What’s the Matter with Michigan?

What’s the Matter with Michigan?

The discussion begun last week by my recap of the 2007 Midwest Composers Symposium touched briefly on the issue of regionalism, a matter that I think merits deeper investigation. Let’s talk about two distinct faces of regionalism in composition: Regionalism as a set of “received” aesthetic criteria, and regionalism as a leaching (obvious or subtle) of geographic and anthropological characteristics into the conceptual substance of one’s music.

The famous “Midwestern orchestra sound” is a good example of the former. More than one observer has noticed that a great deal of large-ensemble music from the Great Plains states is, to quote Galen Brown, “really well orchestrated,” “quasi-tonal,” and “as big and loud as possible.” It would not be unreasonable to attribute this stylistic preponderance to lineages of conservative professors at places like the University of Michigan (Bassett, Bolcom, now Daugherty, et. al.). But now that the Information Age is in full swing and there’s no excuse not to know as much music as possible, there’s no particular reason to constrain one’s output to bombastic orchestra music, even if you study at Michigan.

Now let’s turn to the latter aspect of regionalism: Is there anything about the Midwest qua a region of the United States that makes people write music this way? Does it have to do with the mythology of the frontier—could we instead call this style “Conestoga wagon tonality?” The connection between this musical tendency and broader demographic tendencies in the Rust Belt, perhaps including economic depression and population hemorrhage, seems tenuous. Does it have to do with the self-effacing, neighborly quality that’s supposed to be part of the Midwestern character? Does it have to do with the flatness of the terrain, the straightness of roads? Does it have to do with playing an increasingly crucial role in electoral politics despite the aforementioned white flight to the Sun Belt? Does it have to do with the distance from cultural centers like New York and L.A.? In short, what real Midwestern trait (besides a paucity of memorable topographical features) is manifest in this music?

We can play this game of ethnographic speculation with any part of the country, maybe even the world. The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is this: If we thought more about addressing the artistic problems suggested to us by concrete social or geographic features of our area code and less about the music of our teachers (both those composers with whom we study and those who are, themselves, the subject of our studies), we might end up writing more interesting music—not to mention music that carries greater relevance to those with whom we’d like to share it.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

28 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Michigan?

  1. bsacawa

    Well said, Colin. Young composers would be wise to heed your advice. And I think that perhaps more of them are doing so than you give credit for. However, w/r/t your comment specifically about University of Michigan (UM) composers, I think you should also consider that even though many of the student composers there are casting a wide net in terms of what they are checking out, most students, especially let’s say undergraduates, can very easily fall under the spell of their principal composition teachers. And with teachers like Bill Bolcom, Bright Sheng, Michael Daugherty, Susan Botti, et al., it’s not hard to see why.

    During my time at UM, I used to have similar thoughts about many of the composition students there aspiring to write large orchestral or chamber works instead of wanting to work in smaller mediums like solos, duos, or even quartets. Then I would think, “Well it’s no matter that they don’t want to bother writing for a solo player or duo—look at who their models are: the Bolcoms, Shengs, Daughertys, and so on.” I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t any composers at UM that wanted to write for . . . a saxophone, for example. Because there were. Yet when you have a certain type of model and mentor, I think that students—no matter how open their ears are—will be inclined to follow the example right in front of them.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    This topic interests me; I’ve written about it often in my blog.

    One can only hope composers are influenced by the environment in which they live — assuming they actually live in it long enough to sense its geography, weather, time, culture, and rhythm. In a sense, the locale inhabits the person after a while.

    My first decade and a half as a composer was spent in New Jersey, working there and in New York. You can hear the hard edge, the narrow rhythms, and fast pace.

    Then I moved to Vermont, where I’ve lived most of the past nearly 30 years. Despite being online and in touch with composers around the world since 1981, I’ve changed inside such that a few external digital influences have no power in the face of an environment that is at turns lustrous and rugged.

