Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.
Larry Bell’s report from Rome is particularly interesting to me in light of the assertion I have heard several times that all 20th century American composers were either French or German in attitude. The assertion is offensive in almost every way, even though it is intended only as a provocative generalization, but I’m especially struck by the way it marginalizes Italian influence on 20th century music, an influence that has not been given the credit it deserves. There has long been a condescension toward Italian music in academic and avant-garde circles.
One of the richest aspects of American music has been its ability to learn from all cultures. I’m curious to know which influences my forum colleagues and other contributors think are left out of the discussion. What cultures have been marginalized? Which ones are given too much credit?
As I write we are in the last day of the conference on music at the American Academy in Rome. It has been a remarkable collection of scholarly papers, concerts, and informal ancecdotal presentations.
Professor-composer Martin Brody has provided introductions and a paper on the Academy during the 1954, Elliott Carter-Yehudi Wyner year. Judith Tick spoke to the historical context that led to the founding of the music program in 1921 and Carol Oja continued with a discussion of the international networks of composers that were formed during the inter-war years.
Andrea Olmstead covered the Rome prize fellows from 1921-1937. She brought forth the revelation (to many of us) that not only was Roger Sessions's seminal Piano Sonata given its premiere at the Academy, but (and this was the real bombshell) that the premiere of Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (the slow movement of his b-minor string quartet) was given in the same room at the Villa Aurelia where we were sitting!
Librarian of the Academy, Christina Huemer, continued with an exhaustive list of the musical resources of the Academy library, including a new 80-CD set (compiled and reformatted by Academy music liaison, Richard Trythall), which chronicles performances of fellows and residents of the Academy at the Villa Aurelia and the RAI orchestra of Rome from the early 1950's to the mid-1990's.
Marcello Piras outlined the fascinating connections between Italian and American music, especially in their more vernacular forms in the nineteenth century. Italian musicologist, Pierluigi Petrobelli, was, alas unable to join us. Wednesday evening concluded with a short, but intense concert of solo violin music by long-time Academy friends Elliott Carter and Geoffredo Petrassi. The former was represented by "Riconscenza," written as a tribute to Petrassi and the later by "Elogio de l'ombre." Both works were beautifully played by Italian violinist Giorgio Moench, a performer much admired by both composers.
Vivian Perlis unveiled a portion of her mammoth oral history of American music. Residing at the Yale School of Music, this collection of individual interviews will be one of the principal sources for future scholars on American music. Pianist Donald Berman spoke reported on his musical discoveries at the Academy and previewed, along with the superb soprano Susan Naruki, some of the works by Academy fellows to be featured on tonight's final concert.
Yesterday afternoon, a group of current fellows, older fellows, and American expatriates informally discussed the intimate connections between Italian and American composers over the past forty years. Included in this panel were Richard Trythall, Alvin Curran, James Dashow, Larry Bell, Arthur Levering, and current fellows Harold Meltzer, and Steven Burke.
This morning's roundtlable discussion features the Italian composers Mauro Bortolotti, Paolo Coteni, and musicologist Daniela Tortora and this afternoon's roundtalbe will be a free-form exchange with all of the participants. This afternoon Academy president Adele Chatfield-Taylor and director Lester Little unveiled the new Aaron Copland studio. Charles and Jessie Price contributed a new Steinway A piano which was inaguarated with Berio Sequenza and Jelly Roll Morton. The conference ends with a performance of fellow's works tonight at the Villa Aurelia.
posted by Larry Thomas Bell
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
How to get your music performed
I agree that knowing a lot of performers, especially wonderful performers who love your music, are self-starters, and create their own concerts and performance opportunities, helps you have more performances. You meet these performers in music school, at conferences, by attending their concerts, through friends and the performers’ agents, and sometimes accidentally at parties, for example. You reach out to them by sending them scores, CDs, brochures, and CD and concert advertisements. I think the main thing about getting performances is to remain actively hopeful. Be persistent in a good way. Trust that you have written music that some number of performers will want to perform, love, and champion. If you feel that your music is valuable, it is easier to offer your music to performers and conductors.
This advice assumes that you have already gotten the music copied beautifully and that the CDs are reasonably well recorded and clearly marked.
Actually, the quickest way to get your music performed is to either arrange a concert yourself or to collaborate with another composer or group of composers and put on a concert. Hire the players and do the advertising and get the music out there. If you don’t already have a recording of the work, make one at the concert. Then you will have a recording to send out to get further performances. Be a self-starter yourself. You don’t have to wait to see if a mythical string quartet will magically fall in love with your new quartet. You can hire one and then at least you can hear the piece outside of midi. You can make whatever changes seem desirable and you can proceed onward. Bravery is likely to be rewarded.
I am writing from Rome, Italy where my wife, the musicolgist Andrea Olmstead is participating in a conference on Music at The American Academy in Rome, titled "To Meet This Urgent Need," a survey of the music program at the academy since 1921. She will be presenting a paper today concerning the music program from 1921-1937 (fellows Leo Sowerby and Howard Hanson through Roger Sessions and Samuel Barber). Over the course of the next three days conference organizer Martin Brody will speak and chair sessions with other invited musicologists and composers including Judith Tick, Carol Oja, and Vivian Perlis. There will also be concerts in the evening with soprano Susan Naruki and pianist Don Berman. Tonight a special concert of solo violin music is to be performed featuring music by long-time academy friends Elliott Carter and Geoffredo Petrassi. I will be posting again in a few days to follow up on the conference.
posted by Larry Thomas Bell
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
How to get music performed...
