Music: How to Become a Composer

So you want to be a composer. You might want to think twice about it after reading Ivan March’s June 2005 column in Gramophone magazine: “Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, real music and its composers were sidelined in favour of what I call ‘barbed wire’ repertoire…. Atonalism, arguably, was the 20th century’s biggest musical disaster…. I am told that the music departments of some American universities have, until quite recently, compelled their students to compose atonally” (emphasis mine).

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the enforced hegemony of the “barbed wire” repertoire and its acolytes has been overthrown. It has left a bit of a mess in its wake, but it has opened opportunities for composing “real music” again. How does one pick up the pieces, strewn far and wide, in the destructive wake of the “20th century’s biggest musical disaster”?

Part of the answer is in Norfolk, Virginia, at the ambitious Virginia Arts Festival. This spring, I received an intriguing invitation to attend American composer John Duffy’s Composers Institute, which is in residence there. The idea was to sit in on a day of workshops with the nine young composers who had won fellowships for two weeks’ worth of study with Duffy and other mentors, like John Corigliano and Tania Leon, who came down from New York. Duffy, an avuncular figure from an Irish immigrant family, is perhaps most widely known for his Emmy Award—winning score to the TV series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. He has a keen sense of what is needed to repair the “alarmingly fragmented” artistic community: Bring young composers and performers together and create a sense of community through workshops, rehearsals, performances, and the kind of camaraderie that comes from spending several weeks in a completely supportive and collaborative atmosphere.

From what I observed, it works. Most important, of course, is what the young composers learn and the kind of encouragement they receive. The superb Miami String Quartet was in residence, reading through several of the works written by the composing fellows. Twenty-five-year-old fellow James Blachly explained that he had written his String Quartet to discover whether he really could become a composer. After listening to this highly accomplished, very attractive piece, drenched in the influences of English and East-European folk music, Duffy told him that the answer was clear: He could become a composer. Then Duffy corrected himself, and said: “No, you already are one.” As further endorsement, the violist of the Miami Quartet said they would be very happy to learn and perform the Blachly piece and the rhythmically charged chamber works by fellow Carlos Carrillo.

The senior composers helped with notational problems in the scores of the fellows but also addressed expressive difficulties. With just a few sentences, Corigliano could get to the heart of what was needed to improve a piece. His economy of means bespoke a world of experience. He said to one composing fellow: “The problem is being too sophisticated. Repeat some of the material so we can recognize it before we get a subtle variation of it.”

Corigliano was very keen on the need to communicate with audiences. He is an immensely talented and successful composer who has never abandoned “real music.” He has written a tremendous range of works that includes his galvanizing Piano Concerto from 1968, the gorgeous Oscar-winning score to The Red Violin, and the smash-hit opera at the Metropolitan Opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

The recovery of modern music requires a proper indictment of the “disaster” that befell it. Corigliano told me that there is “a lack of intellectual substance or content in serial music…. It’s all ego, emotionally barren or angst-driven, incapable of expressing joy. So, the audiences left, and the concert halls are becoming museums.” In short, “They ruined an art form.” In order to get it back, Corigliano made it clear that “it is more moral to be understood than not to be understood.”

However, Corigliano reaches down to an even more profound level. In a brilliant monograph on Corigliano’s works, written by Mark Adamo, a successful young opera composer who was also on the Norfolk faculty, Corigliano said that, when working on The Ghosts of Versailles, “I suddenly saw a parallel between the French revolutionary decision to completely destroy the past—to not leave a single aristocrat’s head still attached to his shoulders—as weirdly analogous to the kind of fanatical…purism, I guess you’d say, in contemporary musical thought when I was growing up. For example, I remembered Pierre Boulez’s pronouncement of how any composer who refused to see the historical necessity of twelve-tone writing was useless.” The elevation of incomprehensibility as a virtue in modern music, Corigliano said, is the “toxic legacy of curdled Romanticism, in which the artist becomes less a servant of society and more a god unto himself—and the more cruel and arbitrary a god, the better.” For anyone who has lived through this excruciating period of alienation, Corigliano’s words are like water in the desert.

Some of these lessons were repeated for the fellows in an afternoon master class during which Corigliano explained how he goes about composing. He dealt with two of his instrumental works, emphasizing that “a message without words has to be clearer than a message with words.” He stressed that a composer must ask the right questions so that he can find the answers and a way to choose from the nearly limitless possibilities.

The young Ariel Quartet from Israel played a short, nostalgic piece by Corigliano, called Snapshot 1909, inspired by an old photo of his father, who later became the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. It was a sweet, exquisitely lyrical and refined work. Then, in great detail, Corigliano showed how he went about writing a recent orchestral work, Circus Maximus, which premiered at Carnegie Hall last February. This raucous piece could not have been more different, again illustrating Corigliano’s enormous expressive and stylistic range. Whatever the style, Corigliano said, “we need familiarity and repetition and new adventures.” A combination of variety and routine provides the human balance in each work.

No one could better express the experience at the Composers Institute than one of its fellows. So I asked James Blachly what it meant to him. He replied:

The Institute provided us with the chance to work with some of the finest ensembles in America. This was thrilling beyond description…. But it was the opportunity to work closely every day with the Fellows, to eat with each other and talk with each other, to share our views as peers and contemporaries, that we all valued most. Under John Duffy’s guidance, we found a chance to discover, through conversations with each other, a new perspective in our craft and our role in the world as composers, and to strive for something further in our work than we had conceived of before the festival began.

This is the first year of Duffy’s Composer Fellows program at the Composers Institute. It may seem a small effort addressed to such a big problem. However, imagine what this can achieve in a mere matter of ten years. There will be a community of nearly 100 young composers, along with a much larger group of performers, helping each other on the way—no longer subject to the kind of debilitating isolation that sidelined so many promising talents during the years of “barbed wire” works. Given the evident talent of the young composers, this could change the complexion of music in the United States. This is the way to take back classical music in America—one composer at a time.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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