    Is it some sort of great style bound up with ‘mythology’ as you ask? I don’t think so. Yet it seems that to the typically sensitive artist, these things are present, just as we pick up the speaking accent and rhythms of the places we inhabit. My older brother, who lives in Hunterdon County in New Jersey, now sounds alien to me, with that funny high Delaware Valley accent; he tells me I sound like a hick New England farmer now, even though I don’t notice the difference.

    Above I said one can hope composers are influenced by their environment. Without that influence, we’d have a colorless international style, or the style of mainstream media or the most influential cities to which composers migrate in search of success. I left that environment and am glad for it — now. It didn’t feel so comfortable the first few years of oblivion, but as my art synchronized with the weather and geography and culture, that discouragement shifted.

    Beyond changes to my own work, it’s offered an opportunity to hear in a new way and encourage substantial appreciation of the music created outside the isolation of major cities and universities. Cities may cross cultures, but with the exception of anomalies like large snowfalls in Manhattan or hurricanes in New Orleans, they largely wall out the colors, smells, shapes, and most of all the rhythms of the world around, whether it’s the frontier or the tiny, chilly valleys of my home.


  3. trebodni

    From my experience having lived and gone to school there, I noticed that the music written in at least two of the big schools in that region is mainly non-conservative. Conceptual pieces, pieces of rhythmic complexity, of non-tonal languages, colorful esoteric works, electronic music, etc. were and still are living in the Chicago schools and of some area composers. There are some exciting things going on in Chicago that may influence the composition students of Chicagoland. The International Contemporary Ensemble frequently performs in Chicago, Fulcrum Point performs throughout the Chicago area, Gene Coleman’s Soundfield Festival is a regular fixture and New Music Northwestern usually programs more progressive music. Also, the Spring Composers Festival of new music from the area schools is a fine venue to check out the happenings of the student composers.

    Having heard a few Spring Composer Festival concerts, it can be safely said that Northwestern University and the University of Chicago students wrote music that was more on the edge, reflecting the fringe of new music in this country. The music was definitely interesting per the qualities listed above and influenced by composers such as Cage, Feldman, Berio and Augusta Read Thomas. Other schools, such as Columbia College tended to be more conservative with pieces sounding like Bartók, Debussy and even Rachmaninoff.

    Just a word about a case in point on the ‘”received” aesthetic criteria.’ I went to Northwestern at the start of this decade. In the beginning the music and ideas of John Cage were, if you will, indoctrinated at the school. We had students coming from out of the country just to study at NU who were attracted to the conceptual ideas and music of Cage. As soon as Augusta Read Thomas came to town, that changed dramatically. The conceptualists were out and whatever category Thomas falls under was in. She had influenced a new crop of student composers’ sound, some of which are still in Chicago or just finishing up at Northwestern.

    All this goes to say that there is a thriving new music scene in Chicago in both the student and professional spheres that does not contain the supposed artistic problems of other areas in the Midwest. Since having left Chicago and having lived in another area of the Midwest, I did notice that my music was edgier that my peers, but while in Chicago, sometimes I thought my music to be too conservative. The sound of a region’s and the sound a particular individual’s music is definitely a matter of relation to the environment and of those individuals placed in high positions of influence. Could it be then that Chicago has its own sound?

  4. ottodafaye

    “Yet when you have a certain type of model and mentor, I think that students—no matter how open their ears are—will be inclined to follow the example right in front of them.”

    I think that’s a simplistic analysis, and largely untrue. In my own experience anyway, perhaps not in yours.

    Perhaps the UM students who tend to write big ol’ honkin orchestra pieces are there specifically because that’s what they want to do, and the school has the teachers and the instrumental resources to provide that educational experience. You can’t write a huge orchestra piece as a student at CalArts and have ANY hope of hearing it read. Although there are certainly teachers there whom you would do well to study with for that sort of writing, myself not among them.

