Not Rocket Science

Not Rocket Science

I was half serious last week when I suggested that universities swap their composition textbooks for The Complete Idiot’s Guide® To Music Composition. Not to belabor the point, but I found the following response to my musings interesting:

…in the same way that idiots guide to rocket science hasn’t produced a new Werner Von Braun, I doubt the idiots guide to music composition is going to produce a new Morton Feldman.


I couldn’t disagree more with what is implied here. I was privileged enough to grow up in a non-musical household. Music wasn’t something engaged in at home or with other family members. That said, I began composing rather young—and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. It’s embarrassing, perhaps, but I’ll admit to actually liking some of the stuff I created before I became cognizant of the term “music theory,” even to this day. In my blissful unawareness, I made some brash decisions as to harmony and counterpoint—the aggregate of which I can’t seem to emulate after many years of musical training. (Think along the lines of those brilliant sparks of naïveté exuded by some Christian Wolff compositions—how does he do it?)

In my book, a composer doesn’t need to navigate through the Ivory Tower in order to rise to the stature of a Morton Feldman—to suggest that such credentials are required to make art is a ridiculous notion. It was Feldman himself who recounted the story of how, when he first showed John Cage a string quartet he had written and Cage asked how it was put together, he responded, to Cage’s delight, “I don’t know how I made it.” More often than not, going beyond knowledge is required to make great art. Seems to me that those with less education to begin with have a shortcut to their creative zone if they are confident enough to tap into it.

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10 thoughts on “Not Rocket Science

  1. abernstein

    I agree. After years of writing and playing music on my own and with friends, it was tough deciding whether to study music seriously in an academic setting. I thought that if I spent too much time thinking about it and learning to “right” way to write music, I wouldn’t be able write in my own voice. I guess it’s hard to tell how I would write if I hadn’t studied music, but I don’t feel it has stripped me of my voice. and on the other side, I don’t think it’s necessary to have musical training to write moving or innovative music. If you don’t know the rules you might end up creating a whole new game.

  2. davidcoll

    Randy, while i agree with you that its possible that composers might find their way to writing equally interesting music as feldman, i don’t think jbunch is implying that one needs to come from some ‘ivory tower’.

    After all, feldman isn’t a prime example of someone coming from prior established ways of becoming a ‘legit’ composer- granted, he studied w/wolpe- clearly an important element in his training- the way he arrived at composing the ways he did all come from an intense personal investigation, resulting in rather amazing breakthroughs in form.

    All in all, the main thing is that whether or not one would use such a tool as the idiots guide, it would only be one small element of how he/she arrives at composing. I’m not saying much here, except to say that i don’t thnk jbunch implied an ‘ivory tower’ – its clear feldman doesn’t represent this.

    Am i being clear?

  3. pgblu

    You seem to imply (in your half-serious way — which half?) that Feldman wrote his string quartet coming from some state of complete cluelessness. Remember that his response to Cage is recounted not by some historian, but by Feldman himself in a moment of hagiographic waxing, and we have no way of confirming that, in fact, he had ‘no idea’ how he made his string quartet. Feldman, to put it mildly, said anything to gain the approval of his interlocutors. So he not only found the words that would make Cage happy re his String Quartet, he also found the narrative that would make his students and his readers (Randy Nordschow) happy as he recounted the story.

    When he recounts the story, recall that this is just after he showed the same piece (?I think) to of all people Milton Babbitt, who half-sympathetically (which half? ;) ) said, “Morty, I have no idea what you’re trying to do.” That experience certainly colored his own perception of his work, and his idea of how he ought to be talking about it. I don’t believe for a minute that he was, in fact, the least bit clueless.

    That said, comparing rocket science to composition is misleading, to put it mildly. I would agree with what I think was jbunch’s main point, which is that if you have no need for, say Wuorinen’s “Simple Composition” or Persichetti’s “20th Century Harmony”, then for your compositional bliss you probably don’t need the Idiot’s Guide, either.

  4. gregrobincomposer

    You only lose your voice if you allow your training to do so. Your “voice” is an accumulation of training and lack of training, musics you like and dislike. That said learning more is not a disadvantage. Everyone has opinions. If their opinion is different than yours you can
    a. discount them and their view
    b. accept their view as superior to yours
    c. learn their view, become educated, make a decision

    That said music history is a linear progression. From raising the seventh tone of dorian at a cadence —— melodic minor——- to chromatic harmony—– to the dissolution of the tonal system et al. One can deny it, accept it, but the least an artist ought to do is know about it, understand it and then formulate an opinion. If books taught, my students would all fail because they do not read books!

  5. philmusic

    Questioning the relationship between training and successful works of art is an interesting topic. One must be mindful that there are many different kinds of training. Especially these days when there is so much interpenetration of the arts

    Of course there are also many different kinds of results.

    Phil Fried

  6. mdc

    depends on the destination…
    “Music Composition for Dummies” might not produce another Feldman, but it might help a future David Foster or Paul McCartney or Jonny Greenwood.

  7. jbunch

    ok. Maybe I should chime in? The point of my entire post was that firstly, attacking “Ivory Tower Composers” seems simplistic and unfair. Just because someone goes to college (as, I’m assuming the majority of the composers on this site did?) doesn’t mean they are an emotionless, non-creative automatons that spend half their time worshiping their bust of Shoenberg and the other half whittling away at their own. The majority of the students and professors that I know fall squarely outside of the straw man that they are ceaselessly compared to.

    Secondly, I think that it’s a little disingenuous to presume that just because someone is uneducated or takes an strictly intuitive (pre-conscious?) approach to composition, that their work is somehow immediately more genuine and honest than someone that has had an academic background or scrupulously and systematically structures their music (which may equally be the case with an “academic” or “non-academic” artist). To me this reflects a reaction formation that attempts to correct one misapprehension with another.

    There was a reason why I used Morton Feldman as an example and not, say Elliot Carter or Milton Babbitt – I wanted to emphasize that what I do not object to is what Boulez rejected – “bricolage” or more positively, the nutty, Ivesian self-reliance that makes a lot of great American experimental music (whether up/down/out of- town) fresh and interesting.

  8. philmusic

    “…Just because someone goes to college (as, I’m assuming the majority of the composers on this site did?) doesn’t mean they are an emotionless, non-creative automatons that spend half their time worshiping their bust of Schoenberg and the other half whittling away at their own…”

    This criticism here is not about “academic” music at all.

    What you mention is really the backlash against intellectual approaches to music composition. Granted.

    Yet if one looks at your typical college/university composer, and there are 10’s of thousands of them, that is not what or who they are at all. Most follow the trends or compose music in tonalities. Some folks want to pretend it ain’t so–but it is.

    Musical style teams (usually associated with a particular college) throw brickbats at other musical style teams (the others) all the time-hardly worth mentioning.

    The general criticism for academic composers is that they are invested with a authenticating title, and all the trimmings, and no one knows who they are.

    Phil Fried, Skid-row U

  9. jbunch

    “The general criticism for academic composers is that they are invested with a authenticating title, and all the trimmings, and no one knows who they are.”

    I’m not sure how recognition is de facto more authenticating than availing oneself of an education in music. And all of that is relative anyway. My engineering friends don’t know who John Adams, or John Zorn, or David Lang is any more than they know who Charles Wourinen or Elliot Carter, or Luigi Cherubini is. In fact – every one of them knows who Cher is (and can sing “Life after Love” on command if you ask). The fact is that no one starts college with the goal of becoming an “academic composer,” rather they probably just want to be *a* composer and there aren’t many places that provide you with the time and resources to grow out there.

    I fear that I might have misunderstood what Randy was driving at though. If your point is to say that it’s possible for someone to create interesting art from an auto-didactic background – it would be hard for me to argue with that. I don’t disagree. If your belief is that such situations ALWAYS produce more genuine and creative work than someone with an academic training – it would be easy for me to argue with you there. I don’t agree. These are hardly controversial positions. It’s not a matter of “authenticating titles” after all, but of personal constitutions: a thoughtful person (“lettered” or not) has a better chance of creating more engaging work (even the good naivety that you spoke about earlier in this post) than a thoughtless person. And to avoid being misunderstood, what I am not doing is making a distinction between “thoughtful academics” and “thoughtless non-academics.”

    There is dumb naivety – dumb simplicity – just as sure as there is dumb complexity or over-calculation. In my opinion what is needed right now is not, as Phil said, the tossing of “brickbats,” but simply that the celebration of one methodology of creativity doesn’t require the oedipal destruction of everything else.

  10. philmusic

    “..but simply that the celebration of one methodology of creativity doesn’t require the oedipal destruction of everything else…”

    I agree–no style prejudice!

    One thing.

    Several of the composers I went to grad school with went with the particular objective of becoming college professors. In that seance they did in fact want to be “academic” composers. That is – part of the academy. Self actualization don’t you know.

    A last thought – many folks who claim to be connected to say, John Cage for instance, tend to overlook just how well trained a musician he was.

    I believe he worked with Schoenberg who was self taught.

    Phil Fried, overworked and overfed

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