By Meghan Farnsworth

FarnsworthComposers of centuries past and present have sought various avenues to maintain the particular brew of their craft. Whether these roads have guided their careers towards writing music befitting of the demands of a patron with two-thousand francs to spare, or for a pharmaceutical company, like Pfizer — the producers of that jagged little pill, Advil — composers have always needed to meet the bidding of a greater power in order to survive in the music industry.

For twenty-first century composers, however, does this mean sacrificing the aestheticism of beauty in art for the demands of the almighty dollar? Nowadays, it’s inevitable to avoid commercial venues — i.e. film, TV, radio, etc. — as a way towards meeting a financially stable career in composition. In some respects, many classical music elitists would find this route clichéd and unworthy of high art. So, one ultimate question comes to mind: is music composed in the style of the commercial route considered to be “sold out”?

How classical music is viewed today is much different than it was in centuries past. Music never reached the possibility of being categorized as “sold-out”. Now, there is an aura of timelessness that lives in the music of historical composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Even Leonard Bernstein, during the 1960s, described Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a piece of art that would forever be the savior of humankind. Of course, the music of Mozart and Beethoven is still studied extensively due to the fact that both composers forever changed aspects of western classical music. However, the contributions of certain big-name composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, like John Williams or Howard Shore, do not have the same impact as these historical composers. Their fame results from their association with such blockbuster films as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and George Lucas’s Star Wars saga, just to name a few. But, is having their claim to fame through cinema a debasement of their reputation as successful composers within the classical music world?

This is not clearly so in the career of Philip Glass, who has combined both the worlds of critical and commercial success. His accomplishments are an interesting testament to composers living within the last fifty years, especially within popular culture. According to the website, Celebrity Net Worth, Glass is currently worth $35 million. Even if this amount is not a correct estimate, the fact that he is featured as a celebrity on a website invested in the lives of the famous would lead many people to consider him sold-out.

As a student with Nadia Boulanger, the famous mentor and teacher of such composers as Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, and Quincy Jones, Glass developed a compositional style that was particularly attractive within the world of musical academia. He won many awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship to study with Boulanger and a BMI Student Composer Award. Clearly, he possessed a vast amount of potential as the quintessential academic composer. However, after studying with Ravi Shankar, the renowned sitarist famous for playing alongside the Beatles’ George Harrison, Glass ventured away from continuing to follow what his teachers were advising him to do and started to sculpt his own compositional voice, as he stated in an interview with composer, Peter Gordon. “I wanted to develop a language,” he says, “to oppose complexity with directness, obscurity with expressivity.” Glass was on a path towards artistic sincerity and progression. In doing so, he also with hit with consequences for taking that path. As he also states in the interview, he lost the money he worked so hard to accrue in the initial stages of his career, and the good opinion of many musical elitists as well.

Although Glass does not like to call his music minimalist, the fact that he helped create the genre indicates that his music meets the demands of aestheticism of beauty in art. After all, he continued the classical music tradition in a way that fits the current times. As Alex Ross of the New Yorker claims, “Philip Glass is without a doubt America’s most famous living composer of classical music.” There should be no stigma attached to his having written music for such films as the Hours, and The Truman Show, or for commercials for such corporations as American Express. Ross calls Glass a living composer of classical music — not minimalist, not pop, and not film music.

Maybe like Mozart or Beethoven, composers today still have the chance to influence and impact those pupils following in their footsteps. As composers become more of an independent stronghold in publicizing and marketing themselves, “selling-out” will lose its connotation. Instead of doubting the artist, as Glass illustrates, “we should doubt ourselves and listen with an open mind.”

Meghan Farnsworth, a violinist and senior musical studies major at Oberlin College, has always considered Oberlin a source of musical inspiration. Raised in nearby Wellington, Ohio, she began her training as a singer with the Oberlin Choristers at age 7, with whom she continued to work through high school. She began studying violin through the conservatory’s String Preparatory Program.

At Oberlin, Farnsworth has taken full advantage of the many unique musical opportunities the college has to offer. Through covering jazz, classical, and contemporary music, and historical performance for publications such as, the Oberlin Review, Oberlin Conservatory Communications, and her blog, Sonic Bridges, she has developed a passion for the way music speaks across a range of sonic mediums.

Farnsworth has continued her study of the violin with Oberlin’s Community Music School and Alla Aranovskaya of the St. Petersburg String Quartet. This January she will be interning at the Hechinger Report, a publication of the Teachers College at Columbia University.

Published on January 17, 2012