Composition Master Class

Apr 19, 2010

Every now and then Jeremiah Pecker will be invited to hold forth at one of those curious institutions we call a “master class.” All musicians know what this is and what it entails. If you’re an instrumentalist or a singer, such a class is a pretty straightforward affair. You play your Chopin etude or sing your Puccini aria, and some honored guest artist, after politely listening, heaps gobs of fulsome praise on you and then over the next twenty minutes ritually disembowels you before an audience of your peers and your embarrassed teacher. And the whole thing is captured on video so you can enjoy it over and over.

With composers it’s a slightly different kettle of fish. The usual format requires the host professor to choose four or five students to show their wares while their classmates sit in the back of the room, listening, following along with the score and now and then checking their cell phones.

For the composition master class the student composer, aka “THE VICTIM,” distributes copies of the score to all in the room. In the old days, long before music software, the student would bring in his or her piece in a spiral bound notebook, and everyone would hover around the piano while the composer banged through the piece, squinting at the obscure pencil hen scratchings on the manuscript pages and yelling out comments. For those of us who were not pianists that hour could be the worst of the week. But nowadays young composers arrive with a beautifully bound, engraved score in multiple copies. Plus they will likely bring along a compact disk (or memory stick if you’re excessively cool) of the music.

Most students will be able to provide a recording of a recent performance. Depending on the talent of the available instrumentalists in the school, these performances can vary from barely adequate to absolutely stunning. Composers at the Yale School of Music, for instance, are able to play recordings of dazzling, impressive performances of their pieces for full orchestra played by the Yale Philharmonia. But that’s a rare luxury situation. More often the student will have a recording of a smaller group, sometimes made by friends that have been corralled, bribed or even blackmailed into playing.

This is more like life in the real world, as once you graduate and get out of school, you’re more likely to have to put up with sketchy performances of your music for a long time to come. You can console yourself with the thought that Charles Ives never heard a good performance of any of his orchestra pieces until he was too old to leave home.

At a recent master class I had the pleasure of hearing a composer who had written a crazy, delightful piece for saxophone quartet, one that called for all four of the sax players to play not only their own instruments but also to double on wildly zany homemade percussion instruments and noisemakers invented and constructed by the composer. It was a splendid piece. Not only that, but we were able to hear the piece live, as he arranged to have the group show and play it for the class.

But more often than not the presentation in the master class is in the form of a recording either live or computer simulated. The true bottom of the barrel experience will be a MIDI version, in which case all the music is eerily precise and the sampled strings sound like a section of high-strung chipmunks.

But no composition master class deserves its rightful name without the main event: AUDIO PROBLEMS. How many university and conservatory classrooms are equipped with adequate sound systems? Here we are in the 21st century in a culture that lives and breathes recorded music every minute of the day, but all university music classrooms inevitably have a malfunctioning audio system. Or, failing that, the student has to make do with playing his or her piece on a miserable little boom box (as was the case with a classroom in a world-famous music conservatory). The AUDIO PROBLEM begins just as the first student is about to play his piece. He puts the CD in the carriage, pushes “play” and nothing happens. Everyone present sits in embarrassed silence for 90 seconds. Then the teacher plus one or two “helpful” students come up and all hover around the antiquated CD player and antiquated amplifier, randomly pushing buttons labeled with enigmatic words like “source,” “return mix,” “send,” “bypass,” and “aux mode line output.”

Eventually a loud pop, frequently enough to blow the tweeters, announces to the class that the AUDIO PROBLEM has been located and solved. The student composer sighs and the master class is officially underway.

On occasion the student (aka “the victim”) may precede the listening of his or her piece with a verbal presentation. Such presentations can be nearly as interesting as the piece itself, as in the case of a young composer who introduced his piano piece by saying “all the important motivic information is in the first movement…which I’m not going to play for you.”

Others will preface their presentations by some anecdotal background: “I got this rhythmic idea from the weird way my roommate snores.” Or “I broke up with my girlfriend in the middle of composing the adagio, so that’s the reason for the sudden percussion entrance.”

(Don’t laugh. Honestly, I know a prize-winning composer who embedded into an orchestra piece the initials of a high school sweetheart who’d jilted him twenty years earlier. And he was a grown man when he did this. And I am not making this up!)

I would hazard a guess that eighty percent of all student compositions follow a similar formal structure, and I as a young composer did pretty much the same. We begin in a hushed, nervous semi-silence. A viola plays a slowly repeating, throbbing figure sul ponticello; meanwhile a marimba trills on a low C, while a flute (or clarinet, or oboe) plays a lamenting, atonal melody alone in the high register. The tritone is the featured interval for this section, because it is expresses life’s eternally unresolved mysteries.

