What kind of music do you write? Composers all get this question. All the time. I was at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago this past December where I spent a lot of time with composers, conductors, and band directors, and you can imagine how many times it came up. As composers, we even ask other composers this question knowing full well that the answer can often times be quite complicated.
While at Midwest, I finally had the opportunity to meet Libby Larson. (And if you have not met her, I highly recommend figuring out a way to do so because she is an absolutely wonderful person.) Even someone of her esteem asks me this question. What kind of music do you write? I rummage through all the different answers I have prepared for this precise situation depending on the audience. From one composer to another composer is a much different answer than to a potential commissioner, or to a family member, or to a random stranger I am sharing a car ride with. I begin to tell her that “my music is an amalgamation of my lived experiences represented in music,” while I am careful not to indicate an aesthetic to her. I then go on to explain that “my music recently has strayed away from a specific style or medium and that I have recently written pieces for live electronics, a semi-classical sounding woodwind quintet, and a percussion piece using found objects, all while in the process of developing a new work for wind band.” She then tells me that I’m doing the right things, by keeping my options open. Coming from her, this was like being told I had made all the right choices in life.
A year ago, I interviewed 20 composers asking them to describe their music and discuss if aesthetic was important to their work. After each conversation, I realized more and more that I was not ready to write about the subject matter. My perspective shifted from one where I thought aesthetic did not matter at all, to one where it really just depends. I was oversimplifying the topic.
I was quite surprised to see that there were generally only three types of responses to the question, “What kind of music do you write?” There were the responses that used some sort of musical language or referenced an aesthetic—“I write tonal music” or “I write groove-based music.” There were the responses that noted some sort of ensemble—“I write opera” or “I write band music.” Finally, there were the more philosophical or non-musical answers—“I tell stories through music” or (as in my example to Libby Larson) “I write music that is an amalgamation of my lived experiences.” This is all composer to composer, of course. I personally do a little bit of the medium/philosophical approach more so than the others, but I definitely air quote and wince and say classical from time to time. After interviewing so many colleagues, the only thing I discovered was that I had no idea how to answer the questions about aesthetic I had at the time, and every person I spoke with seemed to have a different opinion.
So where does that leave us composers who may or may not fit in an arbitrary box? Shortly after I completed all of these interviews, I came across Hannah Schiller’s article on post-genre context here on NewMusicBox. We are definitely on the same page. She quotes Missy Mazzoli, who accurately says what I’ve been thinking for the past few years now: that the word composer is a good description, but the word classical is not. Every composer that I spoke to said that they would never self-impose a box on themselves. Annika Socolofsky wishes that we would just erase classical music genre boundaries: “It’s a narrow-minded viewpoint that is keeping us stale and super white.”
When I asked if they fit in a specific style camp, almost everyone said no. Aaron Garcia described their style camp as somewhere between “nerdy composer music and punk,” and Jay Derderian said, “I’m not sure if I qualify, but I gravitate towards romanticism.” Alex Temple said “poly-stylist,” which I appreciated because it acknowledges the fact that many of us are writing in more than one specific aesthetic. Tina Tallon said that she “often gets lumped into the experimental avant-garde,” but it isn’t what she is necessarily going for. Everyone else felt pretty strongly that putting a name on what they do limits their ability to create great art. Something that really stuck with me that a few people said was that “they strive for artistic honesty,” owning artistic choices as a means of expression.
The language that composers use to describe their music is incredibly interesting and should not be ignored. Shelley Washington, for example, suggested that her work was “a frankencake of sound, one forkful at a time.” What an incredibly unique thing to say! More recently Shelley has said, “I have heard others describe my voice as unique, but I feel like I haven’t ingested enough of other people’s music to be able to make that sort of comparison about myself.” She then went on to say that the concept of unique is “very weighted.” I single out Shelley here, because when I asked her about the composers who she admires and considers influences, her response was everyone—especially her teachers and colleagues—and that her musical community was just as important to her as her own art-making process.
One area that people seemed to all agree on was that labeling style is for the audience and musicologists. Tina Tallon made a great point that “style can be helpful for performance techniques, such as referring to a work by someone else as a way of conveying the sound the composer is going for more effectively.” The overall consensus is that composers just want to make their art and not be boxed in, though Marcos Balter does say that “people tend to be tribalists.” He also pointed out that “so much of these divisions exist because many composers believe there is power in numbers.” Almost everyone understood why these boxes exist, but most seemed to wish that they didn’t. Garrett Schumann made the point that “millennials are more inwardly focused,” which would explain much of the direction music has taken in this demographic area. Much of the music being created has become more about self-expression, as opposed to fitting into a specific mold. The idea that there is a wrong way to write music did not come across.
Overall what I learned was that today, a composer’s style is specific to them. Kevin Clark described it as “style as people,” and Alex Temple concluded that “music is written by people, and people have personalities.” Judah Adashi said something similar, explaining that he writes music that is “personal, rather than unique.”
I think it is important for composers to think about how we describe ourselves to others. Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us. These words are all triggers that, through centuries of performance practice, may dictate to performers how to play the music. The biggest thing I found is that knowing your audience is important. When you describe your music to someone who knows nothing about music, giving them anything but the most important tidbits of information about the inner workings of your process can create an artificial barrier to entry. Use language that they understand. My music comes from my lived experiences as a way to express my thought process in that moment or over time. If composers do their job well and communicate effectively what they want played to the performer in the score, anything more specifically categorically aligned risks indicating a performance practice that might influence interpretation. We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.
Much appreciation to all of those involved: