Getting Buffaloed

Getting Buffaloed

Believe me, this isn’t a subject I normally like to broach, but I’m going to do it anyway. My apologies to all the composers under 40 who already know this, but allow me to reiterate for those who might have missed the boat: The stylistic encampments of the musical past are a moot point these days. Unfortunately, our country’s academic institutions—from Mills and Cal Arts to Eastman and Yale—keep indoctrinating students of like mind, rounding up the herds in order to pat each other on the back. Furthermore, this stuck-in-the-mud cronyism carries over to the summer festival circuit. The “system” is outmoded, and the divisions imposed by our institutions only succeed in keeping young creators apart, despite the fact that students themselves don’t buy into all the divisiveness. However, there is one place that dares to bring composers of different stripes together, regardless of aesthetic clashes or historical grudges. I was there last week and witnessed an incredibly diverse group of young composers eager to learn about each other’s approach to music with wide open minds. For this reason alone, June in Buffalo is hands-down America’s most important resource to composers in the early stages of their career, no passport required.

Whether these student were there to get their score read by the Arditti Quartet or performed by Red Fish Blue Fish—who are phenomenal, by the way—each participant had the opportunity to have their music critiqued by the likes of composers Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison, Roger Reynolds, and the festival’s Artistic Director David Felder. Back when I was a student, the June in Buffalo mentors consisted of Mario Davidovsky, Kevin Volans, Vinko Globokar, and Donald Erb. This Long Island iced tea approach might have given students the spins a decade ago, but last week the students simply absorbed all the contradictions, i.e. Charles Wuorinen’s observations on the post-minimalist microtonal piece one of the participants presented to him.

Just imagine if a university decided to hire a comparable hodgepodge of faculty and encouraged their composition students to study with every single professor on staff. Although this approach may not be very “academic,” I would imagine the students that matriculate through such a program would gain multiple perspectives to osmose into their own music. While many composers who mature outside of the academy tend to have a wider purview when it comes to issues of music styles, it doesn’t have to be that way. So with music schools receiving mega donations, will any of them have the guts to go out on a limb to create a Black Mountain-type situation? Yeah, I know the answer, but one can always dream.

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7 thoughts on “Getting Buffaloed

  1. Colin Holter

    I agree 110%. I can be a zealous partisan sometimes, but in terms of policy, stylistic diversity is absolutely vital.

    Glad to hear that June in Buffalo was cool. I almost went, but then I didn’t.

  2. rtanaka

    It may seem like I’m defending my alma mater, but part of what made my experience at CalArts great was the fact that I got to experience music outside of the world of the western compositional style. Lots of opportunities and experiences to listen to non-western music and jazz musics of various varieties. I certainly did not feel like the school was trying to push me toward writing in certain ways…In fact, I was actually kind of annoyed at first when the faculty wouldn’t really give me any direction whatsoever. It’s that kind of place, anyway, where you’re given the opportunity to find yourself amidst the hodgepodge of things going on.

    Were there any non-western, jazz, or folk musicians attending this seminar? (Doesn’t seem like it looking at this list, but correct me if I’m wrong.) I’d be careful about making bold claims about “diversity”, because there are many musicians working outside of the western compositional paradigm that get genuinely annoyed when composers pat themselves on the back in this way. It’s the same reason why jazz musicians don’t take music competitions or awards very seriously either — they know its biases.

    Well either way, I just felt prompted to say something just so false rumors of my school just doesn’t get spread. I’m sure the June in Buffalo was a very wonderful program, but I don’t think the seminar “breaks” from the system as much as you might think, given all the things which you won’t find there. Then there’s the issue of the racial and gender make-up of the featured musicians, but that’s probably for another thread.

  3. davidcoll

    i wouldn’t say that bl mtn is comparable to june in buffalo, unless you’re comparing the pre-olson, cage era. And back then earlier, w/wolpe, it was more of a tanglewood-type thing. The stress w/olson and cage, deKooning, etc, cunningham, etc, was more between artistic forms, not w/in just the musical domain. As for that working w/in a music dept these days, i donnow- black mtn closed pretty quickly afterwards, there were no students enrolled.

    all that being said, i hear june in buffalo’s a great experience, depending on the year..though maybe it suffers from the over-organization, one of the reasons darmstadt is exciting…and painful.

  4. mryan

    Painful memories
    Well, I wish I could say such positive things about my alma matter as rtanaka, but I find myself feeling more in line with Randy’s comments. Earning my MM was not that difficult academically, and I learned some good things compositionally, but emotionally it was a wrenching experience full of petty, harsh, unrespectful criticism. Two of my professors were particularly cold blooded and downright unfriendly toward me. I met one of them last week at a new music concert and instead of smiling and making conversation I got the cold shoulder. I mean I studied with this guy. Is this what music is meant for? to divide us? I am open to all kinds of things and will respectfully listen to almost anything. I may not choose to follow that path in my writing, but what’s the big deal? Some people need to know that everyone feels the same way that they do about something, that their view is the right view. That is the essence of this camp mentality, and one of the reasons I have eschewed academia ever since, prefering to struggle in real world situations than deal with politcal foolishness. ~M. Ryan Taylor

  5. rtanaka

    Gee, that sounds terrible. I had a few professors that were a little less than enthusiastic about teaching throughout my studies, but for the most part my experiences with schools has been pretty positive. Most schools seem to gear their students towards doing certain things (which I got at my undergrad…it was good for picking up the fundamentals and the discipline to practice), but CalArts really does have a kind of a “anything goes” atmosphere. It’s actually kind of weird place where the students often have more power than the faculty…as far as I know none of the professors at my school have any tenure…they’re probably just as nervous as the rest of the student body!

    I was kind skeptical about the school at first because it was just so disorganized, but I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re self-directed enough to do your own thing…they have a strong non-censoring policy and they just sort of let the students run loose around campus…it’s a little bit crazy. It’s almost like an anti-school in a lot of ways.

    I don’t know, maybe schools aren’t exactly representative of reality, but then again, people sort of segregate themselves on the outside too. I mean, if you look at some of the private competition and residency programs, a lot of them are pretty blatantly biased…it’s hard to say which is more diverse, really.

  6. philmusic

    “Just imagine if a university decided to hire a comparable hodgepodge of faculty and encouraged their composition students to study with every single professor on staff.”

    Yes Black Mountain College is, sorry to say, long gone.

    Kudos to David Felder for his musical inclusions and variety.

    Phil’s page


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