If the piece is a text setting, the poetry will be either by Pablo Neruda or Sappho. These are the de rigueur poets for all graduate student compositions. The only other alternative would be poetry written in the bleak of night by the composer’s roommate. (My senior thesis composition was a setting of poems written by a classmate of mine who only wrote when he was stoned on LSD. And I am not making this up either.) Vocal pieces usually favoring cruel leaps for the singer—up a ninth, down a tenth, back up another ninth, and then some interval expressing anguish.

But back to the typical instrumental composition: The slow, nervous, unsettling introduction will most likely be followed an up-tempo OSTINATO. The ostinato has gained great prestige of late because students wrongly believe that this is what made Steve Reich and Phil Glass successful composers. They misunderstand the essence of minimalist technique, thinking that by merely introducing a repeated, grinding rhythmic figure they can achieve satisfying musical form.

The ostinato may or may not have a harmonic modulation in it. Usually it will pump and grind away for about four minutes on the same tonality, building and building before it comes to a frightening, colossal, overwhelming, earth shattering CLIMAX. (This is where said composer’s girlfriend dumped him or her for a garage band punker.)

This climax is great fun for the percussion player, who is usually the only one in the ensemble with serious tattoos and other identifying marks.

Now if the school has a computer music maven, this is a good time for a solo for MAX MSP!!! If you don’t know what Max MSP is, don’t even think of asking. It may involve Jitter, and it may be live or prerecorded. The big moment usually will sound like recycled hip-hop or an Aphex Twin outtake. The composers with Max MSP in their pieces usually wear torn jeans, high-tops and a black tee shirt with the logos of a metal band or a portrait of Franz Kafka on the front. They will be the most intellectual and “indie” looking of those in the class, whereas those students who write trumpet sonatas or choral anthems usually dress more conservatively, favoring Dockers and in rare instances, especially in Utah, neckties.)

The bone-crushing climax is followed by the bleak, hopeless coda. (Oh, I wrote a lot of these in my younger days, believe me.) This coda may have a few minor eruptions of waning violence, usually featuring minor ninths and clusters of minor seconds. Depending on how angry and pissed off the composer was while writing the piece, the final bar may or may not have a subito fortissississimo. But more often then not things just kinda fade out into an existential oblivion.

The piece is over and now it’s time for The Master (i.e. the guest disembowler) to say something meaningful. This is not as easy as you might think. You want to be helpful and not just make bland, encouraging comments like Mom and Dad. On the other hand you remember your own student days and recall how super super super sensitive you were. An unkind cut can be devastating. I once lost a competition that I thought I had in the bag and was so outraged that I called one of the professors who was judging and bawled him out.

Some big time composers who give master classes, anxious about being liked, just bail on making critical comments, preferring rather to finesse things by talking about superficialities. “I’m not sure that sul tasto will cut through there…maybe you should give that line to the trombone.” Or “hey, did you do that with Finale or with Sibelius? What version do you have?” Or “is this score in C or transposed?”

I try to deal with the real nitty gritty, the mega-issues, as difficult and as dangerous as that may turn out to be. One very daunting challenge for young composers is how to judge the scale of what they’ve constructed. Since most pieces written in school settings are understandably brief (say between eight and twelve minutes), building a meaningful and satisfying expressive form is a challenge. Inexperienced composers often give over the larger part of their pieces to relatively low-interest, low-event material. Most pieces start slowly and for a long time haven’t much to chew on. I often have to remind students about Beethoven and how gratifying it is to have a powerful, confident idea stated in the very first bar. But then…one has actually to have a powerful, confident idea, and those don’t come a dime a dozen.

The other issue that plagues so many student compositions is vagueness of harmonic language. We live in a post-style era in contemporary classical music. Students are blessedly free of the kind of bitterly divisive battles of style and orthodoxy that made life so brutal forty years ago. But the down side is that the “anything goes” climate of composing now produces thousands of pieces with no real internal cohesion. The harmonic character of a piece is of absolute, essential importance. It’s how we know immediately that a Messiaen piece is by Messiaen or why we can identify a piece by Ligeti or Feldman or Reich instantaneously. Unfortunately most young composers come to their profession with little awareness and even less interest in creating a unique harmonic profile for their music. This is one reason why so many pieces resort to OSTINATO—it’s a kind of default mode to create a gravitational sense in the music.

But these comments often are met with blank stares. Either the young composers are unaware of the lack of harmonic comprehensibility in their pieces, or they believe that other aspects like instrumentation or dynamics or repetitive design will trump harmony.

The class ends and the Master offers to meet any and all aggrieved students out in the parking lot where they can take turns telling the Master just what they think of him.

