What young composers need

This is an email message sent 13 April 2013 to Roger Briggs, composition chair, and Chris Bianco, director of bands, at Western Washington University. David had just returned from working with the wind ensemble and student composers.

Hi Roger,

I am very glad that we had some time together, and thanks again for sharing your beautiful piano work!

I mentioned my feeling that your student composers showed a quality of depression. Chris Bianco had also asked me about my time with the student composers and I shared some of those thoughts with him as well. The more I think about it the stronger it feels to me that that depression is a real thing. I will suggest that it has to do with overreliance on the computer as the main tool for making music. I have focused on the playback issue because it is so obvious. We certainly know intellectually that the computer is not a band or orchestra, but unconsciously we do NOT know this, and persistent use of the machine as the source of feedback about the nature of “real” sound results in a deep depression, and this is because the computer sound is denatured. It has no living vitality. Because of the availability of computer music programs young people think they can become composers without any significant contact with live music making. They don’t even have to play an instrument. This is entirely against the nature of what music is, and what its living function is.

Off the top of my head I have begun to develop a few ideas. Young composers need to become the best performers they can be, and also participate in ensemble play. They need across the board to have piano study. Using the piano for composing means making real musical sound with your body, rather than the abstraction of computer notation. This one thing would go a huge way toward relieving the depression, and bringing composers a lot closer to music as living community practice.

The next idea is about gaining practical skills in living music. The thought is that every composition student from youngest to most advanced would each semester be assigned as “composer-in-residence” with single performers (faculty and students), duos, trios, quartets, quintets, established ensembles such as brass quintet, wind quintet, percussion ensemble or groupings, band, orchestra, and chorus. Their job would be to meet, say, two hours a week with their performer(s), study the scores that are being performed, listen to rehearsals or practice sessions, ask questions, and over the course of the semester compose a piece to be performed by their assigned performers. This would be a narrowly limited but sharply focused kind of work. Unlimited information, the unlimited availability of any kind of music at any moment, is frankly making everybody sick. It allows for non-commitment, spiritual detachment. Computers have their uses, but their best function is at the end point of the process when scores and parts are being produced, and maybe not even then. I learned my composer craft through my hands, by struggling with the piano as a non-pianist (now a decent one after 50 years!), by producing my own materials by hand, and by being a music copyist. I would add to the program outlined above the copying of scores by hand. Each semester each composer would copy by hand (pencil and paper) one score that they are studying with their performers. This is a deep-learning method that requires slow contemplation of every detail in a score. Conscious and unconscious minds are engaged through sight, voice, ears, and muscles. The depth of my craft was established by this kind of work. In a word, the convenience of computers is killing us.

What I felt in your students was that the dream of music was not sharply there. Yes, they have the curiosity to try to compose, and that is the starting point of the dream. But the dream has been reduced to the mundane by the computer. The real function of the composer as dreamer for the community has to be re-established. This is so different than the kind of encapsulated self-involvement that art-making has become.

Thanks for indulging me in all these thoughts! I am copying this to Chris Bianco as well. Maybe something of the above will move your thinking and program a degree or two in this direction.

All very best,


By |2016-12-09T23:08:46+00:0013 April 2013|Correspondence|