The young composer's struggle: A reply to Dan Coren

A composer's response

6 minute read
J.S. Bach (left) and three sons: Talk about a confusing family!
J.S. Bach (left) and three sons: Talk about a confusing family!
"Music is best understood by children and animals."
—Igor Stravinsky, 1961

A reply to Dan Coren's reply to my article, "So you want to compose serious music?"

Maybe when I grow up, I'll stop feeling like I understand. Until then, I plan to write passionate opinionated pieces, and I won't be afraid to offer negative views about things I don't like. Otherwise, I'll end up sounding like Alex Ross of the New Yorker, writing nothing but praise about all the noise I hear. I try to keep an open ear and an open mind. But it's also important, I think, to stake out an honest position.

My little article on various directions in contemporary classical music (whatever "classical" means can be addressed in a different thread) was an opinion piece, based on my own experiences, however limited they may be. I thought I made this clear in the opening paragraphs, when I wrote that it was "one struggling young composer's attempt to make some sense of it all."

True, I could have supported some of my opinions with more facts, but this isn't a school assignment or a paper for an academic journal— it's a snapshot of the ideas floating in my mind at the moment. I want to keep readers reading by challenging them with provocative, frank opinions, not boring them with too many details.

I also showed the essay to some online friends at, where it elicited more 50 comments— some critical, others in defense. Many of the critiques were similar to Dan Coren's, and most took the same approach: taking a few lines out of context and bashing them.

This opens a can of worms (especially in a mostly anonymous online correspondence like But now that the can has been opened, I might as well eat the worms, because nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I can defend my opinions one by one at the risk of initiating a back-and-forth argument that will either polarize us further or result in the realization that we agree more than we think. Here it goes.

Re (gasp!) Wagner

The parenthetical "Gasp!" in front of my mention of Wagner was meant to convey the fear and trepidation with which analysis of his music is often approached, as well as the political and personal controversies that surround him. His music defies traditional Roman-numeral analysis because the harmony doesn't function in the old way. Rather than confuse students or invalidate the careful voice-leading rules music educators have exercised for so long, most analysis classes conclude when functional analysis stops making sense. I base this observation on the musicians I know, the schools I attended, the textbooks I've seen, and statistics on concert programming.

Brahms: a master who broke the rules

Brahms was certainly a master of sonata form— but he was a master precisely because he broke the rules. This situation makes for a messy instructional model on paper (i.e., modulating to the mediant instead of the dominant, or going to the minor dominant for second themes).

Beethoven vs. Satchmo

I frown on neither jazz nor minimalism. I happen to like both. I highlighted various aspects of each that appeal or don't appeal to me.

Although Beethoven was a great improviser, his technical approach to music differed fundamentally from that of Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. One of the biggest differences concerns their notation. The white-jazz cocktail-hour improvisations of Bill Evans might well lend themselves to notation. But try notating bebop.

Bach's confusing progeny

CPE, JC, JS, WF, PDQ… the alphabet soup of the Bach family can be more confusing than the initials of U.S. government agencies. I'm sorry if I lost track of them. I meant to convey (perhaps carelessly) a recognizable but not unanimously revered name from the classical era (i.e., anyone but Mozart and Haydn.)

Re "Grandma music"

Sorry if I offended anyone with this term. But I've written and heard my share of Grandma music. It's not all bad.

The real issue

More interesting than these nitpicking details is the larger question of what I meant to say in my article. What, Dan Coren asks, is the "struggle" I speak of? Where am I coming from?

The struggle of the composer today is to create something original when so many things have been tried and documented— to find a voice without falling into one of the clichéd categories that I outlined. It's the struggle to create something pleasing for audiences, university professors and musicians simultaneously. Something beautiful, interesting and meaningful yet also unique.

On the other hand, the various genres can also function as colors in an artist's palette. I thought it might be useful to delineate some categories in order to consciously use them or avoid them.

That's the artistic struggle. Of course there is also the more crass commercial struggle for people's listening time and musicians' playing time. Building a caring audience for one's music is important but very difficult.

Speaking of building an audience, I posted two of my recent compositions to YouTube. Please listen:

Harold in California
This composition for viola and pre-recorded electronics is performed in this video by yours truly. Almost all the electronic sounds you hear are actually processed viola sounds, however unrecognizable they may seem. A few sounds are synthesized. The title is a play on the Berlioz viola concerto, Harold in Italy, though this work is related to Berlioz only in spirit—nothing motivic.

Cairo: Across the Wadi is my musical impression of the Egyptian capital. It includes imitations of Muslim chant, urban sounds and Arabic secular music— a token of appreciation and a peaceful gesture from an Israeli Jew.

I hope the music speaks for itself about my musical values. Stay tuned for more infuriating essays from me about "What makes "'good' music?" and "What is classical music?" Your feedback— positive or negative— is, of course, always welcome.â—†

To read a response by Dan Coren, click here.

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