Sunday, September 25, 2016
Last updated: 1 year ago

Letters: On fluffy romanticism

This is a response to Jonny Wakefield’s recent profile of UBC composer Matthew Emery in your newspaper.

The particular passage to which I am responding is as follows:

“The life of a composer is an ascetic one… Music is admittedly all he [Matthew] does. He runs in the same circles as other music students, who not surprisingly talk a lot of music. It’s an opinionated bunch. There are disagreements over everything, between self-described purists like Emery and more experimental composers who try to break the form. And most of them don’t really know much about popular music (the only modern artist Emery could name was Adele).”

I am another student in the composition program here at UBC. However, regardless of my personal style of composition, I am a firm cynic of the fluffy romanticism that surrounds the idea of what it means to be an artist. The way that the artist is portrayed in this article is someone who locks himself away and completely devotes himself entirely to the art, which is something that I think is not uncommon because for whatever reason culture loves to find ways to hold high the true artist on a romantic pedestal. This mode of exclusivity is seen as a sign of pure devotion, love, dedication, and so on, and we love to see the resultant art as some sort of transcendental manifestation that expresses the personality and being of the artist.

The way that you portray musicians here is not something I find offensive (in fact, it was quite unsurprising) but is something I encourage people to think critically about. To say that music is all he does, regardless of whether he said so himself or not, is actually a very tall order and is a profile to which I absolutely refuse to conform.

I am a practicing Roman Catholic and regularly attend bible studies. I love food; I will eat almost anything and everything in sight. I live in St. John’s College, an internationally-based graduate/post-doc residence, and truly enjoy it because I regularly have discussions not only about music but other fields of study (I actually had a really engaging conversation the other night about linguistics) as well as about other cultures (last month I got to, for the first time, participate in Chinese New Year festivities. It was a great learning experience!). Every weekend I try to put aside some time to see something that I haven’t seen before in Vancouver. I watch Doctor Who a little too often. I’m also a musician and I listen to not only classical music but also artists like Coldplay, Radiohead, Queen, Supertramp, David Bowie, Awolnation, The Killers, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Mumford & Sons, Gorillaz and Shinedown.

Does this mean that I am any less devoted to my art? I hardly think so; if anything, in my experience extra-musical influences are very enriching to music. My Master’s thesis, still in progress, is a collection of pieces based on works by Salvador Dali. My Catholic background gives a lot of personal meaning to the oldest written music which was used in Catholic masses. In fact, one of the (in my humble opinion) greatest movements in Canadian classical music originated here in Vancouver and was inspired by the environment.

Yes, musicians are musicians, but musicians are first and foremost human beings. I realize that this is pointing out the obvious, but music cannot literally be all that Matthew Emery does. If composing is what takes up the vast majority of his time (which I assume is meant by that statement) then that is absolutely fine, but I do not agree with the implicative generalization that all musicians do one single thing day and night. Some composers see composition as the core of their being, some (like myself) see it as the thing around which our otherwise diverse life revolves, and I’m sure others see it in some different fashion. None of these paths is good or bad; there is simply one that best suits the personality of the individual artist.

The path described in the article suits Matthew clearly quite well, as it leads him to write beautiful music, but it would not have the same effect for every composer. We are not all the same, our art is not all the same (if it were, think of how dull music would be!), but society likes to make generalizations about the ideals of classical music. It is this that I encourage people to think critically about.

—Daniel Marshall