What’s The Matter With Being Academic?

What’s The Matter With Being Academic?

We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.” They are ghosts we chase or sticks with which we composers use to beat ourselves up.

Written By

Daniel Felsenfeld

Graduation Caps
I’ll say it: I am an academic composer. And proudly so. And, if you are a composer, so—probably, speaking statistically—are you. I went to school for decades (it seemed), earned the usual passel of degrees, and through this I not only acquired the necessary skills to execute my job as a composer, but also many important colleagues, contacts, and friends to help me through the professional veil of tears that is part and parcel of building a career. I got much from my teachers—including the brilliant Lee Hyla, Margaret Meyer, and Arthur Berger—and continue to hear those voices in my own head when I am working, not because I seek approbation or because I am an especially acquiescent person, but because they taught me amazing things. And this leaves aside the hard-as-hell orchestration class I had with Jeremy Haladyna or the amazing sonata form classes Joel Feigin and Malcolm Peyton taught, as well as history classes with Michael Beckerman and Helen Greenwald, or seminars with Michael Gandolfi or Harold Shapero. All of these gave me perspectives that I greedily consumed and continue to use. This must be true for most of us, even those who suffered less-than-ideal situations in school. Maybe it is because school comes at an extremely important and absorbent developmental time; maybe it is because I looked at my teachers and realized a life in music was actually an achievable possibility. I still struggle—don’t we all?—but on so many levels these teachers were indispensible guides at a time when I needed a lot of guidance. Even many years after I left school, it is always the experience that remains in the immediate background of my working life as a composer, whether I am orchestrating, composing, discussing, writing articles such as this one or, yes, teaching my own students.

We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.” They are ghosts we chase or, in darker moments, sticks with which we composers, members of this small but powerful historical enclave, use to beat ourselves up. (“I will never appeal to the…” or “I will never make it in…) But when we use the idea of “academic composing” to pigeonhole other artists because we either don’t like their work or don’t agree with their methods, it becomes an unfortunate “choose a side” that all the recent important genre-leaping and boundary-crashing (or what have you) is there to eliminate. Maybe I dream, but the day that there are no “sides” but rather just individuals doing what they do (and possibly working alongside like-minded souls) will be a good day for us all.

I am not trying to slay a dragon here, but to gently urge the reconsideration of a term. Now maybe I’m wasting a lot of time because what’s in a name? Think, though, on how much ink (or pixelated “ink”) has been spilled (scrolled?) on the very idea of trying to come up with an alternative to the deeply unsatisfying expression “classical music” or “new music” or “concert music.” It obviously matters, because if we can strive to change the language then ideas tend to follow. The notion of choosing sides is, at best, a convenience of historical perspective. The up-, mid- and downtown schisms of the previous millennium—that simple reflexivity of in/out, of looking to the “other side” and condemning it as irrelevant—is an old, divisive, and destructive argument. Classical music is already an inside job. Manufacturing a garde from which you can avant is tilting at windmills.

Therefore there must be no “academic composers,” just composers whose own sound or aesthetic or approach we individually don’t find satisfying. And yes they may get all your grants or win all your prizes or be in line for all your jobs, but it is likely not because they strive to do something unappealing, mediocre, and poorly heard. I have to believe that nobody, even the composer you least respect, wakes up with the idea that today is the day he or she is going to write that truly hideous and shameful piece, that piece that will be so bad but seem so good. Even naked emperors have deep feelings. As a student, I spent a lot of time (when I ought to have been composing) mentally rebelling against the likes of Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez; their whole ethos, it seemed to me, was to make unpalatable music for an in-crowd whose sole purpose was the destruction of all I held dear. I knew in my way that my major chords were somehow angering them across the musical ether—especially since they were (and remained) unaware of my work. I shadowboxed, I suspect we all do. Then something truly important happened: I had a chance, at the Wellesley Composers’ Conference, to hear Mario Davidovsky describe in a lovely and short way his ideas on how his music worked, that his work mediated between moments of extreme tenderness and moments of sheer brutality. I wish I could say the scales were lifted from my eyes, but what it did teach me was that just because I didn’t immediately like something did not mean it held no merit—or worse, that it was there to hurt me.

