Pushing Boundaries

August 7, 2019

 

 

This post is in response to so many of the composer competitions, or calls for scores, or performance organizations for "new music" that are so explicit about wanting to promote new music that "pushes the boundaries of music and sound". And that phrasing always turns me off.

No. I want to write contemporary classical music, but I want my music to be approachable. It is not my purpose to be as academic as possible, to always do new things. I want to write pieces of music that average people (maybe even people who "don't like classical music") like to listen to so that the social and emotional messages I'm voicing are clear and accessible. One of the greatest compliments I have received as a composer was the night of the Chicago SongSlam. It was in a bar in Hyde Park (Chicago) and the predominantly female POC bartenders were bored. Until they heard my song. They liked my song so much they bought my singer a martini. This is a compliment. 

I'm clearly writing 21st century music. It's the 21st century. I'm writing music in the classical tradition. It's not rock or jazz; it's particularly "neo"-anything. It's a little bit minimalist, from a music theory standpoint. But it's tonal/modal and while the rhythms can be tricky for the performer, I hope they are still accessible as a listener. When I use heavy dissonances, it's because I'm trying to make a specific point. But I'm also not pushing to try to create music that is so unique, unusual, and new that it's only accessible to academics, because that doesn't serve my purposes as a communicator and artist.

Perhaps I simply absorbed that 20th century idea of music as language a little too well for my colleagues. But I'm not willing to give it up. This art form needs a facelift. As classical musicians we're seen by the public as snobs, conservatives, old fogies, boring, sometimes even racist and misogynistic. I want to challenge that stereotype with my art. I want to make progressive art with strong social statements and accessible sounds. I want to sing in bars and on the street. I want to write operas about nonbinary characters, strong women, and uplifting marginalized communities. I want to write art songs about sex. I want to write orchestral pieces about memory and dementia.

And if that means I never win a competition or none of my pieces ever get picked up by some famous new music performing group...fine. I'll just keep making art. 

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