My composition student, Cooper Wood, asked me a good question, and the answer is my next post:
I want to know your thoughts on a question of mine. Every time I sit down to compose, if I’m composing straight from my heart and my inspiration it’s always relatively tonal. Anytime I force myself to write atonally I don’t have that same emotional attachment to it compared to the tonal music I compose. I just feel cold and detached from it like it’s just some academic exercise. I know music is meant to be intellectual but it almost feels too intellectual. So all of this leads to my question: is it possible to be a tonal composer in the twenty first century? And if so, what’s the extent?
In a word, yes, of course you can be a tonal composer. All the tonal music that you hear on TV, in the movies, in video games–someone is writing that. Sometimes it’s recycled from music of the past, but not always; indeed, more often than not, the media is using original music. In fact, if you want to make a living just composing (and not teaching), tonal music is the way to go.
The truth is that very few composers, commercial or academic, write truly atonal music anymore, if the definition of “atonal music” is music that has no clear central pitch and avoids the impression that there is one.
Composers of “serious” music (or art music, or concert music, or academic music, or whatever you want to call it) have often avoided purely tonal music over the last few decades. Some of them write atonal or nearly-atonal music, while others are still exploring the tonal and functional systems. Others are hardly interested in any kind of systematic harmony at all, and focus on electronic music, or spectral formations, or writing for percussion, or sound installations, or whatever. In the twenty-first century, there is room for all. Are they writing “from the heart” or as an intellectual exercise? It can be tough to know. An academic may be writing “from the desire to secure tenure.” A concert composer may write in an intellectually daring style to make a political point, or to curry favor with critics, or make a statement in a particular musical scene.
There are many reasons to write music, and communicating a personal, emotional experience is only one of them. A composers’ reasons for writing may vary from piece to piece, or over the course of his or her career. Alex Shapiro
is a good example of a composer who made it in the commercial world and was very successful there, but quit to focus on concert music because she wanted to write for different reasons. Her music is mostly, well, hers. She spent years working on deadline, mastering the craft of making effective music, and now is able to turn that experience to creating music that is from the heart instead of “made to order.”
Give a listen to John Luther Adams
‘ work as well. The power of his music lies not in his choice of harmonic language, but in the way he lets sounds unfold, slowly, patiently, in much the same way as the ecological processes that inspire him. He could have written Become Ocean
using only traditional harmonic materials, because the piece isn’t about harmony–it is about shifting masses of sound and slow timbral evolutions that mimic the slow, barely perceptible changes that fundamentally alter the world around us. Is he composing from the heart? I believe so.
My own music, very different from Alex’s or John’s, of course, is probably more head than heart most of the time. This is because of who I am, I suppose–I am an emotional person, but I’m also really good at doing the midwestern, heterosexual male thing of trapping most of those emotions well below the surface, and I’ve come to see that this is often true in my music as well. When I started composing, in high school, I was, as you are now, still in the process of finding my adult self. I read the biographies of a couple of the great composers–Wagner and Mahler–who seemed to be ruled by emotion, at least in their musical affairs. It was the Romantic era, of course. But I also studied history and science and mathematics, and discussed these, especially history, fairly in-depth with a close friend in long, drawn-out conversations that I cherish and miss. I’ve always been interested in facts, and I don’t know when I began to look at emotion as sloppy, corny, and somehow less worthy, but that is my default mode–that making emotional decisions is often a mistake (perhaps because some of the big decisions I made that way early on didn’t lead where I thought they would lead–mistake is not quite the word; perhaps because one particular emotional investment of those years didn’t pay out (there was this girl…)).