Truthfully, I have no good suggestions. I've been composing since the 70's, and until recently had only one performance outside of music school, and that was in 1980 or so. I've placed several scores and MP3s on my personal Web site, but while I see that it gets some visits, it has not resulted in any performances. In other words, placing music on the Web is a good thing in terms of being able to show people your music, but no one is likely to go to your music page and immediately e-mail you asking to perform your works.
What I have heard, and I believe to be true, is to connect regularly with musicians. As with business, it's all a matter of networking. I'd like to think that if you write great, honest music, musicians will want to play it. That's naive and simply not true. Just as one has to market oneself in business, one has to market one's compositions to musicians. I don't think that means making the music "simple" or "easygoing" unless that's really what one wants to compose. Similarly, one shouldn't feel constrained to write for chorus almost exclusively (the equation being one chorus = many more score purchases than three string quartets). However, I did have a teacher who instructed me to do just that. From a business perspective, he was correct. From a creative perspective, however, one shouldn't write just for chorus due to its inherent profitability. Rather, one should write for whatever ensemble he or she wants. You just have to accept the fact that writing a trombone and marimba duet may or may not lead to as many performances as writing for string quartet. Then again, many musicians who play instruments with a sparse repertoire may embrace your music.
While having a Web presence may not guarantee performances, it doesn't hurt either. Having PDFs of one's scores may facilitate access to one's music. Instead of having to copy a series of scores and mail them to Europe, it can be easier on both parties to simply refer a musician to a Web site where your music can be downloaded. The Web can thus facilitate musical networking, and it can do so in a very substantial way.
I know from experience what hasn't worked for me, and what I've heard anecdotally.So in the end, I have no real answers, other than the suggestion that networking with musicians, even via e-mail, can be helpful. Participating in a Listerve actually helped get me in touch with some musicians, which ultimately enabled a recorded performance. The Web is an enabler, but it is not the entire solution.
posted by David Toub
Do composers have an obligation to "explain" their work?
Composers do not have an obligation to an audience to explain their music but they have an opportunity to explain it or to tell a story about their music. People like stories. Anything that helps an audience to enjoy, love, or accept the music is in the composer’s best interest to endeavor to create. Some audiences enjoy a bit of formal/harmonic analysis and some just like to know when and why the piece was composed or how the title relates to the music. Most of the time I do not have the opportunity to speak to the audience except through the program notes. It is a very special opportunity to speak directly to an audience from the stage about the music. Part of what is conveyed is the fact that a composer can be someone other than a dead, male European. And generally, composers no longer look or act like Beethoven. After that shock is received, the composer can begin to speak about the music itself. Some compositions lend themselves to more stories or explication than others. I think it is a very good idea to speak and write about the music when the opportunity presents itself.
posted by Beth Anderson
Monday, January 10, 2005
I think it’s fair to speak of a generational shift: Martin Mailman (b. 1932) and Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) -- see the David Salvage post that started this discussion -- come from a generation that was trained to believe in the concreteness of music. This is a generation, after all, that saw music put in the service of all kinds of atrocities, so it was important to argue for the purity of music as a form of artistic expression. There is a more abstract leaning these days: composers today of all ages are more comfortable with thinking metaphorically, connecting their work to things that are outside of a strict definition of music.
Ironically, even the terms have shifted: music that existed solely on its own terms used to be called abstract, whereas now it is common to think of music-for-music’s-sake as the pinnacle of concreteness -- as opposed to, say, program music, which has an abstract connection to something, extra-musical: a story, a painting, etc.
Jerry asked, “Should a composer talk about the music one writes?” I think there are two camps.
My teacher at North Texas, Martin Mailman (1932-2000), steadfastly refused to comment on his own works. He claimed that if the music didn’t stand on it’s own, no amount of explanation would help. Further, he didn’t like the idea that he should impose an “interpretation” on a listener, and took it as high praise when a listener came to comment, whether “wrong” or “right.” As I recall, he would limit his comments, when pressed, to a few remarks about the reasons he wrote a particular work.
From a performer’s standpoint, this strict line may not serve so well, especially if one is about to introduce a new work that doesn’t have a “hook,” such as melodic beauty, rhythmic drive, or something else to immediately engage a listener. As a co-artistic director of a new music ensemble, I can attest to the fact that a brief introduction can help humanize a piece that might, on the surface, seem at first impenetrable. (Aesthetics are set aside here, as this could be the topic for another article—or a book.)
This begs the question of whether the composer is necessarily the appropriate person to comment. If a composer takes money to speak, then one should feel obligated to speak clearly and well. I’ve been fortunate to hear George Crumb offer some of the most enlightening (and entertaining) comments on his work. The same goes for John Corigliano, an articulate speaker on his own perspective and techniques.
Since I don’t inhabit the rarified realms of a sought-after speaker, and I also prefer that people make their own judgments, I try to split the difference. I usually type up a few brief notes of background on a new piece: goals, influences, maybe a note or two on the sound world--and without getting too technical unless it’s an audience of composers. This is usually helpful for the conductor as well as whoever puts together the programs.
It’s also been interesting to sit on panels with other composers, for example at a performance by the Dale Warland Singers a couple years ago, I was surprised to see that many audience members were actually interested in the creative process. Many attended the panel before the performance, simply to hear what we thought would be a session of interest primarily to composers and musicians.
This demonstrated that listeners are eager to “listen in” on the creative mind at work. A discussion of process can be helpful in understanding what goes into a piece. But I don’t think composers should make value judgments on our own works, pro or con, at least not publicly. We’re too close to the trees to hear the forest, and any such comments that we make come off as imprudent at best, and we might inadvertently criticize a listener for hearing something we didn’t know was there.
Occasionally, a listener will say, “This is what I heard and how I felt about it.” I think the proper response is “Thanks so much for coming and telling me what you think.”
posted by Cary Boyce