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Classical Music Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

Ten years ago this summer I was a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. It was an amazing and groundbreaking experience for me as a composer. While I was there, The Boston Globe did a feature on how computers and the internet were affecting the way that the composers in my class wrote music. The writer, Matthew Guerrieri, also spoke with a few composers born in 1937 (or 1938) who were in residence that summer. The result was a dialogue between generations called “Composing in the Computer Age”:

Through the intervening decade there has been a constant tug of war within me about the role of the technological sea change in my life as a composer. I fight against these “virtual” forces to create continuity in my music. But the resistance that these forces present makes the desire for continuity stronger.

The pull of being able to play music back is irresistible for many of us. I can always tell when a score was written primarily using midi playback. Some composers have become reliant on it at the expense of developing their inner ear. When one plays and writes with pencil, the inner ear connects to the written note on the page, and this reinforces one’s inner hearing and leads to more sensitivity to voicing, chord dispositions, melody, timbre,.......... The notes come into the inner ear before one writes them down - -a beautiful and elemental experience, one that I would never trade for anything. Listening done on midi is more passive.  Midi playback can be useful for conceptualizing large form and the proportions of sections, but the inner ear doesn’t engage in the same way as when one is playing or singing the work. We need to counteract midi’s impact by encouraging composers to hone old-school craft: writing with pencil and paper and singing or playing a work-in-progress all the way through in real time. Composers who never learn to hear from within are missing out on something essential to the experience of being a composer in the true, timeless sense that is independent of what era one is born into. 

It’s our birthright to have access to any art, literature, and music that provokes our thought. The proliferation of information available via the internet leads to a desensitization unique to our era. It’s a desensitization to violence and shocking images, but also a desensitization to positive forces like musical influences. Some emerging composers seem to feel little expectation of knowing a canon because all music is quickly available to them, and getting to know music that is outside of one’s immediate realm of influence requires no work. This leads to an acute aesthetic relativism: Composers no longer feel a responsibility to recognize what is of value in art that has different aesthetic underpinnings than that of their own. That’s why it’s so important for us to stand for something as artists. If we challenge ourselves to formulate and articulate our values - - to put into words what is most important to us as artists, and why we value one work over another - - we will not so quick to dismiss others’ work, and a discussion will follow that will incite others to justify their views. It also makes us more open to changing our views and to not becoming entrenched, stuck in our own corner, perpetuating the same feedback loop.

Social medial isn't discussed in the article because it hadn’t taken hold yet, but the online persona has quickly grown inseparable from many composers’ presence in the world. We also see an emphasis on self-promotion and career development skills in conservatories, with entrepreneurship classes being added to the core curriculum in the last five years, so that education is now enforcing this tendency. For my part, I’ve both resisted it and embraced it.  When serving on a committee I do my best to look solely at the integrity of the work, believing that it should be about the music first. I also want the purity of my own work environment and psychic space to remain intact, so I’ve stayed offline for periods of time. At the same time, the possibility of reaching an expanded audience and being in touch with friends all over the world is compelling. Oh, that dopamine rush when we get a “ping” from someone’s consciousness! Musicians who want to learn about my work have a direct line to me. I find myself schooled by younger musicians in this regard.

I think there’s ultimately a disconnect between the electronic stimuli that have become our umbilical cord and the hallmarks of a serious composer (ie. extended forms, communicating something profound, pushing aesthetic boundaries, doing something different in every piece, never being finished growing). The sense of petty importance that checking the internet bestows upon us takes away from the immersive aspect of composing. There is a “cheap” part of the brain that is addicted, and the deeper part of our brain is less engaged. Social media isn’t formative - - it is more a reflection of our social tendencies - -but I think that the social media persona can actually shape a composer in some ways because it is amenable to certain modes of communication, and restrictive of certain other nuances.

Finally, as an important offshoot, I believe that continuity in musical form - -or extended form that flows seamlessly - -is less valued. Music tends to be more “A.D.D.”- - assembled in smaller chunks that don’t necessarily pay off over the large scale.  Because long forms are a defining feature of art music, setting it apart from pop music and other genres, we should ask ourselves how the habit of processing information in shorter chunks is influencing the way that we create (and hear) music. For me, it’s important to create long forms in which the direction, flow, and progression of the harmony support the overall trajectory, and in which everything is the right length, so as to deliver a sense of fulfillment over the large scale.  It’s sometimes the hardest thing in the world to make something that flows effortlessly. I also hear resonance in the other meaning of “continuity”: An unbroken thread from and to composers and works of the past, drawing from them and dialoguing with them, using the anxiety of influence as a catalytic force. In Chronicle of My Life, Stravinsky wrote about how Johann Sebastian Bach walked many miles to another town to hear Buxtehude play his works and to familiarize himself with the older composer’s artistry. The exact story has been disputed, but whether or not this story is precisely true, it's an important symbol. We no longer need to walk many miles on foot to engage with the work of another composer. Have technological changes made things too easy?

Anyone in my community who is reading this, I encourage you to get offline now. Put your phone in airplane mode even if you’re not traveling. You can be offline all day and check once in the evening just to make sure that the world hasn’t come to an end, especially when you are beginning a piece and need to carve out sacred space. It takes discipline, and you might be out of sync with people around you who are constantly checking their phones. Transitioning and out of it can be the hardest part. But you’ve got much to gain. It is easier to envision and maintain continuity in a work when you’re not tempted by constant, addictive interruptions. Your attention span will grow, and this makes it easier to hone your musical thought in long phrases. If your validation comes from your own progress in the work and not from those intermittent “pings,” you will cultivate a protected space that allows ideas to propagate inside. Your process will embody that elusive, immersive state where you forget who you are and how much time has passed, so deeply do you inhabit the mysterious caves of the mind. Perhaps we each need to find our own metaphorical equivalent of Bach’s journey: Walking for miles to understand the work of a master. What could that journey mean for you?