By Mandy Hogan

HoganComposers continually forge new roads into artistic wildernesses. How does a composer forge an online identity in the 21st century? YouTube, Facebook, PureVolume, InstantEncore, and MySpace are large commercial sites that provide platforms for emerging and established artists to shine. They allow users to access and discover new music and musicians instantly. So perhaps the more important question is, how can musicians form a unique identity in the midst of millions of artists without being conflated with someone else or swept into an unwanted genre?

The medium that people use to enjoy music has changed from vinyl records to CDs to iPods and YouTube videos, but the music remains. What will remain in our psyche? What types of composers will we become? But ultimately, the question is: how will what we make become who we are? And that is the question for all of us.

Composers in the 21st century range from Jay-Z to Jennifer Higdon to Philip Glass to Esperanza Spalding. Some write Pulitzer-Prize winning violin concertos, others perform, produce, create, and design hip-hop albums, and still others jam in the garage with their friends. The present-day listener finds well-traveled musical roads that Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, and Stravinsky established, while exploring completely new paths through the Internet, a virtual world that puts millions of tracks at one’s fingertips.

Nowadays, everyone is a composer. Think about it: from a toddler who bangs on pots and pans to a drummer in India who dances in the streets; from a didgeridoo player in the deserts of Australia to an annoying coworker who taps and clicks pens to a high school hip-hop slam poet extraordinaire — we all compose something.

What do our compositions say about us? Does pot-banging make us young and naïve? Do clicking pens mean we’re anxious? Does slam poetry suggest a rougher, grittier message? No, but they do offer insights into a narrative. Does one’s message make an identity? Can a single message rise from the millions of others we encounter and speak to us?

Compositions relay a message or tell a story. Some have words and others have full orchestras and some have nothing at all. (John Cage’s famous 4’33” has the performer sit on stage, silently, for that length of time.) What did the rise of atonalism after World War I say about musical structure and order within the global, political context? What does today’s Top 40 list say about this generation?

Artists, musical and otherwise, speak for their time. Mozart was at the command of the Emperor and the Church. Beethoven forged new sonic territories as the piano transformed into the instrument we know today. Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School created a musical system that used complex math and notes (not tonal keys or chords) as the foundation. The Beatles came over in suits and ties and then indulged in “herbs” and drugs. Composers’ artistic and personal journeys tell a narrative about their music.

But how does one become a “serious” (as opposed to amateur) composer, anyway? Is it your upbringing? Innate talent and ability? Nationality? Many famous composers were born into extremely musical families: Jackson 5, the Von Trapps and the Bachs (J.S., for one), are three examples. Others were sent to school, like Claude Debussy and Esperanza Spalding, to develop their gift. Still others, like John Coltrane and Leonard Bernstein, were born gifted and influenced their generation and untold generations to come.

What sets Jay-Z apart from George Gershwin from Johannes Brahms? Are “serious” composers above the humdrum popular musicians? Even the term “western art music” is questionable. Is classical, or any form of notated music, a higher form of art?

And is complex better than simple? Philip Glass is often shoved aside by musical know-it-alls because he is a mere minimalist. Iannis Xenakis, a Greek composer, wrote many percussion works without notes, but simply notations, and left the musician to decide the instruments, tempi and interpretation. These composers, in stark contrast to other modern composers who meticulously composed every rhythm, articulation, note, timbre, dynamic and extended technique gave performers incredible power to make art how they, not the composers, saw fit. Is complex and meticulously notated better than simple and free? Or vice versa? Which one speaks more for our time?

I respect the sacrosanctity of Beethoven’s string quartets, Wagner’s operas and Bach’s keyboard works, but I also respect the incredible innovation and composition that popular and untrained artists accomplish daily. I revere contemporary, trained composers, and I admire country artists (and their producers) who create meticulously crafted albums. I see the sublime in the classical canon but I also appreciate the beauty in a pop song.

Technology has ripped the seams of musical definitions. With a tiny bit of computer skill, anyone can create a song or compose. Computers make composing, recording, producing and sharing music easier than ever. The Internet has become the 21st century bar or coffeehouse; musicians, often “indie” because they don’t have a record deal, are discovered because of their grassroots popularity. In a matter of weeks, they’re recording, releasing albums and basking in the limelight.

But how will esteemed composers and artists hold up in the next century, given the paradigmatic shift in how listeners access, listen to, and enjoy music and art?

Music-fiends have loathed the death of the album since the onset of the Internet and file-sharing sites, like Napster/ Napster, and other similar applications and site, allows users to download MP3s and single tracks off an entire album. So instead of buying an entire Smash Mouth album, users could download one track: “All-Star”. Will composers become inextricably linked to one or two singles? Will future listeners only know the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in c minor or thirty seconds of Orff’s Carmina Burana? And what does the obsession with tracks and “sound bites” mean for us?

And for composers? Will composers strive for the 30-second commercial jingle? Or the Hollywood film score breakthrough? Will anyone ever really pay attention to a song for more than 5 minutes? Or are we as a culture simply losing our concentration and appreciation for long-form narrative and prose?

This piece, for example, is twice the length of a typical review and much more in depth. How many readers stayed with me? And how many simply took a glance and decided it wasn’t worth their time?

This gets us back to the questions I originally posed: how will what we make become who we are? How does technology define, transform and transport artists’ legacies and work? What will we do with nearly unlimited access to music and media?

I give no answers. Philip Glass, the mere miminalist, said,

“Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere — everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we’re all living in different worlds because we’re on different continents.”

As traditions implode, composers and listeners alike must acknowledge the vast array of music and art that is produced by persons and cultures across the globe. As technology and composition continue to come together, I can only envision a world in which people appreciate the vast range of composers, compositions, artists and messages.

That, I think, will become who we are. If we can see the artist in others, regardless of nationality, talent, ability, nationality, religion and schooling, we may begin to recognize our common humanity and intertwining existences.

Mandy Hogan is a third-year, double-degree student from Jersey Village, Texas. At Oberlin, she studies politics and viola performance, proudly serves on Student Senate and as Junior Class president, researches the arts in underserved communities for Music in America, and maintains a small studio of students.

Hogan also is a committed teacher and champion of the arts in underserved communities outside of Oberlin. She has worked for the Underground Railway Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a facilitator of cross-cultural collaboration, exhibition, and performance in the arts, and as a Teaching Artist for the Noel Pointer Foundation in Brooklyn, New York.

Last summer she received a Creativity and Leadership grant to intern with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Knights Orchestra in New York City. This winter, Hogan will work on an array of employment discrimination projects through an internship with the Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center in San Francisco.

In her spare time, Hogan enjoys doing absolutely nothing (and drinking coffee). After Oberlin, she intends to practice law and advocate for LGBTQ and low-income persons.

Published on January 17, 2012