Should Composers Influence Music History?

Composer Todd Levin is best known perhaps for his album Deluxe, featuring the London Symphony Orchestra.  The centerpiece of this album, entitled Todd Levin, features Levin himself as a narrator.  One of the topics he addresses is the composer’s intentions.  Levin says, “Our prime directive should be the same as the Starship Enterprise, to observe but not influence history.  Too many composers want to influence history.”

It’s an interesting idea, and one that I wrestle with as a composer.  Composition students of mine also frequently take on too much in a composition, trying to draw from all their influences at once and write a masterpiece that will be on the cutting edge.

Richard Russell, who has a web site with great resources for composers, discussed this same issue in one of his podcasts, entitled Creativity and Composition.  Russell offered an interesting visualization of how composers can overcome the desire to influence music history, which he borrows from composer George Tsontakis.  You start by drawing an arrow from left to right, with the left side of the line representing the past and the right side the present.

Too many composers, Russell notes, are too concerned with moving that arrow further to the right.  In order to combat this tendency, Russell suggests that we take another look at this line by plotting influential composers at points in time.   Draw three vertical arrows pointing up, on on the left, one in the center, and one shorter line on the right.  Label the arrow on the left “Bach,” the arrow in the center “Beethoven,” and the shorter arrow on the right represents you.

As composers, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with moving the line of music history to the right towards the future.  Instead, Russell suggests we focus our efforts on moving our personal line ever upward.  For an example, consider Beethoven.  Russell points out that at the top of Beethoven’s arrow he was composing some of the most “modern” music of his career, yet he was frequently looking to older forms, such as the fugue, for inspiration.

Your personal line is the only part of this graph that you can control, and have responsibility for.  As a composer, this is what you should be concerned about, advancing your own compositional voice.  The march of music history through time will happen just fine without our help.  Your own work, however, needs your attention to grow upward.

Russell seems to have given up on the podcast format back in 2007, but continues to blog on composition regularly.  As I mentioned earlier, his web site has some great resources for composers and is well worth checking out.

Lyle Sanford

Reading your thoughts on composing is very interesting, and I hope you keep posting on the subject. One thing I keep wondering about is why various people compose music – what is it exactly they’re trying to accomplish? You mention developing one’s own compositional voice, but to say what to whom? I recently had occasion to review the Tibetan Buddhist core teaching that one’s motivation for any activity goes a long way towards determining the nature and value of that activity. If I read you correctly, you seem to be saying that trying to move the needle of music history is not a helpful motivation. If you have the time, and the question interests you, I’d be interested in your thoughts on why you’re composing, and for whom you’re composing, and what you’re trying to achieve by composing.

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