The Future of
the Art of
Art Music
An Interview 
with
Eric L. McIntyre

by Nathan Thomas

A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported in the Sunday Arts section that American orchestras are using a variety of strategies to lure more audience members and younger audience members into concert halls.  So I've been wondering about the future of music.  And who better to find out about the state of music today than someone who works as a composer and trains the composers and musicians of tomorrow?

Eric L. McIntyre composes, conducts, and actively performs as a French horn player.  Currently he also serves in the music faculty of Grinnell College in Iowa.  His award-winning compositions have been performed by members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra as well as members of orchestras in Houston and Utah and ensembles in Europe and Korea.  As a performer he has played chamber music across Europe with the European Mozart Foundation as well as several orchestras and ensembles in the United States.  A graduate of Indiana University and the University of Houston, Eric teaches composition, music theory and music history.  He also serves as conductor of the Grinnell Orchestra and the Fort Dodge Area Symphony.
(A sampling of Eric's works can be found online at:
web.grinnell.edu/individuals/mcintyr2/composition/comp.html.)


Thomas: I wanted to start with your training and how it compares with what you see in the training you see today.  I mean, how would you compare one of your student's training with your training at the University of Indiana?

Eric McIntyre: I don't see too much of a difference between my formal training and that of conservatory students today, since many of my professors are still working and teaching, and their methods are sort of industry standard these days.

Thomas: Do you find students coming into your school have appropriate early training?  And is there a difference in what they're expected to know?  As a broad example, I find that high schools don't seem to require students to read Death of a Salesman anymore.

Eric McIntyre: I am always impressed with the new generation of musicians. I taught for several years at a summer conservatory for high school students in the Houston area, and I was always amazed at how advanced some of them are.  Of course, those are typically students who take advantage of the opportunities in a big city with a big arts scene. As for my impressions of standard secondary music education, it varies dramatically from state to state.  Some are rather amazing, and some have relegated it to fun and games. The biggest shortcoming of most students entering the conservatory or really any collegiate level music program is in the area of grammar (a.k.a. music theory, notation skills, etc.).  This is particularly a problem for young composers who got their start noodling around with music notation programs and have not learned the fundamentals of notation.

Thomas: I want to talk more in depth about this later.  But there seems to be a disconnect with what I read about the "graying" of the audience for "serious" music -- whether new music or Beethoven.  On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be a decline in young people coming to schools to learn how to play that music.  Or am I missing something there?

Eric McIntyre: Yes, I too am confused by this situation.  More students than ever, it seems, are entering the conservatory, yet the audiences do not seem to be growing proportionately. Now, some leading musicians would say that this is a great time to be a classical musician.  There are far more financial incentives than ever before, really, and with digital technology, we have more opportunity for dissemination of almost any artist's work.

Thomas: And to digress for a minute . . .  what can we call music that is intended for the "concert hall?" It may not be 'serious' -- or even orchestral.  But it's not pop or whatever else.  Maybe we can coin a new term here.  

Eric McIntyre: I use a variety of terms.  The one I use most commonly is "art music," but there are many who are turned off by this one.  I look at this term as distinguishing it from music that has a more practical application (most notably, making money).  I may also use a specific term such as chamber music, orchestral music, etc to clarify what I mean.  The term "serious" seems to have been put to rest in many contexts, perhaps my favorite being in Milton Babbitt's famous "Who Cares if You Listen?" article. Art is about as hard as anything to define, but I think "art music" is a good, reliable term for the music we are discussing. Oh, and another well-loved term is "concert music."  This is the term used by ASCAP to define music that falls in this category - music that is designed with a concert-going audience in mind.

Thomas: Good.  Well, let's talk about composition for a little bit.  As a composer, I tend to think that you work with rhythmic gestures. In listening to the excerpts of And Apollo Shimmers in the Plumes and The Mouse's Tale, gesture seems very important. Can you describe what sorts of things or elements are important to you as a composer?  Or how would you describe your own composition?

Eric McIntyre: Gesture is very important -- as is concision and economy of ideas. One of the most influential teachers I worked with was Robert Nelson.  He always referred to the "golden rule" of composition – "Never write new material when you can use material you have already written."  This refers primarily within a specific work.  It is a way to ensure consistency of language and gesture throughout a work.  Take ... And Apollo. . .  In that work, almost every sound is derived from the opening seven note gesture or the chorale that comes later.  Listen to it with that in mind and see if you can't hear the main ideas morphing throughout to get different moods and sensations.

As for The Mouse's Tale, that has the added aspect of narration, so gesture is the way to emphasize and comment on the text without interrupting its message.  That's part of a suite of three pieces for horn and narrator on Lewis Carroll texts all of which use weird effects and gesture to bring the wildness of the poems to life.  It also seems to amuse both adult and children's audiences.

Thomas: Then. . . in essence, if a person would listen to a number of your works, would you say that a common element or something that seems to interest you most as a composer is the rhythmic gesture?  Not to say that they're not without melody, structure, etc . . . but those elements don't seem to come to the fore to me?  Would that be true for you?

Eric McIntyre: I would be more inclined to say that pitch gestures are more prevalent than rhythmic gestures as a unifying force.  But, yes, I aim more for motive than melody.  If it makes a good melody, that much the better. While I shouldn't deem to describe my work in the same breath with him, I dare say, this is my impression of Beethoven - gesture is all-powerful, melody is perhaps secondary.  But, ah, when he gives a melody...

Regarding what I mentioned about . . .And Apollo… -- I think that having a familiar motive presented in a range of guises is similar to showing a recurring character in a play, film, or even series of paintings in different clothes or appearances to propel the narrative.  It's the same way in my music, I hope.

Thomas: I can see that. It's interesting you mention the recurrence of motifs in comparison to narrative functions.  Do you tend to see crossover between the narrative devices of stories with music composition?

Eric McIntyre: Absolutely.  The drama of music works just like text.  When I write prose, I use the same devices that I use in structuring compositions, and I strive to teach that when I teach writing.  It's all about drama, no matter how subtle it may be.  I like to think that Stephen King's grocery list would be full of tension and drama.  It's cool when I get the idea that an artist's work suggests a view on everything.

Thomas: Likewise, when I work on a play, I tend to think of it musically.  One of the things I wish we did more of is experiment where these bits of behavior overlap and inform each other.

Eric McIntyre: It makes perfect sense.  Artistic thought surely must be consistent across disciplines.

Thomas: Yes.  Now I'd like to talk for a bit about teaching composition.  Where do you see music composition going?  What I mean is, when I was a kid taking piano lessons – the "contemporary" music book had compositions from before WW I.  What are the outlets for new music?   

Eric McIntyre: It really is a thriving field.  Nowadays, there are so many styles, methods, factions, etc, that 'art' music composers have tremendous freedom in what they create.  Old sorts of academic dogma are mostly faded, and instead we now have composers of highly organized (sometimes called serial) music serving side-by-side on faculties with folks who write pop tunes for orchestras. It's really the best of times on that front -- you don't have to be a sort of lemming to get ahead.  The only really unfortunate thing is that in many academic settings, many teachers avoid teaching about REAL new music.  I can't tell you how frustrated I get when I get invited to a "new music" festival, and they are playing works from the '20s.  Hell, that's closer chronologically to Mendelssohn than to what's being written today.

When I teach music history, I'm always thrilled when we get to the last 30 years, and students find that they actually do like modern music - real modern music, not what they think it is.  I guess I can sum it up by saying, new music has unlimited boundaries and fewer rules than ever before.

Thomas: Yes, I think some people think that "modern" music necessarily means some sort of ascetic, atonal exercise.  What expectations do your composition students have walking in the door?  Or do they?

Eric McIntyre: It's hard to sort of describe the typical student. Some come in just wanting to learn anything and give it a try.  These are a real delight to teach.  Some, on the other hand are just terrified that you'll have something to say about their music other than, "That's nice.  Now, write something new."

One of my great pleasures is taking a student who begins wanting to reinvent the musical language of Schubert and finds that they have a real knack for writing twelve-tone music.  I don't care that they may or may not use that ever again, I just want to make sure the appreciation is gained, and that students don't close doors without learning new languages.

The ultimate goal is to guide a student into growing new ears.

Thomas: I think that's great.  One of the best things my college piano teacher (Edith DiBartolo) did for me was to teach me how to listen.  It's been the best tool in my life -- and more than in just trying to play the piano. I'm guessing that your composition students are more likely coming in the door not having heard a lot of truly current music.  Do you find their work is initially more informed by traditional music or by the commercial music they've heard -- hip-hop, pop, etc.?

Eric McIntyre: And, back to the original question... Most students are totally perplexed at the idea of teaching composition at all.  They ask, "Can you really teach it?"  (Most musicians who are not composers ask the same question.)

Thomas: Well, many people say rhythm can't be taught, and as confirmed fan of Jaques-Dalcroze, sometimes there's heavy lifting on those questions.

