I recently asked composition students at a major music school in the US to create a collective graphic notation piece on the blackboard and sing each sound they added. One student grumbled, “First, let me say that I don’t believe in melody.”
It seemed strange that this young composer would start his creative process by thinking about what to avoid instead of what he wanted to invent. The same guy later asked me what I thought of composer Brian Ferneyhough’s music, obviously one of his heroes. I answered honestly, “What difference does it make what I think?”
I was trying to impress upon these fledgling composers that they can be open to all musical and creative approaches. Both their own or other people’s judgments can only limit their creativity.
Sometimes academia can impose limits in styles and scope of writing music, though that is not as common as it was in the past. We all remember how certain major European composers in the ’60s and ’70s made pronouncements about how music should be written, that melody and tonality were dead. I still see traces of this old tight-jacket at universities I visit in the US.
I’m often asked, “Where do you think music is going?” And I answer, “You tell me. The future of music lies in the uniqueness of your vision.” The composition students give me the impression that they’re looking for “the way” to write music so they can jump on that bandwagon. In the American academic world, that practice started in the ’50s with Hindemithian neo classicism; then it was Schoenbergian tone rows and Webernesque pointillism A more recent extreme is to find a simple phrase and repeat it endlessly in a form of minimalism.
I encourage composition students to shed the shrouds of other people’s thinking and give themselves more freedom for personal expression. I understand that Willie Nelson looks in the mirror every morning and says, “Proclaim your rarity.”
More independence is seen in a number of new faces on the new music scene. Granted, some of the current music is overly simplistic, like a Hollywoodish kind of program music or a neo Mahlerian Romanticism, but there are also many signs of a great and original energy. Technology is making all styles from around the world available. Composers openly grab inspiration and create from jazz, rock, pop, atonality, polyphony, ethnic styles, baroque and the classical era.
University music schools offer a huge advantage for composers by giving opportunities to have their music played. They are also surrounded by highly qualified musicians, who can perform almost any newly minted work. The sky is the limit in this unique setting. Composition students should make the most of this fleeting opportunity to develop their personal voice, because they will find the world outside much more limited.