I’ve been teaching composition to a very talented young man, Cooper Wood for not quite two years now. This week he discovered Varese, and emailed me with a question:
I’ve been doing a lot of listening to 20th century composers recently because I want to liberate myself from composing invariably in a tonal idiom. I’ve been listening to Antheil, Cowell, Varesé, and Hovannes [sic]. I love the sound all of them have, but every time I try to compose non tonally I get stuck and fall back on tonalism. When and how did you sort of break free from tonalism and started relying on other parameters of music to compose?
Here’s my response:
Boy, this is a big question.
We’ve never really talked about how I got going in composition. My junior year of high school, I had a free period and didn’t want to take a study hall, so my guidance counselor suggested our school’s gifted and talented program, in which about twenty of us pursued our own interests and passions, with a teacher to facilitate things (and make sure we actually did something). The year before, I had taken a class in computer graphics and sound in which we learned Encore, an early notation program, so I had developed a taste for moving notes around. Based on that, I decided that my “thing” would be composition, and I now had a class period every day to devote to it. I didn’t really know where to start, and I didn’t have very much guidance, which in some ways was a blessing, because I had to figure things out on my own. Up until this point, I loved doing music, was excited about it, and even thought of myself as rather good at it, but I had never thought of making it a profession before, and I wasn’t even taking private trombone lessons. That year, I worked through a part-writing book, practiced a lot of trombone, listened to a ton of music (the public library let you check out four CDs every week, and I had my driver’s license by that point, so I could get there when I wanted to go; they had a great selection of classical music, including a good amount of the cool late-minimalist stuff that was coming out in the 80s and 90s).
There was one other composer in the class, Renee Goubeaux, who was later my first girlfriend, and is now a cellist in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. We sort of spurred each other on, sharing stuff with each other and talking about pieces we wanted to write. I had done a lot of reading, and was starting to put sounds with what I had read. I tried to write a few pieces–I was interested in writing band music, canons, modal things that incorporated serial transformations. We performed a couple of pieces as part of the performances that the class would put on.
The next year, my senior year, I did more of the same, culminating with my senior thesis, a concerto for trombone and string orchestra. I played in the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra that year, and auditioned for colleges as a trombone performance and music education major. I thought that perhaps composition would have some place in what I was doing in college, but I didn’t feel like I had been doing it long enough to make it my main focus. I did take some private lessons as an undergrad with Wes Flinn, who is now on faculty at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and with Joel Hoffmann, who is still at CCM. I immensely enjoyed taking orchestration and studying counterpoint in my theory classes, but I still didn’t consider myself a composer.
Despite all the listening I had done, I still didn’t understand that a composer didn’t have to be someone who wrote pretty melodies–I thought there had to be a catchy tune, somehow. It didn’t seem to occur to me that what I was hearing in, say, Philip Glass, wasn’t about tune at all–it just sounded good. In those pre-Internet days, scores were hard to come by, and I wouldn’t have necessarily thought to go looking for them, either. So I spent years thinking of myself as an arranger, or as someone with an interest in composition but not doing much composing.
I’ve also realized that I never really was a “tonal” composer, in that I never took the time to really absorb the language to tonal music and let that be my pure expression. Perhaps this is my background as a trombonist instead of a pianist, or just listening to years of rock music (my other favorite music), and then being dumped into the world of wind ensemble literature in college (although we played Persichetti in high school, too). I have a real ear for orchestration and a strong rhythmic understanding of things (we’ve discussed this), but I’m not a tonal harmonic composer in my heart of hearts.
I also am not a part of what used to be called the “avant-garde,” and what these days we refer to as “new complexity.” I don’t compose tonally, but I don’t compose in such a way as to be deliberately ground-breaking or difficult all the time. I want to compose music that expresses what I want to express while also being something people want to hear and perform. Sometimes I’m successful in this, sometimes not.
So–as much as I’ve been exposing you to post-tonal methods, techniques, materials, and repertoire, if you are, in your heart-of-hearts, a “tonal” composer, you need to write that way. Study the rest, because it may come in handy someday. What I’ve been trying to get you away from isn’t “tonal” composition, but writing that is merely a copy of historical styles. There are reasons to write like Chopin or Mozart, but it’s difficult to be taken seriously in 2014 if that’s all you do (in fact, I’ve found it useful to engage in style copies at several different points in my career).
That trombone concerto back in 1994 was an attempt to be tonal. I didn’t follow the “rules” very well, and as satisfying as it was to write that piece, it wasn’t very successful from a musical standpoint. The very next piece I wrote, a song cycle, worries much less about keys and more about rhythm and the flow of melody–it was my first vocal piece, setting some of my favorite poems from high school English class.
In some ways, the important thing is to keep writing, keep listening, keep reading. If I push you on to certain things, it’s because I think it’s my job as your teacher to try to help you get into a college program, and that means we have a hard deadline about twenty-eight months from now. Your personal style–tonal or not–will develop as long as you keep writing, keep listening, keep reading.
I hope this helps!