Hearing my world...a brief summery before the big showcase

Considering the broad range of influences that feed American contemporary classical music, it is now easier for me to understand why, when posed the typical question: “What kind of music do you write?” I am halted to the point of stuttering.  Desperately trying to put my music into words my listener can understand, it’s a wonder the conversation can go any further without pulling out the Grove Dictionary of Music while simultaneously recounting the entire development of U.S. culture from the end of the 19th Century to the dawn of YouTube.  In pondering possible answers to this question,  I find myself, among other contemporary composers, to be in a unique position.  We are essentially hunter-gatherers of sources that have trickled down the line from European form, to minimalism and computer music, to Jazz, and Rock N’ Roll.  We have developed an aesthetic that is essentially a fusion between the European classical tradition concerning counterpoint, harmony, and form and the content and aesthetic of sound from traditional American sources of folk melodies, blues and the popular idioms which came out of those traditions.  Because of the history and overtness of popular culture and multi-media in this country, references to popular idioms are used very liberally among young composers.  Examples can be heard in the music of Nico Muhlyin his recent work Seeing is Believing, where a solo electrified violinist is accompanied by a mixed ensemble of strings, winds and percussion in a whirlwind dance of neo-classical-rock-fusion.  (I just made that up--one luxury of the contemporary composer is that everything can be named if you are willing to use hyphens.)  Also, much of the music coming out of New Amsterdam Records  is steeped in references to Rock and Electronica.  I find my music sits somewhere in relation to these artists, even if simply in relation to their use of references from American pop culture. 


The most immediate assumption I can make about my influences is that, at a young age spending time each day at my father’s music studio, I was constantly surrounded by Jazz music and jazz musicians, so that sound was a part of my everyday life.  But this was in the 80s when Jazz and Funk started to fuse into a kind of jam-band style that was both head-bopping and had a single-toned, unrelenting groove at the same time (which could be attributed to influences of minimalism from the recent past).   So it was the music of artists like Herbie Hancock, Victor Wooten, Groove Collective and also Latin jam bands artists like Johnny Pacheco that was part of my everyday casual listening. Following along with my father’s taste in music, we would listen to those records as well as classical opera and chamber music.  The studio that my dad managed was filled with musicians of all types: Heavy Metal, Alt-Rock, Hip-Hop, Groove, Avant-Garde jazz and New Music were all swirling around my consciousness, perhaps not as direct influences, but this certainly lead to my ability to at least tolerate a broad variety of sounds.

The influences of American composers of my generation are charged with pop references, I think mainly because growing up in the 80s meant you couldn’t help but be swept up by the music-video craze.  Pop culture and pop music were all the rage, now dressed up in an enticing new form.  Discussing Run DMC’s latest hit on The Box, or Madonna’s Like a Virgin was a basis for normal social interactions among grade-schoolers (even though, lucky for our parents, we had no idea of the implications behind the lyrics).  American pop culture stems from a tradition of Blues and Jazz, which is identifiably our very own.  The classical influences that exist are a result of composers using the European classical tradition as it relates to the American experience of folk and popular jazz.  So, even in what we call our own American classical tradition, we have always been dependent on the influences of native musics and have devised a tradition that is inherently built on the fusion of different styles.  Our most celebrated composers--Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland--all based their music somewhat on influences from popular culture: countless influences from the Jazz idiom are found strewn about and woven into the fabric of their music.  When I think about “American Contemporary-Classical” music, I think about the European tradition that provided a basis for harmonic and formal structure, and jazz, folk and popular forms having contributed what is unmistakably now the “American voice” of the classical music genre. 

Even with the strong presence of pop music during my upbringing (owned every single album by Michael, Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men and others I am embarrassed to mention) my deepest influence, still, is my study of the violin and classical repertoire.  It is from this vantage point that I draw my most immediate ideas about gesture, color and contour in line.  This is especially true when I think about writing for orchestra. From an early age I was deeply influenced by the music of Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and Bartók. I remember one summer, on a long car trip to Ontario to attend summer camp, I listened to the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra on tape cassette on repeat for the entire duration of the 10-hour drive.  That piece was one of my little obsessions during middle school, along with the Debussy, Dvorak and Smetana String Quartets.  It was the range of emotion and character in these works that really got me fired up, as well as the excitement of imagining I might get to play these pieces on my own one day.  So there is also something there about execution: the feeling of performing and finding musical gestures that feel somehow musically natural to the performer.  When I write, I often think about connecting to the performer in this way. 

Improvisation is also a major influence for me. My first violin teacher, Alice Kanack, a gifted violin pedagogue, introduced me to the concept at a young age.  She pioneered what is now called the Creative Ability Development.  The method teaches improvisation as a way of drawing out the student’s natural musical ability and follows a progressive course of developing listening, ensemble and theoretical skills.  I did this for about 7 years from ages 7-13, and the idea of improvisation became a part of my tool-kit for musical expression.  There was a very direct line between my improvisation training and my composing where, at first, I would simply improvise until I landed on something I liked and would base my composition on that resulting idea.  Now it’s a little more mysterious, where ideas will actually come to me seemingly from thin air.  The difference between then and now is that I am more conscious of how I develop my ideas, whereas back then composing was more of an extension of improvising.  I would devise almost immediate connections from my pre-existing material and be able to write in broad phrases and even with counterpoint at the same time.  Now that I am also more aware of my process, which has hitches and bumps that I am continually trying to work out, the work is a bit more strenuous. So, my best allies at this point are to continue exercising other known processes like serialism, canons, binary, ternary and arch forms, and minimalist processes of overlapping transitions and stay open to my original set of sources.  I will always try to get back to the feeling of writing from improvisation even as ideas about form may meander and shift.   

It becomes difficult to define one's individuality in a world where every style and tradition seems to be blending into one another into a kind of homogenous mass of influences; so the act of composing feels a lot like research: The seeking and assembling of various sources and compiling them into a presentable form.  As far as I can tell, (and perhaps I need to get out more), the focus of pop culture influences seems to be the most attractive resource for composers of my generation. What will be interesting is to see how more and more, the divide between "high art" and "pop art" will diffuse and reform into something surprisingly engaging, challenging and, dare I say, accessible to a newer kind of audience.  The sign of a true artist isn't about where or whence you draw your greatest influences; it is about how you manipulate and package those sources that will entice listeners and continue to bring insight to the art form.  The issue of identity still remains quite complex, but my stuttering on the subject should now, at least, have a point of view.