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Notes 57.1 (2000) 161-163

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Book Review

The Muse That Sings:
Composers Speak about the Creative Process

Twentieth Century

The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process. By Ann McCutchan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. [xv, 262 p. ISBN 0-19-512707-2. $35.]

In The Muse That Sings, Ann McCutchan has fashioned into monologues the raw material gathered from interviews she conducted from 1995 through 1998 with twenty-five of America's leading younger composers. She devotes a single chapter to each of them, stepping aside to let the voices of these composers speak in a highly personal manner about why and how they do what they do best. The reader ultimately notes how amazingly varied are the choices each composer faces when considering musical style. One general observation is that this group is writing music filled with emotional content and has given up older formulas, such as serialism, that long dominated twentieth-century composition.

There have been several similar surveys of American contemporary music through the interview process, most notably Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras's Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers and Gagne's [End Page 161] Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers, published by Scarecrow Press in 1982 and 1993 respectively. McCutchan's volume, however, is distinctly different from these earlier publications. She wants to discover the why and how behind the creation. Anthony Storr's The Dynamics of Creation (New York: Atheneum, 1972; various reprints) and Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (New York: Free Press, 1993) deal with musical creativity but fail to address the topic "with the clarity and energy that might attract both the music specialist and the general reader. The Muse That Sings is intended to help fill that gap" (p. xiii).

McCutchan's priority was not to provide biographical information, worklists, and lists of recordings. In the present volume, these materials are scant. There is a useful index but no general bibliography. Sadly, credits to the photographers whose photographs head each chapter have been overlooked.

While McCutchan's focus is not on success stories, the composers she has interviewed are indeed in the forefront of American musical life. Only Steve Reich and John Zorn, who appear here, were included as well in the two Gagne volumes. Six of McCutchan's subjects have won the Pulitzer Prize, and two the prestigious Grawemeyer Award. William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Bright Sheng are on the faculty of the University of Michigan. The book's chapters are arranged in chronological order by year of birth, and the late Eric Stokes, born in 1930--he died tragically in a car accident in March 1999--is the subject of chapter 1; he was a mentor to another of McCutchan's subjects, Libby Larsen. Aaron Jay Kernis, born in 1960, is the youngest, and the only one who admits to singing while composing (p. 240).

The act of composing is a difficult, frustrating process; with few exceptions, this is the message from these composers. Although they find the going rough, their greatest satisfaction is in the final product. There is nothing else they prefer doing, and nothing else is like the mystery of the process. But there is no mystery to inspiration. The muse sings for them only by dint of incessant, tedious work, as they remain ever alert to new ideas.

A number of notable, thought-provoking remarks are scattered throughout the text. Because there is simply too much music being written, Dan Welcher feels it imperative for a composer to believe that "Every piece should have a reason" (p. 94). In a related vein, John Corigliano finds that a composer setting out to write a new piece should have "something terribly important to say" (p. 40)--something so important that the music will not be used as background noise, the fate of much music today. John Adams, who has learned to trust his subconscious, criticizes the modernist movement in early-twentieth-century music for adopting a "rationalized method" (p. 68) that completely denied...


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