It has been quite awhile since I’ve posted anything to my website. I have to admit I’ve penned a few drafts in the last few months but nothing seemed right or really profound enough in my humble opinion to share with the world. This summer and start of the fall has been life-changing in many ways. I turned 25, embraced an overhaul on my technique and repertoire as a pianist, and accepted my compositional voice as a valid.
Allow me to start at the end and work backwards…
I accepted my compositional voice as valid.
Coming through music school (though I was never a formal composition major) there was a certain aura about what “good music” was supposed to be and a clear delineation between “music for the people” and “music for the academics.” When I made the decision this spring to decline my acceptance to CalArts it was a life altering choice. It was also, largely an artistic choice. I think education is important and I am a strong supporter of arts education, but the problem with artistic study under the typical American model, is that study is an overview taught largely in a box. What do I mean by this? Firstly, most classes are an overview of a subject that moves at the pace of the majority since classes are largely taught to on average 20+ students at a time. Secondly, a box of tests and rubrics and syllabi are primarily the norm. Meanwhile, I was shoving dates into my brain for the next Music History test or standards of analysis for the next Form & Analysis test, I wasn’t actually being given the time to ask questions of the material because we “just had to get through it for the exam.” How is anyone supposed to grow as an artist in such an environment? That’s when I realized it. You don’t study performance/composition in college to become a performer/composer. You study performance/composition so that you can then go get another degree to get another degree to be qualified to teach at another university or college somewhere else. Then that got me to thinking… We are all programmed to think that once we get a post as an adjunct or associate professor at a school of music, life is set. We have a stable job in music and everything is smooth sailing. Then I thought further… I looked around at all of my professors and mentors finally I realized… Teaching takes time, then there are department meetings and committees, lesson planning, mandatory office hours and the list goes on. Where is the time to actually pursue YOUR OWN music?!?!?! There are of course many college professors who maintain active careers as performers/composers but it is largely a balancing act which seems to be more difficult as the institutions become less “prestigious” and most fresh graduates of music schools are not getting associate professorships at Julliard or Eastman. Also, as learning moves towards an “open source” and heavily online machine the need for more face-to-face teaching decreases and with it the demand for new music adjuncts. Furthermore, more professors of music are maintaining their posts beyond the age of retirement, some even staying up to the point of death… the result is the same… less jobs for young academic musicians. Though I must state there is absolutely nothing wrong with such a life-path and it is completely necessary to continue the culture of academic music.
And academic music is just that… a culture of it’s own. I am grateful every day for the kind of mentors that I’ve been lucky enough to have because they never pushed me into a specific aesthetic but rather allowed me to explore the musical landscape and come to my own terms with things. My experience of the academic composition world has been largely as an outsider. I never studied composition in a class other than counterpoint which was required for my degree. I did have mentors though who reviewed my work and made suggestions. While my mentors always saw something that I was perfectly aware of at the time they had a faith and belief in my abilities; I will never be able to fully express my gratitude for their past as well as continued support. The point I’m trying to get to is that outside of these benevolent mentors, the dark and scary music department loomed. When I came under the influence of John Cage’s writings at age 20 and began experimenting with electronic music, other students laughed. (In fact, I actually have recording of a performance of one of my early musique concrète works where you can hear audible laughter.) In counterpoint class, my teacher had all but given up on me until she read through one of my pantonal works, after which she declared that I should only write pantonal works and leave tonality for the real composers. Other professors hammered away the point that my music was not “complex enough” to be worth anything. The message was loud and it was clear, I didn’t have the “pedigree” to go traipsing through the Ivory Tower.
“Music for the people.” I will never forget the day I was told that “now you have decided to abandon the academic path for the commercial one you will have to change tactics.” My stance on writing music for “the people” is perhaps a bit controversial because I am not an academic composer who has the power and resource of a piece of paper stating that I have jumped through hoops of fire and sold a kidney to earn a Ph.D. in Music. Simply put, I have never written music “for the people,” furthermore, I never intend to write music “for the people.” There is a distinct difference, for me, between the music commissioned by someone for a specific project and the contemporary concert music which I compose for performance.
To quote composer George Perle from his book The Listening Composer:
“The fact is that when I compose I never think of and never have thought of meeting the listener. Or to put it in another way that is more consistent with what I have just been saying about the process of composition, I’m the only listener with whom I’m concerned when I compose.”
I have maintained for some time that no good comes from considering the audience when composing a piece of music. It causes one to question natural instincts, often times replacing artistic substance for kitsch. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the people who like and support my music. It just means that I write the music for my own purpose to paint a picture with specific meaning to me, while at the same time realizing that the same work will mean something completely different to the listener.
So the conundrum and internal struggle of the last few years as a composer was to appease the academics or the masses. To choose complexity over simplicity, to embrace outside influences, etc. Finally, it came to me. The ultimate answer as the artist is to be true to our artistic-selves. If I want to put a minimalist passage in a work while embracing free tonal melodic lines and moments of total serialism using my own code… IT’S OKAY. If I want to incorporate electronics into my solo piano music… IT’S OKAY. At the end of the day I have to like the composition because I never want to be one of those people that writes something just for money or fame or to show off to their colleagues. Music is the purest expression of the things we cannot articulate. It connects us. It binds us. But it is also, inherently ambiguous. The old adage that music is a universal language is a grossly propagated misnomer. Language is largely absolute and music is not. The idea that I as a composer have a task to either communicate facets of the world to an audience or communicate complex ideals to a group of stodgy academics is both absurd and demoralizing. Music is an undefinable and living entity. The more I studied world religions and cosmology the more I understand that music is the one aspect of conditioned reality that lives so fully in the liminal state that in some respects we could consider it the only aspect of unconditioned reality on our plane of existence. But what insanity am I rambling about now? Music is the only think I can think of in this world that does not have duality. What is the opposite of music? Noise. Silence. John Cage proved that both of those were in fact music. With all this being said… there is no such thing as right or wrong in music. And quality is relative as well… I think that Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have horrible music (which is why I have my students do listening assignments where they write about what Milton Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano makes them feel… yes I do this even with my first grade students…) but there are a whole generation of children who’ve never heard of Shostakovich that think their music is “the best thing since sliced bread… or what ever it is the kids are raving about these days.” But their music has a place in society… sad lonely girls who are eating Ben & Jerry’s on the couch after their lame boyfriend broke up with them need Taylor Swift to rock them through their woes and total serialists need Milton Babbitt & Elliott Carter & Pierre Boulez to massage their brains into the ultimate climax of thought. Back in the day kids dropping acid in galleries needed Philip Glass’ music to get take them to a consciousness beyond any that had been known previously. And controversially, would Hitler have come to power had it not been for Parsifal or Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg?
So it was with these thoughts that I came to realize that no matter what some academic or the public had to say about my music… in the end, that is all that it is… My music, the inner-workings of my own heart, mind and spirit. Just as no one can fault me for having a short neck or round face or loving people to a fault or singing in a deep voice or the hearty way I laugh these things are apart of me and my music is a part of me. While a personal trainer may tell me that I can make myself into a female body builder or a beautician/stylist can tell me how to alter my image to make me appealing to men or an academic can tell me I need to make my work more complex and an anonymous person can tell me I need to change myself to become more marketable… at the end of the day these are just suggestions that polish the outside but at my core I am still strong, funny, humble Elizabeth and that core person in life and in music is somebody I never need to apologize for being.