In an article published on January 21st, New York Times music columnist Anthony Tommasini gives a rundown of his top 10 composers of all-time. Mr. Tommasini tries to argue in favor of his preferences, but it’s ultimately a fruitless venture. If you try and base such a list on any criteria other than personal taste, 10 is not nearly a big enough number. If you use personal preference to narrow down the list…you’re still inevitably going to leave out a deserving composer.

There are two major issues with Tommasini’s list though. All 10 of his selections are great composers, and there’s a reason we’re still enjoying their music decades, centuries after their death. But therein lies one of the problems. There aren’t any composers representing the “modern” voice on the list. No Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varese, Steve Reich or Astor Piazzolla. Some of the most important and distinct voices of the 20th century are absent.

By arbitrarily deciding to name only the 10 greatest “classical” music composers of all-time, Tommasini ignores the vast well of creativity that is jazz music. Surely the compositions of Duke Ellington or Miles Davis offer up just as much musical bounty as those of the artists on the list.

Limiting the list to “classical” music, and using somebody who died in 1971 as the most modern composer on the list ignores vast swathes of music history. It’s a real shame—some of the best and most innovative music-making in history has happened in the last 50 years.

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The End of Reason?

Glenn Branca, I’m calling you out.

Sure, you’re writing for the New York Times, which is a loftier literary post than I’ll ever hold, but what good is your position with one of the world’s most prestigious papers if you’re going to use it to spread sheer lunacy?

I’m talking about ‘The End of Music‘, an opinion piece that appeared in the Times last Tuesday.

A friend of mine has already voiced her opinions on the matter, calling Branca’s piece “melodramatic”, “attention-grabbing”, “judgmental” and “snobby.” And I honestly can’t say I disagree with any of that. It seems like Branca is going out of his way to make inflammatory—and patently untrue—statements. Let’s take his article apart piece by piece.

We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift. Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility.

The second sentence of the article contains a rare truth—Orchestras are struggling to stay alive. A quick Google search of ‘orchestra budget deficit‘ shows that even the most prestigious, most historically successful orchestras have been operating at a loss recently. Branca’s reasoning is wrong, though. Orchestras aren’t struggling because audiences are mired in a 19th-century sensibility, they’re struggling because they haven’t adapted to the changing musical tastes of their audiences. But that’s a post for another day.

Immediately after his statement about orchestras, Branca loses the plot. He makes the outrageous claim that “…rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art…” This is ignorant at best, inflammatory at worst. To say that jazz has stopped evolving is to disrespect musicians like Josh Roseman, Dave Holland and the Marsalis family. To say that rock has gone underground is to ignore the fact that Metallica’s latest album opened atop the Billboard charts, or that a “niche” group like Dream Theater consistently finds their albums debuting high in the charts as well.

For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new? Or is it that composers and musicians have simply swallowed the pomo line that nothing else new can be done, which ironically is really just the “old, old story.”

This paragraph is nothing but sour grapes, rife with subjective opinion. Branca’s statement about the current quality of music seems to be rooted in personal taste and nothing more. Composers and musicians are doing new and exciting things; it’s not their fault that Branca has turned a blind eye to their accomplishments.

Look no further than the GVSU New Music Ensemble. They took “In C”, a well-known minimalist piece by composer Terry Riley and gave it a completely new and unique performance. Or, take The Streets’ 2004 release, A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Plenty of musicians have created a concept album, but this album takes it in an entirely different direction. I won’t spoil the surprise for you—you’ll have to listen on your own.

There’s a long list of composers doing new things with music as you read this blog. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir project comes to mind, as does Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Grab It! for saxophone and boombox. That’s just off the top of my head, but given five minutes or so, I could name a lengthy list of composers and musicians who are stretching boundaries and changing perceptions, just like Boulez, Varese and Stockhausen did so many years ago.

Certainly music itself is not dead. We’ll continue to hear something approximating it blaring in shopping malls, fast food stops, clothing stores and wherever else it will mesmerize the consumer into excitedly pulling out their credit card or debit card or whatever might be coming.

Branca seems to be confusing ‘music’ with ‘muzak’ here. Music is an organic thing, constantly evolving. It involves a relationship between composer and performer, and performer and audience. My interpretation of this paragraph is that Branca expects those relationships to come to an abrupt end, that somehow we’ll be able to turn a blind eye to the world of music despite the fact that it’s been a terribly important part of world culture throughout history.

Pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical about that one.

Even though musical tastes and the way we experience music have changed, there are still legions of people out there still actively listening to and involved in music. Orchestras are constantly searching for new ways in which to interact with their patrons, pop music artists are finding ways to build closer relationships with their fans through social media which in turn creates a more meaningful musical experience, and musicians have found new ways to collaborate through vehicles like the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

If anything, the modern world has given us more ways to enhance our musical experience than ever before. It seems rather cynical on Branca’s part to paint this as a negative thing.

Talk is Cheap

In a previous blog entry, I spoke about the need to update the music education curriculum by expanding our traditional offerings. The best music educators are the ones that aren’t afraid to take some risks and offer single lessons or entire classes that are relevant to the modern world. These lessons might include the use of technology to accomplish a musical end, or the study of a modern genre of music.

Talk is cheap though, we need action. Here are some useful tools and resources for the modern music educator.

iNudge

This is a site that allows anybody to create music using non-traditional notation. Once finished with their creation, users can share their music on Twitter or via email. It’s terrifically addicting, and allows students to experiment with both the rhythmic and tonal elements of music.

Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir project

Eric Whitacre is one of the most exciting composers in the business today, and has pioneered the concept of a virtual choir. He solicits YouTube videos of musicians all across the world singing his music, and then splices them all together into one video to create a full ensemble recording of the piece. He and his fans have already performed Sleep, and are currently working on Lux Arumque. It’s a great way to bring musicians who live hours apart from each other together on the same performance without the hassle of driving, securing a rehearsal space, etc.

YouTube Symphony Orchestra

This project is similar to the Virtual Choir, with a few key differences. Participants were asked to audition by submitting a video of themselves performing an excerpt of a piece commissioned for this event directly to YouTube. The audition tapes were judged by a panel of musicians, and then the finalists were voted upon by the YouTube community. Musicians from all cultures were invited to participate, making it a truly global collaboration.

The submissions of the individual musicians involved in this project were mashed up and posted on YouTube—exactly what’s done in the Virtual Choir project. Along with the video mash-up, members of the symphony traveled to Carnegie Hall to perform a live concert in April 2009, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Vermont MIDI Project

By far my favorite integration of technology in the music classroom. Composition students at public schools across the country write music, and then send their pieces electronically to “mentors”, who are established composers and musicians across the country. This project allows students to be very actively involved in the creative process of music, from ideation to composition to performance.

Collaboration

All of the resources that I’ve listed—and these are just a select few of my favorite—allow for collaboration, an important part of any curriculum. No teacher exists inside of an isolated bubble, but the nature of music demands some sort of collaboration, be it between teacher and student, composer and musician, or conductor and ensemble. Technology like Twitter and YouTube makes it easier than ever before to collaborate with musicians and educators from across the world. We should be taking advantage of that.

Reacquainting Myself With Sibelius

As of today, it’s been about 10 months since my last composition lesson. It’s certainly not from a lack of wanting, but some fairly sizable time commitments have gotten in the way—you know, like student teaching so I can finish up my degree, and then job hunting. I didn’t really have time to write a whole lot in the spring because of lesson planning, score study and a couple of classes. I’ve been finding over the last month or so that I miss writing music a lot—even more than I miss regularly playing my trombone.

But, there’s a lot of rust to be shaken off. Just like with any musical instrument, you can’t take an extended layoff and expect to come back to it as if you’d never stopped. My ears could use a little work, I’ve had to get familiar with the software once again, and I’ve even had to thumb through my old music theory texts to jog my memory on some things.

Who would have guessed that creating 12-tone matrices isn’t like riding a bike? Neglect them for long enough, and that skill starts to fade.

To make a long story short, there’s been a lot of practice and re-learning before anything useful has been put down on a staff. The ear trainer at Ricci Adams’ site is an invaluable tool and recordings of live performances on YouTube (Eric Whitacre, Gustav Mahler, etc.) have done an admirable job of helping create a constantly musical environment.

In the absence of any lesson-planning duties, all of this free time is going a long way toward helping me actually finish some projects that had previously been the victims of serious procrastination.

The re-entry into this aspect of my former music student life has also had an unexpected benefit—the creative outlet has actually re-energized my teaching when I sub. It’s making me excited to learn and discover new musical things, and hopefully at least a little bit of that enthusiasm is being passed along to the students I teach. It’s even showing up in the non-music subject, which is a must. The enthusiasm helps me engage the students, which I was finding difficult when I was forced out of my comfort zone into a science/maths/history classroom.

Stay tuned for further updates on the actual composition projects themselves.