Composers: The Most Democratic of Musicians

Film composer legend Ennio Morricone died recently. It is indeed a sad loss of a man who was so prolific and sensitive to the emotions in a staggering variety of films, from Spaghetti Westerns to dramas and everything in between. This highlights an important issue, for many people say they dislike classical music (meaning: anything played by an orchestra) but I could bet my bank account that everyone would have their favorite music from a movie. I think that film is “where it’s at” in terms of accessible modern classical music, for a lot of what gets put out by composers, especially in academia, is not accessible at all. Of all the different types of musicians that exist, I have always felt that composers are the most democratic of the classical musicians.

I see two reasons for why people dislike classical music or dislike 20th/21st century classical music. Just as with a lot of modern art which is heavily conceptual, many modern compositions require the listener to read and read in order to understand the piece when really it should be something pleasurable and visceral, right-brained and not left. I believe the other part of the problem with people disliking classical music is due to atonality, for I feel tonality is something so innate–we like a tune we can sing, we like a “sound narrative” that carries through the piece, harmonies we can follow, anything that doesn’t sound like putting a cat on a piano. While it’s fine and fun once in a while, an interesting experiment, a heavy emphasis on atonality ultimately alienates listeners. I realize that statement is very controversial.

However, I should caution readers that just as in literature, non-typical tonality can be quite interesting and enjoyable, and what we define as tonality does not have to be limited to something hummable or as predictable as a Mozartian or Verdian melody. Richard Strauss pushes the limits of tonality with seemingly unresolvable harmonies, and the result is nothing short of stunning. Philip Glass’s use of repetitive units (his so-called “minimalist” style, a label which he would chafe at) build and morph into phrases that carry the listener on ethereal auditory journeys; anyone who says they don’t like his music should reconsider after listening to his cello concerto. Bela Bartok’s works often include influences of Hungarian Romani music and the musics of folk cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. African-American composers (who don’t get enough exposure, sadly) such as Florence Price, incorporated the music of her heritage and church, and there is no piano-playing kid who did not play the toe-tapping ragtime of Scott Joplin. Chinese-born MacArthur genius Bright Sheng’s influences could take up a whole post, and he is a wonderful example of someone who has created bridges not only between Asia and the West, but multiple cultures.

In my experience, composers are incredibly humble, open to every genre of music and able to process so many things in their heads. A musicologist might look condescendingly at hip-hop, a flamenco singer might find Indonesian gamelan music “repetitive,” and a Carnatic musician might not be able to stomach the glorious cacophony of Led Zeppelin. An opera singer might try to mimic the quarter tones of an Arabic muezzin and fail. But a composer would be willing to listen to all cultures and genres of music openly, even when the melodic and harmonic systems are radically different. A composer’s ear must be open, ready to listen without judgment. Her or his brain must process sounds as best as s/he can, given the limitations of the tradition that s/he is raised in, the patterns of sound, the instrumentation.

The best Western classical composers are the ones that harness the power of tone color or timbre, who are masters at knowing which instruments produce which sounds for the best effects. Frenchman Maurice Ravel is a composer all composition students study for his genius in this area: one need only listen to a few minutes of “La Valse” to be convinced of this. Gustav Mahler, with his extra-large orchestras, also knew how to command the orchestra, how to use the instruments and be a model for orchestration. There are composers who we can also admire for specifics within the orchestra, such as Dvorak and his lyrical use of strings and Sibelius and his powerful brass. In modern times, a fabulous example is John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances,” which is not conventional in terms of its harmonic or melodic structure and more (sorry for the incorrect label again) minimalist. But Adams’s piece spins out and takes it much further, and takes us on an auditory journey of colors that do not fail to give listeners goosebumps–it is one of my top three desert island pieces. Therefore, it is imperative that a composer be open to all kinds of sounds and to increase her or his palette in order to create rich orchestration.

Most composers (and many classical musicians) enjoy listening to many genres of music. Some of them may not even listen to much in the genre in which they compose–John Adams, in an interview, has said he doesn’t listen to much opera. Whether or not s/he realizes it, a composer is subconsciously observing influences all the time. What is unique, however, is that this “orchestral sound mixer” will translate what s/he has heard into something uniquely her/his own. Of course this raises the issue of cultural appropriation, something for which I think there is no easy answer. In this day and age, there is much less the issue of bad borrowing and stereotyping the way there was in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries (think the horrid Orientalism of Turandot), and we truly live in a global, multicultural era where people can click a button and listen to something from the other side of the world. I argue that it is a composer’s right to borrow different sounds, because sound itself is the most democratic medium that exists. We cannot see it, touch it, but we can hear it and feel it. It belongs to nobody and it belongs to everybody. Composers are merely the channel or vehicle through which sound comes, gets put on paper, and played in an orchestra or ensemble. In a pandemic world where gross human equality is being highlighted at staggering levels, let’s rejoice in something that is ultimately truly egalitarian.

