“Favourite Composer?”

[The following sermon by MWM is a republished posting from a composer forum discussion on the topic “Who is your favorite living composer?”]

Let us, dear brethren & sistren, attend the word at issue. “Favo(u)rite” does not mean “greatest,” “most admired,” nor even “best.” It entails a notably more relaxed and personal commitment than value judgment.

At the least one could say this: ever since the pantheon set up shop, more than a century ago, composers have had to deal with the question of why they bother, put in the pointed, accusatory fashion “why should we listen to you(r music), when we can listen to [fill in the icon of choice] instead?” At the very least, the answer to that has got to be that one thinks fondly of one’s own music; “proudly” is a bonus that, it seems, a dwindling number of composers can embrace. Whether that is due to the increasing imposition of bellicose challenges like the one I cited, I couldn’t say.

I agree, however, with Taylor Silver’s comments (*): in addition to all our other problems, striking some sort of sane balance between arrogance and modesty seems difficult for composers. I feel this is because the core notion of compositional art and craft is obscured. That is not so much due to decadence, to a decline in the standard of excellence, but to a general historical confusion that overwhelms us. Even within a single tradition, there is not just too much too learn, but too many things, too many different kinds of exemplars to absorb and understand.

Too many of the lessons [of the past] offer at least contradictory interpretations, if not indeed contradictory realities. To take a simple example, Mahler & Webern proffer directly contradistinctive lessons on musical economy. Yet it’s fair to say that a real understanding of either composer presupposes a keen insight into the other. A professed enemy of Mahler will be a limited, if not piss-poor conductor of Webern. The development section of “Veni, Creator Spiritus” was not only a direct inspiration to Webern’s Cantatas, but a case of genuine musical affinity. That affinity is one of the deepest levels of both composers’ music, and so indispensable for performers and students of their music. It can take years to appreciate that affinity; without it, though, an admirer and would-be emulator of either composer is virtually certain to catch nothing but mannerisms. Absent the real sympathy of musical understanding, what they will be able to learn is so superficial that nothing but disconnected phrases will result from their effort: in a (dreaded) word, pastiche.

It does seem to me that the vigorous, surly, and bloody-minded defense of mere exercises as real music, and the defiant/triumphant confusion of simulacra with reality, is uncomfortably close to a symptom of decadence. The SibMus world can’t be that different from the music world at large. And every week, there will be literally dozens of reviews that read, en clair: “Hey! Like, wow! Here’s a staggeringly crude imitation of Mozart/Rachmaninoff/Dvorak that’s got as much in common with its original as an coarsely manufactured mannequin does with a person. But: a. I’m easily swayed and fooled, because I haven’t spent any time studying the originals — hey, I’m busy, and I don’t love them that much; b. the composer is a personal friend/only a kid/someone I feel sorry for/’sincere’/etc; c. who’s to say? it’s all just opinion anyway, namsane?”

It’s becoming clearer to me that people only invoke such pathetic, relativistic standards because they don’t know any better, because they haven’t any (or enough) experiences to ground them in anything more solid. And, despite my grave philosophical issues with the term, I will say it, because it belongs here, inescapably: they have not experienced anything more real.

I’m saying that a cultural atmosphere of profound cluelessness is anything but a nurturing one for both the humility and the pride of a committed composer. As I’ve repeatedly (and shrilly, by now) argued, relativism is no victimless crime. If/when enough people flat out refuse to recognize any difference between some shockingly far-off (and inept) imitation of Mozart, and Mozart — then the capacity of Mozart’s music to teach is, to that extent, compromised, or even at an end. In such circumstances, clearing away the debris and weeds of misunderstanding to a path to Mozart is exponentially harder for everyone, very much including composers. Unless we want to argue that our culture plays no role whatsoever in our learning processes — and only the most aggressively brainless relativist will step up to the plate on that one — then we have to accept that the general conditions of our musical understanding present many of the particular obstacles we face as musicians. In the present circumstance, being able to enjoy our own music without delusion or (residual) self-loathing can seem a distant triumph indeed.

MW Morse

*) “Its funny how two totally different types of people – one too modest and one too arrogant – can produce equally impressive pieces of music. Think about the differences in the creative process they must have.”
Written by Taylor Silver, in a discussion at SibeliusMusic.com