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The Composer's Art -- James Fry

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For a composer of concert music, this century is an exciting time to be alive. There is more freedom to explore and create than at any other time in the past; however, this very freedom also presents some of the greatest challenges to both composers and audiences. Imagine this. You are reading this article. You understand every word perfectly. You put down the booklet and pick it up again after some time only to discover that B LU O*oZ B LUZ o @ -- In a manner that was perhap s not as sudden or dramatic, this is precisely what happened to western art music at the beginning of this century - a musical "Tower of Babel."


Tonality and Its Decline

It is difficult to characterize in a few words how all this transpired. During the previous 300 years (roughly 1600-1900) there was a common musical language, the system of major-minor tonality. Its development over several centuries is considered one o f the great cultural achievements of western civilization. Although each composer had his or her own personal "accent" within the confines of tonality, everyone shared a common syntax. Under this system, all musical tones are organized around one centra l "keynote" called the tonic. Over the course of a "tonal" composition the emphasis may shift away from the tonic, but it always returns at the end to reestablish the home key, providing a sense of unity and finality.

Ironically, the major-minor tonal system contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. By the late 1800s, composers were writing music that strayed away - then stayed away - from the tonic more and more. One result was that each composer's s tyle became more personal and exclusive; the other was that a clearly established tonic was no longer considered essential. The next step, taken in the first decade of the twentieth century by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, was to employ tonal elements, but not in the normal syntax of major-minor tonality. Then, in the 1920s, Schoenberg and Webern took a more revolutionary approach by devising a musical syntax with no tonal reference: "atonality."

Of course, the above is a great over simplification of a very gradual process. But most important is the implication that this radical shift has for today's composers. It means they not only have to develop a style of their own, but an entire language o r syntax.

Accelerated Change

After this tonal revolution, a period of alternating extremes ensued -- experimentation on one hand vs. a search for lost traditions on the other. In the 1920's many composers, especially the French, felt that Schoenberg and Webern had taken the wrong pa th and that music should be more grounded in past traditions. The term most often used in this connection is neo-classicism. A neo-classic composition may make prominent use of any element from the past: traditional formal structures, the musical scale s of major-minor tonality, etc.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the rate of change in musical language and technology has accelerated dramatically, largely in response to new technologies. This experimentation, perhaps, reached an apex in the 1950's and 60's, when composers such as John Cage began to question the universally accepted definitions of music. Taking his line of thought from Zen philosophy, Cage expanded his definition of "music" to include any sound in the environment. He also felt that a composer should sacr ifice the personal "ego" by assigning part of the decision making process to chance procedures or to other persons such as the performers. The technical term for this is indeterminacy. It means that some important element of a composition is not determi ned by the composer. Say, for instance, the notes of a composition could be chosen by rolling dice or simply left for the performer to choose. Or, perhaps, the composer could allow the performer to choose the order of individual movements within a compo sition. Needless to say, the music that resulted was even more revolutionary than that of the early twentieth century. Cage's most famous, or infamous, indeterminate work - 4'33" - is usually performed by a "pianist" who merely opens the lid and sits m otionless for the allotted time. The "music" consists of the sounds taking place in the immediate environment of the concert hall - often the rustlings and murmurings of an audience that is not prepared for the challenge of pondering new and innovative d efinitions of music.

As is often the case, one extreme gives birth to its opposite. While some composers were experimenting with indeterminacy, others were seeking to write highly determinate compositions where all the elements were strictly controlled. The best medium for that turned out to be the newly invented magnetic tape recorder. A tape piece needed no performers and, except for the quality of the loud speakers and the ambiance of the concert hall, was the same each time it was performed. By eliminating the perform er, the composer could exercise almost absolute control over the finished product. Oddly enough, the resulting music, rather than sounding highly controlled, often sounded as if it were randomly produced.

Recent Compositional Trends

The 1970s and '80s, like the 1920s and '30s, represent another cyclic shift back to the traditions of the past. Instead of confronting and challenging the listener, composers today are taking the audience's cultural conditioning into consideration by re- employing elements of tonality. Some composers of this neo-romantic style, as it has been called, have written entire works in a nineteenth-century style, such as that of Brahms or Mahler.

One of the most recent trends is minimalism, as demonstrated in the works of Philip Glass and John Adams. The composers themselves naturally object to such a categorization, but the term has stuck for want of a better one. Minimalism in the broadest sen se refers to a music of minimal means. But what it really refers to is a highly repetitive, tonal or modal music which employs minimal changes. Interestingly enough, compositions in this style are often quite lengthy, many spanning an hour or more.

