academic music


I understand the reasons many have for pursuing academic careers in music composition. You get to work with performers who are almost, but not really, a captive audience for your compositions. You can get played. You get feedback from the musicians, etc. I know someone who told me that he felt he needed a degree to get a job. I said to him “Why? It seems to me you already know how to compose, no?”

The sad thing is that academia is stifling. Here’s the general paradigm: study with a “master.” Get your degree. Take a job in academia. Write what you need to “win” competitions and prizes. Get tenure. Keep on writing, but in your private moments, lament the fact that you wrote far more interesting and compelling music when you were young. Grow old, and someone will throw you a concert celebrating your lofty career. Hell, if you really play the game, someone might even put together a festschrift just like they do in the hard sciences after a distinguished career. Yay for you!

But let’s face it-most people who follow this paradigm ultimately write shit over and over. And I really mean the pejorative “shit.” They’re writing for others, not for themselves. They’re the same audiences I used to see over and over at ISCM concerts at Carnegie Recital hall when I was a kid. You know, those concerts where 95% of the audience in attendance are the composers’ friends, family and students. And after the concert, who really remembers these folks? Who listens to their music? Who even cares at that point.

It’s so depressing, I want to puke.

I think a better solution is to write for yourself and stay the fuck away from academia. Sure, you won’t have the name recognition, the lavish praise in the NY Times, etc. But you’ll be writing music that’s true to itself, that expresses something, that expresses you.

I’m used to hearing the argument that academics really do write stuff they like, and are expressing something. I say that’s unusual if it occurs at all, and strikes me as largely self-serving rationalization and rhetoric. Anyone remember folks like Lester Trimble? Craig Shuler? David Diamond? Vincent Persichetti? Hell, anyone actually still listen to their music? Now let’s look at who wasn’t or isn’t an academic. Ives. Partch. Nancarrow. Scelsi. Ligeti. Glass. Reich. Young (although god knows the last three started that way but fortunately got disengaged from the Matrix and saw the light), and many others. You might or might not like their music. But at least you know about them, and have probably heard their music.

So the advantage of a career as an academic composer is…what exactly is it again?