After seeing “The Social Network” this weekend, I’ve solidified the long-developing conclusion that determining music’s effectiveness is much different than determining its sophistication. Throughout my compositional training (and perhaps everyone’s), the idea of development has rung with me as most crucial. A student in composition must learn to mold a line, motive, or harmonic texture into more than it is when first stated. These are good skills to have in your bag and are effective in many contexts. Beethoven was the ultimate craftsman; he could take a 5-note motive and create a substantial work from the scraps of a line (this technique resonates in nearly all of his works). Since Beethoven, the composition world has seen a bell curve of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication, however, the acceptance of different styles today is varied.
Depending on where you are or what school you come from, the perception of a composer’s music might range from simple and unworthy to glorious and meditative. It should be noted that the most popular and successful composers today come from the minimalist and fusion camps. John Adams, Steve Reich, and David Lang are still the talk of the composition world and one can frequently find their works being performed all over the world. These are composers who did not follow the extreme chromaticism of early Cold War writing and, yet, have found a great many admirers despite many academic institutions holding on to a sense of that past. Without diminishing the worth of highly chromatic and complex rhythmic music, we all could gain from minimalist influence.
Believe it or not, someone once told me that there is no place for major chords in today’s music. Fortunately, I can disregard that person as a complete dumbass (his score sales aren’t that great). While this is a pretty extreme position, it’s one that is partially supported by many modern composers whether they realize it or not. I suspect many young composers do want to embrace more repetition or tonality in their writing not because it’s easier, but because they find it more appealing as a listener. However, people are afraid of appearing too simplistic and fear they won’t be taken seriously if they don’t throw in a few 11/16 measures or the like. Above all, a composer must remember that music is an aesthetic. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated it looks on the page; if it doesn’t sound good then it’s a failure as a piece. If you like to write intricately complex music, then that is also fine – it depends on your own taste. I’m the kind of person who can listen to Fratres without getting bored, but that might not be for everyone. Unfortunately, in many schools, writing something with an idea similar to that piece would be unacceptable. It shouldn’t be. If you like listening to it (most importantly) and a number of other people do, too, then it can be considered a success. Many instructors of composition have taken to teaching taste instead of craft. I’m lucky to have had open-minded teachers in my compositional training, but some promising composers have been ruined by this idea of “modern music.” Let’s change that. If a broader sense of acceptance grows in the academic community we might even see the audience of art music grow, as well. The most dangerous and hurtful idea we, as composers, can have is that “the audience simply hasn’t grown up yet.” I can’t think of a more damaging mentality.