Kevin Puts is a contemporary composer who possesses musical aesthetics and values which exist firmly within the Western classical tradition dating back centuries. His main aim in composition is to tell a story to the audience. His music has programmatic significance and uses the musical language of narrative to, in the composer’s own words, “hold the audience in [his] grip.” However, we live in a time when such composers like Puts, who sit at a piano and write music on paper (or a laptop, all the same) in traditional staff notation are hardly representative of the only type of musicians who write music today. No longer is the stereotypical romantic notion of a composer who scribbles their musical inspiration on a splotchy paper manuscript in the middle of the night the only example of an effective compositional method. With the advent of computer programs known as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) — such as Apple’s Logic or Avid’s Pro Tools — and the proliferation of affordable consumer recording equipment, a new compositional method has emerged, one that completely bypasses the need for staff notation and has redefined what it means to translate one’s musical ideas into a form that can be received by others.
The most significant difference between the use of DAWs and the traditional Western classical compositional method of choice for Kevin Puts is how the music is eventually presented to the world. In one case, the composer has complete control of the eventual result of their musical work; with these programs, any combination and manipulation of sound you can imagine can be achieved with computer precision and recreated exactly every time you play the same audio file. They are intended to be handed to performers before they can be heard to the public; they are immediately available for the world to hear time and time again with the same results. On the other hand, with traditional Western classical composition, the notes you write down are specifically destined to be given to another musician, interpreted, performed, and, in Puts’ own words, “have something brought to them that you couldn’t have even imagined when you wrote it”. Also importantly, due to the live aspect of these performances, the result of the musical work will be slightly (if not drastically) different with each reading.
If composers do not pass on the responsibility for the outcome of their music to the interpretation of other musicians, they have more authority over the result of their music, down to the finest detail and nuance. Eric Drott’s article “Fraudulence and the Gift Economy of Music” and Joshua Fineberg’s article “Understanding Music” both discuss the importance, or lack of importance, of a composer’s musical intent when listening to a musical composition, but it is possible, in my view, that a heightened sense of authority over the direct outcome of your musical composition places a greater importance on the composers original musical, emotional, and communicative intentions.
In an age when many compositional methods are available to composers, Kevin Puts’ personal compositional method could be viewed as a conscious choice. He is not alone. Many composers exist today who continue to benefit from the use of traditional techniques of music making. The question then arises: what value does traditional composition hold that has caused it to remain relevant in the modern day. For Puts, this answer may lie in the human aspect he sees in the way that his music is interpreted by other musicians. Puts stated in an interview on his wind band piece “Charm” that he is “much more interested in composing for instruments that he can’t play himself.” While his music has been recorded by some of the greatest performers alive, for him, the moment when the music truly comes to life is during this “handing off” process, which we could assume he doesn’t believe this can happen when you are simply playing your own compositions. On the other hand, on album like In My Room by Jacob Collier, every musical sound was performed by one musician, Collier himself, and mixed to alarming precision with absolute control over the eventual outcome. At the end of the day, both compositional methods share the same musical value of communication. For Puts, the most important thing to remember is that “your music really has to communicate.” Similarly, Collier wants to communicate with his listeners by leaving things in his music for people to find within their own personal emotional framework. He explains: “I can only make music for myself” and it is important for him to aim for “people to then come to my music and find their own stories to tell.”
Meanwhile, we can also observe an important contrast between the two equally relevant composers. Puts, a composer who relinquishes some of the control over his music to the performers who interpret it, is very strict about the indented programmatic purpose of his music, including the images he wishes to portray to his audience. For example, in his operas, he deliberately attempts to paint the story with certain harmonies in order to make the audience feel a certain way about the characters. On the other hand, Collier, a composer with absolute control over his musical product with the help of Logic, the DAW he prefers to use, invites his listeners to find whatever they would like to find in his music.
Fineberg, Joshua. “Understanding Music” In Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture through a Composer’s Ears. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Drott, Eric. “Fraudulence and the Gift Economy of Music” in Journal of Music Theory, 54:1. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2010.
American Composers Forum, “Composer Kevin Puts talks about what he finds fun in composing,” September 11th, 2012, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5DeiD93RR0
FaceCulture, “Jacob Collier Interview”, YouTube, August 29th, 2017, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MCx_yBOxtc&t=158s
Unison Media, “Kevin Puts on Silent Night”, October 8th, 2019, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHs7EfchO_4