Comments (56)

Phillip Golub
April 19, 2010

Loved this. Found it so fun. (And all the links were hilarious.) The last few paragraphs is really what sold me - I agree whole-heartedly. "But the down side is that the “anything goes” climate of composing now produces thousands of pieces with no real internal cohesion." Nailed it in my opinion. That whole section of the post reminded me of the chapter in your book when you're listening to a tape Wagner in the car in Eastern Calf. is it? and you say to yourself, "he cares" about Wagner. That chapter resonated with me, and i feel this touches on the same thing: quite simply, the importance of harmony, and having a harmonic language/sound, which is way way way too often ignore, lost, or even looked down upon now. Great post, I couldn't agree more.

April 19, 2010

Thanks so much for writing this!
As a student conductor at a "Major Music School," I conducted, MANY times, the precise piece you just described. Usually, I could open the front cover of the score and tell the form from two items:

1. The title (usually one word, something meant to be evocative of that Angst and Despair, like "Desecration" or "Reincarnation." I've conducted three pieces all titled "Monster.")

2. The list of percussion requirements. If it has bowed crotales, water gongs, brake drum and prepared piano, I know exactly how that ostinato->crashing climax->long denouement is going to sound.

A graduate composition student
April 19, 2010

Wow, this is so incredibly condescending. Why do you bother doing this if you have such ire for young composers? As a teacher of college level students, I see many of the issues you discuss, but it's my goal to help them, not carp cheap jokes on my blog.

Bernard Gordillo
April 19, 2010

I read your posts regularly and have enjoyed them. I particularly liked this one. Thank you.

April 19, 2010

Well, there are too many composers who shouldn't really be composing. Because they don't really have a calling for this, because they have nothing to say to anybody through their music... I think music is a social being and what a lot of composers in the past and present have done and are still doing, is they neglect/ed that music has to communicate with people, and is made for the people, not just for ourselves, and not only for the appreciation from other fellow composers.
If only students were told something like this, from the very beginning, instead of something like "go study all those scores and don't come back until you really understand musical structure", and if only composition teachers could be replaced with human beings... maybe there could be a chance for music (beyond Beyonce and Eminem) to start reaching people again.

April 19, 2010

I found this to be a great read! The hardest thing for me to develop in my compositions is still the harmonic language. I have found the best way for me to have interesting harmony is to just experiment around with different ideas! I have found out was does and doesn't work, and I use my experience in all of my new works!

I also do NOT think this condescending. Perhaps, ''A Graduate Composition Student'' should read thru this again.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky
April 19, 2010

ha ha ha!

April 19, 2010

This might be legitimately interpreted as condescending, where it not for Mr Adams' repeated admission that he went through a similar period development himself. The tone throughout is one of gentle mocking mixed with a degree of empathy. The above commenter who doesn't detect that may just have been reading what he or she wanted to read.

Mixed Meters
April 19, 2010

I've always preferred Dockers with no tie.

As a victim of not just masterclasses but an entire graduate education in composition which has taken decades to understand, I've come to believe that music composition should not be an advanced course of formal study.

There are plenty of things a composer needs to know which a college or institution can teach productively and objectively (e.g. orchestration, theory, history, technology, performance, fundraising). Afterwards, if a student still says "I want to be a composer" the response should be "Good luck with that."

The advantages of my plan are a lower population of cookie-cutter young composers, a better balance between economic supply and demand for composers, and hopefully more young composers with uniquely creative ideas (or at least ideas that haven't been inherited from their teachers). The major disadvantage would be re-training all the current composition faculty for new jobs.

Brandy Rosero
April 19, 2010

Hysterical! And I'm not even a musician. Loved loved love City Noir at Disney Concert Hall last October and was stunned that people weren't leaping out of their seats with wild applause. I was going crazy up in the balcony. It was *brilliant*! Bravo!!!!

Lawrence Schenbeck
April 19, 2010

Yes, perhaps that poster who found this very funny but gentle essay "condescending" just recognized him- or herself a few too many times within it.

April 19, 2010

Well this was fun--truly hell mouth. Of course you understand, John, that you WILL be castigated by the likes of the humorless graduate composition student responding above. And never will you be able to hold forth again in master classes without this being required reading. Probably the desired outcome. The audio problem is ubiquitous, if that's any comfort . I see it every day in the corporate world. "Let's first watch this video by our CEO..." followed by 10 minutes of troubleshooting, a call to the facilities dept, and then a viewing of the talking head without sound (while we all check our cell phones). Above all your advice I like the need to start with one's A material on the first bar.

