Concerning Bad Music

Editor’s Note: This is a letter that our Artistic Fellow Joshua Nichols wrote to a student, lightly edited for CACI’s audience.

Dear Student,

I received your letter about the dismal state of two new compositions you recently heard. Your comments about the state of decay in quality ideas in modern compositions resonated with me. Here is what I’d like to say.

A teacher once said: “Writing music is easy; composing art is hard.”

What is being identified (rightly so) is the utter lack of “Truth” (or idea) in music. I use this word carefully because “Truth” is a reference to the Transcendentals, or the idea of coherence, truth, beauty, and goodness. One who creates (great) art does not simply imitate other ideas or generate new imaginative ways of imitating the past, but says something apart from something else. I’m trying not to get too esoteric, but suffice it to say that when composers “choose” some notes over others, they ought to choose them because, to create logic and coherence in the work, they are simply “the only choice” for what needs to be said. This high standard for coherence in a composition or compositional career can lead to transcendent masterpieces.

This leads to another problem for composers. Composers, through their training, have been led—in large part by their simple-minded teachers—to believe that writing music is a simple sort of craft. Do I make myself clear?

Music as just a craft, is a self-reflective mirroring of others ideas and thoughts, expressing little desire or need to organize the music into something truly great. It is reflexive, in that instead of striving to present a coherent musical metaphor (or series of metaphors) that leads to a profound and transcendental experience in the souls of audience, it is instead a kind of public self-petting, a “This music thing is interesting and look how I made it through!”

Many would say that this is perfectly acceptable, as we live in an experience economy, in a world saturated with personal tastes, almost a website per taste (Think of the myriad ads for different sofas—this with wool, or organic fill, steel frames, modular seating, removable covers, etc.). Should all this be reflected in the tastes of our art and music? Is music as “diverse” as a grocery store, and that you can pick out what you like, how you like it, and how much to pay for it?

A modern composer’s lifestyle is very similar to a modern pop-star. They get “recognized” for a specific work (good or bad), and then are pigeonholed to that particular style. Their commissioners expect they will write as before. Maybe the composers feel this is the way things must be. It is consumer-based art that means there is a demand for “something” to happen, so time to think,  ponder, and develop, are relegated to the sidelines, if considered at all.

Compare that to the Sistine Chapel Paintings… those took the better part of 4 years to complete. Michaelangelo was supported by the Catholic church during this entire time.. Can you imagine being told, “I want you to write a 3 hour opera, and I want you to take as long as you need to write it, and I’ll pay you $600,000 to do so.” I would take as long as needed to write it as well as possible. Many professional composers will take multiple large commissions a year and complete them the same year. That might be enough to live off of, but is the quality compromised? I submit to you that this unfortunate reality is magnified in the mind and soul when you actually participate in it as a composer. I struggle with this on a regular basis. 

There are many composers, and statistically that means there’s more great music being written, but it also means that there’s exponentially more bad music.

Keep your chin up, though, as noticing this sad state is the most important step in being sensitive to dull ideas in your own music. Do remember that the waste basket, eraser, or delete button, is your best friend.