Lines in the Sand

The history of composition is riddled with battles. It is what breathed life into music. If Monteverdi hadn’t written new music, conservatives wouldn’t have had anything to bash. For every Brahms, there is a Wagner. For every Mozart, a Salieri.

In the 20th century, things got out of hand. You have Schoenberg and Stravinsky, two powerful composers, hating one another. You have Boulez, writing his audacious article “Schoenberg is Dead,” attacking that composer. The total serialists in Germany, France, and Italy rejected all other forms of music as complete garbage, a reminder of the past that culminated in World War II. You then have serialism in America, where the academic composers, sheltered in universities, allegedly blocked job openings for those who wrote tonal music. Then there are the Minimalists, railing against the new complexity of avant-garde composers.

The 21st century feels different. After a pluralistic boom and post-modern reflection, it seems as if all music would be acceptable. Sadly, that is not the case. In an already marginalized field, we still have divisions – people who refuse to accept what others do as music. You think we, as composers, could unite against a common cause, the dying of an art-form, and move forward with a grand plan to retake the 21st century.

I am becoming a victim of such a rift firsthand. I am currently working on my dissertation at LSU. For my dissertation, I have to write a monograph (a long paper) and a 20-minute orchestra piece. For the monograph, I am planning on looking at four works by 20th-century composers for live electronics (not fixed media) and orchestra. My goal is to explore how they integrated the electronics into the larger ensemble, as well as the technologies they used, and how they scored the electronics. The four pieces are Répons by Pierre Boulez, Caminantes … Ayacucho by Luigi Nono, Mixtur by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Vocalise by John Corigliano.

For the piece, I plan to write a concerto for laptop quartet and orchestra. I really want to explore the dialogue between the orchestra and performers who can only manipulate and play back live sounds from that orchestra. The concerto has a history of creating dialogue between the soloist and ensemble. At times they are working together and at other times they are working against one another. The back-and-forth rhetoric would be perfect for what I want to accomplish.

One of my professors, who is not my major nor my minor professor, has raised objections to this. To him, this is a prospectus that belongs to a new degree program at LSU: Experimental Music and Digital Media. In his words: “This is not ok for a Ph D in Composition. I really want to see the handling of an Orchestra.” He goes on to say “We have too  many talented PhD students in composition to let them down. Do not forget I know the orchestra well.

At LSU there has been a history of the rift in the composition department between acoustic (for lack of a better word) and electroacoustic music. One professor feels as if it is his personal duty to marginalize the other to protect his own space. The other, tired of being marginalized, took matters into his own hands and eliminated the need for the other professor.

When I was at ICMC this past summer, someone bemusedly pointed out that he hated going to these concerts because “most of the people aren’t composers, so the writing for the instruments and the counterpoint is very poor.” Too frequently, the other side is seen as a technician rather than a composer.

What is amusing about all of this is that for most of my musical life, I have been on one side. I used to hate electronic music and everything about it. It seemed like such a cop-out to me. By hiding behind the technology and experiments, you could justify bad music. Suddenly, I have been pushed across the line with the news that I have let the other side down and the friendly reminder “Do not forget I know the orchestra well”.

So apparently, my only ticket back into the heavens is to shed my electronic baggage and whimper back to the other side of the line, so that I can finally write well for orchestra. Along the way, I must recant my sins and agree never to check my email again. That’s really funny, because I always thought that Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, and Corigliano were pretty good orchestral writers. I guess they are not “composers” either.

Suddenly a concerto has been deemed experimental. That in and of itself is highly amusing to me. I wonder if Mozart’s dad ever said “writing for piano with orchestra is unacceptable. Maybe you should look at a career as a soloist instead.” Maybe Haydn wrote to Beethoven, “chorus and orchestra? Maybe you should concentrate on a career as a vocal conductor.”

I want this person on my committee. They do know how to write for orchestra, and their comments and criticism would help me tremendously, but not at the expense of my creative output. I am a composer! I will not let some old conservative tell me what I am or am not based upon one work. I took two years of lessons from this professor, and he has the gall to tell me, “I have not seen your fantastic background in composition. The only thing I know is a short piece for orchestra you composed years ago.” What is even more amusing is that while I took lessons from him, I wrote eleven compositions! He also was on my committee when I took, and passed, my qualifying exams, my general exams in composition, and attended my graduate composition recital. Oh, and by the way, that short orchestra work was twelve minutes long. He also just commissioned me to write another 12 minute string orchestra work, Darkish Knob, that his orchestra, the Louisiana Sinfonietta, performed!

I suspect more so that I am merely a pawn. This professor feels the other professor again encroaching upon his space. He has drawn his line, and it just happens to be me. If it wasn’t me, it would be another. While I like him as a person, and I like his music, I don’t need him on my committee to justify that I know how to write music.

I will say it again, “I am a composer!”



Filed under Dissertation, Music

4 responses to “Lines in the Sand

  1. Wendy

    Oh, the politics of life and music! Hang in there! I have found that the greatest things in life face much challenge, work and hardship.

  2. Mom

    I’m not sure what this professor means about ” too many talented Ph D students in composition to let them down”. Why would you in your own creativity let them down? perhaps this would open quite a lot of conversation and question about music. Heck, I’m still trying to get around “tonal” and “atonal” without worrying about what makes an orchestral piece and what does not. Its a whole new world out there and electronics and technology are definitely here to stay. Say what if you did the first part of your composition as what he thinks of as orchestra and then let it slide into the electronic and what the other side can do with it. This I know you can do because you are so talented even if its not what you the composer wants to do. I’m sure some of the “greats” had to at some time go against the grain of their genius. Make it a great orchestra piece – the battle of political composition. MOM

    • At first I thought it was an insult, but I think he was referring to the fact that LSU has a pretty good job placement for composition majors, and if I am changing the requirements, then I am changing what has worked in the past.

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