience do we write? We have no idea who will constitute an audience. An audience in Germany will not necessarily like the same things as an audience in Kansas. If we write for one audience, then we loose the possibility of reaching others. If we are true to ourselves, then that care will shine through, and transcend aesthetic, something that I believe really does not matter much anyway. To paraphrase Boulez: If a composer is truly master of his/her composition, then s/he will know every aspect of that composition’s universe and the macro will reflect the micro. If the work is sound, then it will resound in the ear. This means that the composer must have a firm grasp of the pitch material, rhythm, form, etc. This doe NOT mean that the work is serialized, only that the small material (motive) is reflected in the larger components of the composition (phrase, section, form). There are many very poorly written tonal compositions, just as there are atonal compositions, simply because the composer has not given over the time and effort necessary to ensure that all aspects of the composition are synchronous.

    Finally, I agree with Armando (yes, we were at Aspen together in ’98 – how have you been?) in that we must work to include members outside of academia in order to further the general public’s awareness of great art of our time. At times, this means that we must simply state what the piece is about, who the composer is, and why the work was chosen for performance (i.e. why it is important). If we show them that we care about what we do, instead of expect them to like something simply because we do, then we will begin to raise our societal consciousness to include ‘music as art,’ instead of ‘music as entertainment.’

  7. I’ve been fine, Joe. Not in academia full time, but not completely out of it, either (I have mixed feelings about this).

    One other thing I think is important is the way new music is presented. Classical music in general has not changed in presentation since the late 19th century. Why must one attend a concert and be expected to behave a certain way, or, more importantly, expect the performing musicians to behave in a way that resembles a religious ritual and not an artistic experience? Tuxedoes build walls between audiences and musicians. Tear down the walls!

  8. Lanier says:

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses here – I’m enjoying this discussion.

    I have a couple responses. First for Armando:

    You asked how academia helps members of the audience who aren’t aspiring musicians. My answer is, simply, that it seeks to educate them (which we’re all advocating for, right?). The music departments that I’ve been involved with all seem to offer educational opportunities for non-musicians regularly. There are pre-concert talks by experts, but intended for the layperson. There’s a reasonable selection of classes that are designed for students who are non-majors. Additionally, my impression (note that I’ve not experienced the conservatory side of academia) is that most of the music majors I’ve encountered aren’t really “aspiring musicians;” lots of these students are already double majoring or are planning on heading in a different direction after they graduate. And they’re still benefiting from all the resources of the department. Those are some of the folks I’m most excited about reaching as potential audience members. Finally , academia offers the resources to put on concerts in the first place (sometimes in settings off-campus) – and w/o a concert, we get no audience, and they get no live new music.

    Now, it’s definitely true that sometimes these sorts of educational opportunities don’t do the best job of preparing audiences to listen to new music. But I think they almost always do more good than bad for our audiences – they offer, at least, a step in the right direction for interested ears.

    I also find that audience at concerts where I’m based often draw a fair portion of the crowd from outside of our department (not that the audiences are always large). Students involved bring friends; professors and TAs encourage student attendance; and folks from town and other departments occasionally wander in. We benefit from a large student body and a relatively artsy community, sure – but we’re at least a data point for the argument that academia doesn’t inherently mean nobody from outside the department comes to the concert. And, by the way, Armando will be pleased that almost nobody here performs in tuxes. Where I really see the academics-only sign is at conferences and festivals – and there it’s kinda understandable b/c we pack them so full of concerts, and they really are events intended for the specialists.

    So, I suspect that our differences are accounted for by a difference in experiences – maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe you’ve been unlucky. I certainly recognize that academia isn’t a universal force for good, but I don’t perceive that its hurt me or my music or people who’ve come to see my music performed yet – in fact, I think it’s helped so far (for whatever that’s worth).

    Now for Joe:

    You suggest that my description of pressures facing composers is a bit naive. That’s almost certainly so, but from my naive perspective, I can’t help but wonder if your “tenured faculty x” might be a straw man. Again, maybe I’ve just been fortunate enough to have avoided situations like that, but it’s very hard for me to imagine a faculty member actually saying what you have Prof. X saying. Are tenure committees really that interested in your audience numbers? I’d expect that things like numbers of performances, repeat performances, quality of ensembles and venues worked with, recordings, reviews, and their personal evaluations of the quality of your work would weigh more heavily than how many folks are coming to listen. Am I way off on that?

