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Writing Music in the 21st Century: Avoiding a Dangerous Trend


"There are many dangers which hedge round the unfortunate composer: pressure groups which demand true proletarian music, snobs who demand the latest avant-garde tricks; critics who are already trying to document today for tomorrow, to be the first to find the correct pigeon-hole definition. These people are dangerous - not because they are necessarily of any importance in themselves, but because they may make the composer, above all the young composer, self-conscious, and instead of writing his own music, music which springs naturally from his gift and personality, he may be frightened into writing pretentious nonsense or deliberate obscurity."

- Benjamin Britten

In my previous entry, I discussed things composers can do to better develop their voice and to find their place in 21st century music. Today, I'd like to spend time talking about adversity and how it can affect the modern day composer. Such adversities can damage a composers confidence and pressure them to conform to the aesthetics of present day composing despite how unnatural it may feel. Of course, I merely restated the second half of Britten's quote which is displayed above - but this is a quote that I had heard several years that ago and have since adopted as personal mantra of mine in regards to my compositional style. Of course in Britten's time, he was speaking out of frustration with the philosophies that had originated out of the 2nd Viennese school and were overwhelmingly alive in Europe in the mid part of the century. The work of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and others of that school is admirable, and in breaking the conventions of classicism and romanticism, genres that appeared to have stood the test of time previously, a trend of contemporary writing was born. It was widely unpopular at first, as most new things are, yet as we progressed as a society and as music found its way to the free world - this new trend began to become the standard that it is today in pretty much all of academia. For many reasons, this is a great method to teach new composers. By pushing newer, avant-garde music professors challenge their student's creativity and encourage them to expand their comfort zone. The problem with this is when a composer falls so prey to this 'standard' that he/she loses their natural voice - or more importantly - their passion for creation.

Previously, in my entry 'Breaking Convention' I had written about feeling this pressure myself while in my graduate studies at Michigan State, although at the time I was unaware of it. It was not from my professor's lesson, as my post may lead some to believe. Mark Sullivan composes primarily electronic music, but never once did he encourage me to explore this genre - with the exception of when I took his class in electronic music willingly. His main motive, was as I have said, was to develop my own craft and to push myself to write better music that was still accessible by my audience. And I was mildly successful in doing this. I wrote such works as 'A Morning at Buckhorn Lake' in which I found inspiration in my history visiting Appalachia and explored the Banjo and how I could use it in an orchestral setting. I tested a new sound configuration on Sibelius in writing 'Celestial Shadows,' a composition that took the traditional aesthetics of some common instruments and explored new territories. Even while studying at IU Southeast, such pieces like Starfield and Perceptions of Strife were written in very much my style, yet with just a few critiques from Erich Stem and Tim Miller both pieces blossomed into innovative works of art that were well-received by my audiences. Needless to say, I was very fortunate to have studied under composers who felt that my composition character was strong enough to stand on its own, but had untapped potential waiting to be built upon. To this day, I still write music that comes naturally to me while using what I have learned to expand upon these tendencies and write a good, accessible piece of music.

What I had found was that the pressure to write in a more ambitious way that would showcase my inexperience in the genre came not from the composers I studied with, rather from the philosophical cult that exists within the walls of the University. Many students often mistake what is supposed to be a learning experience as a career-development center. While most universities literally have a career-development center of some sort, College as a whole can not develop a career that does not yet exist and what it should be is a place embraced by students in which they develop themselves more than they do their field of study. But with so much pressure being put on students to graduate in four years (and sometimes three) so they can quickly move on with their lives, who has time to develop themselves? Who can honestly find out who they really are if they spend their entire life conforming to who academia, or even society, wants them to be?

Its really strange to talk about conformity in regards to composers feeling pressure to be weird. Conformity - existing on the desire to be like everyone else - does in fact define this cult I am speaking of in which nearly all college students I have come in contact with over the past seven years find interest in. I had my friends at Indiana University, but often times when finding out my age - in which I was significantly older than many of the students living there - I was shown disrespect. The non-traditional college student was not common in many of the circles I participated in, but the one advantage I had over these kids being that type of student was that I was fully aware at how fast life can go and that the only solution was to embrace the present and not concern yourself with what you feel you have to become.

I felt that I, as well as my fellow non-traditional students at IUS, was living proof that it didn't have to be this way. When we are willing to slow down and appreciate the present before we worry about the future, we can learn more about who we are. As a society we should stop letting adversity take the wheel and doing our soul-searching for us. As 21st century composers, lets stop letting the works and criticisms of others write our music for us. Continue to write music that feels natural to you, and don't ever feel pressured to do new things with your music because that's what others are doing. Do not let the fear of being accepted prevent us from writing music that - as Britten put it - springs naturally from our gift and personality.


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