    I was in Morton Subotnick’s graduate seminar for my last year of grad school, and I don’t think I can name a single composer who studeied with Mort in order to learn how to write like Mort. Nobody was interested in his COMPOSITIONS as models to emulate – no matter how much we might have admired his pieces. Those pieces were and are his own. The people I know who study and studied with Mort want(ed) to learn about the possibilities of technology, and about composition in relation to technology, as well as composing in interdisciplinary collaborative contexts.

    No one comes away sounding like Mort after studying with him.

    And Mort never even tried to infuence me stylistically, technically, or philosophically. I was writing completely acoustic music, and he always dealt with my music strictly on its own terms.

    Mel Powell was a different case altogether. He made it abundantly clear up front that to study with him meant studying his way of composing. That’s why I didn’t study with him, even though Lucky Mosko suggested I take at least a few lessons with him. He said “You’d get some great orchestration lessons”. I simply couldn’t connect anything about Mel’s music with my own, so I didn’t see any point in working with him, if he was using his own work as a pedagogical paradigm.

    Mel’s students fell into two categories. People who already admired him greatly and wanted to write like him. A perfect fit. Or, people who wanted to pick his brain and learn from his skill and wisdom, were willing to do that by studying his style, and then take what they learned and use the useful bits in their own way. Michael Jon Fink is a good example of that. He studied with Mel, but doesn’t sound at all like him. But you can figure out what parts of his technique he probably learned under Mel’s guidance.

    As for my own studio, I have never had a student who wanted to write like me. I have never suggested to any student that they try to write like me. But I do use my own works and techniques as teaching tools – usually when a student specifically has listened or looks at a piece and wants to understand what I was doing.

    That’s often tricky, because it’s usually an older piece and I might not even know myself what the hell I thought I was doing, or how I did a particularly cool thing!

    As far as I’m concerned, the less the student wants to write like me, the better. They can’t anyway, and I’m more interested in helping them find their own voice.

    So, I suggest that the student has the responsibility to choose an appropriately-minded teacher who can and will address that student’s needs, goals, and ambitions, and that a teacher should accept students whom they feel they can honestly and creatively cultivate in terms of that student’s particular interests and needs.

    If the student is seduced by the teacher’s personality, style, technique, power, or whatever, that student is probably not going to be the next composer who changes our minds.

  5. Matthew

    One of the really interesting things I remember from my Chicago days (DePaul, class of ’93) is that those two strands that composers in certain other cities where the cost of living is much higher might characterize as “uptown” and “downtown” always seemed to happily coexist. That’s not to say there was any crossover—you were either writing well-crafted, vaguely academic stuff or else working with wild, energetic controlled improvisation and the like, and never the twain met. But I recall going to Carter premieres and Einsterzende Neubauten shows and seeing a lot of the same people. Maybe it’s a certain cheerful moral relativism that we all picked up from the prevailing political culture.

    By the way: Lee Hyla’s coming. Enjoy the ride!

  6. philmusic

    “The famous “Midwestern orchestra sound” is a good example of the former. More than one observer has noticed that a great deal of large-ensemble music from the Great Plains states is, to quote Galen Brown, “really well orchestrated,” “quasi-tonal,” and “as big and loud as possible.”

    A problem that is not addressed here is the difference between those works that are performed in; University sponsored concerts, public institutional concerts, grant related concerts- readings and alike (some of which are related to these other types)- and self-produced concerts and those works that are not.

    This seems to be a proscribed world, but how can you discuss the many Midwestern symphonies that have not been performed?

    I suggest that the next time you see a film think about what’s just outside the frame-the stuff the director doesn’t want you to see.

    Phil’s Page

  7. jbunch

    just to put this out there:

    How many orchestra pieces come out of Juilliard that wouldn’t be described as “big, quasi-tonal, well-orchestrated, and as loud as possible?”

    So apparently the Midwestern orchestra sound has migrated to NYC (and is skipping up and down the West coast too).

