Letter to a Young Composer

Your clever techniques and new ideas are only the means, not the end.


“Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures — there was a big applaudißement; — and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make” . . . (Mozart’s letter to his father 1778)

J.S. Bach knew how to mix intellect and emotion in his music.

J.S. Bach knew how to mix intellect and emotion in his music.

Dear Young Composer,

Thank you for pitching your piece to me. I love playing pieces by Oregon composers and nurturing the careers of young composers. But when I or my classical bands commission pieces, the FIRST thing we insist on from the composer is AUDIENCE ACCESSIBILITY. This does not mean dumbed down. We’ve played audience-loving 12-tone (Hendrik Andriessen’s “Theme and Variations”), and prepared piano trios that kicked dance-ass (Kevin Gray’s “Mebasi” – written in 2008!). Plenty of composers past and present have written and are writing music that is simultaneously innovative, intellectually stimulating, but most of all emotionally moving. It’s doable: the young Cascadia Composer Brandon Stewart recently achieved it with The Telephone, his 2014 setting of a poem by Oregon’s Judith Barrington, a true account about waiting to hear whether her parents lived or died in a shipwreck.

It’s not easy, and it means feeling/thinking like an audience member. Mozart was famous for drinking beer at the back of a hall, while eavesdropping on nearby conversations when his new compositions were being debuted. 

Judging from your output, I’m pretty sure the conservatory or music school you attended spent less time on the the practicality of Mozart than on the philosophy of Modernism.

After two world wars fractured our insides so that we no longer trusted the manipulative power of music, many composers instead created strictly intellectual concepts to insulate themselves from feeling. The audience no longer mattered. It became a swap meet: Engineers for artists, concept for feeling. And you, young composer, got stuck in the middle, pleasing your music faculty stacked with concept driven engineers. I am sorry for you.

However, the back of my neck starts tingling in a bad migraine way when you get glassy-eyed, rapturously describing the concept that underpins your composition and how the idea is translated in every aspect of the piece. You have confused the means with the end. Use your cool devices to express an impassioned moment, feeling, noun. Otherwise, I do not care about your pitch class. I do not care about your hyperextended harmonies and their modulations. Nor do I care that your obsession with a certain number extends beyond the chosen numbered pitches to rhythm manipulation . . . . AND NEITHER DOES THE GENERAL NON-CLASSICAL AUDIENCE WHO WE DESPERATELY NEED TO COURT TO THIS GOD-FORSAKEN GENRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“It wasn’t the format that made the art great. It was the fact that somehow while playing around with something new, suddenly [artists] found they were able to put their entire selves into it. Only then did it become their “shtick,” their true voice, etc. That’s what people responded to. The humanity, not the form. The voice, not the form. Put your whole self into it, and you will find your true voice.”

Ignore Everybody by Hugh McLeod 2009,  p.104.

I also want to be clear that emoting without vocabulary is whiny-indie-junk and I have no patience for that shit either, nor does any audience. They are ALL smarter than we think! I think you are smart to work on the craft of your art, extending your vocabulary to capture what you passionately feel and want to project to us in the audience. My favorite composers (Bach, Ravel, Svoboda) are equal parts engineer and artist, but the engineer – the grunt worker – is subservient to the artist – the connector .

Strictly-Commercial-The-Best-Of-Frank-Zappa-coverConnecting with the audience may be underpinned by spectacular conceptual feats of innovation and intellect, but unless I cry or wanna grab a gun and go postal or Conga with jubilation til the cows come home, being stunned by a triple axel on the ice ain’t gonna do it for me. Having said that, Bach so moves me emotionally that his masterful intellectual underpinnings push me over the edge and make me want to stalk him in the afterlife. But the empty virtuosity of Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” does nothing for me. Of course, not all output by my favorite composers knocks my socks off. I don’t care for a lot of Bach’s or Svoboda’s music – mostly when it gets process bound and far away from their emotional core. Conversely, I love Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” – a conceptual album that traces the life of an ordinary Joe, making me feel the part of Joe, in increasingly extraordinary circumstances.

