Daniel Wolf djwolf at snafu.de
Tue Mar 24 00:42:45 PDT 2009

It is interesting — but perhaps not surprising on a music theory list —  
that the assumption in this thread appears to be that the subject of a  
Composition course is tonal music, with some tendency towards model  
composition.  Composition today, as an activity, clearly embraces more  
than that and the range of compositional pedagogy reflects this, with some  
teachers and institutions indeed offering essentially an equivalent to the  
Kapellmeister training of the past, others specializing in one or another  
repertoire, style or genre with appropriate technical focus, and still  
others construing their instruction as a broader aesthetic training  
without necessarily having specific repertoire associations.   I am also  
aware of some compositional instruction at beginning levels, whether in  
schools or universities, in which the approach is explicitly experimental,  
rather than repertoire-driven, beginning with an exploration of the  
properties of sound and perception.  This was the case in the  
Silver-Burdett elementary school textbook series in the US in the 1970s,  
the "creative music activities" of Lászlo Sáry in Hungary, and in the  
introductory music course at UCSD which was initially designed by  
composers Will Ogdon and Robert Erickson.  (John Cage's Experimental Music  
course at the New School, well-documented in the published notebooks of  
George Brecht, is another example).

The content of the composition course that a young musician will encounter  
is both highly variable and, from the student's point of view, often  
arbitrary.   I have observed a great number of professional composing  
colleagues who had great frustration in their student years.  Some of the  
frustration came in institutions in which student composition was ignored  
if not actively discouraged when not done in the context of instruction,   
and for others, a mismatch between their own interests and those of their  
teachers created the frustration.  A good example of this was during the  
early 1980's, when young composers at Juilliard and other conservatories  
complained about not being "allowed" to write the minimal and tonal music  
they wanted to write, while their instructors (I heard it from Elliot  
Carter) were complaining that their students only wanted to write minimal  
or tonal music.  While one does have to recognize that there will always  
be a small masochistic faction which thrives only in conflict-full  
student-teacher relationships, those young composers who seek out such  
conflicts will probably always be a small number.   In many cases, is is  
the locality or price or the perceived prestige of the institution was  
drawing students into less-than-ideal mentoring relationships, but the  
solution — go elsewhere — seems obvious, and with information about  
prospective composition teachers more readily available today, there is  
little excuse for students and teachers not making better informed  
decisions before entering into a formal teaching relationship.

The other aspect of this thread which deserves more attention concerns the  
relationship between theory and composition.  Is composition the "advanced  
topics" course at the end of a series of theory courses or are composition  
and theory parallel enterprises?   Is a theory or composition course best  
or even necessarily associated with a specific repertoire?  Is theory  
instruction best left only to theorists and composition left to to  
composers, or is there some "charge" possible when these job descriptions  
are loosened up a bit more?  Are experiments in sound and music, or  
investigations into non-western and non-canonically-classical repertoire  
more appropriate to the beginning or the end of such a sequence, or should  
they be carried out continuously?  Theory instruction is clearly a  
"service" to performers, composers, and scholars  alike, but why not  
composition?   Ultimately, I suspect that the issue here is one of  
mission: is the interest in training specialists or generalists (the  
so-called "complete musician") and the problem of that mission is, for  
music theory instruction, perhaps most acute at that juncture between the  
last course in the undergraduate theory sequence and the course which  
follows, the point in which theory has to confront praxis head-on.

Dr. Daniel Wolf


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