The webpage “Buttstix” is one of the funniest, most brilliant commentaries and candid admissions I have ever come across, and it is worth a close study. The post is a graphic by composer David Rakowski, exorcizing, as it were, the demons that were introduced into his soul while in grad school. Every single one of these hit home with me: They all were intimately familiar. It seemed like revisiting the most unpleasant people from your past life and realizing how happy you were not to have thought of them for so long…. It also amazed me to learn that these “tropes,” or dogmas, were so common and wide-spread that they could be readily codified and recognized by many other composers across the country, and overseas too, as witnessed by the many reactions David’s post has gotten. I was fed these Toxic Cookies at Columbia, but apparently you could have picked up these same tired ideas in any number of other institutions of (soi-disant) higher learning. And the vulgarity of David’s neologism is totally appropriate. It was all SO anal, as in anal-compulsive. Compulsive and compulsory. And frankly, full of shit, not to mince words.
Is this an example of how an idea becomes its opposite over time? Almost all of these “commandments” arose from a Romantic urge to question authority, subvert and go against the grain, and indeed to break rules. But over time they became codified and ossified and became new rules, themselves needing to be broken. But in my time in the Academy there was, let me tell you, no sense whatsoever that these were ever to be questioned, IF, that is, you were intending to be a serious — or “serious” — composer. Truth be told, almost 100% of these Buttstix have a Germanic lineage, highly moralistic and imperative. There is MUCH to be said on that front, and Taruskin has written brilliantly on the subject in his beyond-magisterial opus The Oxford History of Western Music. So for now, before I get too serious myself, let me just say, I occasionally do a little joyful dance of death when I recall the relief I felt when finally I crammed the last of these Zombieideen into their casket and heaved the heavy lug into the sea, as Schumann’s undeceived poet does at the end of Dichterliebe. Now, there was a German Romantic.