Eric L
April 19, 2010

@Dan. Why compose (or do anything for that matter) at all if you won't be using your "A-material" from the start? :)

Eric L
April 19, 2010

@"A graduate composition student":

If a student composer can't see what is important in music and requires so much 'help,' I wonder if they should be pursuing music/composition as a career in the first place. [We all need help once in a while, but I hear way too many pieces from young composers who really have no business writing music. No amount of help will make these composers that much better...]

Your 'help' is sort of like the kindly person encouraging every kid that they too can be a pro basketball player. Some people just don't have it in them. They're better off doing something else.

April 19, 2010

I can't explain to you how much I enjoy reading your posts on the trials that many young collegiate musicians, conductors, and composers go through every day. Performing in our student run and school run composer ensembles, I can't tell you how many times I have experienced the exact situation you spoke of above. I look forward to meeting you in Banff!

April 19, 2010

I was a composition student in the eighties at a famous London college - ie before the "anything goes post style" approach had hit London. It was a weird time because something was in the air that said these post Schoenbergian techniques - cells of notes treated in a 12 tone way but not all 12 tones used - was passe - but the grip they had on my teacher was still absolute. "Schoenberg composes, Messiaen juxtaposes" was the final pronouncement on the subject. As there was no flexibility of style being taught, my pieces were of course derivative of my teachers.
But something untamed lurked under the surface of my straight training and it involved a return to feeling - something considered embarrassing to talk about in my composition lesson for some reason. I found that strange, as the reason I started writing was to express pent up feelings as a teenager. I was expected to manage what it was I wanted to actually express alone - and deal only with the notes in the lessons. At 19 that was a cold shower for me. I thought the two were kind of connected ... !
A return to a more humane tonality came for me a few years after I left college- and I felt I could breathe again and allow the heart and gut back in to my music - I was lead there, unsurprisingly, through vocal improvisation and song writing.
Harmony that you can actually perceive in relation to a tonal centre alerts your instincts to something that is truly alive and felt and it can express the deepest human experiences, like genuine care.
In the eighties during my three years as a composition undergraduate I would have learnt more about how to write music if I had been taught how to resonate accurately with, and express what matters to me as a human being not just spin material from clusters of notes.
However - that discipline did give me an understanding of how to work through material. It was valuable as a form of mind training, but was it really a lesson in creative music composition? I know I really taught myself the essence of composition ... as a teenager.
When I first heard your piece Harmonium, John, in the mid nineties I thought - "At last ! a piece that has the courage to feel!" and since then I have followed your work with delight and continued excitement. You're a true inspiration!

Brian M Rosen
April 19, 2010

But... But...

My string quartet doesn't feature a tritone that represents unresolved mysteries. It features a MINOR SECOND that represents the unresolved search for unity and companionship.

(A little embarrassed that I'm not kidding. No matter. I still stand by the piece. Sometimes it's not about the idea, it's what you do with it.)

April 20, 2010

Mr. Adams,

That was an inspired post, funny and insightful and a pleasure to read. Composers with tremendous ability will have their work surface somehow, somewhere and the many others of less originality or talent will learn something about themselves through their composition and hopefully benefit themselves and others with their work even if they never have the experience of hearing their music played in a major concert hall. I read all your posts and will be turning this one over in my mind for some time. Thank you.

Nick S
April 20, 2010

The masterclass with the saxophone quartet mentioned above as being "crazy, delightful...and splendid" has a score that can be found here:

And a recording that can be found here:

Robert D. Pore
April 20, 2010

@ Mixed Meters

I disagree with the idea that composition shouldn't be an area of advanced area of study. While it is true that the disciplines you describe comprise much of a composer's essential training, the most important part is not in the craft or even in "feeling" (though both are important), but rather in being exposed to new ideas.

We miss this because too many composition teachers are, as descibed above, too timid to "meddle" with the deeper harmonic and structural issues of the piece and just focus on patting the composer on the back and maybe pointing out a few small things along the way. That's not to say that a composition teacher should be brutal either. What a good composition instructor SHOULD do is encourage the composer the gift of critical thinking and self-scrutiny: knowing not only what they do, but being aware of WHY they do it. This can be done not by just leaving the composer on his own, but by always trying to ask the composer the right questions about their work. Even if the young composer has answers, it may be that by encouraging him to bring them out into the open, you will help him realize that there may be deeper reasons for what he does that may help to give him a push in the right direction.

As a young composer myself, I have benefitted from several such "pushes," and one of the other advantages of getting a Master's Degree and looking into a Doctorate (though I have not been accepted to any programs) is that by conversing with different people in different enviroments, I have been exposed to many different ideas and ways of looking at music. For example, if I had never visited with a composition instructor at the University of Iowa while looking into doctoral schools, I might never have heard of Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, and might therefore never have discovered that the overtone series could be such a rich source of potential material.

