A Composer's Adventures

Proclaim Your Rarity

Stagecoach Music Festival - Day One

Willie Nelson performs at the Stagecoach Music Festival in Indio, California, May 5, 2007.
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Nice, Michael. Very optimistic! I applaud the direction you are asking these students to take. The future might be better served by lots of visions, rather than one big one.

  2. Thank you Michael, I totally agree. Great suggestion that: Proclaim your rarity! The music schools try to push everyone through the same forms in order to quantify their competence. It doesn’t work in composition though I can see the power of learning traditional harmony and counterpoint up to a certain level so that one can communicate with your peers and develop an appreciation for what has been done – but the great vista of infinite possibility should be pointed at at every opportunity.

    In some respects I feel I have been hampered by my education in that I obey rules that actually confine my music and worst of all I have caught myself writing hoping that my music will be appreciated. My years of writing program music for media has trained me to ‘behave’ and that has not been a help in finding my voice or experiencing unbridled musical expression.

    I think that the playing that I have done in purely unstructured or ‘free’ situations has been very valuable in my musical development (and enjoyment!) and I am careful to include these situations in my classes with improvisation students.

    I was struck by something I heard someone say once – I paraphrase: “There are only experts in what has already happened not in what is yet to occur” – and what is going to occur is up to us. We can regurgitate, build on what has been done or fly on our own (wing-it) – the choices are infinite. I have sometimes said: “You know something is dead when they start teaching it in universities”. This is not to decry many wonderful teachers some of whom I owe a great debt but you get my drift.

  3. Bruce—Well, the trick is to learn from great composers and past music but not be subsumed by it. That’s tricky because to fully understand something a part of you must love it, but then you need to “edit” yourself so that you depart from the personality of that which you love and admire and use the resulting skills to express your own. We all struggle with that, but that’s what makes creativity such a challenge. I’ve faced many kinds of tasks in my life—carrying mail for the post office and working on a construction crew in the summer between semesters at college (I once had to dig a five-foot deep hole through hard clay and rock for the installation of a fire hydrant), but nothing compares to the often frustrating challenges that composing offers, or the richness of reward—especially when you feel yourself cracking through to the core of your own individuality. I encourage that very quest in every young person I come in contact with.

  4. Thanks Adam—I criticize our education system on many of its various levels, but often admire the teachers who struggle to get their message across in spite of a restrictive and regulatory system. But you’re right, I am optimistic, and I think it’s largely because of the many fine educators I have met out there who do understand the value of proclaiming our rarity.

  5. Hi Michael,

    I stumbled across this and thought you might like it… it goes well with your last posting..

    A Letter to Agnes DeMille from Martha Graham

    There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening
    that is translated through you into action,
    and because there is only one of you in all time,
    this expression is unique.
    If you block it,
    it will never exist through any other medium
    and be lost.
    The world will not have it.
    It is not your business to determine how good it is;
    nor how valuable it is;
    nor how it compares with other expressions.
    It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly,
    to keep the channel open.
    You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
    You have to keep open and aware directly
    of the urges that motivate you.
    Keep the channel open.
    No artist is pleased.
    There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
    There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction;
    a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
    and makes us more alive than the others.

  6. Dear Michael, My wife Jocelyne and I both remain haunted by the world of ‘Urban Requiem’ which we heard in Wolfville last month. I had a glimpse of the score at Mark’s, but I wanted more than a glimpse, so I bought it from Carl Fischer along with the CD, and this wonderful haunting has intensified. And now I’ve discovered your beautiful website, so I wanted to salute the ‘queer, divine dissatisfaction’ (thank you, Phil and Martha) which seems to animate everything you do, and to thank you for the revitalizing joy your music brings. I’ve also acquired the score of Hammer and Bow, as well as a recording of ‘Dream Dancer’ – having just met Ken Radnovsky in Boston! The intensity with which your music has erupted into my life seems commensurate with the many decades during which I was unaware of its existence! Thanks again from both of us…

  7. John and Jocelyne,

    Thanks for much for your kind comments. Yes, I think that a ‘queer, divine dissatisfaction’ describes me quite well. From the interesting nature of your words, I’m curious about you. Are you a musician? If not, may I ask what is your line of work?
    All the best,

    • Hello Michael, I’m a composer, and Jocelyne is a retired singer – we met in Wolfville – we had a splendid dinner with you, and I was one of the eight contributors to the Kitchen Party at Mark’s house. The whole festival was an inspiring experience, with your benevolent spirit presiding over everything! From the message I received via my website, I gather that you’ve visited it – I’ll send you an e-mail in response. Best wishes from both of us, John

  8. John,

    Yes I remember hearing your flute piece at Mark’s house party. Thanks so much for your kind comment. I so enjoyed the kind-hearted people at Acadia U and the fine performance I was lucky enough to have.

  9. Skye "Fern McLarnon" Gladstone March 21, 2013 at 4:22 am Reply

    Hi Michael: your old friend from ABT days. Use to hang out with you and Fred. I proclaim my rarity daily, I was blessed with only the creative side of the brain:) Rarely use the other side, but I don’t seem to need it much. I’m writing a musical at the moment book, dialogue, and lyrics, will be looking for some creative composers to add the music…got any ideas?

  10. Fern,

    What a pleasure to hear from you after all these years.
    Congratulations on your writing a musical, but I’m afraid I don’t know of any composer I could recommend to help you out. I live in another musical world. I would listen to some of the newer composers of the Broadway and pop type and see whom you feel an affinity for in order to find someone who is congruent with your tastes and inclinations.
    I have fond memories of our time together in ABT and you will see a couple of stories in my autobiography that come from our European tour.
    Thanks for communicating.
    All the best,

Leave a reply to Michael Colgrass X