Tales of a Misspent Youth

Tales of a Misspent Youth

I’d like to backtrack several weeks here and take a look at an issue that was raised but not completely resolved in an earlier post (and magnified in a number of insightful comments from Chris Becker): What’s the nature of the relationship between my generation of composers and popular music?

It’s said that medieval monks could, given the appropriate mnemonic aids, recall and perform hundreds of chants without difficulty. I’m confident that many of my contemporaries could do the same with recent vernacular music. One of my composer friends can nimbly and effortlessly recite Tupac verses; another is a walking encyclopedia of U2 riffs. The sector of my brain that was once occupied by the quadratic equation now holds MF Doom rhymes and Crowded House chord changes.

As I argued a few weeks ago, I think this capability is valuable, but it raises another question: Are my colleagues and I at a disadvantage because pop, rather than Western classical music, is the music in which we were socialized? In other words, wouldn’t it be better to know the Beethoven piano sonatas forwards and backwards than the second Weezer album? Were we listening to the wrong music in our formative years?

Those of us who are preparing for doctoral prelims in the next couple of years would probably agree that we were. I certainly wish I had familiarized myself with the standard rep rather than Gang Starr’s “Just to Get a Rep,” and not just for the prelims’ sake either. My respect for the “classical” literature is enormous, having heard and performed quite a bit of it, but my knowledge of it is peppered with holes—holes that are not only embarrassing but also potentially detrimental to my compositional awareness. More importantly, I wonder how years of pop have shaped my perception of music as a listener. Has my familiarity with the conventions of rock weakened my ability to make sense of large-scale formal shapes, for example? Why is it that even my favorite new music masterpieces don’t elicit an emotional reaction from me, but the right band playing the right song at the right time can reduce me to tears?

Obviously, the ideal solution is to know as much music of as many different styles as well as possible, and that’s what my fellow composers and I are trying to do. But no matter how well we know the Haydn London quartets or the Mozart-Da Ponte operas now, we can’t go back in time and make our preteen selves pick up the St. Matthew Passion instead of It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back at the record store.

Will the composers of my generation who listened exclusively to the great music of the past when they were growing up rise to the top of the field? I think they will. Are those of us who know Pinkerton better than Opus 110 irreparably hamstrung? My suspicion is that we are. The silver lining, however, is that our conscious and diligent efforts to overcome this handicap might result in a music at which the former group simply couldn’t arrive.

And, if not, there’s always an audience for Steve Miller Band covers and Gang of Four rip-offs.

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13 thoughts on “Tales of a Misspent Youth

  1. sgordon

    Colin – I think you’re completely wrong, and by that I mean you’re completely right.

    If you had some Beethoven Quartet in your head rather than Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos, you know what? You’d still have a hole in your knowledge that would be potentially detrimental to your compositional awareness. It’s a question of if you want to be a well-rounded, relevent composer or not. If all you want to do is write Western Classical Tradition fluffenstuff or modernist / serial hullabaloo, well, go ahead. Nothing wrong with that if that’s all you want out of life. Might get you some (teaching) gigs, but really – wouldn’t it leave you unfulfilled?

    Besides, that same western tradition has a history of embracing outside influences. A familiarity with and love for popular and folk musics didn’t hurt Ives, Copland, Bartok, Glass, Zorn, or any number of others.

    I’m perfectly happy – I think it makes me a better composer – that I can play the changes to Madonna’s Borderline and Cole Porter’s Bewitched on autopilot. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I’m glad I can appreciate the way snippets of Slayer guitar solos were woven together by Terminator X and The Bomb Squad to create something entirely new out of pre-existing sound sources on Nation of Millions. I’m ecstatic that I can hear the obvious influence of Ennio Morricone on The RZA. Can you imagine hearing Wu-Tang and not being able to link it to Morricone? Do you honestly think it would make you a better composer if you were some out-of-the-loop cultural ignoramus? Do you actually envy those composers who read your piece, who are reading this, and have no idea what the hell we’re talking about?

    Well… like they say, ignorance is bliss… Personally – not so jealous.

    You know enough Beethoven Quartets. If there’s one missing, boo-hoo, fuck it. It ain’t that different than the ones you already know. No sense cloggin’ yer noggin’ with it when you could use that valuable space for something else to make you a more well-rounded individual.

    So you’re completely wrong in your assessment, but you’re completely right in the way you’ve led your musico-cultural life. Be glad you picked up Nation instead of St. Matthew.

    Got a letter from Juilliard the other day – opened it, read it, said they were suckas…

  2. stevetaylor

    Great post (as always) Colin. But many of my favorite works of recent music affect my emotions powerfully: Messiaen’s Et Expecto, Ligeti’s Requiem and the Sixth Piano Etude, not to mention Stravinsky, Britten et al.

    Were you thinking of composers in the generations after Messiaen and Ligeti? Then, yes, it gets harder to find works that give me chills, although Saariaho and others have done it for me occasionally – maybe the later generations haven’t quite struck deep enough yet. But the right band at the right time, definitely!

