Aesthetics: Teaching honesty in music composition?

In the Poetics, Aristotle gives us one of the first (if not the first) introduction to the idea that there is an economy in works of art. He says, “For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.” I don’t believe that I am uncommon in the way that I am progressing toward maturity. That is, I am much more adept at spotting the extraneous and extracting it than I was when I was young. I can more readily assess an idea and its potential development. I can balance the unity and diversity necessary to establish an economy of means that allows me to create a musical work that is poignant without running to far from the central point. This is a skill that I haven’t worked so hard to develop in my prose. I enjoy the diversions of wandering thoughts.

The issue that still tries to pin me on the mat is the pedagogy problem. To wit: how do you handle a student that brings you a work that is immature and lacks any sort of economy. To be sure, there is a different economy in a poem than in a novel. There is a different economy in a fugue than there is in a symphony. The difficult part is in the way we foster students to maturity of economy.

I certainly remember the anxiety I experienced as a teenager the first time my works were exposed to mature composers. I remember how I hung on their every word for encouragement. Most of my teachers were very kind and did not press to hard on the issue of the ideas – however immature they may have been – but focused on how well those ideas were communicated.

All this is to say, I have an idea that my job is to foster honesty in creative work. I don’t know how to assess “honesty” aesthetically, so I retreat to technique. Is this really what you mean to say? Do you realize that the climax you are trying to establish has been betrayed by foreshadowing that all but revealed the conclusion? Did you really want to take away the significance of the end by presenting it so clearly in the beginning?

In some ways, I find those questions easier to ask than others. Do you realize that the substance of your ideas are well trodden paths that have already been explored? Do you really hunger to know the Western canon well enough to understand the tradition in which you are participating? Are you willing to discover that what you thought was a profound emotional experience was really something trite? That’s the hard stuff, and I don’t have good answers for these problems.

There is one thing that I have experienced that gives me comfort. I have had a few students that I knew very well. I could tell when they were making the easy choice instead of the honest choice. I could tell when they were placing expediency over truth. I could tell when they were trying to impress my sensibilities instead of their own artistic calling. I confronted them on it every time.