Hello my fellow music theory travelers. I wanted to take the opportunity afforded to me by Indaba Music to draw attention to a topic which often goes too unnoticed when younger or new musicians are trying to navigate their way through the musical jungle. While the following post is my opinion (and, beyond that, my personal philosophy), I firmly believe the message is sound. We live in a modern world. All the music you could ever hope to listen to is available at the click of a few buttons. While I’ll leave the implications this has on the wider world of the music business to the executives, I believe it has clear implications for the burgeoning composer.
For those of you who haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel Slaughterhouse-5, I’ll attempt to briefly summarize. Billy Pilgrim is the hero, who travels (or seems to travel) elastically through time. At one point, he finds himself as an attraction in an extra-terrestrial zoo, where the ET’s explain that time has no meaning for them in the human sense, that they simply exist at all points in time simultaneously. In this sense, we exist in a musical atmosphere where all music past and present can be considered equal. At no other time but the modern age have you been able to listen to a Lil’ Wayne album and a Gregorian Chant album in succession so easily, literally at the click of a button. Undoubtedly, this has had a profound affect on how I treat my listening sessions, bouncing around from genre to genre.
Try to live, sonically, at all points of time simultaneously. Try to put aside your preconceived notions of Bach, or even Pérotin, being dated and listen to them as if they were created last year. Likewise, don’t shy away from Arcade Fire and Rick Ross because they don’t meet a western ideal of high art. I urge you, when approaching composition, to treat the sum of your influences equally as if they were all just created, as if time and music history doesn’t exist. Treating music as if it exists outside of a timeline will open up your ears and will guide your pen.
Composers, historically, have always bridged the gap between high art and the vernacular. In today’s world, the gap between high art and the vernacular is narrowing constantly.
Take modern composer Nico Muhly. Nico is a graduate of Colombia and Julliard, worked with Philip Glass, and has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera in London to write a new operatic work. He has several well regarded pieces to his name and has all the credentials to step upward in the traditional world of high art.
And yet, Nico is a child of the modern musical climate. He is plugged into the modern, vernacular world. Foul mouthed, a constant Twitterer, he spills his opinions about everything from Justin Bieber to M.I.A. to xylophone patterns. He has created gorgeous string arrangements for Grizzly Bear, and most recently, has created amazingly majestic arrangements for Jónsi’s (of Sigur Rós fame) newest album Go, with whom he toured playing keyboards and glockenspiel. He relishes the complicated music of the modern classical world, but doesn’t assume a Pierre Boulez additude, as he constantly touts the simple sonic eloquence of bands like Loney, Dear and isn’t above orchestrating Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”.
Check out Nico’s piece “Mothertongue”; in a word, eclectic. Nico would be the first to say that he is the sum of his experiences.
To Sum It Up
You are a sum. Everyone is born more or less carte blanche. Everything you listen to (or at least, everything that you listen to that affects you) has the potential to bubble up and appear in your writing. It’s fun listening back to albums I haven’t heard in years and realizing, “Oh! That’s where I got that from!” It’s always a lightbulb, a quick flash, and it allows me to reflect. This reflection helps me keep me grounded. It helps me harken back to my roots, back to music I listened to before my ears matured to the “next thing”.
So, go forth, listen, and compose!