Is There Any American Classical Music?

In summer 2011, I had the privilege of attending a master class in voice at the Mozarteum music academy in Salzburg, Austria.  I was immersed in a different language, a different culture, and, more specifically, a different musical culture.  I had gone with a certain set of expectations as to what I would learn; little did I know that those expectations would be completely thwarted and that my perspectives shifted.

I had expected to absorb the great Austro-Germanic tradition, to be steeped in the city of Mozart, because after all, we in the United States do not have a Mozart.  Nor do we have such deep roots in classical music. The general public in Europe and Austria is arguably more interested in classical music than the American general public.  People might know the words to an opera aria even in a language not their own, or be willing to create radical opera productions because they have seen enough traditional ones to crave something new. Also, classical music in America is plagued with financial difficulties that music in Europe does not generally endure, given that their governments actively fund the arts.  Therefore, the volume and scope of classical music offerings is much greater and lavish than what one can find here in the United States, with the exception of New York city and a couple of other places. Traditionally, royalty and courts have supported classical music, even fostered its development.  So naturally, I assumed that the depth, history, and prominence of classical music in a country like Austria automatically trumped our fledgling American tradition.  After all, when you see Mozart on a chocolate wrapper, you’ve got to assume that these people care!  But my logic was proven only partially correct. After my experience at Salzburg, I came to understand that Austria does indeed have a rich tradition, but I recognized that we also have a distinct musical culture of our own.

Perhaps as Americans we have a complex that our classical music tradition isn’t “good enough” when we compare ourselves to Europeans.  We do not have as long or deep of non-popular or art music in our culture.  And rather than being something that is just a part of our background, classical music here is often an elite phenomenon that is enjoyed by people living more urban areas and/or who are more affluent.  But what is so uniquely American is that the ethnic diversity that is the hallmark of our country is reflected in our classical music. We have deep Italian roots, especially in opera, reaching back to colonial times and including genius librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (think Don Giovanni or Cosi’ Fan Tutte), who was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University; rich, German (choral) traditions so prominently found in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions that are imparted to children in schools from the time they are very young; African-American spirituals and blues traditions that have filtered into our sensibility through compositions and also through the performers, who are often known for their passion, elegance, depth of feeling, and (pardon the horrible cliche’) “soul”; refugee Jews who brought with them their rigorous training in technique, deep knowledge and scholarship, and emotion when they escaped various pogroms or wars and settled into various conservatories, universities, musical ensembles, solo careers, or even Hollywood film studios; and in more recent decades, the influx of Asian musicians who bring incredible discipline to their craft and an unparalleled enthusiasm for excellence, not to mention brilliant artistry (Sarah Chang, anyone?).  Various artists of classical musics from around the world have also inspired the American tradition when they have come here and collaborated with our performers and composers.  And of course, we cannot neglect our good old “Yankee ingenuity” with innovative individuals that have created unique forms and styles of their own.  We have Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and renowned women like Joan Tower and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.

These are, of course, but broadly painted generalizations of our various cultural strands, and I am indeed neglecting numerous others who have contributed to our classical music melting pot.  But the point remains:  America is indeed a powerhouse in terms of classical music.  Certainly in such a huge country there is a wide range of training for aspiring musicians, some of it downright shoddy.  But there is also plenty of world-class education too, preparing the future virtuosos and good, decent, working musicians of tomorrow.  American conservatories and music departments are full of international students and professors—-if this is not a sign of our musical prowess, I don’t know what is.  Our diversity has made our classical music heritage something remarkable, drawing on the strengths of various cultures.

I am now a wiser musician who can certainly appreciate a Mozart, or a Sibelius (visiting his home outside Helsinki and even being allowed to play his piano was a most heartwarming experience!)  But I have learned my lesson through experience, learned how wonderful a classical music tradition we have here in the United States.  And the exciting thing is, it’s only going to grow even more.  It really does take stepping away from your own country in order to appreciate it.