Take It From Me, Kiddo

Take It From Me, Kiddo

As part of my stint as Living Composer of the Month, last week I conducted an interview with Russ Grazier, the head of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center. I thought that the final question and answer might be of interest to NewMusicBox readers, and so I reproduce it below, along with some additional thoughts.

PMAC: What advice would you give a young musician considering a career and life as a composer?

DS: First, I would recommend listening to everything possible. We now have music of all eras and cultures available to us at the click of a button, and we should avail ourselves of this. Even music that doesn’t hold immediate appeal might help the student grapple with issues or might appear beautiful once it becomes familiar.

Second, I would ask the student to withhold judgment. Different people experience music—and art in general—in different ways. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any two people will have exactly the same taste. And our opinions are bound to shift over time. To me, this is part of what makes art exciting. When we declare our distaste, we limit ourselves and deny ourselves the opportunity to enjoy what we might eventually find to be a sublime experience.

Third, I would ask them to consider why they want to compose. I think too many students fall into composing as a secondary option, little realizing the near-impossibility of making a career as a classical composer. This isn’t meant cynically or pessimistically. I would hope that they would consider the various types of composing and explore those that they hold nearest to their hearts. If you only listen to film music, then you should really consider writing for film—you might even make money! A moderately successful indie recording artist will reach far more listeners than even the most successful classical composers. So, if that’s what you love to hear, why limit your audience?

Fourth, I would encourage all students to explore the world around them. We can find inspiration everywhere as long as we keep our ears and eyes open and ready. A healthy life helps to create healthy art.

Finally, I would help that student to understand that they must follow their own path.

After completing this interview, I began thinking about the various artists whose music I once disliked and now avidly enjoy, and also about those who I once adored and now shun. The former list is remarkable in that it includes many of my current favorites: Harrison Birtwistle, Steve Reich, David Lang, Brian Ferneyhough, and Morton Feldman, among many others. Sometimes my initial response was due to encountering an inferior recording or a specific piece that happened to be less to my taste than that composer’s usual output. But there have been times when the same recording of the same piece has evoked antithetical responses from me through multiple listenings.

I am curious as to what your thoughts are on these issues. What music that formerly repelled you has more recently proved captivating and delightful? What additional advice for budding composers would you append?

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.

12 thoughts on “Take It From Me, Kiddo

  1. Dfelsen@mac.com

    Too long has taste been a rallying cry or the sole content of one’s own musical politics, like composers pick their side before they have an idea of what their own sound (or “path”) is. I think this worked once upon a time because it came with a whole group of like-minded people one could join, or at least that’s how history presents it–and of course this is never true.

    Composing is lonely, you are always second guessing, and the idea of “taste” (meaning what do you LIKE) and “influence” (meaning what do you SOUND LIKE) are always complicated. But I think David makes the best points here about witholding judgement, because how many of us have deemed certain music completely beyond reproach only to come to it later and realize how wrong we were?

  2. mclaren

    The distinctive characteristic of our current era remains the incredible profusion of excellent contemporary composers.So many wonderful current composers work today that the actual problem boils down to getting time to listen to ’em all.

    Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Eve Beglarian, Aaron Jay Kernis, Teri Hron, Jonathan Harvey, Maria de Alvear, Matmos, the Metal & Glass Ensemble, Kraig Grady, Michael Gordon,Mikel Rouse, John Luther Adams, Richard Karpen, William Schottstaedt, Alice Shields, Ros Bandt, Pamela Z, Carl Stone, Kyle Gann, Brian Reinbolt, John Bischoff, Mayumi Teruda, Skip LaPlante, Johnny Reinhard, Cindy McTee, Larry Polansky, Jody Diamond, Annie Gosfield, Philip Blackburn, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Gabriel Prokofiev, Tim Perkis, Joan Tower, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Zoe Keating, markDanciger, Judd Greenstein, Michael Fiday, Dan Kellogg, Louis Andriessen, Timothy Andres, Nico Muhly, D’arcy James Argue, Mari Kimura, Frances White, Warren Burt, Curtis Roads, Alejandro Vinao, Tan Dun, Gavin Bryars, Martin Bresnick, Paul Lansky, Barry Truax, Janice Giteck, Beth Anderson, Elodie Lauten, Eliane Radigue, Gloria Coates, Laurie Spiegel, Martin Suckling, Brenda Hutchinson, Rhys Chatham, Diamanda Galas, Ben Neill, Annea Lockwood, David Behrman, Laetitia Sonami, Art Jarvinen, Paul Panhuysen, Mary Ellen Childs, Evan Ziporyn, Diana Meckley, Tom Johnson, Pauline Oliveros, William Duckworth, Alexandra Gardner, John Adams, Ellen Fullman, David First, Bunita Marcus, Joshua Fried, Joan LaBarbara, Jonathan Glasier, Meredith Monk, Bill Wesley, Maggi Payne, PLORC, Elisenda Fabregas, The Hub, Ellen Zwilich, Susan Stenger, Scott Wilkinson, Susan Rawcliffe, Joan Tyler, Terre Thaemlitz, Mary Jane Leach, Bruno Degazio, Barbara Benary, Gustav Ciamaga, Judy Dunaway, Michael Daugherty, Ellen Band, Wendy Chambers, William Bolcom, Alison Cameron, Christopher Rouse…

    …Tthe list of superb contemporary composers goes on and on and on. The above summary barely scratches the surface. The single biggest problem facing current audiences is that there’s far too much great music being composed by far too many excellent contemporary music to become familiar with all of it, much less hear it all.

