.Education & teaching resources

Teaching Composition: A Sign of “Matooority”

Teaching someone to compose is impossible! Bartók said it and refused to teach composition. My mentor Morton Feldman taught composition but always claimed you couldn’t do it, a sentiment for which he was often criticized by students. His now somewhat famous response to a student who asked him how he could possibly be so hypocritical was to say that it was a sign of “matooority”.

I believe that Bartók, Feldman, and many others never meant that you cannot teach someone to compose but rather that you cannot teach imagination, creativity, and natural musicianship—in other words, the basic talent (tools) needed to be a composer. They might have agreed, however, that you can improve someone’s musicianship and try to open up a student’s creativity within limits.

While the tools are hard to teach and greatly improve, musical awareness is not. What do I mean by musical awareness? A thorough knowledge of all musics regardless of style. While the emphasis I make with my own students is on Art music, I also try to make sure that they are aware at some level of ethnic music from around the world, as well as popular and/or more vernacular music (a part of their education that I don’t usually have to do much about). And when I say Art music I mean all aesthetics (Glass to Boulez to Beethoven to Zorn, etc.). I do not take this approach expecting them to appropriate these musics but rather to make them aware that influences in ones work may come from very unexpected sources.

One of the biggest impediments to being a competent composer is being naive. I firmly believe that great works transcend stylistic considerations. Rather, a great work has value for the impact that it makes. Therefore, I do not require or teach any given musical style. Instead, I make sure that students are aware of as many approaches as possible. The influences the work may have are generally secondary and do not give the work importance. When you compare great works throughout history, style is not what determines the value of the work.

Given that I have been at Florida International University (FIU), a relatively young university, for over 15 years, I have had the good fortune to be able to design, install, and modify the program of studies for composition students. This work began with the creation of an undergraduate curriculum and later a graduate program. My first step was to create the FIU Electronic Music Studio and a set of related courses. At the same time, I organized a student New Music Ensemble for the performance of student works and works from the late-20th century repertoire. The implementation of a set of strong musicianship and analysis courses was also undertaken.

The electronic music and technology courses are imperative for composers in the 21st century. While possible to avoid in the not too distant past, without them today you are a deficient composer even if your excuse is that your first love is writing for the orchestra. The New Music ensemble is not only important for the students performing in it but for the students that are exposed to the music of the 20th and 21st century as performed by their peers. The requirement that all composition students perform in this ensemble for at least four semesters keeps them in the world of music making and reinforces and expands their exposure to new works.

Performance at the undergraduate level is important in my view and so from the start our composition students have been required to present a 30-minute recital on their instrument(s) before graduation. This is in addition to the 45-minute composition recital of their own works. Composition students are also required to conduct at least one of their pieces before graduating. These performance requirements help students understand that the creation of music and its presentation/realization are very closely related in a modern composer’s life.

Having strong analytical and musicianship skills are also important for the developing composer (as if we ever stop developing). Even as intuitive as my compositional approach is, I find myself utilizing my analytical background as a new piece unfolds. A strong and comprehensive background in theory can be very important in this regard. Sight singing and aural skills are obviously of great importance to the student composer. However, this is just a starting point. A good composer must somehow be able to notate what it is that he/she hears, no matter what it is. Feldman would often say you are only as good as your notation—your ability to accurately take whatever you have in your head and have others (performers) produce the same exact sonic image or sound. Obviously he wasn’t talking about rendering just rhythms and pitches. Timbre, densities, textures, etc., are all integral.

An important way to develop the ability to accurately render and notate a musical idea is by having as many of the students’ works read and/or performed as possible. Given that FIU has a strong performance program this is generally not a problem. The composers are required to organize the performances of their works, finding the performers and coaching their rehearsals. This is done to encourage students to develop skills that will be needed later in the real world. The university does provide reading sessions each semester by the orchestra, choir, wind ensemble, and assists with organizing readings and/or performances by student chamber ensembles (string quartet, brass choirs, etc.), but performances at student composition recitals are organized by the students.