The problem with formal study in composition is not formal study itself; it is teachers who are too afraid of messing with their student's heads, when that is precisely what NEEDS to be done to help a composer fully realize his potential.

April 20, 2010

Or you can be William Bolcom and bore the students to death for thirty minutes, listing all your upcoming commissions before viciously skewing a few fragile pieces thrown at your feet.

I didn't present any work that session, but lord, I felt for my classmates. What an ungracious ape.

Eric L
April 20, 2010

"it is teachers who are too afraid of messing with their student's heads, when that is precisely what NEEDS to be done to help a composer fully realize his potential."

Actually, it might just composition teachers who don't actually know much. I wouldn't be surprised if there were some tenured professors who didn't keep up with some of the cool developments in composition, or disdained a certain type/school so much they don't bother to find anything out about it.

Personally, I think the composers who are also performers tend to have broader tastes in music--which is almost always good. Not to be too elitist or coast-biased, but there are some moldy, Midwest schools with comp professors who have been there since god knows when and might not actually know who Tristan Murail is.

Mixed Meters
April 20, 2010

@ Robert D. Pore - Let me suggest that you work out some ways to find new ideas on your own. You could just drop out of college and ask everyone you meet what music to listen to and then spend your saved tuition money on downloads or CDs. If you were to ask me I'd say listen to Mingus, Piazzolla and Zappa.

And getting inside a students head is a dangerous activity for a composer, especially one who has never studied how to be a teacher. One of my graduate comp. teachers got inside my head - and I still haven't gotten him out completely (30+ years later). He wasn't any help then and he's still not any help.

Finally, one of the things composition teachers can and do teach students is how to talk about their music. Of course the unfortunate result is often that the talk is more interesting than the music. There is no requirement that music be understandable - even by the composer. The statement "If it sounds good it is good." is a much happier idea. (Quoted by Peter Schickele who attributed it to Duke Ellington.)

Brian M Rosen
April 20, 2010

@Nick S,

Maybe I'm being a bit curmudgeonly, but I think something like "Hey! Mr Adams! I think that was my piece you were mentioning. I'm glad you liked it and it's super cool that you'd mention it on your blog. If anyone happens to be interested in hearing it, or checking out the score, they can find it at my web site: (include link here)." would have felt more, I dunno... gracious?

Maybe that's just me though.

Congrats on the shout out though.

April 20, 2010

Great post (as always)
Tumescent comments (as usual)

Robert D. Pore
April 20, 2010

@ Eric L

As someone who has spent 96% of his life living in various parts of the Midwest, I both understand and resent your generalization about Midwest schools. Granted, the teachers at the schools I went probably don't know who Murail is, but I did first hear about him from an older professor at the University of Iowa, and was corrected on the pronunciation of his name by a professor at the University of Colorado who did most of his studies at the University of Michigan, so clearly, some of the bigger schools in the Midwest may not have this problem so much.

@ Mixed Meters

You evidently didn't read my post too closely. (That's partially my fault for making it so long). If you had, you would have known that I'm actually NOT in college right now, I've already got my Bachelor's and my Master's and am currently out on my own.

Regarding your composition teacher, I could ask, What ideas did he put in your head that messed you up so much? Judging from the time frame you mention, I'm guessing that it probably has something to do with him forcing serialism on you, which is not what I'm advocating at all. What I'm suggesting is that composition teachers should employ the Socratic Method - that is, they should not only be content to diagnose the "whats," but also the "whys." Once that is figured out, the teacher can point his student in the direction of things that would improve and expand his already present gifts instead of trying to completely dislocate and recreate them.

This is a good idea to me because I know I personally, along with a lot of other composition students and even mature composers that I have run into, are naturally somewhat lazy. The reason that I advocate having a composition teacher to give you a push is that I know how easy it is for a composer to fall into particular habits and not realize the full extent of what he can do with his ideas. Indeed, I remember reading a quote ascribed to Mr. Adams saying that a composer shouldn't be satisfied to just know a few favorite composers, he should do his best to know ALL OF THEM. And the advantage of going to multiple schools for multiple degrees is that, if you do it right, you can be exposed to a lot of different ideas that you might not have been exposed to just going to one school for a couple years and then "dropping out."

Spencer Topel
April 20, 2010

This post, albeit dark, is spot on and I look forward to sharing it with my students.

In both conservatory and university, composition master classes were the bane of my futile existence. It was the thing that we all ran from, found excuses to be busy on, or better yet have some stunning performance, whereby we could rub it in each other's faces.

Constantly it felt as though each guest composer was performing a "you-rub-my-back-I-rub-yours" exercise with the faculty, and it really had nothing at all to do with learning composition.