    -Steve Taylor

  3. dalgas

    Funny, it strikes me that not only this post, but also recent ones by Frank and Randy on ostensibly different topics, really seem to be dancing around the same subject: How much “other” music do we need (not “want”) to hear in relation to who we’re going to be as composers? Assuming that what we make makes us happy and the ideas keep coming, would anything still be required listening for that composer? — Steve Layton

  4. Frank J. Oteri


    You do point out an interesting convergence here. I feel that composing music, or writing poetry or novels, or painting paintings etc. is ultimately engaging in a dialogue. And, in order to be in a dialogue, your work must somehow communicate. And, if it’s not a dialogue, then perhaps it’s a diary, which is all well and good but that is something else entirely.

    I think that in order to effective engage in a musical dialogue, you have to hear as much music as possible. I don’t think Colin was wasting his time when he was listening to Public Enemy instead of Beethoven. And I’m sorry that he seems to think his time would have been better spent only with “the classics,” but I think he was just pushing the polemic button a tad bit. That’s my read, anyway, but he should speak for himself.

    I once compared Fear of a Black Planet to the Eroica, out of deep love and respect for both. (That’s perhaps a discussion for a later time. But I will say that only Beethoven fans were troubled by my comparison, which I find sad and somewhat revelatory about the classical music mentality.) I think that closing oneself off to any form of music making is ultimately an anti-social activity (and, for the record, this is in no way a reference to Anti-Social Music). That said, I also think that most attempts to keep up with what is “cool” or to be well-versed in the “canon” are two-sides of the same wrong-headed game of basing personal aesthetics on someone else’s judgment. By all means listen to everything you possibly can, but don’t listen to a specific something just because it’s on the top of some list somewhere.

  5. dalgas

    Frank, I think “dialogue” is a little off the mark; more like a “multilogue”, though with some aspect of a monologue always present. I’m certainly not telling anyone to close themselves off to what been, being, and will be made across the spectrum; jeez, I’m the guy with hundreds of records, cassettes, CDs, and ca. 8,000 MP3s hanging around the house! But I did try and make a distinction between wanting and needing to hear. In that regard, I can’t say anyone has to hear it all to be a better composer, especially if they’re making work they’re truly satisfied with.

    Even with all that’s gone in my ear, if someone offered me a piece by musician X (any place, time, style) or one of my own pieces, I’d honestly choose my own every time. That’s the truest test that I can think of, as to whether I’m on the right path with what I make. The argument could be made that it was all that listening that got me to that place, and some part of that must be true. But how much of what I heard (and hear) was what made my music, and how much more must be heard, are pretty gray areas; I just can’t bring myself to start putting “musts” and “have-tos” in there. — Steve Layton

  6. Colin Holter

    Frank is right – like our president, I have a weakness for soaring rhetoric, and I took a harder line than was perhaps necessary. I would argue strenuously that certain pieces of vernacular music are entirely able to withstand comparison to the masterpieces of the past; the second MK Ultra record is, as far as I’m concerned, the equal of any Schubert zyklus.

    However, my concern about the tectonic effects of pop music saturation on one’s compositional psyche (as opposed to knowledge of/familiarity with/admiration for Western high-art music) is genuine. Is it possible that an individual who listens almost exclusively to albums, which contain songs, which are often shortish, single-affect pieces that remain in one key area and include a maximum of three formal substructures, will be programmed to respond more actively to pieces of concert music that reflect these conventions? If so, would that individual be less capable of appreciating, for instance, Feldman’s For John Cage because it differs so radically? I hope not – I’d hate to think that everyone else is getting so much more out of Mahler than I am.

    Somebody should run some tests and get back to us.

  7. sgordon

    Is it possible that an individual who listens almost exclusively to albums, which contain songs, which are often shortish, single-affect pieces that remain in one key area etc etc etc…

    I doubt that that’s really exclusively what you listen to. You must have some degree of knowledge of longer forms if you’ve already gone through a Master’s program. And if not, well, I dunno what kinda school you went to…

    Besides, someone who listened almost exclusively to long form classical music would be lost if they wanted to write a song. Try getting everything you want to say into a succinct 3-minute package when you’re used to having an hour to play with.

    But… this brings up something which I kind of glossed over first time through, something you said in the original article:

    Why is it that even my favorite new music masterpieces don’t elicit an emotional reaction from me, but the right band playing the right song at the right time can reduce me to tears?

    Well, seems kinda simple – you just don’t like classical music as much. Fine by me though – for the most part I feel the same way. But that brings up a rather important question: Why in the name of all that’s holy are you studying classical composition in the first place? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, mind you, but that’s like someone who only finds themselves moved – like, goo-goo-ga-ga moved – by abstract expressionist painting spending their college years studying Renaissance still life technique. I’m just curious more than anything – if it doesn’t move you, what drove you to study it? Especially in light of the fact that there was something else you were that passionate about.

    There’s a hell of a lot of it I sure don’t love. Or even like. Or can even tolerate. But that said, there’s a lot of “new music” (or whatever you want to call it) of long form that does move me very deeply, so I’m not entirely disappointed with my current direction in life.

