Deeply Engaged

Aesthetic identity—I like that. I’m like that. ...Aesthetic meanings go beyond social signals to personal affirmations of our sense of self.—Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style

Enlightened Beguilement—Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure

Randall Shinn and his future wife Carol after a performance in 1968

I began composing and arranging music for fun around age fifteen, and for a decade and a half I enjoyed exploring a wide range of stylistic materials—from blues and jazz to Renaissance madrigals, and from classical tonality to modernist atonality. After composing dozens of pieces, I moved toward some stylistic possibilities and away from others.


While exploring various stylistic possibilities, my gut-level responses helped me identify deep-seated aesthetic preferences. While some stylistic possibilities proved of only passing interest, others stirred deeper, more haunting responses—signals of powerful aesthetic affinities. I can be captivated, for example, by particular experiences of melodic beauty, timbral beauty, senses of physical motion, and flexible forms of modal/tonal organization. And I am fascinated by aesthetic traits such as strikingness, vivid expression, and a sense of mercurial temperament.

My early period of casual stylistic exploration ended when my intuitive mental processes fixated on exploring my deepest aesthetic affinities. My Rebellious Muses gave me little choice but to learn to work with them.

Shaping a Loosely-Defined Aesthetic Viewpoint

I am more interested in doing than thinking, so I turned my intuitive preferences into pragmatic rules of thumb. “Compose beautiful melodies.” “Favor dance-like rhythms.” “Work with flexible modal/tonal frameworks.” Rules of thumb like these have allowed me to shape a flexible, loosely-defined aesthetic viewpoint.

One constant trait has been my desire to compose beautiful melodies. After hearing one of my early atonal works, a European composer complained that its melodies were “too beautiful.” (He wanted new music to push audience members apart.) He advised me to stop composing melodies whose beauty made them “too easy to enjoy.” I pretended to take his advice as seriously as he meant it, but in my mind I was already turning it around.

Push forward. Let loose barrages of beautiful melodies and danceable rhythms. Deploy your favorite stylistic devices at will. Let your unruly Muses slip across stylistic borders and steal ideas that excite them. Shape an aesthetic worldview around your intuitive preferences, and produce work boldly.