Nuts and Bolts

I am a classical contemporary composer. What does it mean to be a contemporary classical composer (composer of new music, western art music…the linguistic specifics vary)? Probably that you studied at some sort of University toward a music degree at some level that focused in composition. At the very least you’ve taken a composition lesson or an introductory theory class and written down your music somewhere according to the traditional system of Western music notation (y’know, quarter notes, treble staff, all that good stuff). According to Nielsen SoundScan’s report for the first half of 2011, classical music sales constitute 2.4% of the total CD sales market. Though there are no hard statistics collected on it, I’m guessing the percentage of those CD sales that constitutes newly composed music is probably less than 10%. So contemporary classical music is less than .24% of total CD sales. We are a minority within a minority. As Alex Ross puts it in the preface to The Rest is Noise, a history of twentieth century music written for non-musicians, “classical music is stereotyped as an art of the dead, a repertory that begins with Bach and terminates with Mahler and Puccini. People are sometimes surprised to learn that composers are still writing at all.”[1]

Where do contemporary classical composers live? For the most part we thrive in academia, the only place that is willing to fund what we do. In 1958, avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt wrote a controversial essay in defense of composition as an area of academic specialty, “Who Cares if You Listen.” Babbitt explained that the tragedy of contemporary classical composition (and of the arts in general) is that the average concertgoer has the right to make the statement “I didn’t like it” about music without giving a reason why. Whereas, if this same concertgoer were at a lecture for advanced mathematical computations, “I didn’t like it” would not suffice.[2] New music is complicated and sometimes that complexity does not lend itself to pleasant sounds for passive listening. You have to be an active listener. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire isn’t going to slow down so that you can figure out the transpositions of the twelve-tone rows.

I think it is valid and important that difficult, avant-garde new music is preserved and cultivated in an academic environment, free of the passive listener’s “I don’t like it,” but I also think there is something lost in such exclusivity, in the way of music education. Right now, the average (non-academic) music artist has the right to look at a score from a traditionally studied composer, like Bach, dismiss it as classical and say, “I don’t understand it,” and “I don’t do that.” Or even worse, “I can’t do that.” But “classical” isn’t just a genre. The study and analysis of Bach is compositional craft. It’s the nuts and bolts that music is made out of. All music on the Billboard charts can be notated according to the system of Western music notation, but since the advent of recorded music we have come to consider the final recorded product, whether it be vinyl or mp3, as an adequate substitute system of documentation. The abandonment of Western music notation has resulted in an abandonment of craft. But if you’re not writing with at least a basic knowledge of those nuts and bolts, and you’re a musician, then what are you even writing?

That’s the question I asked myself as a young songwriter. I recognized that there was a whole lineage of female singer/songwriters that had come before me (Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco being my particular weak spots) and that, if I wanted to make music my profession, I was going to have a hard time of it thirty years from now if I were to continue writing songs about ex-girlfriends. I wanted a sustainable career. There’s a trend in the media that I call the “magic discovery myth:” the myth that one day your garage band, or you-and-your-guitar will “make it big” because some kind record producer in the audience is going to be looking for fresh talent to sign. For example, Nickelodeon’s Big Time Rush, a television show about a boy band that is discovered and makes it big, features such encouraging lyrics as:

If you wanna be discovered

And end up on the cover’ve every star-studded supermarket magazine

You can do it

Stick right to it.

It could happen tonight.

It is this idealization of chance, minimal practice, and the kindness of strangers over years of study, creative autonomy, and job security that has lead to the decline of bands and music artists with the ability to have a lasting career. The less time you spend perfecting your craft before you enter the public arena, the less tools you will have to work with once you have developed a following and a brand.

Or another example of vacuous popular music, the song I hear playing on the radio all the time, “Tonight Tonight”[3] by Hot Chelle Rae, a pop band (of attractive pale boys with stylish haircuts, vacant eyes and reasonably placed tattoos) named after their first MySpace stalker. Ostensibly they play instruments, though I can’t seem to hear any live playing of instruments in this track through all the chic post-production. The song is about humorously forgetting things due to inebriation (then bravely proceeding to once again seek inebriation) and sounds like a poorly developed nursery rhyme:

La, la, la, whatever

La, la, la, it doesn’t matter

La, la, la oh well

“Frère Jacque” does more musically than this. “Frère Jacque” is a four-part canon, which one writes through embellishing a harmonized chord progression in four-voice counterpoint. Basically a first grader can comprehend more music theory than Hot Chelle Rae can produce.

By no means am I arguing that all music written by untrained musicians should be dismissed and, on the flip side, by no means am I arguing that all popular music is written by untrained musicians. I’m just recognizing that the vast majority of non-art music is written by people without compositional training, and I think this is terrible flaw within our system of both music education and music consumption (often the two are indistinguishable). There is a lack of composition teachers working outside of the academic bubble. I had to fake my way into compositional studies at first, for the most part, by pretending I understood avant-garde twentieth century music (if you fake for long enough eventually you’ll find that you’re not faking any more). But widespread ignorance is unacceptable and something needs to be done to fill the gap. You wouldn’t get an operation from a surgeon who didn’t finish medical school. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer who didn’t pass the bar. Then why do we consume music made almost exclusively by artists who don’t understand the fundamentals of the language of music? Notated music should be a majority, not a minority. In an ideal world, all writing musicians should be able to proudly call themselves composers.


[1] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), xvi.

[2] Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if you Listen?” High Fidelity vol. 8 no. 2 (1958): 126.

[3] It’s also interesting to note the idealization of “tonight” in both songs mentioned, which reinforces my point about the lacking comprehension of the benefits of delayed gratification.

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2 comments

  1. I just wanted to stop by & say I think your blog and your writing are great. Keep doing it!

    1. Thanks for reading! I really appreciate the comment. I look forward to catching more of your articles on NMB 🙂

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