So, my young friend, you must write something for my bands or me that will appeal to an audience and make them not only want to hear your piece again, because my bands keep commissioned pieces in their ongoing performance repertoire, but will actually make an audience want to PLAY those pieces! And that’s what will REALLY feed this genre: Active playing participation. NOT just passive listening. 

The Tonya Harding Effect

 And here we come to a delicate trajectory: the performer’s virtuosity.  While the compositional process stuff I mentioned above is all about showing off composer craftsmanship and virtuosity at the expense of audience interest, the flashy passages in your piece are all about showing off performer virtuosity at the expense of audience interest. For its own sake, flashy passage work is . . . . well . . . a Tonya Harding triple axel. You hold your breath and your attention is on the performer. Harding was one of the clunkiest figure skaters ever to (dis)grace the ice. Her only move was a triple axel she could hit maybe 60 percent of the time. We watched not because we were moved by the artistry of the dance but because we held our breath to see if she would succeed or fail in the virtuosic passages. Pieces written for the sake of a performer’s virtuosity do about as much for me as Tonya Harding. (“I would rather be moved than astonished.” Francois Couperin)

Which isn’t to say I’m not up to a 360 Tomahawk Jam. When I arranged Tomas Svoboda’s “Storm Session” for piano solo, Tomas agreed to a notated version but only if it was scored for piano duet because no one can play my version except me . . . it’s just too hard! HOWEVER, that is not the feeling one gets in the audience where screaming erupts at the end of the piece and lasts for “a full minute” (Jana Hanchett, Oregon Arts Watch, March 2013). I HAD to score it in a way that ended up being virtuosic in order to capture the violence and metal and grinding climaxing excitement. Other virtuosic pieces whose technical challenges are hidden by their passion: Mendelssohn’s c minor trio – first movement (meth junkie aggression), Portland composers Art Resnick’s “Toccanata” third movement (maniacally giggly), Tomas Svoboda’s second Sonata, second movement (suicidally dolorous). Virtuosity, whether from performers or composers, is fine as long as it’s a servant of and not a substitute for entertaining the audience.

Go out there, expand your vocabulary, be aware of what you’re feeling. And in those moments when you are moved — either with exuberant passion or quiet reverence or whatever, think about translating those feelings to music with your expanding vocabulary and composition chops, and making the audience feel them too.

Again, thank you for allowing me the privilege of seeing and hearing what you’re up to. I wish you popular and sustained success, and me an opportunity to play something by you in the future. The fulfillment of this wish depends entirely on the non-niche, broader audience you either choose to respect and interact with . . . or not.


 Portland pianist and piano teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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3 Responses.

  1. “You have confused the means with the end.”

    THIS exactly. I’ve been saying this about the serialists (and any living composer who still uses tone rows or process-based composition) for years. The process is a means to the end. Using the Fibonacci sequence (or whatever) doesn’t automatically make your composition “deep,” it’s only an external parameter you’ve chosen to utilize.

    But I digress.

    Over all, it’s a tough road to walk. Smart, but not too smart. Harmonically ambitious but also “accessible.” It’s a constant battle between head and heart.

  2. Ted Clifford says:

    Absolutely great article. I’m not sure I always believe audiences are so smart, but I think it’s the composers job to bring the audience in, not the other way around.

    Can’t help adding – you should listen to The Black Page Part 2; the Easy Teenage New York version! Just sayin’

  3. Jeff Winslow says:

    This concept-hating part-time engineer applauds your inspiring article. (In the actual engineering world, engineers are always poking fun at the concept-driven marketers, but like Jay I digress.)

    Another way of putting the dilemma: Your art will die if nobody but you gets it, but your head is the only one you will ever really know, if that. Use all your resources, from your mathematics to your tantrums. If you’re religious, pray. But most of all use your ears!

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