A Professional Composer's View of the Theory/Comp Curriculum and its Relevance to the Community-at-Large

by Barton McLean

(Society of Composers, Inc. Newsletter, Vol. 25, #7, Aug/Sept. 1995)

When David Gomper originally approached me about doing this panel, I protested that, since I left university teaching in 1983 to pursue a full-time career in composing and performing our music, I told David I thought that he might do better with another panelist, perhaps feeling that my abilities to resolve theory/comp tensions would be about on a par with my ability to resolve the baseball strike! But David reminded me that, with my experience as a professional composer outside the university, perhaps I could shed some light on one of the principal sources of continued discussion and tension between theorists and composers--the theory-comp graduate and undergrad curriculum and how it often fails its students in preparing them for careers in the broader musical community. So, I filled out the required SCI sheet requesting my modest needs, which included a microphone, a glass of water, and a flak jacket!

The principal cause of tension between all disciplines, really, is supply and demand. As Otto Luening once told me when I came to him with a problem, "in most cases, it boils down to a matter of budget." In our twin fields, this translates into too many teachers training too many students to teach college theory/comp and too few jobs at the other end.

We all know about the pyramid chain letter scam, where only those at the beginning receive all the goodies. During the '70s, '80s and '90s, the thrust of our mushrooming theory-composition programs was to train more teachers to establish yet more such programs, which would then train ever more teachers, etc. We have long since reached the saturation point where further encouragement of students in this direction has produced a huge body of overqualified, embittered graduates who are floundering at the bottom of the pyramid, who have been trained to compose masterpieces and to teach upper level theory. One way to reduce this glut is to give thoughtful, and perhaps painful consideration as to whether we should eliminate some theory and composition programs. In fact, in the unlikely event that Newt Gingrich were to become head of SCI and could eliminate all these programs in the U.S. for ten or fifteen years we would still have an overabundant pool of theory/composition teachers. Actually, the college teaching profession is only now entering a period of self-searching and political awareness that the medical profession has undergone the last ten years. Theory/comp positions are being lost and whole music department programs are being slashed all over the country, and we must be in a position to defend every single course and hour load that we enjoy. At some point in the next few years, Uncle Newtie will be knocking at your door.

For those programs that are truly equipped to shepherd the student through the creative labyrinth of the next decade, we must redirect the focus of their graduate programs away from theory-composition teaching as the principal career goal and adopt a multifaceted approach placing other career paths in the forefront. To do less is to prolong our overbloated pyramid, a monster we have created often with the best of intentions. From the 1950s to the present, the American university structure and the European "high art" gurus have increasingly fostered a separation between music creators, critics, teachers of art on the one hand and the broader community on the other, a phenomenem largely unknown before then. In Walden, Thoreau left us the message "But lo! men have become the tools of their tools." As his contemporaries praised the advent of the steam engine, he remarked, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.." And in our fields of theory and composition, the tools of set theory, combinatoriality, information theory, rigid conceptual approaches such as species counterpoint and 4 part chorale writing, and a host of analytical approaches have all consipred to ride over our students like a steamroller, separating them from their fundamental musical instincts, and have driven a wedge between composers and theorists, as well as between some academic and some professional composers as well. I have written about the theoretical basis for this tendency for the tools to take over in a 1981 Perspectives article entitled "Symbolic Extension and its Corruption of Music." I will be glad to provide anyone wishing it with a copy.

The most important aspect of the curricular reforms I shall outline below represents nothing less than the reintroduction of the composer into the broader community in which she lives, and where significant opportunities exist.

The traditional course of study for the theory/composition major encompasses four broad areas; information, skills, values, and concepts. I believe we have spent too much effort on teaching arcane concepts and information and not enough on skills and values. This forms the basis for the following specific recommendations. As I enter this phase, I predict that there will be some agreement on aspects which involve adding courses, and significant disagreement on courses I wish to eliminate. But we can't add something without eliminating its hourly equivalent. Curricular change used to be a zero-sum game. In the Newtonian Age, the "zero" in the equation becomes a minus sign as courses and programs are dropped.

In general, we should prepare our composers for survival by developing not only primary composition skills such as notation, orchestration, stylistic imitation, etc., but also and just as importantly the secondary skills, particularly in performance, conducting, and technology. Significant emphasis on these three secondary areas should progress through the end of the doctoral program, since performance, conducting, and technology skills usually represent the point at which today's student gains entry to the professional composing world.

