Be Untrue to Your School

Be Untrue to Your School

I’d seen it happen to a lot of my friends and was certain that I was going to avoid that fate. I had a foolproof plan and an excellent support network. Everyone involved agreed that it shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen. Imagine my shock when I looked back and saw the doom that had befallen me.

I wrote music influenced by my teachers. What’s worse, I stopped myself from following artistic directions that I wanted to explore.

Of course, I chose the University of Chicago for my doctorate in the first place because of how much I adore the music of Shulamit Ran and John Eaton. And I was pleasantly heartened to find that they are wonderful people and teachers who remain dear mentors. And they never once encouraged me to write music in their style or to slavishly copy their voices. They always tried to help me find the path that would make my music the best realization of my inner visions that it could be. They consistently were (and are) most excited by my most original compositions.

Still, I found during my time studying that my aesthetic predilections subtly shifted. Moment by moment, I was making the choices that were the best realization of the inherent structure of each piece. With each piece, I was clearly becoming a better composer, able to control more interesting materials and formal designs. And yet, with each piece I was moving farther away from my original voice and closer to that of my teachers.

I originally began composing for three reasons: the joy of hearing sounds spin, the groove of interesting rhythms, and the beauty in the unexpected. I always find myself drawn to works that sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before; even when the form of those pieces doesn’t entirely satisfy me, I still want to listen to them again and again (thereby creating an interesting oxymoron). However, my own music was starting to become safe. I was leaning on devices that I knew worked, ways of notation that I knew could be played, and in the process, my music had turned into something a bit … stale and safe. And few things bother me more than safe new music—especially when it’s my own.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to recover my original reasons for entering the world of composition. I’ve begun incorporating physical movement by the performers into my pieces at times. Other times, I sit in a groove far longer than is comfortable. I try gestures and tunings that I can only imagine and sometimes they simply don’t work.

Despite all that I learned in school, the final lesson could only be processed after leaving: not to try always to create proper compositions, and to experiment even if it leads to failure.

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5 thoughts on “Be Untrue to Your School

  1. pgblu

    Thank you for this post. Beckett: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

    Yes, I know… but somebody had to quote it.

  2. smooke

    Thank you both for your responses (and I apologize for the delay–I’m new to this). I’m interested in the thought of what we’re risking. Might be a good topic for a future post….

  3. speakingmusic

    This is something I am ever mindful of while in the midst of my Masters work. I want to learn, but not to imitate (too much).

    The music I write needs to come from what I hear in my head. My instructors are their to help with the craft and expose me to new ideas… but the music must remain mine.


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