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.
Alex Ross quotes Andrey Tarkovsky's "Diaries" (1979): "I have four razors and a dictaphone."
I've never heard of Tarkovsky, but I was immediately reminded of Beck's song "Where It's At," which prominently features the line "I got two turntables and a microphone."
Coincidence? Fabulously obscure reference?
posted by Galen H. Brown
I read things like Peter Maxwell Davies' program notes for his Naxos Quartet No. 3 and I can't help wondering if they are intended to be useful to the listener or simply a bit of intellectual showing off. Obviously, composers (and other artists) have no control over how their work is perceived once it is presented in public. It really doesn't matter much what Max or any other composer thought he put into the piece or what he or she was thinking at the time; listeners will find (or not) their own points of reference. I don't remember ever going to a Bergman film and being handed a piece of paper that explained what I was about to see. Are program notes really useful? Why do you write them?
posted by Jerry Bowles
Thursday, May 05, 2005
I'm looking at the back cover of a new Naxos recording of George Whitefield Chadwick's Symphony No. 2 and his Symphonic Sketches and I am informed that these long-missing-from-the-catalog works were recorded at the Grand Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine in Kiev, December 17-21, December 2003. In fact, many of the CDs in the Naxos "American Classics" series were recorded in Eastern Europe where non-union musicians and inexpensive recording facilities make it possible to record obscure works and still, through clever marketing of the kind Naxos has in spades, turn a small profit. Added to other small profits, that produces the world's most successful label. I suspect, although I don't know for certain, that many of these recordings also benefit from modest subsidies from foundations or, perhaps, composers or their families themselves.
I sometimes get review CDs in a series called "Music from Six Continents" which is produced by a company called Vienna Modern Masters. On its web site, there is the following note: "For the present, for recordings VMM itself supervises, the company prefers to record in Eastern Europe, where superb orchestras and soloists are particularly accustomed to recording new music at moderate cost."
What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is outsourcing. American jobs being lost to cheap overseas labor. And, you know what? Gazing down from the "cheap" seats on the complacent, well-fed faces of the chronically underachieving New York Philharmonic and a maestro so overpaid he can spend $780,000 of his own money to rent an opera house and company in London, I find it hard to muster much sympathy.
posted by Jerry Bowles
reviewing the new Box
NewMusicBox has a new look. Itís fantastic to see such an influential instution that is lean and mean enough to redirect its path in midseason, so I have nothing but praise for the folks at NMB. I canít imagine how much work must have gone into such a mammoth revision, and they havenít missed a beat. If only some of our more prominent music establishments had half that ability to reassess and readjust.
With any overhaul, one expects improvements and compromises, as well as unexpected payoffs and flaws. Hereís a quick, very subjective response to what Iíve found attractive and disappointing on the site so far:
What I like about the new look:
speed - The old Box was very slow to open, the new one spills its contents very quickly.
what weíre listening to - Daily sound samples of new music. It's fun, it's easy, it's provocative.
no more anonymous comments - The spleen vents have been sewn up.
response time - So far, it seems like the new Box will be updated regularly and frequently, although it's too soon to say how well that will work.
What I liked about the old Box:
focus - it was nice to have a month to explore and reflect on a single subject. Now the Box seems to be all over the place all at once, which is great, but I do miss the thematic approach (maybe itís still there and I just donít recognize it anymore).
anonymous comments - sure, 90% of them were obnoxious, but there was also a feeling that people could say what they were really thinking without fear of committing professional suicide. And occasionally you came across a truly unexpected insight. Now (so far) the comments are benign to a fault. But that could change tomorrow, I suppose.
birthdays - One of the trivial pleasures of visiting the old Box was scanning through the list of birthdays on the sidebar to spot friends and acquaintances. I never visited the site for that reason, but it was always pleasant for a quick glance. Now there is a link to click - and I probably wonít ever bother to click it.
Hymn and Fuguing - One of my favorite parts of the old Box was sampling many different perspectives on the same topic. The current version seems to keep the variety of perspectives, but not the consistency of topic.
Again, the overhaul is an amazing accomplishment, and the commitment to keeping the site more fluid will certainly be taxing for the editorial staff, so Iím very impressed with the results and the potential. In general, there seems to be more editorial control, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies. I guess I feel like the old Box was like Socialism or Democracy -- a fantastic idea, if only it hadnít been abused for personal gains or agendas. Now we have something closer to a benevolent dictatorship, which may be the best we can hope for in the long run.
