up the academy


It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good brawl on sequenza 21.But there comes a time when you have to defend your principles, and this was one such occasion. The question was put out there: “Does Going to Julliard, Yale or Harvard Make You a Better Composer?” Rather than posing the question of whether or not formal composition education is really helpful, it was a given that it is; rather, the question referred to whether one is a better composer for having gone to an impressive school instead of a lesser one.

My personal feeling is that it’s the wrong question being posed here. The better question is “Does it matter at all if you get formal composition training in a conservatory or academic music department?” I would definitely answer “No.”

To make a long story short, the brawl really came into effect when someone opined that composers with nonacademic backgrounds, like Nancarrow and Zappa, tend to lack self-criticism, and really would have benefitted from “some quality editing” by their peers in a music conservatory. Sorry, but those of us who are more or less self-trained in composition really don’t like the idea that we would have been “better” composers had we only gotten a graduate composition degree. 

I can think of very little innovative music that came out of an academic music department. Okay, make that none. Zero. Bupkes. I like a lot of Ralph Shapey’s music, but despite his academic wannabe-ness during his career at the U of Chicago, Shapey didn’t have so much as a high school diploma, and his music was anything but academic. Feldman taught at SUNY-Buffalo, but was largely self-taught in terms of composition and was shunned by academia during his lifetime. Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, and even Charles Ives were largely self-taught. Their music could never have been generated in an academic environment. Even Glass and Reich found their major influences outside of the academy (Indian music and jazz/African music, respectively). La Monte Young was certainly university-trained and wrote 12-tone music, but gravitated towards jazz and finally made his teacher, Seymour Shifrin’s head explode when he wrote his novel Trio for Strings in 1958. Most folks in Southern California academic music circles thought Young had lost his mind.

I get it; studying in a formal setting provides great networking opportunities and the ability to work with fellow musicians. All of that is invaluable. But it’s a Faustian bargain, since one also potentially loses one’s individuality and creative spark. There is a trend towards maintaining a status quo. And that goes against real innovation.

I really dislike the idea that those of us without significant formal training in composition are less skilled or self-critical than those who go to Yale or Juilliard or Curtis. And I also don’t understand the notion that if someone goes to a less-well-known music school, he or she is not as well trained as a composer, or has appropriate performance opportunities. As Paul Bailey pointed out on Twitter, it isn’t the school that does the education—people do the education. But really, both high-end and low-end schools provide the same outcome: composers who play it safe and who cannot innovate unless and until they find inspiration outside the academy.