Giant Composers

Every year for the past few years I’ve had the privilege of serving as one of the music directors for the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program‘s end-of-year readings. The program hires professional actors, directors and music directors to do  staged readings of first-year students’ 20-minute and the graduating students’ 90-minute thesis musicals.These young writers are wildly talented and astonishingly accomplished. I can perhaps modestly lay claim to a similar talent, but I can’t pretend even to myself that I was that sophisticated at that age. (Kids today are growing up so fast.)

There’s a wide range of styles represented by the composers in the program—or so I hear. I’ve been pegged by the folks who run the program as someone who can handle the complicated ones, and so invariably I’m paired with the teams whose composer writes intricate, harmonically complex music with elaborate polyrhythms, quasi-tonal or atonal passages, and dense piano parts.

This year I did two of the 90-minute readings back-to-back, and so I was immersed in this music for the better part of two weeks. I found myself wondering where all this musical complexity comes from, but it wasn’t hard to figure out once I started thinking about it. There’s a Giant Composer looming over their generation.

When I was the age these composers are now, the Giant Composer, for those of us who aspired to write musical theatre, was Stephen Sondheim. His scores to Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, Company and Merrily We Roll Along were awe-inspiring masterpieces that smashed every previous notion of what theatre music could be. As a young theatre composer, you could either say you hated Sondheim, and do your best to write completely differently, or you could worship him, attempt to master his musical language and hope you’d someday be able to write something half as good. I chose the latter route, studying the scores like Scripture. Many of my peers did too, and most of us spent many years writing what I later came to call “bad Sondheim”—music that was overly complex and not particularly satisfying. (I eventually wiggled out from under the influence, and my musical theatre music now tends toward pop vocabularies. Click here for some examples.)

But there were a couple of my generational cohort who got it right, who assimilated Sondheim’s influence and went beyond it to develop their own unique voice. Chief among them is Adam Guettel, composer of Floyd Collins and Light in the Piazza. His music is—what was that list?—”intricate, harmonically complex music with elaborate polyrhythms, quasi-tonal or atonal passages, and dense piano parts.” I get the definite sense that Guettel is the Giant Composer for theatre composers in their twenties. (Jason Robert Brown [Parade, The Last Five Years] is a similar voice, but to my mind slightly less of a looming influence.)

The pieces I’m music directing at NYU are by the composers who have chosen to deal with their generation’s Giant Composer by following in his footsteps. It’s got to be a daunting challenge. Sometimes the scores I’m handed seem needlessly complex—why use a three-note chord where seven notes will do?—but very often they’re thrilling and emotionally satisfying. Certain musical tropes seem on the verge of becoming cliches, as in the tonic triad with added fourth, which seemed to turn up in pretty much every song in both of the shows I did this year; but while the influence is highly noticeable, it doesn’t sound like “bad Guettel.”

There have been Giant Composers scattered through the history of Western music. Wagner comes to mind; if you were composing in the mid-19th century, whatever you thought of his music, you had to come to grips with it. Beethoven, of course. The twin titans Schoenberg and Stravinsky, offering a double Hobson’s choice to the composers of the early 20th century. More recently? John Cage. Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

I suspect that there are going to be fewer “classical” Giant Composers in the coming years, just because the  concert music world has fragmented so much stylistically. As the Internet takes us from a “famous for 15 minutes” model to a “famous to 15 people” one, it’s going to be harder for any one person to break out that way. Musical theatre is still a pretty self-contained community, though; it’s possible for a composer to track and absorb close to everything that gets written and produced in a given year. So you never know. Some now-young composer could rise up to loom over a new generation. In the musical theatre world, it could even be one of those kids from NYU.

Listening to John Cage

This is John Cage’s centennial year, and there’s a lot of Cage around. Herewith my contribution to the ongoing celebration/discussion.

