The Composer’s Experience

As a 2010 recipient of the Aaron Copland Award, I have the honor and priveldge of inhabiting Aaron Copland’s former New York residence, in Cortlandt Manor, NY. Surrounded by Copland’s scores, recordings, and memorabilia, I am beginning to get a sense of the man – the person behind the historical figure. Among his many personal items, which are on display throughout the house, is a series of four handwritten pages, numbered sequentially, titled: The Composer’s Experience. I am told by the administrative assistant in the next building that they are lecture notes, from a series of talks Copland gave in the 1960‘s. Protected under glass in the living room, one has difficulty reading the faded penmanship, but through concentrated effort, the majority can be deciphered. At the top of the first page are several statements that outline the opening of his lesson. One in particular caught my attention:

What it feels like to be a serious composer, especially in an industrial community like America.

Page 1 of Copland's notes (used with permission of the Copland House)

The statement is one that I believe many American composers have struggled with at one time or another. How do we as artists express ourselves in a community which has very little tradition in a mechanico-scientific age, particularly when compared to the rich traditions of Europe.1 Although I believe that the tenor of today is no longer considered “industrial” per se, it is an age of technology, which contains therein the same societal predispositions as those during Copland’s early – mid career. Our culture is one that focuses, primarily, on “industry.” We owe a lot to industry of course, for without it, our country would not be where it is today; however, there must also be room in every society for the arts, and the irrevocable connection with the creative artist. Copland felt, and I agree, that there is an absolute need to produce creative artists as they give substance and meaning to ‘la condition humaine.’ 2

Copland believed that the dilemma of the composer, as indicated in his notes, is that the average citizen has no real concept of creative activity, and that this was evidenced in the fact that American culture placed emphasis on the possession and reproduction of the finest.3 Of course, “the finest reproduction” is also synonymous with “the best copy.” Furthermore, one can extrapolate from that statement that the average citizen has/had little interest in the creative individual.

Faced with this knowledge, how do we emerge as artists in an environment that perpetuates sameness, and a lack of interest in artistry? – Where the vast majority of people would rather listen to Brittany Spears’ latest rearrangement of her previous album (a rearrangement itself), than to invoke the ability to actively listen, and in turn, find something truly profound and meaningful in the work of Copland’s so-called serious artist?

My own experience proves that even in a non-artistic environment the drive towards cultural expression is strong.4

Page 2 of Copland's notes. (Used with the permission of the Copland House)

What Copland suggests is, that if one struggles hard, and long enough, the drive, and need, to find the truth – defined as the undeniable, distinctive, inner voice of the creative individual – in one’s art, outweighs the prevailing societal mentality. For Copland, he was attempting to define what American music was, during a time, when there really was no musical identity for America, in particular when compared to the long history and traditions found in Europe, and as seen from the larger, global musical community, as evidenced below.

a)The trend towards Europe
b) The trend towards originality
c) The preoccupation with Americanism
1)  America as seen from Europe
2) Previous attempts at Americanism in music 5

Today, we have the luxury of clarifying our musical personas because of what Copland, and others, did to define the “American style” of what he called serious music. The irony is that while we now have the luxury of openly creating our own musical identity, we grapple with a community that cares mostly for conformity. Alex Ross recently wrote an article entitled: Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music? The article can be read here:

Ross highlights some recent proponents of modern classical music who have met with an interested and mostly enthusiastic public. Perhaps we are on the verge of the next big evolution in American serious music (however we define that term), and perhaps soon, we will see a more edified public, a more willing and open-minded audience.

It is likewise reassuring to see the malagrugrous endeavors of one who helped to define an era of music, and to know that perhaps our own equally demanding efforts are not in vain. I will leave you with one final quote, from Copland’s Autobiography, which rests on the shelf in his former studio:

The fact is that the creative artist is a kind of gambler, since there are no guarantees of success. Yet, every true artist has a sense of the importance of his or her own contribution, if only because the artist knows in his deepest innards that only the individual can conceive what he or she alone can create…

…the truth is out there.

1. Outline, page 1.

2. Page 1.

3. Page 1.

4. Outline, page 2.

5. Page 2.

2 Responses to “The Copland files”
  1. Joseph Holbrooke says:

    “the average citizen has no real concept of creative activity”

    This is what we call good old fashioned elitism.

    “For Copland, he was attempting to define what American music was, during a time, when there really was no musical identity for America.”

    If this is true it is heartbreaking. To be a musician during one of the most thrilling musical periods in history and to miss it is a genuine tragedy.

    The general tone of this sort of thing really surprises me. We now know that during the 20th century the United States made shocking achievements in human health, wealth, gender equality, education, scientific knowledge, etc. Alongside this explosion of civilization music thrived that was advanced, serious, and (god forbid) popular.

    Copland’s claim (and yours too) to some sort of oppositional posture towards mainstream culture is patently absurd considering he lived through one of the most stunningly positive periods in human history.

  2. I think you have missed the point of the article, which is to say, that because of the work that Copland did, we now have the luxury of writing what we wish. Yes, there were great advancements made during this period, but those advancements, particularly in the arts, were made with much sacrifice.

    And it is true that the average citizen does have no concept of creative activity. It is not a statement of value, rather a comment upon the state of society. Do you think that the average citizen knows what goes into creating a work of art? As an instructor of higher education, many of my students must work to understand the creative process, as do I, and many of my colleagues. Many of them have never really given any thought to what it means to be an artist prior to college.

    It truly saddens me that you feel that education and the work of many to better themselves is an indication of elitism. Would not society as a whole benefit if more individuals took a vested interest in education and the proliferation of the arts beyond what you call “popular?” Furthermore, the purpose of my essay was to try to define what it is that we do? I do not believe there is a definite answer to this question, but I believe that we must always pose it if we are ever to better ourselves or our work.