Although we are experiencing an era of musical contradictions and ironies, the unprecedented possibilities hold much promise for the future.


Today, there are more people writing music than at any time in history. Just in the United States, there are thousands of composers writing music at various levels (the Directory of the College Music Society lists approximately 1,650 teachers of composit ion at the college level alone). Considering all this creative activity, it is ironic that we generally care more for the art music of previous centuries than for that of our own. This has not always been the case. For example, in Mozart's time, no one was interested in the music of J.S. Bach, written a half-century earlier - they preferred the latest Mozart or Salieri opera. Today, how many people have even heard of Joseph Schwandtner, John Adams or Michael Torke - the most successful composers of th e current generation? It's not difficult to see why: 1) contemporary art music has not been responsive to audiences; 2) new music is often more concerned with philosophy and process than with the resulting sounds; 3) university-employed composers are not in any way answerable to listeners for what they write; 4) the advent of recordings have created a large market for the "masterworks" of the past.

Recent technological developments have had a profound affect on both composers and consumers of music. Computerized notation programs have eliminated the need for music copyists. Synthesizers and sequencers allow composers to "hear" or test their compos itions during the creative process. More importantly, such equipment also offers amateurs the means to compose and hear their own music on a level that was formerly only available to the professional. So, to some extent, it is now possible for anyone to be a composer. As a result, today's music consumers are turning from passive listeners to active participants.


It is difficult to determine how much the creative process itself has been affected by modern technology. In my opinion, the essence of creativity will likely never change, regardless of the tools employed in the process. Creativity is much like humilit y: once you think you possess it, you've lost it. To be creative is to be a part of a tradition - an extension of what has been created before. This means a composer must be able to work within reasonable limits - the limitations of the performer and t he self-imposed limitations of a personal musical language or syntax. Though it seems contradictory, greater limitations usually inspire greater levels of creativity. Another contradiction concerns form or structure. It is impossible to compose without some preconceived plan or idea, yet slavish adherence to a preset formal structure can stifle the creative flow and result in a composition that may be formally correct, but uninspired. Form should evolve naturally from content.

To be creative means to be rational and practical. After all, one has to be concerned with whether to write E-flat or D-sharp, or whether to write for the viola or for the violin. But the truly worthy ideas originate from a place where the rational mind 's action is suspended. To embrace that part of one's self is to encounter chaos itself. Accessing this area of consciousness is not always easy; thus, composers have experimented with an interesting array of methods to put themselves in touch with it. Extremes of pleasure or pain seemed to have had a stimulative effect . For example, when Beethoven was having a dry spell, he performed austerities, sometimes walking barefoot in the snow. Wagner surrounded himself with luxury and wore very fine cloth ing while resting on fine satin pillows. Haydn, on the other hand, spent much time in prayer shutting out the impressions of the sensual world. Of course, composers like Mozart needed no external prodding whatsoever.

Unfortunately, the creative side of composition is only a very small part of a composer's responsibilities. Practical considerations occupy the majority of ones time. First of all, most compositions are undertaken because of a commission or promised per formance. Even after a piece is "composed" there is much work to be done. Preparing a musical score and parts takes many hours - one minute of a complex orchestral work may take as long as twenty hours to produce. Then, there is the business side of be ing a composer. One must send works to publishers, seek recording contracts, prepare press releases, contact musicians about performances, etc. Often there's very little time left for writing music.

Although there are many ways to receive income, only a handful of concert-music composers actually make their living writing music. Even the famous composers of the past could not support themselves solely through composition. Bach worked as a church mu sician. Chopin taught piano lessons. Rachmaninoff pursued the career of a concert pianist. As late as the 1700s, the church or the court supported composers whose function was little more than that of a glorified servant. In the nineteenth century, wi th the rise of a middle class "consumer" of music, composers and performers escaped aristocratic restraint. Today, the principal patron is the university, a place where composers are free to write according to their own vision - free to make revolution u pon revolution in the world of music. A professional composer's compensation depends on what the market will bear. Well-known composers can command as much as $10,000 for an eight-minute work for three performers. In most cases, however, publication ro yalties are usually small. Fees for the licensing of performances can be much more lucrative, especially if the performance is an orchestral work broadcast over the radio or TV.

Study Questions About Music Composition

  1. What are some of the distinctive characteristics of 20th-century art music?
  2. What effect has technology had on music in the last half of this century?
  3. What are some of the reasons for today's breech between composer and listener?
  4. What is "tonality"?
  5. What is "indeterminacy" ?
  6. What is the principal patron of today's composers?