A young composer navigates the murky zone between making difficult music and easy listening.
The life of a classical music composer is, by and large, an unglamorous one. Take, for example, the case of Philip Glass. Arguably the most celebrated classical composer living today, he drove a cab well into his 40s—even after he’d premiered his first opera at the Metropolitan Opera House. But at 75, his generation at least had a greater appreciation for classical music than ours today. Despite the threat of obscurity and general disinterest, there are still young people dedicated enough to set out to be classical composers. Ethan Greene, a 29-year-old, soon-to-be minted PhD, reflects on writing music for a (sometimes paying) audience and occasionally liking how it sounds.
For the past five years, I’ve been working toward my doctorate in music composition, churning out chamber, orchestral and electronic pieces in the murky genre of “contemporary classical music.” Once I complete my dissertation, an album of works for chamber ensemble and electronics, I will be a Doctor of Musical Arts, a prospect that is both thrilling and grim. With only a handful of academic jobs available (literally, like, 10 in the country, most of which are in Bumblefuck, AR) and an even more limited demand for classical music, I’ve found myself split between two possible paths of employment. On one side, I’m following the prescribed academic route: writing inaccessible music, sending out scores to obscure contests and getting rejected, whoring myself to performers and ensembles—and ultimately, gearing up for a future of teaching other people how to do the same. On the other hand, I’m keeping a steady presence in more commercial spheres: writing film and TV scores, making beats, designing sound for video games, whoring myself out to cooler people. At times it’s hard to say which side I prefer. Though, I might be able to tell you which one makes for easier listening.
Two years ago, the Houston Grand Opera approached me about writing an opera for middle and high school-aged audiences. When I asked them if they had a particular style or sound in mind, they told me they’d rather see Wozzeck (Alban Berg’s seminal atonal opera) than some dumbed-down, kitsch production. It was a dream response for any academic composer, but I found myself strangely discouraged. For one, I don’t really like Wozzeck. It’s brilliant, but I have a hard time listening to it. The main reason, though, was that I was doubtful that kids in the audience would enjoy listening to 45 minutes of an ensemble droning out the sort of complex, dissonant music I’d been writing in school. I could think of my music like flossing or supporting public radio—kids wouldn’t like it now, but one day they’d come to appreciate that it’s good for them. Then again, I still haven’t made flossing a habit, and I’ve never donated to NPR.
Instead, I decided to cater to my audience and, in the end, produced A Way Home, a piece with simple chord progressions, regular rhythms and nice, linear melodies—things that are often frowned upon in the academic world. It’s an opera in which you can even kind of understand what the singers are saying and, as far as I could tell, it was a hit: the kids seemed to like it, HGO was happy, and, perhaps most shockingly, I enjoyed listening to it. It had been a while since I could honestly say that about my own music.
Greene's composition For Candles, which collects and manipulates sound from four lit candles.
Naturally, this spurred my current dilemma. I realized that I’ve always had a sort of split personality as a composer—now, having become a professional, this schism has become even more pronounced. I started out writing music the way many suburban white boys started in the early ’90s—figuring out Nirvana songs and then writing fake Nirvana songs. At the same time, however, I was playing trumpet and listening to a ton of jazz. So I wrote some pseudo-Miles Davis tunes that later morphed into more formally involved, pseudo-Charles Mingus tunes.
The more I wrote, the more I found myself developing a sense for “composition”—that higher musical calling toward obscurity. By this time I was in college, and I decided to switch from a biology major to pre-med and music. When I brought my ideas into my first real composition lesson, my professor asked me, “Why does everything have to be a triad?”—thus spawning my academic-composer side. All the while, though, I continued to play my fake Nirvana stuff.
Grad school, of course, has taught me many things: the nuances of every orchestral instrument and how to artfully combine them, how to use electronics to make everyday items (such as dripping candles or rotary telephones) into musical instruments, how to use a long-armed stapler. But I’ve also developed some bad habits. Chief among them is a defense mechanism that compels me to convolute my music in order to avoid criticism. The thinking goes like this: if people can understand what I’m doing, they can disagree with it, and then they can point out what’s wrong with it, and then I’ll feel inferior. So, to avoid this, I’ve written things that I haven’t completely understood. In fact, there have even been times when performers have played my music incorrectly and I haven’t realized it. This has totally sucked.
After A Way Home, my next big non-academic commission was composing the score for a documentary about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln for the DVD release of Robert Redford’s recent film, The Conspirator. When the production company sent me a rough cut, I found that they’d been using Philip Glass as practically all of their temp music. It was an odd coincidence: right when I was trying to reconcile my two sides as a composer, I was tasked with emulating a guy who has single-handedly framed the debate over accessibility in “classical” music for the last four decades. I’m sort of an agnostic on the subject of Glass, but I hear a lot of negative talk about him in academic circles. In fact, the best thing I’ve heard is, “This is actually a good piece—you’d never know it was Glass.” In any case, I had a lot of fun composing the score. Like A Way Home, it was an opportunity for me to step away from über-complexity, and compose with both sides—the Wozzeck side, and the side that still wants to rewrite “Territorial Pissings.” It’ll take me awhile to find the right balance, I’m sure, but at least I know that even if I’m writing shitty-sounding but technically complex music, I’ll most certainly understand it. And who knows, I might even like it.