So, I came across another article about ‘Shaking Up the World of Classical Music’. Actually, that’s the title of the article. It’s a well-meaning piece from a life-coach about preparing young composers for life out there in the big bad world. The author, Astrid Baumgardner makes a list of what’s necessary in order to “Shake up the World of Classical Music”.
Item Six is:
- Composers who are committed to creating a new music vocabulary.
Le sigh… In my opinion, one of the main reasons the classical music world – or more specifically the contemporary music world – is insufficiently ‘shaken up’ is that “creating a new music vocabulary” has become mandatory for composers. Why on earth should every composer be required to invent a new musical language? What does this serve to do, aside from alienate audiences and make composers overly self-conscious?
I’ve been to a lot of new music concerts and I’ve participated in more student composer readings than I can remember. I can safely say there is no deficit of composers who are striving (or struggling) to write music in an unique voice. Composers who can effectively communicate their expression to an audience are a distinct rarity though.
This Promethean ideal as a default is a quaint relic of the 20th century and we should leave it the hell there. To cite an overused but-still-apt comparison, composers prior to the 20th century didn’t feel required to create radically new music vocabularies and many of them made very original music. I’m anything but a traditionalist but frankly I’m sick of hearing radically original music that isn’t very good. I’d rather hear composers work within a preexisting style, creating music that ends up being a more thorough – and unique in the long run – artistic expression.
Ok, if you’re a composer and your main interest lies in originality then go for it. But the burden of communicating that new language rests with you. Not all composers are radical sonic innovators though, and not all composers should be expected to be. They should be expected to create unique expressions, whether it’s in an existing vocabulary or a new one.
I don’t exactly know how this ‘mandatory originality’ idea is being perpetuated, whether it’s from composition teachers, grant panels, articles like this… I dunno, but it needs to die. Write the kind of music you want to hear. If it ends up sounding too unoriginal for your comfort, then work on making it a bit more you. If your starting point is an attempt to make a wholly-original piece that’s going to shake the foundations of the classical music world, chances are it’s going to fall short.
A composer’s goal should be creating a captivating experience for the listener, no more no less.