First of all, I never met John Cage. I saw him in performance a couple of times. Because my wife worked for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in its final years, I have met his collaborator/partner Merce Cunningham, and even had dinner in Merce and John’s apartment. Because I provided music for some dance concerts that were presented at the Cunningham Studio, I have as a prized possession a hammer from Cage’s piano, supposedly the first one he prepared (it was in such bad shape when I went to play it that I called in a technician to make some repairs; he replaced a hammer and I got a souvenir). When he died in 1998, I wrote a piece “in memoriam.”

Other than that, my relationship with Cage consists of my reading Silence, his seminal collection of essays and other writings.

I discovered this book, with its anecdotes, strangely typeset lectures (on both Something and Nothing), hints about Zen Buddhism, and descriptions of ego-free compositional methods, in the library at the Cleveland Institute of Music as an undergraduate, 30 years ago. John Cage was Required to Know About, if not Required to Listen To, and I’d recently started reading about Zen in other contexts, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. I was astonished, charmed, bedazzled, intrigued, annoyed, provoked and in general thoroughly sucked in. I reread the book at least twice before I graduated, maybe more. (This post was occasioned by my reading it again in its gorgeous 50th anniversary edition, with a new forward by Kyle Gann.)

I, like many others, had my worldview upended by this book; it became part of my mental furniture, one of the books with which I had a lifelong relationship, no matter how long it had been since I’d last seen it or though of it explicitly. But I never had the slightest urge to write music using chance operations, flaws in pieces of paper or the like. Despite the book’s magnetism, and despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed many performances of Cage pieces over the years, I did not follow down that path.

As I was reading, I found myself wondering, Why not? Since I found so much of what Cage had to say so fascinating—and still do—why had I never been tempted to try my hand at his type of composition? I think I have a two-part answer:

Firstly: I was struck during this anniversary re-read how much Cage referred to the “necessity” of the emancipation of noise (and silence). There in the mid-20th century, it seems to have felt like a necessary next step, a historical imperative, at least to a certain group of composers and musicians. Cage doesn’t really delve into why this was necessary; it’s just accepted as an axiom. It followed, I guess, from the sense of music history as progressing that we are all taught as a gross oversimplification in music school (Haydn and Mozart begat Beethoven, who begat Brahms and Wagner, who  begat Debussy, who begat Stravinsky and Schoenberg, to oversimplify an oversimplification. And who or what would Stravinsky and Schoenberg beget?) And, possibly, from the sense that 20th-century history overall was departing in unique ways from previous history, and needed its own music, in tandem with what was happening in other arts.

Even in the 1980s, though, when I was first reading Silence, the notion of music historical progress seemed quaint to me. Music history had exploded into multiple parallel streams, none of which had any more claim to legitimacy than any other. Which streams one chose to be influenced by had to do with taste, or inclination. (It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the fall of the Communism led not to a political Golden Age but rather an ever-more splintered and fractious world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, that I lost my last remnant of faith in overall historical progress. But I digress.)

My own inclination ran counter to what Cage was asking: I had no interest in giving up the moment-to-moment logic of music, the eternal dog-chasing-its-tail question of What Comes Next? In short, I wasn’t ready to give up narrative, even in the abstract musical sense. Frankly, answering that question is what makes writing music fun; most of the time, asking it is what makes music fun to listen to. (I didn’t get very far with Zen Buddhism, either.)

It is my personal opinion that this is why Cage, for many of us, is the Patron Saint of Music We Know We Should Like Better Than We Actually Do. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, co-authors (with Terry Pratchett) of The Science of Discworld, opine that, rather than Homo Sapiens, our species should be called Pan Narrans—the storytelling ape. Narrative is built deep into the structure of the human brain, and even such an abstract form of it as found in “traditional” instrumental music is hard to let go of. The rewards of doing so, no matter how tantalizingly described, do not seem worth the effort.

The piece I wrote commemorating John Cage’s death was called My First Popup Book of the Infinite Beyond. It’s not Cageian at all, but it was my attempt to realize in musical narrative form the experience of a new way of listening which was (to me, anyway) Cage’s true legacy.