Now being in an institution without a master class, I am sickly beginning to yearn for ANYTHING to do with a discourse on composition, even if it turns out to be iphone-bloons boring. Maybe it is Stockholm Syndrome.

Further, this reminds me of stories I would hear about from old Juilliard instructors concerning composition masterclasses in Russia where the tedium would reach full tilt, and Rachmaninov would burst into the room late because he was trying to learn Scriabin's newest mess of a piano piece, only to have the other composers snicker with spite and insecurity...still, it all worked out and they managed to write some good music, eventually.

Spencer Topel
April 20, 2010

This post, albeit dark, is spot on and I look forward to sharing it with my students.

In both conservatory and university, composition master classes were the bane of my futile existence. It was the thing that we all ran from, found excuses to be busy on, or better yet have some stunning performance, whereby we could rub it in each other's faces.

Constantly it felt as though each guest composer was performing a "you-rub-my-back-I-rub-yours" exercise with the faculty, and it really had nothing at all to do with learning composition.

Now being in an institution without a master class, I am sickly beginning to yearn for ANYTHING to do with a discourse on composition, even if it turns out to be iphone-bloons boring. Maybe it is Stockholm Syndrome.

Further, this reminds me of stories I would hear about from old Juilliard instructors concerning composition masterclasses in Russia where the tedium would reach full tilt, and Rachmaninov would burst into the room late because he was trying to learn Scriabin's newest mess of a piano piece, only to have the other composers snicker with spite and insecurity...still, it all worked out and they managed to write some good music, eventually.

April 20, 2010

Great post!!
Is it just me or is the main difference between instrumental and composition masterclasses simply that there can be HUGE variation in the base of fundamental 'technique' in student composers? (Quickly adding that I'm from NZ, and also that I'm geeky enough to have been bloody well annoyed when we only did one week of counterpoint in second year). Of course I have no idea how much emphasis is put on 'technique' in foreign institutions, or even how much importance is placed on it among composers in the wider world. But if I had my violin teacher teaching me composition, then I would most certainly not have dropped out of composition study.
To be clearer, I have often seen an instrumentalist suddenly have some musical or physical epiphany thanks to the coaxing of a teacher, whereas composers don't seem to be able to ask the equivalent to "relax that thumb, it'll help your bow control": does the composition student even know that a 'thumb' exists? (and hurray for extended metaphors...)
But I'm guessing that perhaps this lack of emphasis on technique isn't just endemic to NZ, judging by Mr Adams' familiar exasperation with harmonic character, or lack thereof. Inviting comments...

Eric L
April 21, 2010


You're probably right. The level of technique among composers, both among teachers and students --i.e. orchestrational, melodic crafting, voice leading etc.--varies quite a bit in the US. The range between 'good' and 'bad' is really quite astounding. Unfortunately, technique is often obscured by 'style' or 'school' so that it becomes quite difficult to figure out what is what. Painting with a broad brush, I do think 'technique' is better addressed in European countries in general.

I think a solid foundation in technique is vital, since it really allows you to do whatever you want afterwards. With that said, good technique doesn't guarantee good music; you can write impeccable counterpoint and really boring music, while someone like Zappa or Ives, whose technique may be (slightly) lacking in one parameter or other, but still manages to write music that's really compelling, if a bit rough on the edges.

Mixed Meters
April 21, 2010

@Robert D. Pore - yes I did catch that you were thinking of going "back" to school. My guess would be that your image of what it means to be a composer is thoroughly mixed with your image of what it means to be an academic. If your goal is to be a composer in the academy then, indeed, your choice of graduate school is critical but it's more about who you meet there rather than what or how they teach. My apologies if my guess is inaccurate.

You asked about my own conversations with the composition teacher who lives in my head: those had absolutely nothing to do with serialism. The best short description I can offer is to say they were about Conceptual Art. (And to add, Facebook-like, "it's complicated".) I was never a student at a major university.

The same graduate composition student
April 21, 2010

I have to say all this 'rah rah rah, graduate school sucks' strikes me a bit too close to the 'john kerry/barack obama/etc's an out of touch east coast liberal' anti-intellectual rhetoric of a few years ago. (That statement is more directly at the comments than at John's post.)

But I must add one more thing, I found incredibly disturbing in Mr Adams post:

"I often have to remind students about Beethoven and how gratifying it is to have a powerful, confident idea stated in the very first bar. But then…one has actually to have a powerful, confident idea, and those don’t come a dime a dozen."