Eric McIntyre: The vast majority of entering students do not have extensive experience with new art music.  In fact, most do not have experience with what is typically called classical music.  Many have pop music backgrounds, and most have explored the realm of composition by toying with notation programs.  Their music is typically characterized by an endless sea of arpeggiations and repeated gestures. (What I call "drag-drop" composers).  The fascination comes from the fact that you can come up with something that sounds good and do it over and over - and yes, it still sounds good! It just gets boring.

Here's where listening to art music is so important:  Popular music does not have development as a central aesthetic goal, while most western classical music explores development.  Most students will be quite clear about the fact that they don't understand the concept of development.  Can you blame them?  They don't hear developed music in the typical places one hears music - popular radio, television, or film.

Thomas: One of my concerns with – not just our students – but with people generally is the question of having patience to deal with development. Would you like to comment further on that?

Eric McIntyre: As for development:  Here's an issue that really gets me thinking all the time.  I really don't think many people anymore know how to actively listen to music.  I fear that very few really want to understand the language.  This goes for trained musicians as well as untrained audiences. When I teach music history, I am very serious about the description "music history." We should study what the music says, not exclusively the people and times in which it was created.  How do we do this?  By teaching students how to listen to music of different eras.  If someone understands how Haydn developed his ideas, they start to understand the concepts that drive the music, and therefore the meaning of the music. 

So, maybe the answer is to have more courses in music listening.  I ditto this feeling even more for music appreciation course – many of which have become musical story hour and don't really teach anything about music.

Thomas: I want to shift to conducting and programming if we can.  A current trend in a number of major orchestras across the country is to add a variety of features to the concert-going experience.  Some places use massive video screens that show close-ups of various musicians. Some places may experiment with performance time, etc.  What do you think of these trends?

Eric McIntyre: I'm still on the fence.  We would like to believe that the music speaks for itself, and we don't need other stimulation, but this is just not the case.  Keep in mind that the idea of having music presented to a quiet, listening audience in a darkened hall had a rather short life in the grand scheme of things, so the cycle is just proceeding as usual. Nonetheless, I have to be practical, and understand that whatever gets bodies in seats is a means of ensuring the health of my art.  Do extra-musical devices actually help the audience understand the music and not just some outside image?  If so, great, but I fear many do not.

Thomas: So, we've found some paradoxes – the "art music" audience is graying while more students come to learn how to play it.  There are more opportunities for various outlets for new music while some programmers still look at "new" as the 1920s. And we have more music all around us all the time (I don't know how many people I see almost permanently hooked to IPods), but active listening may be declining.  Curious.

Eric McIntyre: Yep, that's a good summary.  I like that.  It's food for thought that may spark any number of new meditations.

Thomas: One thing that I've spoken with other music teachers about is jobs. What do you see as the employment possibilities for young musicians as players and/or composers?

Eric McIntyre: First of all, I do not go around encouraging young musicians to pursue this as a career.  It's not because I don't believe in it, it's more because I think they really need to examine their motivations before completely immersing themselves in such a specific pursuit.  And, if they still want to do it after some doubts, then they have passed the first hurdle.

There are a lot of jobs out there, and I know more employed musicians than unemployed ones.  But, I remember entering the music school at Indiana University and having someone offer a statistic that only 2% of graduates (and this is in the top handful of music schools) will end up doing what they want to do professionally.  Now I don't know about the accuracy of this statement, but it can really make you stop and think.  Now, of the first section I played in at IU, everyone in there went on to play in professional orchestras, but some have played in better groups than others. Some went overseas, some in Mexico, and some here in the U.S.A. And among that section I know at least two of us have gone on to do other things - both in music.  One of my colleagues is now manager of a major U.S.A. symphony orchestra.  And I went into teaching.  So, are we in the 2%?  We are doing what we want to do now.  Even if it wasn't what we wanted to do then.  So, I guess I can sum it up by saying, yes, there is a lot of opportunity in music today, but everyone who wants to play in an orchestra as a student might not end up doing it forever.  Sometimes, and frequently, we end up in other aspects of the business that appeal to us more.

Thomas: If you could have a dream ensemble of musicians available to play for you any piece of music -- yours or any other from any other time and place-- what would you be listening to at that performance?

Eric McIntyre: Dream ensemble and piece.... hmmmmm. . . My desert island compositions are Beethoven's Emperor Concerto [Piano Concerto #5], Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and probably Britten's Peter Grimes, although the third slot rotates somewhat.   

Thomas: Right. You've been enormously gracious with your time. 

Eric McIntyre: Thank you!

Cover Photo - Art Stokes

Nathan Thomas is an actor, director and teacher of theatre

 

©2005 Nathan Thomas
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

october 2005
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