    Is it really possible to get many orchestral performances in this country if your music isn’t big, quasi-tonal, “well-orchestrated,” and as loud as possible? What young composers don’t fit this model. Please, give give me some hope. Show me to be a cynical bastard I BEG YOU!!!!

    Where are the orchestral Morton Feldman’s of today? I’m sure they exist, but I have yet to hear a single one of them.

  8. SonicRuins

    The term/description “well-orchestrated” is problematic and vague. When I go to hear an orchestral piece, it better be darn well-orchestrated, otherwise, why write for the ensemble? But for me, A G.F. Haas orchestral work, a Grisey piece, Corigliano symphonies, Adams pieces, and certainly Boulez etc. are all well-orchestrated. The description used in the previous posts, in my opinion, describes a certain ‘type’ of orchestration and not just good orchestration in general…I’m not sure how to pin point it…someone help me out here. I’m sure others know what I’m talking about.

  9. pgblu

    Is SonicRuins looking for the word “idiomatic”? But un-idiomatic is not necessarily bad either, right? It’s just probably bad, by some standards. Midwestern standards?

  10. jefmyers

    I can’t make any generalizations but I can relate my personal experience. I studied at San Jose State University, Eastman and the University of Michigan. Each school had particular geographic properties and specialties which the faculty represented (in part).

    At San Jose most people were writing pieces for electronics and acoustic instruments. I wasn’t very interested in that per se but it was influential in my musical thinking and still is. All I wanted to do was write orchestra pieces and acoustic chamber music at the time. It was a little bit of a struggle–I didn’t know much beyond Cage, Crumb, Harrison et al, but I was curious dig through the CDs and scores in the library (which stopped carrying new scores after 1980). The Bay Area is great for some people, but I didn’t feel like I fit into the scene there.

    At Eastman, I was overwhelmed with performance opportunities and I was finally able to have my big symphonic music played, ensemble pieces etc. This was great for me, but I still felt like I wasn’t “avant-garde” (for lack of a better term) enough for the people there.
    So I went to Michigan, where I probably fit in the best.

    While at UM, I became interested in microtonality and overtone music, while retaining the more traditional elements (dramatic climaxes, lyrical melodies etc.). Even though my teachers at UM aren’t microtonal composers, I didn’t feel hampered in any way, I just kept developing. To make a long story short, composers write what they like and they eventually land somewhere that makes sense for them. I think that undergrads might be the most susceptable to the aesthetics of the faculty though if they are in a remote place. But eventually curious people will find their own direction wherever they are. (BTW, There are also composers at UM who write music that doesn’t fit into the big loud tonal orchestra piece category too!)

  11. Colin Holter

    I’m glad we finally heard from someone with first-hand experience! Spectral music at Michigan. . . who knew?

    By the way, I really didn’t mean to single Michigan out; there’s plenty of “Midwestern symphonic music” all over the Midwest (slash country), not just in Ann Arbor.

  12. HeadAcheMan

    Generalising into such categories has always been an erroneous exercise. What matters in Michigan is what matters at Indiana, at Julliard, at Eastman, at USC, at UCSD, at Princeton, at The Dutch Royal Conservatory and virtually everywhere else of quality and that is: quality of musical expression IN WHATEVER aesthetic approach is valued above all else.

  13. jbunch

    So as to not be so rude, let me explain. The term “quality” makes me uncomfortable in that judging something on its quality almost always means judging it on its qualities . I seriously doubt whether it is only the case that certain types of composer choose to go to certain types of schools (many are unaware of the stylistic boxes we cram the schools into until after they start grad school – as in my case). I believe that certain schools reject the students that they are uninterested in stylistically. There aren’t too many neo-romantic composers walking the halls at UCSD/UIUC/CalArts and there aren’t that many sound artists and experimental composers filling out the rosters at Michigan/Indiana/Peabody.

    While the neo-R/experimental dichotomy is pretty simplistic (after all there are very interesting writers at each of the schools – many of them thankfully transcending that dichotomy), I think it would be honest to recognize that the reasons for stylistic imbalances cannot be simply pared down to who decides to apply where.

  14. sean2u

    To comment on the bigger musical picture of Michigan the state, as opposed to Michigan the school, is to say that there’s a lot more going on outside of that esteemed university. True, Ann Arbor is a world unto itself. It’s a nicely centered loop in the Bible belt (horrible metaphor) that, until recently, has weathered the economic changes that Detroit is suffering. U of M composers (Bassett, Albright, Bolcom) have painted on the larger orchestral canvas, employed strong orchestration, etc. while composers based in Detroit – centered around Wayne State University where James Hartway has run things for years – have largely incorporated improvisation, freer forms, unusual instrumentation, and many elements of jazz. Some of these would be considered “downtown” characteristics. The irony is that Detroit hasn’t had a downtown for 30 years. Most Detroiter composers make their way to A2 or NYC in search of greater opportunities, a sense of belonging and the opportunity to fraternize with other composers, something that’s pretty rare there.

    The musical legacy of U of M is a great point of pride for those with any interest in new music in the Wolverine State, simply because the rest of it seems like such a cultural backwater.

  15. jbunch

    Proud former Hartway student here! One of us WSU warriors made it down to the last clasp-hole of the Bible belt – Chambana.

    Thanks for mentioning Dr. H. – he was a great teacher! Although I didn’t pick up too many of the elements associated with WSU composition, I remember him always challenging me to go against easily received ideas. None of us sounded anything like him – now that’s a pedagogical achievement!

  16. mlacroix

    …another former (and proud) Hartway student here. The original post had to do with orchestra writing, and the two schools I’ve attended, WSU in Detroit, and now U of Chicago, both lack orchestras that are able to play challenging new music, no matter the style. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will finish up a 3 year residency at U of C next year. We’ve been able to compose for them, but the size of the ensemble doesn’t really allow for bombastic writing anyway. There can’t be anything said for a certain style of orchestra writing because we really don’t have the opportunity to write for large ensembles like students at UMich might. In general, I’d say that we have a wide variety of composition styles at Chicago, but still, we’re fairly conservative. I haven’t heard any conceptual pieces or any improvised music from my peers, or from my professors.

    I used to live in Boston and am also looking forward to having Lee Hyla, and concerts of his music, across town. Although, Evanston can seem a world away in the middle of winter, and/or in the middle of a traffic jam!

  17. sean2u

    Jbunch – you’re right. A pedagogical acheivement indeed is a teacher who urges on students to write their own music. Hartway – and to a great extent my other WSU teacher James Lentini (now at the College of New Jersey) – made this a lasting legacy. Shame on the lack of strong ensembles in the area, which made it difficult to get pieces done. I started my own little concert series in Royal Oak and that seemed a titanic achievement in its own way.

  18. philmusic

    “I’d say that we have a wide variety of composition styles at Chicago, but still, we’re fairly conservative. I haven’t heard any conceptual pieces or any improvised music from my peers, or from my professors. ”

    There is no real difference between improvisation or notated composition as a point of departure that makes one or the other less radical or more conservative. Rather its the results not the style that matters. With the umbrella of inclusiveness Its just as easy for a conceptual work to be conservative.

    http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/PHILJANET/philcomp.html>Phil’s Page

  19. jbunch

    I haven’t heard very much conservative improvisation – although I’m sure it exists. I suspect though that the act of surrendering control compositionally, of introducing the element of chance (or really the coming together of two musical consciousnesses) tends to produce a situation in which there is more real ideological/aesthetic tension then if perhaps someone were just playing notes on a page. In which case you are really attempting to “conserve” nothing.

