Friday, June 3, 2011

Youthful Idealism

Some people seem to think that ideals are something to be grown out of in the face of the harsh realities of life. Forgive my youth of 26, but I do think I have grown exponentially in my understanding of the world since I was 18. It was then, 2003-2004, that I set off on this path to become a composer. At the time I kept an interesting journal consisting of almost daily epiphanies about music. Although in the intervening years I've come to better understand the world of music, it is clear to me now that some of the 'epiphanies' of those heady days were lasting nuggets of truth. So, an ongoing series of blog entries will focus on bite-sized pieces of young wisdom taken from these visionary files. (I've got to do something with this stack of papers!) As a starting point, I reprint here, with my own hand-typed permission, my 2006 post-mission reevaluation of these early compositional-philosophical musings. Personally, I hope to reconnect with my roots and bring my earliest recorded thoughts on composition to light for the first time.
A Youthful Visionary, circa 2004

From Sunday; August 27, 2006:
Over the last three [now eight] years my understanding of musical history and of the current state of the music world that surrounds me has taken a wild ride. I remember those early days, when I came to the general and not entirely true conclusion that classical music was 'good' and popular music, 'bad'. I remember studying searching, reading all I could about what happened to music in the 20th century, trying to figure out what was going on right now in the world of the modern composer. Again I came to the not-entirely-true conclusion that music as an Art (with a capital 'A') was dying or dead. It was not until I began to buy lots of recordings of the actual music in question while serving in St. Petersburg on my mission that I really came to understand. Who am I to be as a composer? What is my place amongst the composers of my time?

So, half-a-decade-ago self, how did you answer? Let me edit your five paragraphs down to one:

The young composer of today stands on the backs of giants, or he can if he will. More composers have gone before, than ever before. (The same is true, of course, for each generation) There is so much to draw on, so many sounds, so many ways of writing music, so many textures. So many doors have been hardly opened by the experimenters of the 20th century that the composer of today is faced with the unprecedentedly monumental task of exploring these avenues, taking it all in, making conscious musical decisions to incorporate and work on certain elements in his music. He forges ahead and looks back at the same time. The greatest opportunities ever are open for the composer. The difficulty is creating your own rules to make music in a world where anything goes. That is where the study and application of what has gone before comes in. Each composer finds his own sound in the world. Each leaves his own distinct mark in some way. The last 50 years have taken music to literally unheard of places, completely altering the musical landscape. I think that the mark of of the great composers of the present will be determined largely by how they assimilate and express and advance the ideas of the last century. So it will go until our grandchildren will do things that will stagger us.

Now back to June 2011. Is assimilation of the past the only mark of future great composers? No. But there won't be great composers who don't to a large extent acknowledge their debt to the past. There are no great jazz musicians who have completely original styles who didn't pay their dues first learning to emulate other greats. (That may be the first direct reference on this blog to jazz, about time since my undergrad degree is in Jazz Studies) I would also note that I feel quite satisfied that I have done my best in the past five years to make sure that I am engaged in just the sort of compositional education that I feel is a necessary for a composer. When I talk with my peers at BYU, I often ask them what they are listening to lately. It is very telling when somebody tells me that they don't listen to much recent music. Bach and Brahms are great, their contributions to music should be learned by every composer, but you can't expect to be relevant, well-rounded, or fully developed as a composer unless you have a pretty good idea of the contemporary musical scene. How could you set out to be a non-movie composer and not know what kind of professional field you are entering? Its like trying to become a meteorologist but only reading books on meteorology from the 1800s, and having no idea what good, modern meteorology is all about. Of course there are music history classes, etc, but I believe that you've got to have a passion for this art if you want to succeed at it, and that means meeting everybody from John Cage to Osvaldo Golijov.
John Cage, 1912-1992
John Cage is a controversial and influential composer from the last half of the 20th Century.
I consider his main contribution to the art to be his questioning of the traditional role of the composer.
Osvaldo Golijov, b. 1960 
Grammy-winning Golijov represents a new direction of composers whose music is an accessible crossroads of styles and techniques.

I find my 2006 statements pretty much still in line with my present 2011 views and would only add the solid conclusion that I believe there is amazing new music in store as composers continue the great musical tradition of advancing the art. What do you feel are the main challenges for new composers/new music?


Erica said...

Love this! I hope it sparks further discussion. What *is* the place of a young classical composer these days? (Oh, and it seems we've followed a similar trajectory: I began my undergraduate journey in 2004 as well and served a mission in Ukraine.) :-)

Qait said...

I think a lot of young composers don't seem to understand the process of creating modern music. They seem a little stuck with the idea that an amount of chaos is involved, and that that's what modern music is made of.
The challenge seems to be helping those composers realize it's still possible to have their own voice (and realize how to accomplish that).
Maybe if each composer answered the question "what is the point of music?" for themselves, they'd have clearer direction in their chosen career.
I really am surprised how few composers seem to know what they're doing in the world of music. Loving music is not always enough.

Honestly, I feel that if you know the purpose of music (at least for yourself), you'll know what to do with it. You'll know why you're driven to be a composer. And then you'll know what your own compositional purpose is. And then, naturally, your own compositional voice will assert itself.

I think it really can be a natural process.