Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Happy" Music

In my experience, there exists a bit of a bias in the world of contemporary classical music towards "serious" works.  In fact, plenty of people refer to "classical music" as "serious music," making it synonymous with the terms "art music" and "concert music." I find all of these terms to be inadequate when referring to the music we are all talking about, but I am particularly troubled with that term "serious."  Must all classical music (and of course I agree that some should) be listened to with a straight face and played with a seriousness as if it is the most important thing in the world?  Must I, as a composer of classical music today write only works that are serious in tone and mood?  

But throughout western classical music tradition, there have been plenty of overtly happy pieces of music.  Some of my favorites that come to mind: John Fould's "April-England"the choral finale to Beethoven's 9th Symphony "Ode to Joy," J. S. Bach's "Pièce d'Orgue" in G major," the second movement of Charles Ives's Symphony No. 2the third movement of Michael Tippett's Concerto for "Double String Orchestra," and the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 5.  So why not keep this tradition going?

My teacher Carter Pann  recently told me a story of when he first had his orchestral work "Slalom" read by the American Composers Orchestra.  After it had been read, one of the mentor composers came over to him and said something to the effect of, "It's a great piece, but it's just too happy." I'm not sure whether this was said jokingly or not, but this does reflect a view of a fair portion of the classical music world.

I think that throughout the 13 or so years that I have been composing music, I have always felt the need to write happy music on occasion, but looking back on the music I have written in the past few years I've been writing more and more overtly happy music, including the first and third movements of my "Classical Concerto" for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (which I will be premiering with the Sounds of Stow Orchestra in November), much of my "Waltzing Dervish" for Wind (powered) Ensemble, most of my "A Day of Sunshine" for Chorus and Orchestra, and the third movement of my Piano Quintet 'New England'.  These works were all written in the last 3 years and combine to be most of my output during that time.  During the previous ten years or so, the happy music I've written that I identify are my No-Name Rag and Tidal Wave Rag for piano, parts of my "Concerto" for Piano and Organ, the third movement ("Carousel") from my "Mini-Symphony" for Chamber Orchestra, parts of my "Homage to L.M. Gottschalk" for piano, and perhaps my "Prelude No. 4 (O Woozy Suzy!)" for piano.  While it has always been present, nearly always unconsciously, the impulse to create happy music has certainly increased of late for me.

But before I go any further, I want to be clear about what my definition of "happy music" is.  To me, "happy music" is not the same as fun music, beautiful music, or enjoyable music, although it can certainly be those as well.  Happy music is not necessarily pandering to popular taste, nor is it the antithesis of serious music.  Happy music does not mean that it necessarily makes me happy (or that the music itself is happy, as the topic of emotion in music is something frequently debated in music aesthetics).  My one criteria for calling a piece or passage of music "happy" is simply if it makes me smile while listening to it.

Now to the question I've been wondering (although I'm not sure I have a good answer,) why am I writing (unconsciously) more happy music lately?  I don't feel as though I have been significantly more happy myself over the past couple years than previously, or that might be the case (how do you measure your own happiness?)  Perhaps part of it was studying composition with Carter Pann, who writes a lot of happy music (see "Slalom" above, or the first and last movements of his first Piano Concerto, and "William Bolcom" from "The Bills" for piano for a couple of his many examples.)  Perhaps it is partly due to being out of academia for the past year.  When I was studying with him this summer at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, the composer and teacher Samuel Adler told me a story of his final lesson with Walter Piston at Harvard just before he graduated.  Piston told him, "The next thing you write will be the best thing you've written because, unlike being in school, the only person you have to please with your music is yourself."  Whatever the reason(s), I feel that this impulse is honest and I definitely enjoy the happy music that I have been writing of late, and luckily it seems that there are plenty of others who enjoy it as well.  So I think I'll keep riding the wave and hopefully keep helping to restore the balance of happy music in the world of new music.

No comments: