To Thine Own Music Be True.
The last time I did a blog post on Paul McCartney, it was after the CD release of his orchestral ballet "Ocean's Kingdom," a boring and faceless work that only achieved competence through the efforts of Sir Paul's hired arrangers and orchestrators.
This time, I bring up McCartney's name to suggest that you stop what you're doing to immediately go and obtain a copy of his latest pop CD, "New" (cover image above). Yes, it's that good, far, far better in its genre than "Ocean's Kingdom" is in its genre. OK, Sir Paul's better at pop music than he is at classical music. But good for him for at least trying to step up in class, and to show that there's more to his muse than "silly love songs" (to quote one of his earlier lyrics), right?
Sure, if he has the desire and the means to attempt it. When you're Paul McCartney, you can do as you please, and the world will take notice. No doubt that chafes many talented and devoted classical composers who may go a lifetime without any of their works achieving the notoriety that Sir Paul can buy — indeed, I quoted a composer friend saying just that in the earlier post — but that's show biz.
Yes, classical music, our battered, bruised but cherished art form, still boasts enough prestige to draw non-classical wannabees to attempt it. McCartney is hardly the first one to try his hand at large-scale composition with indifferent success. Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, Mark O'Connor, Béla Fleck — each immensely accomplished in his field, each, to varying degrees, stumbling when entering the classical realm. Even the immortal Duke Ellington was at less than his best on the occasions when he forsook standard short-form jazz composition for large-form orchestral works.
Why is that? It can't be lack of talent, for these are each very talented musicians. It can't be for lack of inspiration, as McCartney's very inspired new CD attests. Technical skill? No doubt that despite what some of these composers (e.g., McCartney and Fleck) have said to the contrary, a well-developed compositional craft is pretty important. But some decidedly untechnical classical composers like Christoph Willibald Gluck, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and Erik Satie wrote some very fine pieces, so technique obviously isn't everything. Maybe the answer is to be found by asking what common element the classical works of these non-classicals and others like them lack.
And for me, that crucial missing element is personality, sometimes also called the composer's "voice." I mean, I could listen to the entirety of McCartney's "Ocean's Kingdom" and not have the slightest idea who wrote it if I hadn't known before. On the other hand, I could have been handed a version of Sir Paul's "New" that came without the vocal track, and known before too long whose songs these were. I bet you could have too. Same goes for each of the above composers, again to varying degrees. Maybe they're not all totally "voiceless" in their classical works, but their personality is diffuse and diluted compared to their best things in their respective original genres. Could it be that that's the hardest thing for a classical composer to develop, whether a newbie or a trained professional — a unique voice?
(Astor Piazzolla and Nadia Boulanger, 1954)
From what I've heard (composers and compostition teachers can chime in here), that unique voice is what good teachers listen for and try to bring out in their pupils. One of the best examples of this involves the great Argentine composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla, whose works you hear frequently on NEPR. A prodigy as a tango musician, Piazzolla put the tango aside in his early thirties to concentrate on classical composition, one of his works winning a competition in 1951. We pick up the story from the Piazzolla.org website:
One of the prizes he won at this composition contest was a scholarship from the French governement to study in Paris (where he goes in 1954), with Nadia Boulanger, considered the best educator in the world of music at the time. At first, Piazzolla tries to hide his tanguero past and his bandoneon work, thinking that his destiny is in classical music. This situation is quickly remedied when he opens his heart to Boulanger and he plays his tango “Triunfal” for her. From then on he receives a historic recommendation: “Astor, your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here, never leave it behind”
It doesn't take a Nadia Boulanger to hear this, either. So, Mr. or Ms. Non-Classical Musician, you want to write a classical piece? Good for you. But remember, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that voice!
P.S. Here's an exception to the above. Feel free to add more.