  3. dhag

    I agree with everything posted here, and would only emphasize that one needs to write music every day….make it part of the daily schedule. (Of course they should question “why” they need to do this in the first place.) Also, the only expectation one should have as a composer is that they finish their pieces and be happy with what they’ve written. “Happy” meaning that they’ve applied their training to the utmost to make a beautiful work of art, used “the rules” where necessary, broken “the rules” at just the right places…..or “wrong,” whichever you prefer!

    I like perelman’s post and agree with it for the most part. I would only like to add that, obviously, he/she probably shouldn’t listen to music by middle-class suburban white men, unless doing so fuels their anger sufficiently toward middle class suburban white men. Obviously their music can only be maximally relevant to suburban middle-class white men, so who cares?

  4. smooke


    I was thinking more about mental health there. And chips (for me especially corn chips, but NO guacamole) are clearly conducive to mental health.

    As to whether healthy art is indeed a good thing, well, that’s another issue entirely.

    And mclaren states:

    “The distinctive characteristic of our current era remains the incredible profusion of excellent contemporary composers. So many wonderful current composers work today that the actual problem boils down to getting time to listen to ’em all.”

    I would like to add my hearty agreement!! So much amazing music (so little time)!


  5. davidcoll

    I hear there’s quite a few people who consider themselves composers living outside of the states.

    Sorry, mclaren, perhaps too easy a target. But even within the walls of newmusic-box, its worth the occassional reminder that there’s a big world out there.

  6. dhag

    Mclaren mentioned Gabriel Prokofiev and Louis Andriessen; they’re from outside the US.

    I would add Andrew Ford, Benedict Mason, Erolyn Wallen and Helmut Lachenmann.

  7. mclaren

    Of the composers listed, many are non-American. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is a superb Azerbaijani composer who currently lives in Berlin. Her pieces Mugam Sayagi (recorded by the Kronos Quartet) and Deyishme II for tablas and chamber orchestra (listen on YouTube, no CD yet) and Habil-Sajahy for prepared piano and ‘cello are marvellous. Jonathan Harvey is a British composer (check out his magnificent computer piece Mortuo Plango Vivo Voco as well as his wonderful string quartets and Wheel of Emptiness). Maria de Alvear is a Spanish composer who lives in Berlin (listen to her CD En Amor Duro for a great ritualistic minimalist piano piece). Ros Bandt and Warren Burt are Australian composers — check out the compilation CD “Austral Voices,” as well as their electroacoustic music available on other CDs, especially Burt’s brilliant Ulam Prime Spiral and Mr. Yasser’s Piano and Portrait in Saws of Erv Wilson. Alejandro Vinao is an Argentinian composers living in Britian who has done fabulous work with synthesizers and samplers and computers (Son Entero and Triple Concerto) and more recently has done splendid Nancarrowesque rhythmic studies using samplers (Tumblers and Khan Variations). Barry Truax is a Canadian composer, one of the greatest living computer music composers. His CDs of computer music pieces like Solar Ellipse and Nike and Riverrun and Wave Edge are a must-hear. Eliane Radigue is a minimalist French composer whose drone pieces for synthesizer are gorgeous, especially Trilogie de la Morte on 3 CDs and Adnos I, II and III on 3 CDs. Martin Suckling is a dynamic young British composer whose pieces Mosaic and Play strike me as outstanding. Paul Panhuysen is a Netherlands composer whose Etudes For Long Strings are fantastic. Alison Cameron is a Canadian composer whose pieces like A Blank Sheet Of Metal and Gibbous Moon for renaissance instruments using a modern style are gorgeous and quintessentially postclassical and postminimalist. Bruno Degazio is a Canadian algorithmic composer who has used fractal math to produce dynamite pieces like On Growth and Form for live ensemble + computer tape accompaniment. Gavin Bryars is a British composer justly famous for the wonderful tape + orchestra pieces Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic.

    It’s true that I’m not as familiar with foreign composers as with Americans, but that’s because I live in America. Besides, there wasn’t room to include all the fabulous non-American composers like Tristan Murail or Gerard Grisey or Hugues Dufourt or Michael Levinas or Philippe Hurel or Philippe Leroux or Marc-André Dalbavie or Jean-Luc Hervé or Thierry Alla, Fabien Lévy or Thierry Blondeau (France) or Claude Ledoux (Belgium), Kaija Saariaho or Magnus Lindberg (Finland), Sara Carvalho (Portugal), George Benjamin or Julian Anderson or George Benjamin or Nigel Clark or Mark-Anthony Turnage (Britain), Georg Friedrich Haas or Olga Neuwirth or Johanna Doderer (Austria), Mehdi Hoseini (Iran), Johannes Goebel, Hanz Werner Henze, Wolfgang Rihm or Unsuk Chin (Germany), Ana-Maria Avram (Romania), Gilles Gobeil (Canada), Shigeru Kan-No (Japan), or…well, you get the idea. From what little I’ve heard of all these composers’ music, they’re absolutely first-rate and deeply inspiring.

  8. pgblu

    Sorry if I missed the boat, but are we now making lists of composers whose music we like? Sounds like a great idea for a thread.

  9. philmusic

    Sorry if I missed the boat, but are we now making lists of composers whose music we like?

    Nope. I think that Mclaren is playing a game of “fantasy composer” and with hindsight is picking all the winners.

    Phil’s page for losers


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