Apparently one of Morton Feldman’s favorite assignments for his composition students was “write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” I’ve never quite done this, but I had a similar experience a few years ago when I was teaching a course on postmodernism. I felt obliged to include a short unit on John Zorn, whom I back then despised. I felt that he stood for everything I was against— his juxtapositions were superficial, and that everything he did was superficial whereas the “true artist” unifies things in the deep background in some subtle way, etc.
But I didn’t want to be a drag and a Debbie Downer, so I tried to find positive things to say about John Zorn. And the more I really listened to what he was doing, the more I came to really appreciate what he was doing.
And because of John Zorn, Ken Downey and I composed our first serious piece together as Blind Labyrinth, “Dyschordia.” And it’s been a fruitful partnership that has been going on for about three years now. All because I was willing to teach a composer whom I thought “went against everything I believed.”
Oddly enough, I’m not sure what I would do if I had that assignment today. I think I would write an orchestra piece full of octatonicism and tinkly percussion effects (especially crotales), because I feel like this particular kind of piece is so overdone by everybody, and for very crass reasons (partly to be “just accessible enough” for the lay audience and “just smart enough” to impress the academic colleagues). I don’t know if Feldman’s gambit would pay off in my case if I wrote this piece (the article says that invariably Feldman’s student would write his or her very best piece as a result of the assignment). I think it might certainly result in my most *marketable* piece, but best? I’m not so sure.