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The Realities Of Exceling As A Composer


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I know this may sound heartless in some cases, but a composer's music must be severed from the composer in order for the music to be considered in any form of useful comparison or evaluation. The circumstances of composition may have been awful, but that doesn't mean the work is intrinsically better because of it. Ultimately, the composer will pass on but the music will live (assuming it living on in legacy). We hear about Bach's music simply as his music, not Bach's music that was written for the purpose of a church music director that fought with the Leipzig city council to write good music while working in an awful job and having children dying around him right and left. Sure, this may be interesting historically, but this shouldn't affect the music itself, only our perception of Bach himself, not Bach's music.

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Ah you misunderstood my post completely. I agree with you wholeheartedly about separating the person from the music. Allow me to clarify - there are many people who do not become good at composition for the simple fact they lack the resources, support, or health to complete the study and gain the opportunities to write for performers.

I am sorry but I doubt highly someone who writes a feel good hymn in a clumsy evangelical Christian contemporary music style will get much of a chance beyond his local church to hear his pieces. That may be fine - in that case that person is fortunate to have found a place to write and hear performed his music. But there is a certain level you reach where it requires the money and access to resources.

Also Tokke, Bach is a horrible example. He came from a family of musicians and was thoroughly trained in music so that he was well-equipped to study rep on his own. He also had been a professional musician since his late teens. He "paid" for his training by assisting his uncle and the church --- so Bach knew what he may get into with thechurch since his youth.

Maybe it is your youth Tokke but as you teach and meet more people from a various walks of life maybe you will better understand.

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We used to get members on this forum who felt that going to school and graduating were the quick route to making it successful as composers. The degree certainly does help, but as Morgri above notes it takes hard work and sacrifice to get where you want to be. Things don't just come on a silver platter.

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Well, then here is a question -

What is more important - sacrificing the little time you have after working a 10 hour day with your family to compose and study music or spend it with your family?

I am not questioning what is REQUIRED to become a good composer, rather it is a question of whether the circumstances allow you the time and "sacrifice" to become a good composer. And I agree there is a limit to blaming circumstances. But there IS a point when circumstances totally influence a composer's output and how he or she writes. Again, can any of you name a famous composer of symphonic music that came out of China between 1966 - 1977? What about the Jewish composers who did not make it out of Nazi Germany in the 30's? And what about all the women composers' between Hildegard and the early 20th century? How many of those composers do you know or have heard their music? One important aspect to the development of a composer is the size of the audience his or her music is heard by - for some of the composers fleeing Germany and granted refugee status in the US, this is what saved them from death.

I guess my point is there are a ton of non-musical factors which accelerate, impede, or even destroy a composer's ability to compose(well of course aside from the obvious - death or such physical incapacity to prevent composing). I'd love to see a history of a composer from a far more political-economic viewpoint. probably the closest one I have ever glanced at was The Bach Reader which lists mundane things as what he would charge a prince for organ lessons (comes out to $400+ an hour in today's US currency!) and his diaries which complain of lack of firewood and basic comforts).

I just am offering too a challenge to you all when you evaluate a work to desist from looking at musical factors first and rather see what is the composer's circumstances and whether it may have an effect upon their ability to compose. This does not making fallacious correspondences between an extramusical quality such as "gay traits" and musical characteristics of a composition - that ends up in drivel.

For example, Richard Strauss was trained in his youth in the music of Mendelssohn and those before Wagner due to the very conservative tastes of his family. My question is what happens to composers who are in a similar situation but, unlike Strauss, don't have the funds or connections to open up their world to more kinds of music? I am not talking rigid , willful ignorance, but rather circumstances which mold a composer towards a more traditional path versus a more unusual or "radical" path.

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China: Bright Sheng

To answer your question, which is really hard to do, it's on the person. I've been married for almost ten years and wish I could compose more. There has to be a balance. I teach to pay the bills because composing pays just a little (as fas as right now.)

I can only think of few composers who JUST compose: Derek Bermel, Gabriela Lynn Frank, David Maslanka, and Eric Whitacre. Everyone teaches college!

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Well ,then Maestro, if you don't mind me using you as a guinea pig - what is the main compositional approach of your peers? What type of music do you teach your students?

