Dayton Hare: Who gets to be a composer?
At times I could feel my bones reverberate with the sound of the music last Sunday at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Sitting there, surrounded by thousands of other people who were all experiencing the same thing as me, unable to hear anything but the baritone strains of Matt Berninger’s voice, the pounding of the drums and the strumming of guitars, I took in an event unlike any other I have experienced. Certainly it was louder than most anything else I’ve come across, but not in a bad way. When I left the concert I was feeling too much of a rush to think of much of anything, but after letting it settle for a few days, I have a few things to say.
The National is an indie rock band (whatever exactly that means) which was founded some 18 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. Made up of vocalist Matt Berninger and two sets of brothers, Bryce and Aaron Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf, the band is a staple of what could perhaps be best described as Very Sad Rock™. Over the course of their seven studio albums and years of concertizing, the band has established a large and committed fan base. They have performed at political events for President Barack Obama, appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and been featured on such hit TV shows as “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Their latest album, Sleep Well Beast — the promotion of which was the raison d’être of the concert I attended — features a single which currently tops the U.S. Adult Alternative Songs chart, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.”
Yes, this is the classical music column. Be patient.
I first learned of The National because I heard a piece of classical chamber music. Specifically, a piece called “Murder Ballades,” which was featured on the 2015 album Filament by eighth blackbird, one of the most talented and interesting new music chamber ensembles active today. At the time, I was listening rather exclusively to classical music (a mistake), and had no idea who the composer of “Murder Ballades” was, a man named Bryce Dessner. A quick bit of Googling established his identity as a guitarist “best known as a member of the Grammy Award-nominated band The National.” I really hadn’t expected that.
That was perhaps the start of my unlearning of several misconceptions I held about the nature and identity of the people we call composers. Often times, there is something about the word that we tend to sanctify. There’s some part of the label that has to be preserved, a latent, exclusionary aspect that says that a composer can be this but not that. A composer can be a violinist but not a rock star. A composer’s music can be played in an opera house but not in a stadium. And because of the way that the term is viewed, many people who ought to be thought of as composers are left out.
This isn’t necessarily the case with Bryce Dessner. While his fame certainly is due to his role in The National, he also fulfils the traditional definition of composer in his other work. First off, he has the pedigree for it, having earned a master's from Yale School of Music, one of the most prestigious graduate programs in the country. Beyond that, he has plenty of music composed in what would be termed the classical tradition — that is, notated on paper and given to performers for interpretation. His compositions generally sound vaguely post-minimalist, if you wanted to know (and can bear to hear music pigeonholed like that). In addition to eighth blackbird, he has written for some of the most prestigious classical ensembles in the country, including The Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So most anyone would agree that he’s a composer.
The same can largely be said of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who wrote the marvelous score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film “There Will Be Blood.” But there are others whose activities aren’t so straight-forward. Some are electronic musicians, artists who compose and relay music on their own and with their own tools. In her marvelous podcast “Meet the Composer,” violist Nadia Sirota discussed this particular subset in depth: “We’re as apt to call a composer who works with technology, who composes without pen and paper, inside the box of a computer, a producer,” she said. “A producer. Is that fair? Is that apt?”
One example of this group of composers, and one which Sirota talks about extensively, is Matmos, an electronic duo from Baltimore who record and manipulate their own samples to create music that is unusual, complex and compelling. Their latest album in particular is a brilliant contribution, a work called Ultimate Care II, named after the washing machine which resides in their basement. For this composition, the pair recorded sounds entirely from this washing machine, and through their artistic choices and electronic manipulation, they created something wonderful and without compare.
But are they composers? I struggle to find a reason why not. After all, if a composer is simply one who writes music (and what else could it be?), then this certainly qualifies. They and countless others write music that never sees the inside of a concert hall, never finds itself in the hands of an orchestra, but is nevertheless a composition.
So what is it that makes Mitski or Sufjan a singer-songwriter and Kendrick a rapper, while Augusta Read Thomas gets to be a composer? Is it the fact that the music has words? Composers write songs, too. Is it that they wrote the words themselves? Didn’t Wagner also? Is it the fact that it’s rap? Is rap not music? At its heart, perhaps what it’s all about is simple clarity, an effort to differentiate between genres: Part of it doubtless stems from the inescapable human compulsion to arrange things in little boxes and shut the lids, the drive to compartmentalize and classify and draw the boundaries just so. But innocent as this may seem, the way in which we use language goes a long way into changing how we think about the world. Maybe Kendrick is a rapper. But he can be a composer too. And when we forget that is when we close ourselves off to the possible.