Time for some saccharine self-reflection!
My musical output thus far has often walked a fine line – somewhere between the wafting of chamber pop while still grasping for higher Music (with a capital M). This presents a problem in academia. Music institutions accept composers who write 'academic' music that challenges the mind and furthers composition as an art form. Yet, part of the composer's job (if he or she is able to accomplish it) is to make their voice fresh and unique, possibly bring recognition to an academic program, as well as, if they're very lucky, bread to the table. Suffice it to say, many young composers have found themselves in a headlock between imitating classical role models (not very original), and say, playing original music in a rock band (songs about giraffes in parallel fourths, anyone?) whose music doesn't pretend to transcend anything. Many of my works are somewhere in a vague-middle-crossover area. (And no, I don't mean Il Divo.)
For example, I've written a great piece for two french horns and piano which is challenging but idiomatic, spunky yet dynamic. It also has fragments from Radiohead songs embedded in it and incorporates bag of broken glass played with drumsticks. So where does this piece fall? Is it academically 'acceptable'? Is it Art Music? Is it too much like a cover song? I feel that it's a misfit in both the academic and the popular music worlds.
All this confusion sometimes leaves me frustrated. I shouldn't be writing music to cater to an institution's particular academic standards just to win acceptance in that crowd. But I also want to have a real career in music, and receiving academic critique inspires me to work harder.
I could make a decision never to think about going into academia, but the biggest roadblock lies in the fact that I think I could make an excellent teacher for composition students. I've wanted to teach for a few years now. And while I may not be the most famous composer, let's not forget there are often differences between a famous composer and a good composition teacher – not always one in the same.
A colleague of mine was kind enough to say that he felt that my music has one of the most unique voices he's heard, which approaches music from many different and personal angles in its creation, while still managing to be personally identifiable.
I also received interesting advice from one young, now famous, composer. He wrote to me saying to not go back to school. Instead, I was to find the craziest musicians and artists around and perform, write, collaborate, and write, write, write! Anything in academia, he stated, would always be viewed as academic. However, anything I did on my own could be made exactly the way I wanted it, which is truly original – perhaps lacking funding, resources, and audiences, but original all the way.
Writing good music takes skill, training, and time, no matter what type of music it is. Steve Reich left academia but spends his days thinking about music, and he's now praised by his scholarly colleagues for his Pulitzer-Prize winning work. The same goes for Phillip Glass. Will composers who write infectious, hip chamber music or rock-based violin loops be looked upon in future years with the same critical praise? I hope so, but the collegiate world may never quite catch up to what's happening outside of university walls.
Until the day comes when I am some tenured professor or sought-after composer, I'll try to write what challenges me, and what I enjoy doing in the process (and maybe also hope that some part of my music pays a bill every now and then). Admittedly, it's also time to try my hand at something totally different this summer; I want to prove to myself that I can write intricate, brainy music that may not be my personal preference or a part of my identifiable aesthetic, but will be good, solid music.