Composition: Inspiration, craftsmanship and identity.

I know the precise moment in which I became a composer.

It was the fourth in a string of events–hardly well paced–that set me on the path to this life in music; for while I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, it took me some time to learn how to truly live music. The first three events led me to believe that I’d arrived, that I’d achieved something; but they were only sections of a prelude, elegant and naive phrases with clumsily written cadences.

The first came at the age of 14 or 15. It is not much of a story to tell, in all honesty. I was a violinist at the time, or at least I tried to be; I’d been playing for 7 years and had a modest repertoire, as well as a seat as principal second in my youth orchestra, so I allowed myself this delusion. And I was becoming quite a good timpanist; my talent for this particular instrument had emerged and, as my passion was somehow equaled by my work ethic, I was starting to prove my worth. And yet I somehow felt musically incomplete, as if part of me was not expressing itself with any satisfaction. So it was that I awoke one morning with a simple thought: I need to compose. So simple and seemingly innocent was this thought (which would give me little rest in the following days) that I did not realize the terrible danger it posed to my well-being. For to compose may lead, in some cases, to becoming a composer; and to be a composer means to live for music–and live through music.

And so I began to write. First, some clumsy attempts at a Requiem–a natural choice for a reasonably well-adjusted teenager. Then, after an argument with an older classmate who happened to be a trombonist, a terribly naive solo sonatina which was embarrassingly inoffensive in its simplicity. And then came the first hint of danger: the desire to compose a string quartet. I gave into this temptation without protest; and in a matter of a week or so, I had composed my first complete work.

By the time my last days of high school arrived, I found myself in a strange place: I was to study composition at a major conservatory with a renowned composer. I was quite terrified; besides being entirely self-taught in this discipline, writing what I had through a process of trial and error, I had no idea what it really meant to be a composer. I knew what it meant for Beethoven and Mahler, of course; but what did it mean for me? At the moment, it meant that I would no longer be a full-time performer, and having intended to pursue a career as an orchestral timpanist, this was no small change.

Then came the second event. I found myself seated by a composer of some reputation and accomplishment, a man who had lived an admirable life. I had in my possession a few of my works, including some preludes for piano and a movement of the symphony I was desperately trying to finish. I was 17, and felt compelled to finish it before that dreaded milestone of 18. I had little more than a month to go and had found myself needing to work harder on this trifle (which had begun as a serenade for 8 instruments and would end up as a 40 minute symphony for chamber orchestra) than I had planned. My world was filled with potential, but also uncertainty; this made me quite uncomfortable indeed. I’d come to this discussion, which was largely informal, hopeful that this great composer, a man who had worked with Ravel, would critique my work. My hopes were dashed unceremoniously when he informed his audience that it was a policy of his–and had been his entire career–not to critique or peruse the works of other composers. I hid my disappointment as best I could and stuffed most of my music hastily back into my bag. And then came the miracle. As he fielded questions and listened to others speak, he began stealing glances at my bag. One page, then another, and a smile played over his lips. Very discreetly and gently, he motioned to me to lean towards him. With a subtle, kind smile and a friendly but very serious look in his eyes, he said in a voice barely above a whisper “Keep writing.” He leaned back again, gave me a wink and a nod, and resumed his business of fielding questions. There I sat, stunned and encouraged, my doubts erased. I might become a composer yet.

Then came the third event, the moment at which I was certain I’d finally made it. In my first lesson with my professor at conservatory–the second semester, as he’d been on sabbatical in the first– I brought the four works I’d completed in the previous few months. I’d worked with particular obsession on two of them: a Symphony in One movement, and the first movement of a concerto for piano. Another seemed trivial by the work I’d completed since; it was merely a set of dances for piano, not very innovative at all. It was the fourth work, however, that I knew I needed to begin with: a string quartet. It was a strange work to me, very different from any of the others, living in a completely different sound world. I set it before him, and he took it to the piano. Sitting there, he paused, and then began to play. He played the entire first movement, an expansive adagio which lasted 12 minutes, and when he concluded, he sat silently. I waited…and waited…and waited. Terror had taken a new meaning now, and I was quite ready to slink out of the room. Finally he turned to me with a serious look. “This has a…certain lyrical beauty,” he said to me. “It is deeply felt…expressive. And I’m not sure yet what it means. Are you sure you’re only 18?” I was stunned–not to mention relieved that he had something good to say. When I recovered and was able to reply, leading to a wonderful conversation and my first true lesson as a composer, I realized what this moment meant: nobody had ever told me how they felt about my music. The work was performed a few months later, then withdrawn and reworked, with the revised version receiving its premiere a few months later under its new title: Symphony for Strings, Op. 2. The Op. 2 would lead to the fourth event.