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How to Tell if You’re a Professional Composer

Earlier this month I was asked by a man who identified himself as an amateur composer to play his “Variations on Happy Birthday” for a videotape to be given to a friend of his as a birthday present. As he was paying, and I had the time, I agreed to do it. Over the several days I spent practicing, I had plenty of time to think about what it might mean to be an “amateur” composer.

Can we all agree that, in this culture, “professional” definitely has it over “amateur”? And yet, while I’d definitely consider myself a professional-level composer, I can’t say I’ve made much of my living at it. I know lots of composers with benches on that same boat. So…?

Well, the “Happy Birthday man” (as my wife referred to him) didn’t read music—this whole fifteen-minute piano solo had been transcribed by a colleague of mine, who had in turn referred him to me. Reading music is not a requirement, though—exhibit A is Irving Berlin, of course, one of the best-selling composers of all time. And, without having any idea of the actual statistic, I’d venture that there are lots and lots of people making and selling music without being able to read a note these days—maybe more than can read music.

But these variations were variations “in the style of”—mostly late romantic and early 20th-century music. I heard (and he and I talked about) Chopin, and Brahms, and Prokofiev and Copland, and I’m pretty sure I spotted a little Lizst, and who knows, maybe Shostakovich. This is what “Happy Birthday man” listened to, and this is the music he wrote.

Well, that must be the difference. We professional types are all trying to carve out individual sounds, to find our own voices.


When I was in school in the early 80’s, there was a definite orthodoxy about what kind of avenues you could travel down in search of your own voice. I distinctly remember being told not to try and write a rondo; being scoffed at for presenting a piece with a key signature; and generally being made aware that Real Composers didn’t write tonal music. I also remember our teacher addressing the composers’ symposium on the subject of the heretic George Rochberg, who had recently, after an perfectly respectable atonal career, begun writing music that sounded a lot like Brahms. His final comment: “I hope none of you grow up to become little George Rochbergs.”

As I understand it, this attitude has pretty much all gone away. While the imperative to find one’s own voice is still there, tonal centers, and even keys, are admissible parts of the toolkit. It was with this in mind that I recently decided to write a sonata for cello and piano. It uses sonata form only in the broadest sense of two theme groups, a development and a recapitulation; having gotten to this age and weight—and developed my own voice thus far under the influences I have—I’m not about to start modulating to the dominant. But it’s been a strangely liberating experience.

Except of course, if I wear my other hat—my musical theatre songwriter hat—I have no idea what the fuss is about. In that culture, yes, it’s a good thing to have an identifiable voice—except that if a show demands it, and many do, pastiche is the order of the day. While we were mixing the demo of All About The Kids at PPI studios, Chip, the engineer, an old friend, was teasing me about the various past-their-glory rockers I was obviously channeling. (Chip has recorded and mixed my music for over two decades, from my attempts to write for Muzak to my Emily Dickinson songs for string quartet and soprano. But his favorite sessions were the ones to record and mix my songs for Country Critter Jamboree, a big-headed-costumed-character show for a now-defunct amusement park in Massachusetts. To this day he refers to me as “Mr. Critter.”)

In closing, a cartoon I clipped years ago on the subject (the stains are not part of the original; this is what happens when something gets kept on my desk for years):

Maybe it’s not so bad to be an amateur after all…?


Writing for Piano

I’m working on a series of short piano pieces, modeled more or less after Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives. This came about because I showed a short piano piece called Simple Prelude to the amazing pianist Jenny Lin . Jenny said very nice things about it, and asked me to write a collection of them. I said, “Sure, how many? Nine? Thirteen?” She said, “Seventeen!”

This was over a year ago—and I just finished number eleven. To my surprise—because I’m a pianist myself—these have proven to be quite difficult to write. I’m literally having to wait for inspiration to strike; sitting down determined to produce one of these has engendered nothing but clichés, garbage and (worst of all, recently) ripoffs of the earlier pieces in the series. Luckily for me, occasionally inspiration does strike; but I’m not sure what to make of the difference between this and my usual experience of composing, which comes closer to the “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration” model. What does this tell me?