Academic? Long Posting

Subject: Academic? Long Posting
From: Kevin Austin (
Date: Sun Jun 06 2004 - 06:46:23 EDT

On several occasions questions around memorability and great/good
pieces have appeared here, and will continue to, as is a central
issue among those interested in art. In hockey, there is a numerical
result; maybe longevity is a 'numerical result' for art(ists).

One of the points raised is that the 20th and 21st centuries are not
the first to produce "less than wholly captivating art". Given a
finite amount of time here and limited resources, as an individual I
need to take decisions about what I will listen to, once, twice, or

There are tens of thousands of symphonies from the late eighteenth
century. Among the 'second and third tier' of composers, there are
many hundreds of 'interesting' works (Cannabich, Paesiello, Stamitz,
Pleyel) that titillate my ear once or twice, and I am ready to move

There were (quasi-)academic composers that most student pianists have
met (Boccherini, Clementi, Cramer, Dussek, Hummel) to name a few, but
what is it that makes Beethoven more engaging than (say) Hummel or
Boieldieu? Why Stockhausen and not NNnnnn?

For me, it relates to the 'density' (and breadth) of the (musical)
thought. Sounds which I find quite predictable or 'un-engaging' do
not draw mt my mind back. Kontakte still 'speaks' to me; it has this
kind of density of identity in which I continue to hear things new
(or anew). There is another 'layer' to the thought that engages me on
each hearing.

I find 'student works' to be interesting in terms of how the
individual student is progressing on their own path. My expectation
for an 'in depth' (thought) experience is tempered by the context of
their being a student.

When the student composer rises 'above' this condition (when they
show signs of speaking with an individual voice), their work begins
to be recommended for others to hear.

This process of selection is a bit like going to a new restaurant.
Many people I know suggest pieces for me to listen to. I will listen
to some of them and determine if I agree with the assessment. If the
work sounds like any of the thousands of student pieces I've heard,
my level of 'trust' in the person suggesting the piece goes down.

And slowly the student composer's name gets "passed up" through the
network. Performers and producers come in contact with the work and
ask for more pieces, in time, starting a cycle of commissioning works.

(This is not to say that the system 'works' for all "original voices"
(Cowell, Ives, Partch, Nancarrow and Ruggles come to mind immediately
as voices that were not commissioned).)

The next step was to have performances without the presence of the
composer -- the music had interest beyond being a vehicle for the
development of the composer's career. It is my experience that this
is the type of work that has acquired the 20th and 21st century
appellation of 'academic' -- it is frequently more of a stage in a
career than a designation of where the composer lives.

Beyond this lies recording and publication -- as assertion that the
work stands on its own, as those who will play it (or listen to it)
will have little or no direct knowledge of the composer as an

Over time, this model has become somewhat standardized, and the
stages of the career can be seen as:

-- student: supported by teachers and friends on the basis of
personal development

-- commissions: someone wants to hear more, in the form of 'new' creation

-- wider performance: the 'works' interest performers and producers

-- recording and publication: some group (other than the composer or
their immediate associates (vanity publications)) pays for the
production and dissemination of the composer's work.

The "academic" composer often stalls in close proximity to the
"commissions / wider performance" steps. The well-known question for
composers is about the "third and fourth" performances of a work away
from their immediate environment. Is there enough 'abstract' interest
in the work, that others will seek it out to be heard, performed and

A look through the Canadian Music Center's catalog of 15,000 pieces
by more than 600 composers reveals that probably only 3 or 4% per
year get more than a few (momentary) performances. The American Music
Center (with less support funding) has 30,000 titles by 2,500
composers. Given the population ration (1:10), there are likely more
than 150,000 titles and more than 6,000 composers in the USA. At the
rate of 5 new pieces per day, it would take more than 80 years to
listen to this output.

Using the model presented before, in the Americas and Europe, there
are probably 1500 to 3000 ea sound arts crafters regularly producing
works. The web has changed the paradigm of how a composer (and their
works) becomes known.

While there is still some (slight) amount of commercial publication,
there are few ea CDs produced that do not involve (1) the
individual's own resources, (2) arts council or government funded
agency, or (3) 'academic' assistance, but the web has altered the
place of this physical CD.

Every day there are more and more 'virtual' sources for ea
distribution. It is the listener's decision whether to make the
'virtual' into 'real' by recording off the web and burning a CD. This
change has disrupted the distribution model, and the consequences of
this are not yet being strongly felt, but certain projections make a
number of points clear.

Firstly, listeners have become accustomed to not paying the composer
for what they listen to. They will pay the internet service provider
(who does not pay fees to the 'content producer'), and think that
they are getting music for "free". Hmmmm

Secondly, in academia the methods of assessing 'recognition and
distribution' of creativity are challenged by a non-peer reviewed
system. Tenure and promotion systems are attempting to 'tighten up'
to show the necessity of third party recognition and this continues
to fuel the ever hotter debate over Intellectual Property (ownership
and transfer obligations).

So .... to summarize, I do not take "academic music" to have a simple
or narrow definition, and having read several years of the term being
loosely applied to sorts of things, I have proposed a relatively
complete context from which to understand my usage of the term.



>On Jun 5, 2004, at 11:07 PM, Kevin Austin wrote:
>>> At least with academic computer music, 95% of the composers are
>>>mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, or
>>>something similar. Sometimes (sometimes), the music reflects their
>>>backgrounds a little too much for some (some) people.
>>Is this problematic? Is it problematic that they don't write tunes
>>like Chopin and Schuman (William I presume)?
>Of course not.
>I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but you're
>seeming quite touchy about all this... and there is no need to be.
>I'm getting the feeling that I'm on the wrong mailing list... of
>course perhaps the first hint was that I'm from New York. ;-)
>- John Nowak

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