    I imagine this it what makes a cadenza such and interesting phenomena. But I don’t see that as a conservative trait – it’s the act of interrupting the pre-conceived narrative and interjecting a 2nd opinion. It only becomes conservative when the performer cow-tows to what is expected of them (when it becomes nothing more that a show-off session). Cadenzi, I know, are typically written down – at which point we are talking about a different thing – that is, if the composer also writes the cadenza. But it’s still a helpful analogy.

  20. philmusic

    “I haven’t heard very much conservative improvisation – although I’m sure it exists.”

    As I pointed out in my earlier comments I can’t answer for the music you have not heard or are aware of, yet.

    But I repeat that since all styles are now Academic, it also follows that the results may vary.

    Any style can be “domesticated,” “homogenized”, and for that matter, rubber stamped. That implies hardly any tension at all. Personally I don’t use the terms of conservative or radical, because as the musical trends change so do these positions. I either like music or I don’t.

    Phil’s Page

  21. philmusic

    ” I suspect though that the act of surrendering control compositionally, of introducing the element of chance (or really the coming together of two musical consciousnesses) tends to produce a situation in which there is more real ideological/aesthetic tension then if perhaps someone were just playing notes on a page. In which case you are really attempting to “conserve” nothing. ”

    On second thought Jbunch, I think you are arguing that one type of composition is superior to another.

    Ya think?

  22. william

    I think the enthusiastic response to this thread suggests that NMB might consider creating a more comprehensive and inclusive regional approach to its blogging. I think that would also fit the spirit and mission of the American Music Center.

    William Osborne

  23. Colin Holter

    one type of composition is superior to another

    The type where you think critically and make well-informed aesthetic decisions is superior to the type where you don’t.

  24. jbunch

    I don’t actually believe that is a reasonable implication of the passage that you quoted. On the other hand I think we *all* believe that one way of composing is better than another. That is why we choose to compose the way that we do. I don’t however hold the belief that there is one style of composing that is better for everyone – that is somehow intrinsically or morally correct. I do believe that there is, in a manner or speaking, one way of composing that is – and that is: self-critically.

    The current inequalities that exist in the new music realm today are not solely the result of the composer who chooses a set of stylistic commitments that they are comfortable with. It’s that the whole musical apparatus has lost itself and become either a museum showcasing the greatness of the past, or a modern day buffet that only features desserts. I have no problem with the past – and I love my desserts too, but we are doing something that would be unthinkable to do socially, namely marginalizing the ugly, strange, bizarre, and unpopular. It’s as if musique concrete instrumentale (for ex.) was our deformed stepsister Melba that we chain underneath the basement stares when folks from the parish stop by. I admit that I am woefully disconnected from the financial realities of concert promotion – so my opinion here is a tad naive – but there is damn good music out there that is being shut out of the collective consciousness because it’s too hard, or not lyrical enough, or too “difficult to understand,” or it won’t put butts in the seats.

    So my problem is not with style, and it’s not even with techniques/ways of composing that could be considered more or less conservative. My concern is that everybody out there should get their time at the mic.

  25. jbunch

    and can we all stop sounding like my southern baptist dad for a moment. academic does not mean evil.

    what’s wrong with a center of research and learning where people form communities for the sake of sharing ideas and testing out theories. some things are bound to not work. some people who are unhealthy for the institution are bound to get lodged into its arteries every once and a while. but if you are a composer who has a single degree – quit crying about how bad academia is, or renounce the skills, contacts, and opportunities that came to you through your time in the tower. people all the way from trevor wishart to osvaldo golijov got their training at universities. Academia isn’t perfect but it’s better than we’re making it out to be.

  26. philmusic

    “On the other hand I think we *all* believe that one way of composing is better than another. ”

    I don’t, as I accept the idea that anything is possible with music. So for me, its just as possible to make a composition great for all the wrong reasons as it is to make a bad one for all of the right ones.

    I do agree that we must all get time at the mic.

    Phil’s Page


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.