At any rate, I now find myself trying to infuse emotion more deeply into my music. It isn’t that I think the only thing missing from what I’ve written so far is “heart.” As I said–you can write good music without heart, mostly from the head, and such music can be appealing, even beloved. My band piece Moriarty’s Necktie is a very “head” kind of piece, but it always has a strong impact on an audience because it works in proven musical and dramatic ways. I wrote it very quickly, once I got started, and I was relatively close to the deadline, so it had to get finished. There is “heart” in it–it is music that was inspired by the drive between Columbus (home) and Oklahoma (work, at the time), and the germ of it came to me as I was driving through St. Louis. The working out, however, was largely a “head” act. Some of the pieces in my piano cycle Starry Wanderers are from the heart–I am passionately interested in the planets, and I have been for more than thirty years now, so I have feelings about all of them. Even so, some of those pieces were written to complete the cycle and have more head than heart in them as a result. Would it have been wiser to wait it out until I could write an emotional piano piece about, say, Neptune? Perhaps. Would the piece have ever been finished? Perhaps not.
In my newest piece, …into the suggestive waters…, which will be premiered in November, I made a specific effort to tap into one specific emotion–nostalgia. My public persona about nostalgia is that it is a waste of time, that it gets one mired in the past. Too often, I have felt nostalgia turn into self-recrimination, or jealously, or regret (the -algia part means “pain,” of course), and I also try to avoid any kind of “Golden Age” thinking. It just all seems counterproductive. But, being out of high school twenty years, and writing a piece for my hometown, it seemed appropriate, and I decided to get nostalgic. For several weeks, I thought about the past, wrote about it a little, and just tried to let myself feel it in my spare time. I chose a motive that had nostalgic meaning for me, and started to write with it. The piece began to take shape.
And here is the point that you should get from all of this: most composers consider “heart” to be crucial to the creative process. It is “heart” that makes a piece something that an audience can connect with; it is “heart” that makes us want to write a piece of music (an inherently impractical act most of the time) in the first place; it is often “heart” that allows us to connect with some musical fragment in such a way that we want to amplify it into an entire sound experience.
However, if you rely completely on “heart,” it can be very difficult to get things done. Your intellectual approach to music must take over at some point. Perhaps you can even imagine a piece from beginning to end using only heart–“head” still has to take over for things like orchestration, typesetting, layout, and the rest, or it will never be played. More likely, “heart” will take you fifteen or twenty bars, and then “head” has to figure out what to do next. Should I repeat? Should I use contrast? Should I write a variation? Should I modulate or reharmonize? Should I change rhythm or meter? Does this fit with the rest of the piece, or should I save it for something else? Does this music send the right “heart” message? Is it playable? Is it really as good as my heart says it is? The “head” answers these questions. The “head” keeps you from reinventing the wheel every time you sit down. The “heart” may provide the impetus and the passion, but the “head” sees the project through to the end and solves the problems that come up.
And that’s what we’re doing, I think. I don’t know if “heart” can be taught, but if it can be, I’m only marginally-qualified to teach it. “Head” can certainly be taught, and I know I can teach it because I’ve watched you learn it over the last three years. Working in different styles–tonal, atonal, synthetic scale, serial, whatever–with or without “heart,” does a couple of things. First, it helps you find your personal language. If I let you compose only the way you did before you came to me three years ago, you would still be writing bad Mozart. This may speak to your “heart,” but I think that it is easy to be fooled by that–it actually feels good to write something that flows quickly and smoothly onto the page, and it is a fun exercise that I should pursue more often. You can’t have Mozart’s language. He wrote the way he wrote because he lived the life he lived in the time and place that he lived it. If he had lived in Madison, Ohio in 2015, he would have written differently. Second, trying out a wide variety of styles forces you to confront a variety of problems, and in so doing, you gain a variety of tools that you can apply to your music going forward. We’ve worked on variation, counterpoint, and now orchestration. We’ve studied various approaches to harmony and form. These are all tools that can be useful, but only if you know how to use them. As the old saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If your “head” can reach for a tool and get the right one “without looking,” there is that much more opportunity for your “heart” to get involved. Keep working on finding this balance.
If your “heart” says you need to write tonal music, then write tonal music. Two caveats, though: always be ready to let your “head” help you solve the problems that come up; and write tonal music that only you could write.
I hope this helps.