Benjamin Boyle, composer education, and compromise (Composers to which you should be listening 6)

Benjamin Boyle is a composer that I respect enormously. (Check out his website here.) Like his buddy, composer Lane Harder, I find in Ben's music a deep commitment to Old World craftsmanship. For me, there is almost nothing that creates more excitement. In some music that I hear, I find that the emotional burden is too great for the structural integrity that is being asked to support it. The music collapses into sentimentality. In some other music, the structural foundations are clear, but their is no "utterance" - as Phillip Lasser would say. Ben's music is always both emotionally engaging, beautiful, and expertly constructed.

I like Ben's writing so much, that I go back and listen to it every couple of months. With most composers, when I listen to their catalogue, I find that I like some pieces, and I don't like others. I can honestly say, that I haven't heard any of Ben's music that I don't like. In fact, I love everything. This is really significant because I don't like everything that's in my own catalogue.

In our current system of educating composers, we spend a lot of time teaching them how to write music. We spend almost no time in teaching them how to be composers. At many schools, the composition teachers make their living primarily through teaching and don't do much in the way of writing for performances outside the academy. As a result, student composers manage to graduate with ever going through a commission contract, a publication contract, or learning how to report to ASCAP and BMI.

I've started talking to students more about these issues in the past year. One of the realities that I talk about is how to maintain your artistic sanity in the context of making some money as a composer. If you are doing commission work, you can easily wind up writing in a certain style. After a while, if you are successful, people will start paying you to write another piece in the same style. After a little bit longer, some composers wind up making a decent living writing the same piece over and over again. It's what I like to call the Vivaldification of a composer.

As I mentioned above, one solution that some friends have made is to avoid commissions and write for performances within the academy. I've gone a different route. I take commissions, and I try to find a creative solution within the constraints of the harmonic vocabulary and ensemble ability that necessarily come along with writing certain commissions. As part of that, I have a discipline to maintain my sanity that I pass on to students. I am always working on something that I just want to write, something that has no restrictions on ability or harmonic vocabulary.

The end result is a catalogue that contains some pieces that can feel kind of uncomfortable. Some of my favorite things don't get heard. Some things that I don't like as much get heard a lot.

I'm not sure what solution Ben has achieved, but I can assure you that his catalogue of works is of uncompromisingly high quality, and he is one of the composers I look to for inspiration when I am feeling insecure. Here is a fantastic example of what I am talking about.