If these factors do not make that much of a difference then may I ask are you conversant in say microtonal composition? Why retread the repertoire you know and spend time exploring say Harry Partch's oeuvre? Or Sheng's music? Or something else? Does the music and liturgy of your church influence your compositional approach? Who paid for your undergrad education? What about your Masters or PhD? Where there any musicians in your family?

Again I am not saying if you were raised in a non-musical family you will never be a musician - no, that is fallacious. However, it reduces the probability you will go into it.

If it helps any of you - take the old adage "It takes a village, to raise a child." Well, would you agree it takes a supportive community to raise a composer and without it, the odds become more difficult unless you actively seek such a community?

As for your example, Mr Sheng was born in 1955. Therefore he was 11 when the Cultural Revolution occurred and migrated to the US in 1982, at the age of 27. So Sheng is an OK exmple, - but find me a Chinese composer who was already well established and say in their 20's or 30's about the time of 1966. Not saying it is impossible to thrive as an adult - one personal example is my grandfather who left a thriving business in 1946 in Palestine because the government was scaring people to leave and there had been terrorist attacks from both pro-Israeli and Nazi supported Arabs during WW2. Eventually he and his family came to the US in 1948 in his forties with 5 kids and started all over again. You know how he was greeted after he got through cistoms? A cabbie charged him $40 in 1948 dollars to drive him 5 miles. That runs about $250 today. Anyway, he built a successful business which my Dad took over. Yet, he relied on my grandmother and his kids who spoke better English as my grandfather never had time to get his English down that well.

So, Maestro, think about my questions. I think it may be quite educational to see what extra-musical factors may have steered your compositional influences or choices.

I owe an apology for not starting this thread with this question.

PS. Many of this generation take for granted the opportunities the internet avails to find a community - yet it is deceptive. The online communities can be quite shallow in that you create a ton of talk but no action.

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Great in-depth discussion:

Chinese Composers:

Chou Wen-Chung was Bright Sheng's teacher. There are three in that class of '78 as we call them: Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, Chen Yi. Two Pulitizer Prize winners and MacArthur winner..the list goes on!

Family

My family were not musicians. They are teachers and factory workers so I guess I am the abnormal. Heck, all of my grandparents were farmers and great-grandparents. My grandfather stopped and became a truck driver. His son works at the plant and myself and a musician/educator. So I guess I kind of kept the teaching tradition but with a musical twist!

Musical Background:

My father loves music and being the Black church does have a profound impact on the way I think of music. I grew up listening to Blues, Hip-Hop/Rap , Motown, and smooth jazz. Yet, I have a career in classical music as well as R&B. Then again, blacks are the smallest group in classical music. go figure...

Matriculation:

I had a tuition grant for undergrad, could-have-been free master's (long story), and free doctorate.

The thought process.

Style:

I know microtonality but choose not to write. I love melodies and that's how I write. Atonality does not speak from my heart. My emotions come forth musically in a melodic fashion. Could be because of my background, who knows.

Living accommodations:

Most of my earlier works were composed in a small room (room 2057) at the University of Michigan. My works now are composed in a living room with two other people in the house.

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thanks.

One observation about those involved with the church amd its music. In that area, you deal a ton with vocal music. And singing quite a bit of the more free tonal and microtonal stuff requires some specialization which you do not normally encounter as you are working with church congregations. In itself the more traditional liturgical music and concert possess their own challenges (I mean the Bach B minor Mass, some Howells and the demands of some gospel keep many musicians busy for a lifetime!)

However, professional choirs today who premiere modern works do get these styles down well - however, it does require a bit of specialization. But so do those choirs who specialize in medieval and rennaissance - especially English Gothic and Ars Nova with their rhythmic complexity and incredible degree of contrapuntal complexity at times.

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as far as process, most of us had the same teachers although different styles (although Derek and I probably have the closest in styles.) However, we imply similar techniques in our writings. What is that technique? Hard to say in a couple of sentences. However, if you want t o study and explore my technique, let's Skype.

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Hmm, may take up that offer. But I have taken a stab at choral writing - a short little Kyrie for Rick Erickson (of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the NYC Bach Vespers, and hearing his Bach Choir traverse such tough territory at the St matthews, Bach Motets, etc ... ). I will post the Kyrie - old piece but I still like it. Just the score - I hate the midi rendition.

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