Earlier I mentioned naiveté. In my program this is most often resolved by having students analyze and take listening identification tests that include 120-150 of the most significant works from the 20th/21st century as part of the composition seminar offered during the sophomore year. This coincides with short writing projects that employ the compositional techniques utilized in the sampled works. An upper level course focusing on just 20th/21st century music history is also part of the curriculum, further emphasizing and reinforcing what was assimilated in the sophomore year. Out of class, guest composers and performers present lectures as part of a composers’ forum that meets weekly. The latest music and techniques are often presented and discussed. At times field trips to the dress rehearsals of the New World Symphony Orchestra are part of the forum. Especially when the concert includes new music. Often these sessions include presentations by visiting composers and conductors as well as by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition, the composition forum includes sessions where student compositions are presented for critiques by the composition faculty, giving the student feedback from several faculty members, not just his or her primary teacher.

Not to be diminished, the more traditional repertoire is covered in many of the basic (and upper level) theory courses and the history survey courses focus on music from antiquity to the first part of the 20th century. In many of the theory classes, strict writing according to the dictates of the so-called Common Practice period is emphasized (e.g. voice leading, sonata form, etc). Given this pluralistic approach, students explore a variety of aesthetics early on and usually gravitate towards one or more approaches. As Feldman once commented, Stockhausen has six centuries of music to choose from for just one measure while other composers are stuck with 12 notes in a series or row. I have nothing against 12-tone writing, but I don’t want my students “stuck” in anything.

My aim is for my students to have the six centuries plus at their disposal and one way that I do this is by being involved in the presentation of International New Music festivals and other related events at FIU. These festivals bring excellent performers and composers to our campus for the enrichment of our students and the community. Most of them have masterclass components for our composition students (both graduate and undergraduate). These events further address one of my main pedagogical concerns—that student composers must be musically aware.

Teaching composition at the graduate level is a little more specialized in that students come in with different and more evolved backgrounds. The challenge is to help the student continue to find his or her own unique voice. As with the undergraduate program, students with talent but lacking musical awareness eliminate this deficiency with additional writing, listening, and analysis projects. Most come in with solid backgrounds and continue to grow given the emphasis on the music being written today throughout the world.

As with the undergraduates, Electronic Music courses are required and technology is emphasized at the graduate level. A course on Experimental Arts in which composers are able to work with students from the dance, theater, and the visual art departments is another important part of the program (which advanced undergraduates can also take). As we enter the 21st century, these collaborations will increase. Students should have the opportunity to experience the collaborative process and integrate their work with other art forms. Advanced analysis and orchestration courses are also integral to the program, as the skills acquired at the undergraduate level must continue to develop and evolve. Although performance skills are always welcome, they are not emphasized at the graduate level. It is assumed that the student has already attained a certain level of proficiency as a performer. Nevertheless, I continually advise my graduate composition students to continue to perform and/or conduct.

Lastly, and as important, I try to teach young composers (especially graduate students) to be self-critical of their music. Can they distance themselves from their work and treat it as if it was a work by another composer? Not easily done! When accomplished properly however, it helps students take a step back from a work, often allowing them to return to it with a fresh point of view. Too often student composers get very involved with the day-to-day writing of their music and miss the bigger picture. Why are you writing the work? What is the work about? Why have you chosen the aesthetic you are in? What would your reaction be if you heard this work on a concert and it was by composer X? Would you find it of interest? I am convinced that this method of auto-criticism, if used properly, can help the advanced student find his or her unique voice as a composer.

Can composition be taught? If what we mean is musical talent then obviously not. But if what we mean is helping students evolve in such a way as to develop the talent that they already posses to the maximum, then I believe that the answer is yes. And I am pleased to say that I have been very fortunate to have seen this phenomena occur many times.