During the late 1970s I tired of the art-music trend of composing works that were steadfastly “serious” in tone. Desiring greater contrasts, I began composing works that included both playful and serious sections. Predictably, the playful sections upset some of my resolutely serious-minded peers. One of my close composer friends told me I was throwing away my talent.
A grants panel spokesman told me that the playful passages in my new works caused heated arguments. However, he also told me that strong reactions were desirable, and the panelists themselves had told him to encourage me to compose more works in this spirit.
When one of my former professors heard a new work of mine that included lighthearted sections, he told me he hated me for writing it. When I laughed, he told me he was serious. I said, “I know. That’s what makes it so funny.”
He, like many strait-laced composers at that time, felt that art music should remain resolutely “serious” in tone (appropriately solemn and earnest). Many composers who felt this way tended to avoid musical qualities such as lyrical melodies, consonant harmonies, and danceable rhythms that might immediately “please” an audience, or that might in any way seem to relate to music that was “joyous,” “popular,” or “theatrical.”
Contrast as a Dramatic Tool
For me this attitude was, and remains, pointlessly restrictive. I want the freedom to express a broad range of human emotions. For me, a viewpoint that rules out the expression of joy, humor, and exuberance is useless.
Expressive contrast is a vital dramatic tool. One of the traits I most admire about Shakespeare is his powerful use of contrasts between comic and tragic elements to heighten the expressive impact of both.
My approach to composing is pragmatic. Depending on the expressive needs of the work at hand, I set out to evoke joy as effectively as sorrow, delight as convincingly as rage, and malice as persuasively as innocence.