Election Section

Young Composers: What is Heard, What is Forgotten

Friday May 21, 2004

Each year since 1999, the Composers In the Schools Program, administered by the American Composers Forum, has provided instruction in composition to Bay Area high school students, and has given these students a chance to hear their music played and perfo rmed by professional musicians. As I’m finishing my fifth year of teaching in this program, and as there is nothing else like it that I’m aware of in the public school system, I thought I’d provide a brief report from the frontlines.  

The students are in spirational. Turn out at Trinity Chapel this Saturday afternoon, and you’ll hear fresh, imaginative music from Katy Wreede’s second-year class, performed by the Pegasus Quartet. The composers this time around are Erika Oba, Nicholas Brandley, Aliyah Simco ff, Cody Rose and Daniel Holtmann-Rice.  

In my experience there’s a terrific directness and honesty that comes with these young composers’ work. We who occasionally find ourselves at concerts of new music know they can be a mixed bag. For every fresh new piece that falls welcome on the ears, there seems to be another that seeks to fulfill some arcane agenda. I’ve got complaints with the way America treats the arts, but composers who write tedious, irritating music have something to answer for, as well. T hankfully, these young composers are unaware that there is a musical academy out there, an academy replete with tendentious precepts and doctrines. While a sense of the repertoire may be lacking (more on that in a moment), these students are not much inju red by their naïveté. When self-consciousness goes away, it turns out, all sorts of terrific things are free to emerge. Wit, for instance. One of my favorite student pieces of recent years is a woodwind quintet called “Do You Want Soda and Fries With That?” (Toby Hargreaves, I have your parts!) 

What has happened as a result of the good efforts of the American Composers Forum is that an idyllic, if fragile, world has been created where the major obstacles that composers face are temporarily circumvented. For a few hours each week, young people with a musical bent get help making their musical flights of fancy coherent, legible, and playable. At the end of the line, they hear their work performed, and performed well, at a concert attended by enthused friends and family. 

It might be nice if we could keep this world insulated from the other one, the world where there are often no funds to pay musicians; the world where most people are unaware of, and indifferent to, what artists do. Historically, of course, attempts to create utopias apart from the outside world seem to wind up in some sort of trouble. Ivory towers have poor security. 

First, I have to report that young people walk into these classes knowing almost nothing of our musical history. It’s not t heir fault. It takes only a moment’s thought to realize that it’s impossible, as things stand now, for it to be otherwise. If you were 15 years old today, how would you become familiar with the period during which America came into its own as a major forc e in classical music, our last one hundred years. Would you get exposure to this from the radio? Billboards? Magazines? Textbooks? School concerts? Field trips? None of the above, I’m afraid. Sorry. They’re not dishing it out. Even the Internet—with its m uch-vaunted instant, democratized access—doesn’t offer up contemporary classical music unless you are scouting for it, and scouting hard. Clips of new music aren’t leaping off the i-Tunes website, vying for market-share.  

One of the results of this is t hat a young person who has some tangential exposure to modern music—say, through the soundtrack to a movie—doesn’t know how that music came to sound as it does. They have, in my experience, no sense that composers try new things, that some of these things stick and others go; that music is, in other words, an evolving art-form. 

I want to say, again, that this is not the fault of the kids in these classes. They are getting on in our pin-headed society as best they can. But, since there’s no backstory and there are no role models, we are greeted with blank expressions every fall when we make the rounds of the schools to let kids know about the program. A composer? By and large, they don’t have any idea what that is, really, or why they would want to be on e.  

It’s cool to be a rapper, of course. It’s cool to play the electric guitar. It is somewhat cool to play jazz. But putting notes on paper—is that cool? Miraculously, a few of the curious drift into our classes to find out what it’s all about. Meanwhile we ask ourselves “Where’s the radio-programming? The class trips to see the Berkeley Symphony? How hard can this be?” 

Michael Tilson Thomas addressed the issue of “What is cool” head-on when he began the Maverick series with the San Francisco Symphony a few years ago. There was a sold-out house the night that I went to see Ives’ Fourth Symphony at Davies Hall. This would have pleased Ives, who, during his lifetime, averaged one performance of his work per decade. But, to the point, it doesn’t take much to get across the idea that amazing people have contributed to our vast library of modern music…a library that is now being almost entirely forgotten. Ives, like Edgar Varese, like Aaron Copland, like Leonard Bernstein, was an original thinker who applied himself to creating a whole new galaxy in our musical universe. 

While my students don’t know about the 20th century, or about contemporary classical music, they do have a handle on the technology that has become part of what we mean, now, when we say “New Music.” 

ProTools, Acid, and other music-editing software, with a small collection of gear, can turn anyone these days into a record producer. It is machines, of course, that will be playing your music if you go this route. But that is—have you notice d?—the music we hear all around us, now. Take the vocals and the raps away, and we are all being serenaded by choirs of smoothly coordinated machines in the movie theaters, in stores, in our bedrooms, on the street, in our cars. Machines rehearse for free, will play anything for anybody without complaint over and over again. As these machines begin to sound more and more like real musicians (and they are), there is bound to be an effect on the way people compose music (and there is). Inevitably, the Compo sers In The Schools Program will look different in a few years. There is talk going on now about the role that the computer lab must play in the future if we aren’t to be hopelessly out of step with what composing has come to mean.  

Here and there, meanw hile, a few young composers are writing for the sort of instruments that sit warmly in your hand, that require strings and reeds and a good embouchure. Leaving aside for today troubling questions about both musical literacy and the mechanization of an art form, let’s get back to the topic at hand—this year’s crop of young Bay Area composers: 

The final performance of the Composers in the Schools Program this year will be at 2 p.m. May 22 at Trinity Chapel, 2320 Dana St. Admission is free. Works presented include premieres by students Erika Oba, Nick Brandley, Aliyah Simcoff, Cody Rose and Daniel Holtmann-Rice. Also on the program is Katy Wreede’s new work, “The Pegasus Quartet,” commissioned by the American Composers Forum. 


Clark Suprynowicz and Katy Wr eede are composers living in the East Bay. This is their last year teaching in the Composers in the Schools Program. Next year new faculty will rotate in, taking positions at Berkeley High School and in the San Francisco public schools. For more informati on about the Composers in the Schools Program, call the American Composers Forum, Bay Area Chapter: (415) 864-0400.