Beyond 'grandma music': A guide for modern composers

So you want to compose serious music?

8 minute read
Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach: Something old, something new...
Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach: Something old, something new...
This is an exciting time to be a composer— there are many directions to choose from. A typical account of the history of 20th-Century "classical music" (whatever that term means-- a topic for another article) gives up on the notion of a sequential march of progress. It goes Baroque-Classical-Romantic-EXPLOSION. But now, almost a decade into the 21st Century, one can step back and survey the various schools of modern music.

Now, categorization is always a risky business. Stereotyping, judging and fitting the endless variety of personalities into labeled drawers is never clean or easy work and inevitably futile. Trend spotting may be useful, but the best works are those that don't fit into any genre.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here's one struggling young composer's attempt to make some sense of it all.

Neo-Classical: Beyond P.D.Q. Bach

A well-schooled classical musician is obliged to have learned how to properly voice-lead Bach chorales and how to distinguish between Beethoven's main and second themes in sonata-form. Astonishingly, this obligation tends to stop there, in the mid 1810s. Even Beethoven's late music is usually pooh-poohed as too complex to even attempt.

Later composers such as Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann are considered borderline. But Brahms, Liszt and (gasp!) Wagner are discouraged as far too complex, because they don't fit the Classical mold.

The 20th Century is hardly even discussed in conservatory music theory classes— not even established repertoire masters such as Stravinsky, Bartok and Schoenberg. Some exposure is given to their music to acknowledge its existence. But their techniques are rarely studied in depth.

Consequently, many amateur classical composers end up writing what is sometimes referred to as "Grandma Music." This appellation refers to the seas of white hair and walkers that prop up classical music organizations— the 80-year-year-old grandmas who smile and clap after hearing that same 18th-Century symphony for the thousandth time.

Neo-classical composers attempt to imitate the likes of Mozart and Beethoven but usually end up sounding like error-riddled imitations of C.P.E. Bach or aimless movie music without the movie. Peter Schickele's fictitious P.DQ Bach exploits this idiom hilariously, and it can even be done well seriously.

The ability to write in the classical style is an important skill for a composer, at the very least as an apt awareness of tradition. But in order to be taken seriously, a composer shouldn't stop here.

Jazzy: Classical's distant cousins

Jazz was born in improvisation, as opposed to written composition. Attempts to notate the improvisations of jazz greats have proven futile. Nevertheless, some elements of harmony, rhythm and approach translate into classically literate composition.

Jazz has inspired classical composers throughout the 20th Century, as exemplified by Milhaud, Stravinsky and even Hindemith. Their European training had little to do with jazz, but their openness to the medium and their attempts to incorporate it have yielded a new kind of freshness, even if their music certainly can't be called jazz.

Today's classical and jazz musicians still seldom fully understand each other. But they usually respect and are inspired by each other.

Popular /Folk: The people's choice

Almost nobody in this world can resist the intoxicating simplicity and everyday relevance of popular and folk music, a category that includes hip-hop, rock, pop and other commercially produced sub-genres. Even fewer people manage to avoid it. The intrinsic appeal of a regular beat and a steady repetitive harmony cannot be denied. Whether it's part of our biology or acquired as a cultural norm, this relatively simple music has been voted in by most humans.

Classical composers would therefore be wise to learn from the noble simplicity of popular music. Minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich have successfully taken this simplicity and reduced it to absurdity.

World classical: Beyond the movies

Europe isn't the only culture with a serious art-music discipline. The peoples of the Far East, the Middle East, India, Africa, the Americas, and the Oceanic Islands all boast long traditions of intricate music with their own sets of instruments, tonal systems, and stylistic "rules." Indian ragas, Indonesian gamelan and Arab maqams are just a few examples. While Europe (mostly Germany) focused on harmony as the main aspect of complexity, African drumming focused on rhythm, with composite patterns so complex they can hardly be recorded in Western music notation.

Composers often look to their ethnic background for inspiration, and this can lead to some of the most honest and heartfelt music. But trying to import world music into a European classical music idiom is risky— a lot can be lost in translation, with a cheesy-sounding result. Think of the cheesy pentatonic scale that Hollywood movies use whenever a director wants to denote "China." Avoid that.

Atonal: A Cold War thing

Academic composers insist that there's no such thing as atonal music, even in Schoenberg. But for practical purposes, if one must take several steps to explain why a piece is actually tonal, it can probably be called atonal. If your grandma would scrunch her face at it, or if people nod and look away slowly while calling it "interesting"— if you can't hum along to it without sounding like a refugee from an insane asylum— then it can probably be called atonal.

Not that this should be taken as a curse or a derogative term. Atonal music often offers some truly interesting (in the honest sense of the word) timbres and mind-challenging rhythms. The music is usually difficult to perform and even to listen to, but usually tends to grow on listeners with every hearing.

This genre is often associated with academia. Eager as always for funding, post-World War II professors at institutions like Harvard and Princeton wrote music so convoluted and complex that only a select few claimed to enjoy it. These connoisseurs effectively labeled everyone else ignorant, as Milton Babbit did in his 1958 essay, "Who Cares if You Listen?"

Claiming intellectual superiority, these atonalists received federal funding on the premise that advanced modern music, like rocket science, must by definition be incomprehensible to the masses. It was a Cold War thing.

Although pockets of this school of thought survive, the ideology is on the decline everywhere except for the ivory towers. Nonetheless, their aesthetic has made a mark on the collective musical tradition and elements of their style remain an indelible part of the literate musical tradition.

Bizarre: Adventures with a microphone

In a dire search to do something that's never been done, composers reach to the outer limits of physical possibility and societal acceptability. In the journey to these outer reaches, issues of artistic balance and structure are sometimes left behind.

Everything from instrument bashing to plant snipping, to screaming naked on stage while throwing mud and balloons at the audience, to sitting soundlessly next to a piano has been passed off as music. At the very least, this kind of music opens listeners' ears to every single sound as artistic—to find beauty in noise.

One of the most amusing and interesting examples of this genre that I've heard featured Gino Robair sitting on the floor and improvising on any musical object thrust his way, with the help of a microphone. Robair was able to elicit interest by crumpling paper, into the mike, inserting the mike into tubes, muting it with all sorts of toys, and creating weird timbres. The "music" had rhythm, structure and drama—it was musically exciting and visually fascinating as well.

Electronic: What humans can't do

This is a genre where many possibilities are still emerging. Constantly improving technology allows for more options and greater accessibility, and computers are able to do things humans will never be capable of on traditional instruments.

For years, the electronic genre was too expensive for most young composers to approach. But today, on a home PC, one has more computing power than many a university electronic music lab possessed only a few years ago.

Electronic sampling still can't imitate the artistry of a human playing an instrument. Rather than attempt to copy what we can already do, it's more fruitful to blaze new paths into things we can't do.

Electronic processing has been used for more than half a century, with mixed results. Everyone from the Beatles to Boulez has experimented with it. But a mess of static and beeps and sine tones isn't very useful.

Beautiful, never-before-heard sounds are emerging, making electronic music an exciting field to be in. Combining this with acoustic music of various types could yield limitless possibilities.â—†

To read a reply by Dan Coren, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation