Because the Stakes Are So Small

In a couple of provocative posts, Kyle Gann discusses the state of composition teaching in present day America. I can't speak to the accuracy of his description, as I have no institutional affiliation, but I am reminded of the central point of art critic Dave Hickey's essay "The Heresy of the Zone Defense", in which he describes the inevitable process through which freedom becomes obligation. In other words, in the likely-pretty-near-future, young composers will seek out mentors and complain to them of being unable to write the kind of music they wish to write--and that music will be not be tonal. This kind of hegemony is, it would seem, unescapabale.

But what I really find interesting and valuable is this:

I’ll allow any kind of music I know how to criticize, and if I can’t criticize it, I’ll send them to someone else.

That strikes me as both artistically and educationally sound.

NOTE: I wish that this post had a included a page number from Silence. My memory is that the answer "To thicken the plot" is given to the question "Given that God is good, why did he put evil in the world?"


  1. Anonymous12:06 PM

    To paraphrase

    "Professors like what they know."

  2. That's really not my experience. Of course, there were exceptions.

  3. I always enjoy a pleasant surprise. Students who make an unusual tonal progression work, or who stretch the boundaries of serial composition make me happy.

  4. That's the kind of teacher I almost always had, whatever kind of music they wrote.

  5. Anonymous8:44 AM

    At the bottom of page 67 of Silence, a short way into the "Experimental Music in the United States":

    Sri Ramakrishna was once asked, "Why, if God is good, is there evil in the world?" He said, "In order to thicken the plot."

  6. Thanks. That's what I thought.

  7. Anonymous12:14 PM

    That was Tolkein's explanation for evil - Melkor was the dissonance in the harmony of the angelic choir.

  8. Anonymous12:15 PM

    "Students who make an unusual tonal progression work, or who stretch the boundaries of serial composition make me happy."

    These are still things you know.

  9. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Academia, as a system, is not particularly kind to the production of music. First, because of its very system, it takes in people at a particular age, and subjects them to a system where conformity, not originality, is the ticket to entry.

    Second, academia, as it currently exists, is designed to inculturate people with the ability to handle complex symbolic expression and believe in the results of that symbolic expression before their own intuition and experience. In order to believe in Quantum Mechanics, this must be so. In order to believe in Macro-economics, this must be so. It isn't clear that music is in the same category.

    Third because academia's "world apart" isolates musicians and composers from the very source of music - the sounds, movements, patterns, dances and reality of day to day existence. Academia moves by its own rhythms. Good for mathematics, less good for writing and composing.

    Third, academicians, as a group, are arrogant and very sure of themselves. They have reached the apex of a social pyramid, and, like all people who have, equate this with superiority in their discipline. (See Aristotle's Question about aristocracies for how old this is).

    But most importantly, academia is about managing scarcity in classical music. Thousands of composers, dozens, at most, of slots for new performances. As with many structures from the late 20th century, this has a series of perverse incentives that drive composition getting worse, not better.

    The future isn't about permissiveness or reform of the academic system, but replacing its filtering function completely, and ending its monopoly of access to funding and performance.