Dr. Composer

Artists are a community, an enormous community from infinitely different backgrounds and disciplines. It always makes me incredibly sad to see someone in this community question the legitimacy of an entire subdivision of artists.

I recently read some writing by a former colleague of mine, a composer in academia, a doctoral candidate, essentially declaring that popular songwriters think they are composers, and simply aren’t (the post is longer, but I’ll spare you the gruesome details). Here’s a bit of a reaction to that.

Leonard Bernstein in his studio. (Photo credit: Bernice Perry, via the MacDowell Colony.)

Leonard Bernstein in his studio. (Photo credit: Bernice Perry, via the MacDowell Colony.)

Some of the best composers in history wrote popular song. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was famous for his popular songs (lieder), Kurt Weill has written some of the most incredible classical work in the 20th Century and his popular songs are still covered by artists today, Leonard Bernstein is a prominent example of songwriters moving in and out of popular and academic music (just look at West Side Story and his third Symphony “Kaddish”), Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” is one of the most covered songs ever, and he studied with Milton Babbitt (which is about as academic as you can get). While we’re on the subject of Milton Babbitt, the man known for his mercilessly complex cerebral musical studies and the famous “Who Cares if You Listen” article*, often spoke of his love for musical theatre and even wrote a musical, Fabulous Voyage, based on the Ulysses myth. In academia, the best theory professor I ever had wrote his dissertation on rap, and I studied composition from a professor with a background in metal.

To go out and publicly shun one end of the arts spectrum seems like an extremely foolish venture in a world where some of the best artists are opening their minds to other subdivisions of their own art form.

I wasn’t a “songwriter” until fairly recently, finding my way into the musical theatre world by way of academic classical composition, writing chamber, orchestral, and art songs, almost exclusively. I decided to jump into musical theatre land by way of a master’s degree in musical theatre writing as a composer, and I learned more about composition by way of songwriting than I did writing in any other form. I have a whole new understanding of function, form, energy, and the nuts and bolts of simply writing music than I ever did before. It’s like in biology, holding a microscope over a cell and seeing all the tiny parts up close. In songwriting, you see all of the parts of the piece clearly, right before your eyes, and you start to really understand the intimate way in which music functions to convey an idea to an audience or observer.

As a writer who often writes outside of what is generally considered “mainstream,” I have to make a point and say, try not to be too quick to throw out a piece of art simply because everyone likes it. Everyone likes it for a reason.

*This was the published title, which Babbitt was unhappy with. It was originally called “The Composer as a Specialist,” based on a lecture entitled “Off the Cuff.”

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