Listening to the Past, Working in the Present

Classic Arts Features   Listening to the Past, Working in the Present
Contemporary composer Steven Stucky rediscovers the joy of listening to his musical forefathers.

The American composer Augusta Read Thomas has observed that composition is not a profession; it is a calling. Most composers devote a good deal of thought to the philosophy of composition. And some have written eloquently on what draws them to their craft, what drives their creativity, what makes them tick.

This spring the DSO is presenting a survey of music by American composers ranging from 20th-century icons like Copland, Barber, and Hanson to the major contemporary voices of Corigliano, Sierra, and Stucky. Audiences will hear more of Steven Stucky's music in September, when Jaap van Zweden conducts the world premiere of his new oratorio August 4, 1964. Stucky has written extensively on the process and philosophy of composition. Excerpts from one of his recent essays follow.

‹Laurie Shulman

One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past, to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. The other kind . . . only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have cleared the path ahead; the kind who, instead of dynamiting the locomotive of musical tradition, only wants to hitch his own wagon to it.

Of course nobody is all one type or the other. [In the last century] perhaps John Cage came closer than most to complete independence from musical traditions, but he depended heavily on philosophical traditions instead. Even Edgard Varse, fierce iconoclast though he was, could not really abandon the brilliant insights of his teacher, Feruccio Busoni, nor in fact did he ever really give up certain very conventional formal patterns in constructing his pieces. Years ago, in some academic journal, I read an article entitled "Not Even Varse Can Be an Orphan." I've long since forgotten any of its content, but that wonderful title has stuck with me.

I'm no orphan, either. True, in my student days‹like most young composers‹I worried mostly about whether my music was really original, about whether I really had a voice all my own, or whether at least I might someday achieve one. Over the years, though, I've stopped thinking about whether there is anything uniquely mine in the music I write, and have begun noticing instead how what I do links me to the music I love most by earlier composers, and by my own contemporaries too.

If as a young composer I wanted to run away from home and heritage, by now I have come full circle. Now I spend a lot of my working day rummaging through the family album of my musical forefathers, brothers, sisters, and cousins, doting on all those connections instead of denying them. In place of the ritual parricide that Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence," I have converted to a sort of ancestor worship.

I have sometimes worried that, because I have spent much‹perhaps even too much‹of my adult life as an academic, I think more like a music historian than might be good for any composer's necessary sense of independence. Yet even this worry has dwindled in recent years, to be replaced by a feeling of liberation in embracing the kind of composer I really am. I don't know whether this has made the music better or not‹others will have to judge‹but it has given me more and more pleasure in doing my work.

I am devoted to the symphony orchestra as a medium: to its unmatched colors, to its incomparable power, to the unparalleled thrill that you can only get by hearing a hundred brilliant artists together, putting their brains and muscles and spirits into a united gesture of human communication. For me, writing in the symphonic tradition is not about living in the past‹copying past styles, repeating past messages‹but about composing in a present that still contains the best of the past. It's not about being "accessible"‹that much-abused term too often means merely "undemanding"‹but about believing that any style of music made with skill and conviction and vigorous invention can create its own kind of accessibility. It's not about insisting on tonality, or for that matter on atonality; not about equating the beautiful with the merely pretty; not about labels like romantic or avant-garde, conservative or progressive.

What does this all mean for listeners and performers‹for the "end users" of [a new] piece? Surely not that they should approach [that piece] as if it were a treasure hunt or a music history lecture, straining to catch musical souvenirs as they go by. (A good way to ruin a concert!) Instead, I hope that knowing something about my private hopes and allegiances can help others feel the security and freedom to listen and play their very best. If you assume that something is going to be incomprehensible, it will be. But if you expect to understand it, then you will.

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