Calling All Composers: Words Matter

Photo by Thomas Hawk, CC-NC-BY.
Photo by Thomas Hawk, CC-NC-BY.

Let’s start here: you can write any music you like.

It is not my place to tell any other artist – musical or otherwise – what to express or how. Every composer I know, whether I have them on my proverbial iPod or not, pours heart and soul into every single note, and no one, including me, has the right to tell them that any aspect of it is incorrect or shouldn’t have been done. If you stand by your musical choices, then you are justified, whatever those choices may be.

When you talk about your music, that’s another story.

By virtue of the concert paradigm and the web experience, composers commonly introduce themselves through the written word before a note of music fills the air. They define their own context for the listener, often before he/she is given the opportunity to make up his/her own mind. And even if they don’t always, then maybe they should. It wasn’t that long ago that this happened, a needless controversy that could have been prevented if the composer had opted to talk. 

Between program notes and bio, a composer’s message is usually seen first and heard second. These two portions of the compositional process — the program notes and the short biography — are among the least celebrated, and yet they are present with a listener well before the downbeat and well after the double bar, the singular lasting documentation of what it was we were trying to express with a new piece and why we were worth listening to in the first place. And in those bite-sized media, every word carries weight and meaning whether the composer intends it to or not. Words matter.

Until very recently, every bio I sent out was a collection of facts about who I am and what I’ve done. Mostly, this was due to my lack of confidence in talking about myself, but it’s also because you can’t argue with a fact. I did attend the Mizzou International Composers Festival in 2013 – if you disagree, you are wrong. Now, is my music intensely rhythmic and emotionally expressive? I happen to think so, but you may not. And not only are you within your rights to disagree, but if you experience my bio differently than you experience my music, your perspective as a listener is changed, and our relationship is now antagonistic where it didn’t need to be. I’ve lost part of you before the lights have even dimmed. Words matter.

Which is why when composers write about their influences in their biographies it always makes me a little nervous. “Influence” is a big word which speaks to a lot more than the music you like. Music that has truly influenced you has, with its own internal logic and structure, shaped your decisions about how to construct your own artistic statement. It’s hard for music to do that unless you intimately understand that logic and structure, which means that I tend to draw hard lines between music which has “influenced” me and music which has “inspired” me. One can be inspired by anything; I’m inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Rothko, and a thousand different musics. I also love ambient electronica, and listen to a ton of it – but to say I am influenced by it implies a comfort with the form and the tradition I haven’t earned. The word “influence” means that some innate portion of the art form’s soul informs my music’s state of being. An audience member may read the word “influence” and begin looking for ambient electronica in my sound, and suddenly my music has become a representative for that tradition. If I haven’t in fact done my homework, I’m now disseminating information of questionable accuracy about a tradition I have no business speaking for, and that might have an effect on the tastes and proclivities of listeners before they even hear a note. Words matter.

So if I am to ascribe influence to a tradition or artist, I’ll do it with genres which I know that I know, like jazz and Balinese gamelan. But really, I find it better to say nothing. It’s not my job to see my own lineage; it’s there whether I’m cognizant of it or not, and I tend to have more fun when people tell me what they hear as my influences. If pressed, I’ll tread lightly. And above all, I will avoid three poisonous (and all too prevalent) words: “American vernacular music”.

The right Google search will reveal the horrific extent to which this terrible phrase is used by composers young and old, talking about themselves and their music. Usually it’s part of some diametric (spoken or implied) in which the opposite pole is the old, crusty music academy, and one assumes that it’s generally used innocently and without much thought. Okay.

Here’s the thing: “American vernacular music” isn’t a genre. It’s a meaningless buzzword that encompasses all of the myriad directions the American vernacular has taken in the last 50 years, from jazz to funk to zydeco to hip-hop to dubstep to disco. It is composer code to set something apart from the classical music institution, insulting in its vagueness to the thousands of traditions whitewashed underneath it.

And used in a noncommittal effort to paint yourself as a maverick outside the ivory tower (“While my friends at Important University were stuck on Beethoven and Brahms, I was listening to the American vernacular!”) it is the most damning of all. It proclaims you as someone who cares more about being anti-establishment than about being knowledgeable, an dilettante who leans on a flimsy, nameless association in pursuit of a shallow Everyman persona. Whether you use the phrase out of ignorance or insecurity or laziness, it is an indicator not of your influence from, but your contempt for, all of the genres you’re co-opting in your search for a “street-cred” legitimacy. Words matter.

It sometimes seems that every new moon the classical music community begins a new round of hand-wringing about how to win new audience members, make or keep ourselves relevant to the average American concertgoer. Composers, of course, have a role to play here, but if we’re really invested in connecting to non-specialist listeners it bears remembering that they’re as likely to decide whether or not they like us based on what we say as they are based on what we compose. So, talking is important. How we express ourselves in words is important. And a little attention to detail in those words can go a long way.

Because those words? They matter.

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