For artists of any kind, but especially (I think) for composers, that notion of a “real world” as set against those “academic” is shockingly dismissive. For one thing, a scan of names of the composers who also teach for some usually meager portion of their income is the “real world” of being a composer. With few exceptions, almost every “concert music” composer with a noteworthy career also has some kind of heavy academic association. One could hardly say of John Corigliano, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse, David Lang, Chen Yi, Ned Rorem, Jennifer Higdon, David Del Tredici, Steven Stucky, Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, Lee Hyla, or Kyle Gann that they lack credibility as professionals despite their apparent cynosure at various schools. Quite the opposite. In almost any other discipline requiring such a long term of study, such a roster of brilliant and lauded “academics” would be obvious. Imagine: a Nobel-winning scientist whose colleagues sniped about his relaxing into a teaching appointment at MIT.

Almost every composer we associate with being a part of the “real world” has a serious pedigree through important institutions. There are precious few outsiders in our realm (even Charles Ives went to Yale), and these days most artists also have at least one degree, many far more. Which means that the word “academic” in its purest form is, itself academic. So can we ever justify its use as an insult? According to the Oxford English, yes. The word can mean “Of, relating to, or characteristic of an educational institution or environment” as well as “concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship; scholarly, educational, intellectual.” But also: “Not leading to a decision; unpractical; strictly theoretical or formal. Now also in weakened sense: of no consequence, irrelevant” and “Conforming to the principles of an academy of arts … often too rigidly; conventional, esp. in an excessively formal way.”

Anti-academicism is anti-intellectualism. Another of the OED’s definitions adds that academic also includes: “Reading, thinking, and study as opposed to technical or practical work.” This is the crux of the issue. As our culture becomes more suspicious of the Academy as a place where reasonable things happen (critical thinking being a common target), perhaps we worry that publicly associating with such a retrograde system will deem us irretrievably unhip. If that is what you truly believe, despite loads of evidence to the contrary, you simply do not have to participate. You do not have to aim your portfolio to the tenure track, but you are also free to not go to school—or if you do, to study something other than music composition. I’m not saying get in or get gone; I’m merely saying you are free to choose. All shapes and sizes…

There’s something disturbingly class-related in the suspicion of academia en masse, because what teaching offers to composers is not only money (the concern of pretty much all people every minute of the day, especially these days), but security. In complex financial times, it is a disturbing notion to think that a composer who has to make money is somehow less true or relevant a composer than those who do not. The reality as we all know is that precious few people can live—especially in a big city where one mostly needs to be when building a career—on even an unusually successful run of commissions, grants, and prizes. Would you ever scruple going down that dark road of judging artists solely by their ability to make a living?

The academic system is far, far, far from perfect. The Old Boys Network is alive and well. Tenure does not—and can never—guarantee a fertile and exciting career growing from the rich soil of security. But to simply label such individuals as “academic” does a disservice to a system in which nearly every composer participates. It is a little like conveniently bashing unions while still being a card-carrying member and waiting for the pension fund to kick in.

Obviously there is no easy answer. That glad-handing Old Boys Network made certain important developments suspicious for decades. Though I hate to say “when I was in school,” but, uh, when I was in school the very mention of Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, or Aaron Copland (to enumerate only the deceased) caused many an eye to roll. There are and will always be self-appointed vanguard denizens who view that which is not theirs as anathema, a rank betrayal of the principals on which they have staked their lives. And many of these people have teaching jobs. But then there is the other side of this, the idea that anything (or rather any one thing) is “going on in new music.” How often have I heard the expression “not being a part of the current climate” (read: “academic”) used to condemn a teacher, journalist, composer, concert presenter, or concert series? The simply incorrect notions of 1) a lone cutting edge, and 2) that music works in a linear singularity rather than just being a grand, messy stew in which there is room for many an aesthetic, is as destructive as anything. After all, isn’t adhering too closely to any single notion the very definition of “academic”?