Too often we teach composition, theory, and music history as concepts unrelated to the real world. I remember in a graduate Romantic styles class at the Eastman School of Music learning more about the arcane McHose chord classification system than about any stylistic aspect of a composer. We spend far too much time learning tools such as this. Once having finally learned to use them in carefully selected excercises, we find the semester is over and we never had the chance to adequately apply them. "But lo! men have become the tools of their tools."

Traditional composition projects must end in a performance by real musicians. Technology studio courses must end in finished music or media projects with significant studio time alloted to the students in studios that are modern and well-maintained. Composition programs that do not meet these criteria are not really fulfilling the needs of the student composer in this new environment.

In viewing the curricula in music theory, we should shift the balance away from what I would call theoretical concept courses such as history of theory, Shenker analysis, set theory, species counterpoint, etc. Since there are so few theory/composition teaching prospects, these courses should be considered electives. They tell us everything about the arbitrary theoretical concept and nothing about art, nor do they teach us anything about the value and wonder of our heritage, nor do they do anything to prepare the composition student for a professional career. On the other hand, theory courses focusing on skills development are of paramount importance--courses such as score reading, ear training, advanced keyboard skills, calligraphy including working with computer notation programs, major performance instrument, and some types of analysis which use the music itself as the determinant of the analytical approach.

Similarly, we should also reexamine our approach to graduate music history and literature, and eliminate courses which focus on arcane and obscure musicological lists of information, for example. Too much emphasis is placed on accumulating facts and not enough on exploring in great detail the actual works of art. The mountain of information that has accumulated as the result of decades of theory and musicology dissertations, all with the best of intentions but much with profound irrelevance to anything but its narrow focus, has now filtered down to texts and courses that are unfortunately burdening our current composition/theory students, getting in the way of important areas of their study. I would also like to see courses in the history and techniques of film music, jazz, video, and music for dance offered, along with significant exposure to music of other cultures.

Every young composer and theorist should have hands-on experience with as many types of improvisation as possible. This is important enough to warrant a specific course dedicated to this focus. I would certainly rank an intense improvisation course well above a course in 16th century species counterpoint, for example.

As an integral part of every senior undergraduate and graduate requirement, we should require an internship experience with a sponsor either in the outer community or in another university department such as film, theater or dance. One of often-overlooked areas is the relationship of the composer to the community. We neglect this because it is not written in the curriculum as is, for example, an internship program in the medical sciences or in teacher training. Composers can not be turned loose to survive in the community without prior supervised internship experience any more than can lawyers or medical doctors. And we should devote faculty load time to supervise this program.

By now you may be thinking that I am advocating a "trade school" approach which focuses narrowly only on economics and jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, existing graduate programs in theory/composition are sorely lacking in deep exposure to the other arts and humanities, largely because they spend so much time with their own inward-looking high level theory and musicology courses, many of which seem designed more to serve the needs of graduate musicologists and theorists than the needs of the rest of the music graduate and undergraduate student body. As Willi Appel remarked in his Harvard Dictionary of Music in describing current Greek music scholarship and its convoluted nature, "It is to be regretted that even in the most recent books the intricacies of ... theory are treated with a thoroughness which can only be explained as the (unconscious) desire on the part of the scholar to make his students suffer for what he has suffered himself in preparing and writing his study." When a student knows more about Tinctoris than Emerson, more about Rameau than Rousseau, more about combinatorial arrays than about general relativity, then he is being culturally deprived at the expense of a narrow conceptual fetish. It is only through intimate contact with significant parallel works in the other arts and parallel concepts in the sciences can the composition/theory student find a mirror with which to reflect his own creative ideas.

But above all, I believe that the composition/theory program has the mission of preserving the values of the music heritage we are given. Every student must have an intimate knowledge of every integral work of music in her culture, and significant exposure to that of other cultures as well. I am reminded of a certain passage just toward the end of Sibelius's Fourth Symphony in which several seemingly innocent and incongruous motives suddenly come together with such force as to afford a brief and intense glimpse into another and more perfect world, worlds that are often neglected in our university teaching because they can't be quantified into accepted theoretical analysis. We all have such experiences with our own favorite works, in which we feel a kinship, a connection that transcends time and space. It is this searching for a glimpse into a higher creative dimension, coupled with a kinship we all share together, that enables us to sit for long hours and months before our desks and computers as we painstakingly pry open our own windows of creative Nirvana. In coping with the modern technological, commercially-oriented world, and through all of the technical and job-related aspects of our newly-formed curriculum, we must never let our students lose sight of this more fundamental miracle of the higher creative process.

C 1995 Barton McLean.