Written: May 14, 2003
While applying (unsuccessfully) for doctoral programs this past year, I couldn’t help but notice that many programs required, as a doctoral thesis, writing a big piece (often for orchestra, with a minimum length of 15 minutes) and presenting a detailed analysis of it. Both halves of this requirement seem misguided to me.
Firstly, it seems strange to me that writing a big, long, orchestra piece is considered proof that a composer is worthy of a doctorate, as if being able to produce such work is the pinnacle of the composer’s craft. This strikes me as an outdated idea, a holdover from 19th-Century Romanticism, the ideal of huge, sweeping orchestral pieces full of grandeur and opulence that would sweep the audience members out of their seats. Essentially, they’re reminiscing about when the symphony and tone poem were considered the highest forms of musical expression.
I think this is a little worrisome. All kinds of music are being written now, by all kinds of people, and it’s a little pathetic that these institutions are holding on to an ideal of music that’s no longer relevant. Is a piece of music inherently more worthwhile than another because it’s longer? Because it’s for more instruments?
That’s not to say that writing big, long orchestral pieces is something I disapprove of. (I’m sure that many composers will sleep better knowing that.) What I find distasteful is the implication that that’s what true composers spend their time doing, or at least striving for, and that everything else is secondary.
I wonder if there’s a little bit of wishful thinking on their part that the plurality in the world of music composition will one day coalesce into a coherent whole, with a musical language common to all. I recall hearing Gunther Schuller claim that composers were really just waiting for the next big thing to follow, and then the composing life will be just peachy again.
This is bullshit. I hope it never happens.
The great and exciting thing about contemporary music is that everything is possible, and anything can happen. I love going to a concert of new music and having no idea at all what to expect. I love listening to a composer I’ve never heard of before.
As an aside, writing only for orchestra is not particularly feasible these days (unless a composer spends all h/h time becoming a part of the orchestral world…sometimes by conducting). Most orchestras rarely play modern music, for reasons that I believe are a large part financial. Much of it is hard to play – not only in terms of plain technical difficulty, but also because there’s no established performance practice to draw from or rebel against. This usually means extra rehearsal time if an orchestra wants to get it right, which costs a lot; or results in poor performances if the orchestra doesn’t have the resoruces to spend (or doesn’t want to spend them). And, on a different level, fewer people want to give money to contemporary music because fewer people like it.
Though, also, many classical musicians don’t want to play modern music.
I’ll reserve the subject of liking/not liking modern music for another rant, since I can be bitter about that for many, many paragraphs. In fact, I’ll hold on the rest of this rant for now also.