The lead up was dramatic, at least to my mind. I was preparing for my first lesson with Dr. A, a renowned, celebrated and highly influential teacher whose former students were household names in the composition world. I was to study with him for three weeks at a festival, and I knew it would be intense: two lessons per week, plus master-classes, and I’d been told that while he was very kind and encouraging, he was also no-nonsense and extremely tough. The Symphony for Strings had been one of the works I’d submitted as an audition, and I was eager to bring it to him along with my most recent misadventure composition, a tone-poem for baritone and chamber orchestra which can only charitably be described as heavily influenced by certain late-romantic German composers. As I sat down with the good Doctor and handed him my scores, I recalled the horror I’d felt in similar situations over the previous few years; I came to the conclusion that they didn’t measure up to the anxiety I felt at this particular moment. The pedagogue spent a few minutes flipping through the scores, moving from expressionlessness to a visage of great thought, even consternation. Finally he came to the Op. 2, and smiled a bit. “Ah, yes, Joseph. I remember this!” I perked up. “Yes, Joseph–this work is why I accepted you. Very good, very good. Now, tell me, Joseph: who are you trying to imitate?” Time stopped. My heart pumped its last. My breath would not come. I hoped against all hope for the floor to open and simply swallow me, and it rewarded my faith with stubborn inaction. My career, I knew, had just ended. “Um…Dr. A…I…I never try to imitate anyone!” I stammered. “I try to write with my own voice, you know, and of course don’t try to…” He smiled. “Poppycock! Absolute bull. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! Now tell me–who are you trying to imitate?” I was speechless. Was my acceptance, then, a cruel joke? Was he regretting his invitation? Did he not even think me worthy of mercy?! He sighed and stood up, clapping his hands together, and exclaimed “My dear boy, everyone tries to imitate the composers they admire, especially when they are young! You’re how old? 21?” “Twenty,” I managed to croak. “Twenty years old!” he cried. “You are a baby! You have a lot to learn yet–and you can, you will! It is good to imitate others–it is a way to learn, and for you to realize what it is about their music that moves you, that makes you who you are–because your love for their music is part of you, an important part! But to become a composer, you must learn how to find your notes and to move beyond imitation. This ‘Vagabond,’ a clever tone poem–but it is not you. It is well written–but it is not you! That is why you are here. I will teach you to stop imitating and to be you. Don’t worry–I know you’re a good boy. Now, let’s get to work.” The three weeks flew by, and I completed three short works in that time. When I returned to conservatory that fall, I presented them to my teacher, who responded with this: “Well, you accomplished in one summer what I wanted to do with you all of this year. Joseph…you sound like you.”

The words of Dr. A have stayed with me all these years (and it is hard to believe that this happened nearly a decade ago.) They will stay with me my entire life, I’m sure. That was the moment in which I realized what it meant to be a composer, not merely one who writes. But just as importantly, it taught me the value of personal heroes. Lists are arbitrary and offer little insight; a top 5 or top 10 can be interesting, to be sure, but are fraught with the peril of value judgments and subjectivity. But to have admiration for someone–not idle, but active inspiration–can serve to drive us forward. We aspire to match them–not in their achievement, but in their desires, curiosity and ideals. As I continue to work and grow as a composer (not to mention as a conductor,) I will focus on these men (and women), their ideals and contributions. And perhaps, from time to time, I shall write about it.


Establishing a canon for American music in the classroom and concert hall.

America has no culture. How many times has this been uttered by people around the world? America has plenty of entertainment: from vaudeville, ragtime and jazz to Broadway, baseball and reality television, we have always been able to pass the time, to manufacture celebrities and fill programming in every form of media. But culture? Surely not! When Americans crave culture, they import it–and why not? Americans love the exotic, and the world loves to come to America. Why should we need our own culture?

This is a tongue in cheek assessment, to be sure, but there are those who may already find themselves nodding in agreement. American culture often seems quite balanced: on one hand, we have an incredible sense of hubris, while on the other we have a massive inferiority complex. It is in this balance that so many of our cultural gems are lost. And when they are lost, or even overlooked, how may we begin to get them back?

Perhaps nowhere is this problem more evident than in concert music. Classical music is a European art form, goes the argument. It is not American; the best American composers merely borrowed from European models, and the finest orchestras tend to import their conductors and soloists (and a good portion of their musicians.) These facts are accurate, sad to say; far too many orchestras overlook top American talent in favor of more ‘exotic’ foreigners. And there is nothing wrong with foreigners! From Toscanini and Mahler to Muti and Masur, American music owes a deep debt of gratitude to men and women from all over the world who have come to America to contribute to our cultural life. But what of American talent? After all, we boast some of the best conservatories and universities in the world; why are we so eager to overlook the emergence of a talented young American musician as some sort of novelty or aberration–a second choice, at best?

