On becoming a composer…

During the fall of 2020, while in the midst of listening to hundreds of albums that had been submitted for consideration for a Grammy award, I had the great pleasure of discovering the music of composer Kenneth Fuchs. That led, at some point, to our having a Zoom conversation, and to our staying in touch via social media and an occasional email – and also, to my listening to his other albums. I took an instant liking to his work – passionate, filled with beauty, and laid out with that beautiful logic of ideas that, when I hear it, I love so much about music.

In a reply to a recent Facebook post of mine in which I revealed my distaste for most, if not all, of the music that came out of the “experimental music” scene of the 1960s, Kenneth sent me a link to the liner notes to his most recent album, Point of Tranquility. In it, he described his path to becoming a composer – one very, very different from mine. This was a story of a young man who knew what he wanted from an early age, beginning with his high school music teacher, who laid the groundwork for him as a composer. Step by step, through college and beyond, he seems to have consciously taken steps to learn his craft and to connect with those who could help him achieve his goal.

I, on the other hand, have always acknowledged to myself that I was a “late bloomer.” I never did figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, instead, falling into an entirely accidental career. While always loving music, it wasn’t until my high school years that, under the tutelage of an inspiring piano teacher, I first became obsessed with playing piano and started practicing from four to ten hours a day – and cutting many a high school class in order to do just that in the practice room at my high school. Even my choice of high school indicates my cluelessness at the time. I loved music, but passed on attending Music and Art, and chose the Bronx High School of Science instead, thinking maybe I’d go into the sciences – only to later wind up playing piano all of the time. When it came time to select a college, I only applied to one – the Manhattan School of Music – much to the distress of my mother. I had no aspiration to actually become a professional musician and no clue how to go about doing that even if I wanted to, but just knew that I had no desire to study anything else other than music, and didn’t want to look at other colleges.

Starting at Manhattan in 1970, I really was clueless. I had no idea how limited my knowledge of music was, or what it took to become a musician. I just went to classes, soaked up everything that was being taught – but my piano lessons suffered right from the start as a result of an intense case of tendonitis from bad practicing habits. While I made progress, at some point the light dawned on me that the depth of understanding of music that I witnessed in the MSM faculty was not something I was going to achieve just from practicing the piano – and made the decision to switch from a piano to a music theory major.

That turned out to be a great decision for me. I loved studying theory – and spent the next years at MSM endlessly studying scores, analyzing music, and working my way through all of the albums in MSM’s vast music library. But, the end goal of all of that – I didn’t even give it a thought. I just enjoyed it immensely and worked hard at it, but without ever considering how I might actually earn a living at the end of it all. To earn money, I started giving private piano and theory lessons, worked for a number of years teaching theory at a local music school in the Bronx and also in MSM’s Preparatory Division – but all the while, knowing that I had no desire to continue doing that for the rest of my life. I have one distinct memory from that time, sitting in the cafeteria with other theory teachers at MSM during lunchtime, and thinking to myself, if I have to spend a lifetime doing this, I’ll shoot myself. A life spent discussing music as if it was the only thing in life that mattered, seemed utterly boring to me. I was looking for more.

Yet, after taking a few years break, during which I married and had a child, I went back to MSM for a Masters degree, again in music theory. That period of my life was a fog of craziness, as I juggled teaching, a new family, other part time jobs to make ends meet, and my studies – and somehow squeezing in writing a thesis on the songs of Charles Ives.

And, in and around all of that, I started to write music. Just a few small things here and there to start, but I had ideas in plenty – and my music theory studies provided the grounding knowledge I needed to proceed. I took private composition lessons with two teachers, Joseph Prostakoff and Ursula Mamlok, both of whom couldn’t care less about what music appealed to me, but were focused (fortunately for me) on simply teaching me a set of skills. With Joseph, I started at the beginning, writing simple modal melodies and simple counterpoint, and then gradually working my through music history, writing music in various styles. And despite it having no appeal for me whatsoever, somewhere along the way, I actually wrote 12-tone music, scores long since dispatched to the circular file.

Once my son was old enough to go off to school and during evenings was somewhat independent and could work on his homework and entertain himself, I started to write more. So, the real beginning of me writing regularly didn’t begin until the mid-1980s, by which time I already had a job outside of music that was very demanding of my time. That decision was made shortly after my son was born, recognizing that I couldn’t earn a satisfactory living as a music teacher (nor did I want to do that full-time), and needed to find something else to do with my life. That led to a quite accidental career, twenty-five years of which were spent at the NYC Transit Authority in various management positions, culminating in my becoming their VP for Contracts, a subject about which I had little knowledge prior to my starting in the job (someone thought I’d be good at it). In the years since, I often worked 12 or more hours every day, and then wrote music in whatever spare time was left, managing to write three or four pieces a year, during most years. My love for and interest in early music shaped much of what I was writing, applying compositional techniques that I gleaned from scores of the great composers of late medieval and Renaissance music – and gradually, I found my way to my own musical voice.

All these years of writing, I listened, of course, to new music – but often felt like I’d been born in the wrong time. During the ’80s and ’90s, I would become involved with various groups of composers, most of whom were writing 12-tone compositions, which were still the rage in colleges, and felt like a lost soul in their midst. Then, as new trends began, the most popular of which turned out to be minimalism, once again, I knew my music was an outlier. Minimalism was, plain and simply, deadly dull – a progression of repeating simple ideas waiting for something to happen, with no coherent structure or logic.

The one idea that I hung onto throughout, was that ALL of the elements of music (melody, counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, timbre, tonal relationships, structure) are necessary for music to impart a story – and have lasting emotional impact. My favorite works of music are like good, life-long friends. They are unique, they have their own personality, and they are complex and interesting creatures. Leave out any of the basic elements of music, and something is lost. And the greatest musical sin, in my view, is writing music that is emotionally detached. Interesting rhythms or timbres, perhaps, but if the composer seems to be hiding from their emotions, I lose all interest.

Back to where this started, I find all of these elements in Kenneth’s music – despite the very different way we got here or the different ways in which we approach writing music. Thankfully, there seem to be many more composers nowadays who think similarly, although I still find myself clicking off the music on many contemporary music radio channels, wondering to myself, what the heck, how did that make its way onto the radio?

And, yes, I am a late (very late) bloomer. It is only now, that I have stopped working full-time after a nearly 40 year career outside of music, that I have the luxury of time to write the major works that, over the years, I often dreamed about writing, but lacked the time. I only hope that the late start doesn’t banish my music to some composer purgatory, and that opportunities will arise for it all to be heard.