Composer Blogs@Sequenza21.com

Arnold Rosner (b. 1945) is a prolific American composer whose music has been performed in the United States and Israel. His works exceed 100 in number and steer clear, generally, of both the post-serial avant-garde movement of the 1960’s and the minimalist movement which followed it. His treatment of harmony and counterpoint, along with the occasional recourse to an ethnic, Middle Eastern flavor, places his music in the esthetic milieu of Paul Hindemith, Ernest Bloch, and Alan Hovhaness.

Rosner is currently on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, where he teaches both standard and ethnic music. Having composed since the age of nine, he received advanced degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo while studying with Leo Smit, Allen Sapp, Henri Pousseur and Lejaren Hiller, from all of whom, in his own words, “I learned practically nothing.”

Sunday, September 25, 2005
The Observable Universe

Well, it's mid-September, and the concert season has begun, as has the academic year and--in certain religions--its New Year's time. Sorry to start the year with another dark and gloomy blog, and anticipating any number of different points of view in the "blogules" as I call them, but I have a concept to share with all of you. In a few weeks I will, in some greater mood of good cheer, extend an invitation to my 60th birthday concert here in New York, but that can wait for the moment.

There is a concept in astronomy referring to the Observable or Expanding Universe. My limited understanding of it suggests that ever since the "big bang," all the matter in the universe has been speedily moving out from the center where the "bang" occurred way back when, hurtling farther and farther afield, so that the fringes of the universe are being pushed back by great distances. And, as I understand it, the further out matter gets, the faster it continues moving. Now, nothing can move faster than the speed of light, so if matter is moving east at 90% of the speed, while other matter similarly moves west, normal arithmetic breaks down, and the total relative speed of the easterly and westerly stuff never exceeds 100% of the light speed. However, since we observe something by seeing its emanated light,- or electrical send-offs, there are things in the universe so far away, and moving even farther so fast that we will NEVER observe them,- and thus the component of the universe that we can observe is just that - only a component.

What does this possibly matter to those of us writing music these days and trying to get it on the map? We know that the percentage of the population interested in composed modern classical music is consistently decreasing - yet we also know that with the computer and the compact disc, dissemination and audition of the music we write becomes easier and easier. And with the computer and synthesizer, letís face it - there are those whose technical skills might have been inadequate for composition generations ago, but who can easily participate now. (They are, of course, not Sequenza readers and members.) In Jerry Sternerís wonderful play Other Peopleís Money, "Louis the Liquidator" says that the surest way to bankruptcy is to gain an ever-increasing fraction, of an ever-decreasing market, and somehow this proliferation of composed music feels very much like that.

Anyway, as for my analogy to astronomy, the point is this: Just how much music is being written these days? The number of composers out there is utterly staggering. Those in university music departments in North America go into the thousands, based on my last look at the College Music Societyís faculty directory. If we have 6 billion people in the world altogether and only one in a million writes music, the number of composers is roughly 6,000. OK, how much music does each one write per year? Letís figure an average output of 10 minutes of music - thus some 60,000 minutes of music being churned out annually. So, now that synthesized mock-ups work and CDs are cheap - and computers attach and download everything except bagels - letís say we try to listen to all of it. Yes, all of it. Do the math; divide 60,000 by 365. Does it come out to roughly 3 hours of listening per day, if you wanted to keep up with it? And this is assuming only one composer per million people, and production of only 10 minutes each of finished music. Six of eight hours might be closer. Who among your friends and colleagues has that much listening time on a daily basis?

So, we are writing it so fast and in such volume that there is simply more than anybody can keep up with. Thus we have a total universe and a rather smaller observable universe of music, newly produced year-to-year. (Good luck catching up with the music of the last five or ten years.) I claim this was not the case in more traditional periods. Yes, for every Brahms and Wagner there are some utterly forgotten composers of fairly good music, but I doubt that their actual numbers barely approached the composing population now. And in those days of no recording, no radio, no computer,it was a rare treat to go to an opera or orchestral concert, and one heard the chamber music by gathering the aunts, uncles and cousins together and actually playing it. And that made THEIR universe, indeed, quite observable. Smaller, less varied, but observable.

But back to our universe, if we canít listen to all of it, how do we make choices with our listening time? Pay attention to critics? Check the 30- or 60-second sound bytes on one website or another? Throw darts at the wall? And what about listening to a piece not once but the several times any work of merit presumably would deserve?

And as composers, what do I think we should do? Give up composition? Do a "Brahms" (or an Alan Hovhaness) and burn three-quarters of our existing work, and then go on? Turn down paying commissions because the world is glutted with music? I donít know. I guess I would say two things: 1. Do not encourage students to be composers unless they really have a fire in the belly - and both the technique AND some individual sound to go with it. 2. Write every piece - indeed every note, with the greatest care. There is no glut, at least not yet, of real gold.