    In my experiences, the more likely source of potentially stifling pressure that might evince a stylistic change is the ensembles rather than the audiences. Not that there’s anything sinister afoot, but that the first step (at least at my present career stage) is convincing folks to play my music. In other words, I can absolutely imagine a faculty member saying, “Your music is interesting, but no ensemble is going to be willing to play that, so you should make it more like what these ensembles usually play.” That – as you point out in your example – is definitely an external pressure, so I concede that my earlier description could use some amending.

    To wrap up an already-too-lengthy post, I think that it’s wonderful and encouraging that despite other differences, we’re all agreed about the importance of outreach and education for the future of new music. Again, kudos to Joe for getting an ensemble going with that in mind, and I’m excited to hear about his experiences and those of others pursuing the same goals.

  9. Hi Lanier:

    The only thing I would say is that what the mysterious Prof. X (to use X-men) says is not actually about the audience. It is about his perception of control – there are many professors that merely “bully” the younger faculty, for whatever reason – to feel self-important, or because they were bullied when they were untenured, etc. I agree with you wholeheartedly in that elements such as awards, repeat performances, and performances by well-respected ensembles do make much more of an impact on the committee, but the fact remains that these pressures do exist. In my opinion, it simply takes a certain level of resilience to overcome these pressures in order to fully focus on the work that each composer feels is important – something of which I think I have been able to do. C’est la vie!

  10. Lanier-

    My response to your response to me: you have a very good point. I think my own experience having difficulties securing that endagered species, a tenure track academic position, color my perspectives on academia (and yet, had I secured any of the full time positions for which I’ve been considered in the past, I would not be creating or curating the kind of music I am, which would be a detriment. Talk about double edged swords!). I’ve taught in both a liberal arts environment and a conservatory environment, and would say that both offer advantages and pitfalls. My ensemble certainly would have a harder time finding venues if it were not for our academic residency (that said, it’s also very dispiriting that the least represented community in our audiences is that of students at this institution, who get into our concerts for free). I have indeed found that the liberal arts students–who are, as you say, seldom aspiring musicians–are the most open minded to new ideas and new repertoire. Conservatory students–who are, by definition, aspiring musicians–tend to be more conservative in their attitudes, although I have been gratified to have a few students turn on to modern music through my classes. I suppose that says something.

    I just can’t help a feeling of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon sometimes.

    It is precisely the kinds of pressures Joe is talking about, in the perpetual quest for tenure and the “publish or perish” syndrome, that can be incredibly stifling for a composer and his/her career. I have found the lack of a tenure-track position with all of the various support mechanisms that entails to have thrust me into improvising a career, as it were, which has led to precisely the kind of music making I wanted to engage in to begin with and led me to create a career in my own terms, as I’d originally set out to do. Even as an adjunct professor I see a lot of academic infighting and ridiculous posturing for position that has little to do with art OR education. Who needs it?

  11. Casey says:

    I think the way academia influences and encourages certain types of composition is more institutional than the fault of any particular person. On a 1 on 1 basis, most composition teachers are great about being open to a variety of styles from their students and not pushing a particular agenda. But, it is quite clear that if you wish to advance in academia, or other established institutions like the symphony or win certain competitions/awards, there are styles of music making that are rewarded more often than others. I agree with the sentiment Philip Glass and other minimalists have expressed that you can’t do anything truly new within the system. You can’t get rewarded from larger institutions for doing something that is unrecognizable within the canon of serious modern music. I’ve run up against this, on a personal level my music is always very well received by audience/teachers/musicians, but I’ve never won anything and I’ve had a hell of a time getting into a PhD program, in part I think, because what I write doesn’t fit easily into what is expected of academic music. The biggest issue is, in an attempt to make an art intellectually legitimate, music that appears complex (odd rhythms, constant variation, extended techniques, complicated pitch organization, lots of instructions/dynamics, black dots everywhere) is more readily rewarded than something that may be more subtly complex, or not complex at all but still aesthetically beautiful. It’s a real catch 22, as academia seems to be the only refuge where a composer can make a decent living without doing commercial music or movie music. Despite my complaints, I’m still pursuing an academic career, but I’m deeply worried that I will never get anywhere because of the type of music I make.

  12. Christian says:


    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? I think that generalizing ‘academic music’ is not all that easy. 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), performing, service to the profession and to your local community, belonging to a scholarly organization and attending its conferences, developing a network of musicians – peers and mentors – with whom to discuss and develop your career goals, and, of course, working to become an outstanding teacher.

    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.