I would like to remind Mr Adams how HARMFUL that sort of attitude is towards young composers. I have been told by professional composer after professional composer that you have to start with a bang in order to win competitions. Yet the music of almost every composer I admire of this century (Ives, Reich, Feldman, Grisey, Sciarrino, Lachenmann, Cage -- at least some of which these composers Mr Adams professes to admire) almost never starts with a confident Beethovinian gesture. In fact, I'm pretty sure a lot of modernism and postmodernism were REACTING AGAINST that kind of gesture. And for a reason. Perhaps music doesn't have to be about making a statement. I recall the book "Bluebeard" by Kurt Vonnegut.

""Painters -- and storytellers, including poets and playwrights and historians," he said.
"They are the justices of the Supreme Court of Good and Evil, of which I am now a member, and
to which you may belong someday!"

How was that for delusions of moral grandeur!

Yes, and now that I think about it: maybe the most admirable thing about the Abstract
Expressionist painters, since so much senseless bloodshed had been caused by cockeyed history
lessons, was their refusal to serve on such a court."

So yes, it's good advice to start a piece that way if you want to impress someone with an attention span of 30 seconds or win a young composer awards (and yes, I have won my share of these and I go to a fancy graduate school, so no, this is not sour grapes), that's a great idea. But if the intent it to, you know, MAKE ART, it strikes me as a sad oversimplification. Perhaps a piece is boring. Confront the boringness; don't simply make it both generic and boring.

April 21, 2010

I couldn't find a way to contact you otherwise, but it would seem that you left your A's cap at the UC Berkeley noon concert. I gave it to Liza to bring to you tomorrow. Stay dry without it!

Ryan M
April 22, 2010

Re: Mr. Graduate Student, I think what JA means by "powerful" and "confident" ideas is that the musical character and emotional content of the work is expressed in its purist form from the very first bar. This does not mean you have to have the opening of the 5th Symphony or the Hammerklavier. The op. 130 string quartet begins ambiguously with a slow descending chromatic scale, seeming to wander in and out of tempi and play with different motives as if it can't decide what it wants to be. This sense of dissociation and digression is a consistent theme throughout every movement; Ambiguity is the "theme", and it is stated very "powerfully" and "confidently" from the first opening seconds of music.

Lots of composers with axes to grind, apparently!

April 22, 2010

Master classes are awkward. But students need to toughen up and appreciate honest feedback, no matter the form. I remember at BUTI, a peer's piece was slammed by a Tanglewood fellow and all the guys gathered around afterwards and ranted on about what a 'bitch' the critic was. Being the only girl in the batch that year, and often teased about being 'cute' or 'sensitive' wondered; if these boys can't take a critique from a Tanglewood fellow, how will they ever take a critique from the NYT if that's the level of publicity they want their music to reach?

April 22, 2010

Master classes are awkward. But students need to toughen up and appreciate honest feedback, no matter the form. I remember at BUTI, a peer's piece was slammed by a Tanglewood fellow and all the guys gathered around afterwards and ranted on about what a 'bitch' the critic was. Being the only girl in the batch that year, and often teased about being 'cute' or 'sensitive' wondered; if these boys can't take a critique from a Tanglewood fellow, how will they ever take a critique from the NYT if that's the level of publicity they want their music to reach?

Doug Palmer
April 22, 2010

Great post.
It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
Beside Zappa and PDQ, one should also listen to Spike Jones very seriously.
The best way to become a composer is to get rich, retire, get hold of a big computer, Garratan or the like then sit back and keep time by patting yourself on the back and celebrating the fact that, out of the entire population of the world you are the only one entitled to listen to what you write.
Also, I agree with Rachel.

Daniel Alvarado
April 22, 2010


This is so true!!!!!!

April 22, 2010

@Eric L
That is very true (re Zappa etc). Very nice to hear from you. Thanks! :D

Anonymous IV
April 23, 2010

Has anyone else noticed that the sequence of comments on this post bears an uncanny resemblance to a typical discussion on the SCI listserv?

a young composer in the US
April 26, 2010

Amazing, how many times in these comments people like Sciarrino, Lachenmann, Reich or Grisey are named, and how much Mr. Adams and some commentators speak about master-classes as if it was just a meeting of young naive composers with some old "blasé" professional to make a better career...

I had the chance to study once with Grisey, and then twice with Lachenmann in summercourses. Their comments were so deep, and followed me years after (without to say that their music are unique, liked or hated, but not a exchangeable soup). In other words, beside technical facts, which are certainly very important to become a composer, you can also learn and speak about COMPOSITION. But few people can teach it.

And I have the feeling that in our country, where everything is segmented in functional boxes (classical composers stay in a campus and learn to become teachers, or people like Mr. Adams write for ignorant bourgeois who want to listen a bad copy of what they imagine to be "classical music today"), we just caricature ourselves: we stay in our campus, isolated, or, when we go outside, we dress our music for people who don't want to think or listen to, and we then refuse to really speak about music.

