Inside Academia

I would like to address a topic in a blog regarding the audience. I found a comment of the topic quoted below enlightening in an altogether different regard than what its purpose was (to address the post of course!) and very well written. Reading it, I didn’t come to a conclusion that Galen Brown was wrong or right or anything like that (I’m just a spectator). However, I did conclude that many things are wrong with the educational system and that professors carry too much weight in the mind of an academic composer and, furthermore, that academia has grown into a sort of monster. It used to be simpler right? Has the music become so complex that academia must match the complexity, or is it the other way around, or is it simply a bogus statement? On a separate note, Kyle Gann mentioned in his blog article in which I linked that he disqualified 19 composers of a competition because they would “start out with a dramatic single tone crescendoing into a burst of percussion.” Mr. Gann, perhaps those 19 did that because they thought you, the judge, would fall for such a “cliche” and not that they were limited in a compositional sense to “cliches.” If that was the case, its apparent they were disqualified for not understanding their “audience.” And what did the rest of the work have to offer?–(the judges had no clue they would turn out so big, checkout their calling card)–I guess that’s not an altogether bad deal, to find cliches in works and disqualify in that regard. However, wouldn’t it be nice if it was that way for piano competitions? Oh competitions….subjective, yet objectively dumb.

Two separate things. First, when you’re talking about the expectations and pressures placed on student composers, are you talking about grad students, undergrads, or both? Your diagnosis of the situation seems about right–I would just add a couple of things. First, at the undergraduate level I think part of what happens is that professors are generally willing to teach their students to compose whatever the students want to compose but there’s a presumption that if the student wants to follow the academic route there’s a particular path to success. There’s not much direct pressure–it’s the presumptions by the faculty and the institution about whom they need to take seriously. I was fortunate to have teachers who took me seriously even though I wasn’t writing in an approved academic style, but it was made clear to me that unless I switched to a different style I was going to have a hard time of it. I knew another student who had been writing in a neoromantic style who had clearly been accepted into a Masters program on the premise that he had raw talent but that now that he was in grad school it was time to get serious and start writing in a more academic style. Which brings me to my point about graduate schools: in grad school the faculty chooses the composers they accept, so the students are pre-screened for academic acceptability. Again there’s little direct pressure, but the selection criteria make for an increasingly homogenous pool of talent. Most students are already writing in an approved style. Some students were brought in with the assumption that they would get “more serious” now that they were in grad school, and others who appeared “serious” initially but convert to less “serious” music can tell that they’re dissappointing the faculty. Ultimately, of course, a lot of this stuff reduces down to the conflation of personal taste and judgements of quality. There are lots of people who claim not to have stylistic prejudices but whose taste results in biases in judgements of quality which are heavily skewed against certain genres.

What you’re saying about the nature of audiences being generalizable is of course true–I’m amazed that it needed to be spelled out, but apparently it does. The thing that interests me is why people are so committed to the idea that the audience can’t be generalized. My initial thought is that it comes from the American fetishization of personal responsibility. Just as we’re afraid that saying that poverty increases the crime rate somehow means that we can’t hold individual criminals responsible for their actions, we’re afraid that if audiences function as groups it will somehow mean that individuals don’t have and aren’t responsible for their own tastes. Composers need the audience to be responsible for their own tastes so that when audience members don’t like their work it’s because the audience members are wrong and when they do like it it’s because they’re right. If the audience is absolved of responsibility for its own tastes and reactions, then the composer is saddled with the responsibility of meeting the needs of the agregate audience. Obviously this isn’t how things really work, but I’m thinking that’s something like how we tend to think about it. – end quote: Galen Brown commenting on “All Indians Walk Single File,” a post regarding the audience.


3 thoughts on “Inside Academia

  1. Competitions shouldn’t exist, art (like life) isn’t a competition. Then again, catering to an audience isn’t art either.

    But really I’m here as a surprise defender of the cliche (how do you do that funky fresh shit with the thingy on the e).

    Call me cliche’mental (sentimental about cliches), but…sometimes I like to utilize cliches (particularly the long low deep dark held piano note, sometimes followed by a short sharp high piano note or a nice knife slashing of block chord strings strategically placed but of course) as an important active part or ingredient to the art of composing. We hear these things around us all the time. For some, musical cliches have become something very real (transcending cliche status or catering to anyone). It’s akin to utilizing the musical cliche in a similar manner as one might a field recording of nature or city street. And like field recordings have been for years now, possibly certain musical cliches have become a part of the zeitgeist landscape for composers, a type of post-post-modern thing.

    But what do I know. Those people (from your links) talk far too fancy pants for my ass, just makes me wanna stop reading all together – dem wacky intellectuals.

  2. “I’m here as a surprise defender” – Michael

    Hi Michael. I really dig that word combination, “surprise defender.” Another thing I’m wondering about lately (opposed to the academic route) is this post-shit. Will post really be post in the future? Will people look back and really differentiate postminimlism from minimalism because of the few differences as the length, etc. How about we start writing pre? I’m feeling a bit preboxism. You read it here first, boxism (otherwise known as square) will be the next big thing, so lets get in while its hot and be known as the preboxers! BTW nice vids to the great works at your blog.

  3. Wow, my face is…really looking angular these days.

    I’m down with the Pre-Movement. Pre-Dance is the ONLY dance card I’m willing to punch, this is where you just sit in a Lazy Boy daydreaming about dance moves as your iPod pipes in a computer program that feeds random blips (sort of goes along with the notion of the Entertainment Age of CA-CHING technological futures). And thanks.

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