    Still, I have my own “why didn’t I?” – I’m wondering why I waited until 2000 AD to start learning Motorhead and Slayer riffs. Oh no… that’s what everyone else was doing in the late 80s and 90s, I had to be different, wasting time trying to force-feed myself Milton Babbitt et al in the hopes I’d acquire the taste for that licorice. And now, thanks to MB and his crack team of academic propagandists getting all up in my younger impressionable brain, I’m not in a kick-ass metal band today. Like I don’t have enough other reasons to hate the dude (for those keeping score: 373 and counting…)

  8. bb

    It doesn’t matter where your influences stem from. It’s what you do with them that matters. Base your grand fugue on that favorite U2 riff. Borrow your favorite pop chord progression for a stirring chorus in an theatrical piece. Employ a Depeche Mode hook as a layered ostinato. Just make sure that it satisfies, that it still is original and has some substance to it, something you and perhaps your audience can connect with. If pop music has that much power over your conscious mind, you’d be a fool not to tap into that direct feed.

  9. ian

    Base your grand fugue on that favorite U2 riff. Borrow your favorite pop chord progression for a stirring chorus in an theatrical piece. Employ a Depeche Mode hook as a layered ostinato.

    I find it kind of curious that so many people equate “pop influence” with taking actual quotations from famous pop music and incorporating it into traditional classical forms (or, as Molly Sheridan would say, “covering” whole pop tunes on acoustic chamber instruments). Much of my music is pop-influenced, but I take the opposite approach: I write “classically-informed” music and adapt it to timbres and gestures and instrumentation more readily associated with pop.

    The difference may seem minor, but I think it’s important. One approach values pop for (and thus reduces it to) its symbolic cultural meaning. It’s almost like hanging out with the captain of the football team in the hopes that people will think you’re cool. The other approach values pop music for the tremendous and historically significant advances in sonic exploration and technology that have come from that field during the past 50 years. That’s more like taking a football to the science club meeting, tearing it apart, and making rocket fuel out of it.

    Anyway, to each their own I guess, but my preference is pretty clear.

  10. marknowakowski


    I have to agree: those of us who didn’t grow up in purpoted “musical households” have spent a lifetime catching up. Sometimes I catch holes in my own knowledge/ability that, while they haven’t affected my success, truly humble me.
    Pop music is not to blame, however. It’s that 20,000 hours we spent watching television and playing video games as children. Did you ever wonder how folks in ages past seemed to have accomplished SO much before the age of 30? I think that the opiate of easy entertainment is our biggest enemy. As children, it clogged time that should have been better spent. As teachers, we face the constant battle of convincing students why they should “practice instead of watching television.” It goes without saying that it has created a short attention span culture, which works directly against our efforts.
    This extends past the field of music — despite the many books I’ve read, I feel under-read. I don’t know enough about art and theatre, either. It’s maddenning, at times, is it not? Awhile back I attended a conference on Nadia Boulanger, populated mostly by her former students. I simply couldn’t believe their knowledge and musical skill. I also couldn’t believe the things that Boulanger expected them to be able to do. It made the “catch-up” game seem even more daunting.
    On another note: I believe that the lack of “chills” in modern music directly relates to the subject matter and beliefs of the composer. When you write a piece that is just a “cool collection of sounds”, you shouldn’t expect it to elicit any deeper spiritual responses than you put into it. Pop music succeeds, because the spiritual/emotional seeds and intent in the process shines straight through in the end product. There is no artistic or scholarly pretension. For me, modern music chills come from folks like Gorecki, Part, Takemitsu, and others whose intents went clearly beyond the scholarly. Somehow, Boulez doesn’t have the same effect. I prefer composers who wear their soul on their sleeve.

  11. sgordon

    folks in ages past seemed to have accomplished SO much before the age of 30

    People always say that but I suspect it’s not true in the slightest. The only reason it seems that way is because the only people you hear about in the history books are the ones who accomplished things. I suspect most of the other bazillion people were too busy breaking their backs farming their little patches of dirt to ever accomplish anything but hand-to-mouth day-to-day survival.

    But people invented machines that made various jobs easier, increasing productivity, and people found themselves with more time on their hands. I say, as a society, we have earned the right to watch TV and fritter away our free time surfing the internet or playing miniature golf or – um, writing music.

  12. marknowakowski

    Well, then, I would rather model my life after one of those people who “accomplished something.” Keep in mind how many great composers lived a hand to mouth existence as well, yet managed such great things!

    Is it not interesting, also, considering the fact that we have invented all of these “time saving devices”, that we continue to find new ways to be superficially busy?

  13. Colin Holter

    This is a bigger discussion than I’m prepared to jump into, but I would say this: You and I believe that writing music is a valuable use of time – more so, anyway, than playing Xbox or watching Iron Chef – but this attitude is by no means an historical given. My suspicion is that even today there are more than a few budding composers whose families feel that they should be curing cancer or fighting in Afghanistan instead of putting dots on the page. Most twenty-first-century Americans can probably agree that sitting slack-jawed in front of the tube is a waste of time but maybe not that writing music is any better.


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