Why, in Europe, music is so much more in the city, and more alive? Why are people so more willing to be disturbed, in the master-classes like outside? We are just pieces of a museal capitalist country, without real use than our social utility (please, entertain or teach, but don't disturb anybody..).

Stephen Tanksley
April 28, 2010

Excellent. I've felt somewhat similarly about some composition masterclasses that I've attended and participated in.

May 1, 2010

Good humour

Ryan S.
May 25, 2010

A Young Composer, you raise a few good points, but your post is misplaced bitterness. Arrogant disdain for your successful colleagues and your potential audience isn't likely to change the climate surrounding the "luxury goods" status of contemporary music, nor will it do anyone any favors professionally.

Steve C.
May 25, 2010

I'm in the same camp as Mixed Meters. The "advanced" study of composition in today's world really is a silly concept, and the avoidance thereof could potentially save many young composers' creativity.

I see Frank's philosophies have rubbed off on you David. ;)

June 7, 2010

i like this post.
This approach is specifically to help people for whom even gentle Hatha yoga is too active and who need to restore their health and find balance again in their lives as a priority.

Recent Grad
August 17, 2010

I thought the blog was great! It shows how universal the experience is, and it gives me such hope - maybe some of my compositional angst is just part of the process of learning. But I guess the real question is what is the purpose and role of masters class (composition) anyway?

I used to think it was about a coaching opportunity, but I've only rarely experienced it as such. Does that say something negative about college composition studies? As someone pointed out, there are vast differences between the expectations of knowledge and skill in various institutions.

Yes, I agree there are too many composers. Am I one of them? Mixed Meters stated that one should not choose composition until after other studies. How does a composer choose or not choose? I've been creating music since I was little. I came to music school at 40 because I resolved that I am a composer. Choice had nothing to do with it. I wanted to learn how to realize the potential of my ideas. With a newly minted Master's degree, I'm still struggling with this.

I think the role of composition teachers and masters class visitors is to coach, to show the student the possibility of opportunities, techniques and methodologies that could be employed to build and develop the idea and the piece. Too many students confuse the masters class with a networking opportunity. It is the student's responsibility to maximize those 8-12 minutes. Put the most important stuff out there, to gain new insight, to help solve some problem.

'nuff said. Your blog is always fun!

September 24, 2010

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October 1, 2010

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October 21, 2010

I like how this is totally a rant on composition students in general. Not everyone is going to be the next Bach or hell the next Adams, and sometimes people just have to be told "you suck" in the nicest way possible. But the important point I take away is that music is a (difficult) language that must be mastered before it can be used thoughtfully. Someone just learning English can't possibly produce great poetry, so why is it youngsters think banging a few emo chords and ostinatos will make them a great composer? There is a very important interview by Glass in 2000 with Ira Glass (its on NPR) where Glass talks about years spent mastering rules in Paris until he realized how great composers chose their harmonic voice.

January 21, 2011

@Brian M Rosen

You're right. And I went to the link.

May 16, 2011

What a hot conversation about this 'Victim'. More synonyms with this <a href="">thesaurus</a>!

Niko Umar - Durr
June 4, 2011

Dear Mr. Adams,

I really wish I read this before you critiqued my piece a few months back, I noticed some of the exact same stuff on here that you told me that day! Thank you for being an inspiration!


December 13, 2011

Hmm. John Adams has tried very hard here to mimic Frank Zappa's WRITING STYLE and 'tell-it-like-it-is' attitude but has failed MISERABLY. As Stravinsky once said: "it's not enough to want, one has to be."

C. Roos
December 24, 2011

I found this story wonderful. It touches on a phenomenon that I find fascinating: in composition, freedom strangely enough seems to produce works that sound very much alike.
Maybe this has to do with the way formal constraints naturally focus energy on the actual notes instead of on finding a form. You can't catch your audience with a clever or original form, as it will become apparent only over time (if at all), yet there is a lot of powerful music for which the form was simply borrowed.
And so we wouldn't confuse two techno-house tracks, nor two classical Viennese pieces despite their similarities, while sometimes experiencing the completely original as something we've heard many times.

J M Martin
January 1, 2013

Here I hear wonderful, life-full comments of coming to terms with and surviving the initiation. I didn't get that chance, having been convinced that I had no talent, etc. Now, decades late(r) I am backfilling like crazy, and thanks to hearing advice such as the above, am able to pick up a lot of good stuff quickly, and avoid some swamps. As much as I would like be mentored, I sense that my best course is to just do it (compose, arrange, perform, etc.) whenever, wherever I can, and hope that I learn quickly and get asked back. Thank you, JA et al.

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