5 Questions to Martin Boykan

As a composer, scholar, and teacher, Martin Boykan’s influence pervades the spectrum of recent compositional styles including those of Steve Mackey, Yu-Hui Chang, Ross Bauer and the late Peter Lieberson. Recently retired from his over-fifty year career as a professor at Brandeis University, he continues to be an influential presence throughout the Boston area with recent premieres by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a new CD Second Chances, and his recent book The Power of the Moment: Essays on the Western Musical Canon.

How has your writing about music informed your composing and vice versa?

The writing really came out of the teaching; having to analyze pieces. I’m not going to do any more books. The last essay in the second book (The Power of the Moment) is about Bach. That I wrote only because I thought if you are going to write about music, you cannot not write about Bach. Though I didn’t want to because I hate Bach; he gives me a major migraine every time I look at one of his pieces.  Because if he is a human being then I’m a cockroach. It was one of the Bach solo suites we were analyzing. I looked for something short and I found a piece that was 21 measures long. And I played it through and I went to bed with a migraine. And then the next week the class asked me “what do you want to look for?” and I said “I don’t know.” The thing struck me like lightning, which is why I don’t look at Bach much. Eventually I looked and I found a few things to talk about.

Music is not like a jigsaw puzzle where you put the pieces [together] and at the end you see the whole structure, because the past disappears. Also, you are listening intensely to the present and time slows down, very much so that you can have a lot going on. And the present reinterprets and does all kinds of things to the past. So much of the theory, including Schenker, is all about some finished structure. This is not how we experience the piece; neither writing it nor listening to it. So I hoped that I could maybe do some good in that sense.

Martin Boykan Photo by BMOP Website

Martin Boykan

How would you describe your process of writing music?

Well, some of the time you’re told what to write. Unlike the other arts, we have no freedom at all. Commissions very frequently give you a timeline for the piece and the instruments. I’m writing a piece for guitar, about which I know nothing. I had to go to guitarists and say “I need a couple of lessons.”

Anyway, I write slowly and the only thing I can really say is I write out of stupidity, out of ignorance. I mean that, I’m not being silly. Because it’s endless revision and each time, if I’m doing it right, what the piece wants to do (which I never know, I’m too stupid) I always do wrong. This piece for guitar, I’m furious with it because I thought I was going to write a one movement piece. I finished the movement and the piece told me I had to write a second movement. I wanted to be done with it. This was not planned. And it grows by itself.

How has teaching composition helped your craft?

I think it has in two ways. Looking at student pieces, I make sure I know what they want and see how if it’s not working for me what interferes, because on principle whatever the student wants is what should happen. That’s what it’s about, not anything that you’re teaching. By which I mean with obvious things: do you want a phrase to end here? Do you want a cadence? Do you want it not to end? All those things; what’s interfering, why I am not hearing it when I should be hearing it. It sharpens your ear.

The other thing is when teaching analysis, particularly towards the end when I let everybody else choose the pieces, I got to know some very good pieces. There were some terrible pieces that I was obliged to teach, but a couple good pieces. I have to say, except for teaching, I never ever study a piece with words. I spent my life being interested in other music and I listened very closely. I play it in my mind over and over again. I don’t turn it into words. I just listen and experience everything without knowing what I’m experiencing. But then, having to say it––I think it was probably useful.

What have you seen change the most in American classical music?

If there’s one thing I hate, it is the belief that music should be written this way, that way, or the other way. It has to be tonal, it must not be tonal, it has to be twelve-tone, it must not be twelve-tone, it has to reach out to the audience, etc. This is only done by people who are not writing music and if they are writing ideas about music, then put it in words. Don’t make me listen to it in a piece because I don’t want to hear it. In other words I am equally happy teaching, listening to, and playing for myself a piece that is totally tonal, that is not at all tonal, or that’s in the middle.

What is the most valuable advice you would share with young composers?

Don’t continue on this career unless there is absolutely nothing else you can do, or want to do–unless you absolutely have to–because it’s very consuming. And if it isn’t consuming, it’s not going to be any good. There are no recorded examples of part time composers. And if you really have to do it and want to do it, don’t care what people tell you and don’t care about rejection and go ahead and do it. That’s my only advice. Then, you just do it. It’s a life well spent.