Most alarming is the manifestation of the inferiority complex when it comes to American music. Our symphonic canon is, to put it mildly, underrated. In both the classroom and the concert hall, there are few perennial favorites, little patriotism aroused by, say, the performance of a Piston Symphony or the announcement of a new symphony by a Rouse or Corigliano. American music is certainly no pale imitation of European mastery! It is vivid, complex, descriptive, personable and uniquely American. 

A German knows what Beethoven means for national pride. The French have a certain way with Debussy and Bizet. The English adore Vaughan Williams and Elgar. And when it comes to the Russians and their national composers…well…to use the term devotion is hardly a hyperbole. But what of Americans? What does it mean to say Bernstein, Copland or Barber? How about Piston, Persichetti, Mennin? The post-war and cold war eras saw an arms race and space race with Russia, and every opportunity was taken to gloat and celebrate when America bested their Soviet counterparts in some area of achievement. And yet what have we been left with? The Soviets got the best years of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. We got the best of Copland, Bernstein, Barber, and many others. And yet how many times will we see those Russian masters on a program to be performed by American orchestras–while our American masters are neglected by the same ensembles? 

It is not merely a lack of performances; it is a lack of outrage at the lack of performances, a lack of awareness and an abundance of apathy. Aside from Appalachian Spring and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, there seem to be few real ‘hits’ at the box office. Why is that? 

The roots of this issue lie in two places, as far as I can tell. One is the classroom. American music is conspicuously absent from classrooms across the country. The continued compartmentalization of education is surely a factor in this matter. Heaven forbid that, while studying world war 2, we should have any mention of Copland’s Ballet for Martha or that upon examining the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we should be introduced to Bernstein’s Kaddish. How wonderful would it be for every elementary school student to know the themes (or at least the ‘Variations on a Shaker theme’) of Copland’s ballet! 

The second, of course, is the orchestra itself. Few appearances are made on orchestral programs, and when they are they often come with extreme fanfare or on concerts dedicated entirely to American music. Triumph, of course, would be to include with the programming of American music an omission of note; to simply include this music as part of the canon would be a more effective strategy in the long run, as introducing a new food to a child without gimmicks or debate. Give the audience a chance to love this music–their music. It is not merely ownership, but a matter of identity: this music is about them, their communities and their experiences! Why should it not be a part of their life?

I often wonder when music became ‘new music.’ All music was once new music, after all: Beethoven’s Eroica shocked the Viennese, Bruckner’s symphonies perplexed audiences and Prokofiev disconcerted even his mentors. We get over it; we move on, and, most importantly, we come to accept and love it. Why has the work of Americans been so often relegated to ‘novelty’? Much of it is (or once was) an experiment; but experiments prove a thesis, and then become a standard, then ubiquitous. And is that very ubiquitousness not a definition of success? 

Finally, there are the musicians themselves. We consistently walk a fine line between a tortured quest for individuality and a desperate search for association; to belong, to have some classification. The latter seems to be a recent phenomenon, at least as far as the specialty musician, as opposed to generations past in which being a consummate musician was the ultimate honor. But today we have early music specialists and Baroque coloraturas, period instrument orchestras and avant garde ensembles. For some, crossing the line is seen as an ideological shift! And thus we have the new music specialist. And what shall we say of this musician? Should ‘new music’ be the exclusive domain and property of this specialist? Shall this musician shun the works of any composer born before the heyday of Stockhausen and consider any fellow musician who has not studied in a special program the mysterious, exclusive world of ‘new music’? 

To our great masters, of course, this would likely seem quite shocking. The greatest musical communities in history thrived on a desire to learn and live with as much music as possible. And for great performers, it was essential to have relationships with composers. When did the line between composer and performer become so salient and so important? It is an important question, concerning both interpersonal relationships and individuals. For there are many (perhaps too many) performers who look with a wary eye upon living composers, and many (again, perhaps too many!) composers who consider themselves only composers and not practicing musicians. Neither attitude is healthy. Music will be played by people; thus, relationships are vital. And those must be encouraged! 

It is a feature of nearly every artists’ biography I’ve ever read in a concert program, be it a famous soloist or conductor, or a young virtuoso. Passionately devoted to new music! proclaims a section of the bio. A champion of living composers. New music–may I please, please, please simply call it music?–needs champions; it needs devotion, patience, and faith. A composer needs to be believed in, understood, afforded genuine passion. Works need to be commissioned and performed, then performed again, and again, and again. Histories and styles need to be developed, relationships between composers and performers or ensembles formed and maintained, and a lexicon unique to that composer established as a language with which to be familiar and to which fluency is aspired. America can be described in music; it has been, and will continue to be. Composers will speak; it is time for audiences to really have a chance to listen.