People who know me personally know I am a musician by training—specifically a composer and conductor—though now an author by choice. I woke this morning fully intending to dive back into the fourth draft of my latest novel, but the last week still weighs heavy on my psyche. That was my annual trek to San Antonio for the Texas Music Educators Association convention—a meeting which is still the largest of its kind in the world. There musicians from all over the state (all over the world, actually) get to meet, discuss, listen to amazing performances of ensembles both amateur and professional, and recharge their creative batteries for the remaining push through the school year.
I attended, not as an author or blogger, but as just another musician, ready to learn and be entertained. Both these goals were fulfilled, but not in the manner I intended. Instead of being thrilled by great musical performance from the various bands and orchestras, I was subjected to the further Mackification of the music scene.
What do I mean by this?
First, let me be clear. This is not a slam or diatribe against John Mackey the person, but a general complaint about his music. John is, by all accounts, a wonderful human being. I have met him on exactly one occasion, and even though he was deluged by well-wishers after a performance, he managed to be kind and gracious to each of us. That performance, by the way, was a shattering tour de force, and thoroughly enjoyable. It was, however, years ago, and my complaint stems from the current state of music in the band world.
Wind ensembles, concert bands, symphonic bands, etc., suffer from an inferiority complex. We—at least in the past—compared ourselves to orchestras and found our medium wanting. There just wasn’t great music written by great composers that was just for us the way there was for a full orchestra. That hasn’t been the case for decades, but we still carry that with us in our hearts. Unwarranted, but true. Consequently, each new compositional flavor of the month gets copied and repeated ad nauseum, while we wave the scores in the air shouting “See? We’ve got good stuff, too!”
Which brings me to Mackey and this year.
The performance I attended (the ensemble shall remain nameless, as it involved kids doing their best) was not just lifeless, but tedious. This was not just because of the one Mackey piece programmed, but the prior two works I swear could have been written by him. If you’re in the field, you know the drill: Faux emotional music full of swelling crescendo, peaceful denouement, and the ever-present unresolved dissonance in the clarinet section. Tedious. It is someone holding a mirror to the world, hoping to reflect a gentle angst.
And it’s all fake.
I am, at best, a second-rate composer. I know this. Writing music, for me, is for the same reason I write stories—because I have to. My musical output has diminished not only because I have recognized I’m second rate, but also because the need to communicate emotion is filled largely by my literary exploits. I’m probably a second-rate author as well, but that discussion is for another day. The point is, the emotional content in music—as in any art—must be genuine for it to succeed as art. Instead, today we only get copies of fake emotion by other second-rate composers as they attempt to emulate the fake emotion of a first-rate composer. Or worse, technical dazzle substituting for profundity.
It’s not clear who will be the “next big thing” in music, but there is always hope he or she will not be copied endlessly.