What have you found in the new Box?
posted by Lawrence Dillon
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
classical music and extinction
Max Davies's recent lecture for the Royal Philharmonic Society deals with several aspects of the problems facing classical music and is worth a read. It takes a little trouble to get hold, but it can be got from the RPS website www.royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk. He talks about a number of issues we've been skirting on. Some of what he says is UK-specific(I don't think people so much argue here that classical music is elitist as they just consider it irrelevant) and not completely applicable to the US and some is idiosyncratic to Max, but it's still interesting. I think what Max managed to do at the Cirencester Grammar School in the 60's is still relevant to the matter.
posted by Rodney Lister
The Non-Death of the Orchestra and Why Programming More New Music Will Do More Harm Than Good
1. I find myself unconvinced by the arguments that the Orchestra is dead or dying -- or, as David puts it, CTD. I expect that there is and will remain a contingent of devoted classical music fans who will want orchestras around and who will continue to buy tickets and give generously. The Orchestra, like much of the rest of classical music, is undergoing a shift in prominence, which superficially looks like death. When costs exceed revenues, something has to change, and while I would be glad to hear otherwise, I doubt that revenues can be increased by enough to solve the imbalance. Most likely, orchestra after orchestra will go so deep into the red that they will have to close up shop, and eventually we will be left with an economically sustainable population size which will remain constant for as long as the economic situation remains constant. And given that I expect classical music to move firmly and permanently into the constellation of subcultures I suspect once orchestras reach the new plateau they will remain there. I don't see the overall shape of the trajectory as changeable, but in the short term the impact can be softened and in the long term the end-state might be alterable. Every day we spend defending the unsustainable status quo is a day lost in planning and preparing for the most desireable possible end-state. I think that is where we need to focus our efforts. Some preliminary suggestions: divert money from failing orchestras into more robust arts education programs; put as much money as possible directly into the endowments of the orchestras we expect to be able to save so that additional decreases in other sources of revenue will be less painful; convert some orchestras into part-time gigs; establish bigger touring schedules so that towns that lose their orchestras get visited by the survivors; take advantage of the burgeoning variety of the cable television market to establish a Classical Music Television station; and, finally, composers might want to consider taking advantage of the excellent orchestra sample libraries out there to make MIDI recordings rather than hoping to be squeezed into the program of an orchestra that focuses on old music.
2. A number of people in this forum and elsewhere have suggested that programming more new music would be good for the survival of orchestras. I dissagree, and here is why:
Orchestras derive their funding from three sources: ticket sales, annual philanthropy, and income from the endowment. According to the New York Philharmonic's website "although concerts are often sold out, they only cover half of the Philharmonic's operating budget." Endowment income fluctuates with the economy, and increases in the size of the endowment are a piece of philanthropic support, so how does programming new music help increase revenues from ticket sales and philanthropy?
Would New Music draw a larger audience? Even if there are a substantial number of tickets left unsold, concerts of all new music are pretty poorly attended as is, and additional new music would drive away some of the more conservative regulars. Given that decreases in turnout can be at least partly attributed to a general decrease of Americans' free time and the increasing number of activities competing for that free time, I suspect that the attrition rate would be substantially larger than the influx of new-music fans -- regular folks would be leaving and the hard-core would be arriving.
As for philanthropy, there's so little money available for new music now that most composers can't expect anything other than token amounts for commissioning fees. Any new-music philanthropy added to orchestra revenues would come out of the already-too-small pool of money for commissions and the support of groups dedicated specifically to new music. At the same time, much of the pro-old-music money currently funding orchestras would be diverted to other causes (donors today are notoriously fickle), and again I suspect that the pro-old-music attrition would outweigh the pro-new-music influx. Furthermore, while I don't have numbers to back this claim up, I expect that analysis would reveal a strong correlation between wealth and conservative musical taste. Remember that most of the money raised by any development office comes from a small number of very large gifts, so the loss of even one major musically conservative donor is not balanced out by dozens or hundreds of people who can't make major gifts.
Two final over-arching points about programming new music. First, most people don't start attending orchestra concerts until well after their musical taste has ossified. Training a new generation of listeners to appreciate contemporary music would be great -- I'm all for increased arts education funding -- but in the modern world by the time any given generation reaches the orchestra concert hall it's too late for conversion. Second, orchestras dedicated exclusively to the performance of new music are exempt from many of my above observations -- the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, for instance, is reputed to be financially pretty healthy -- but I suspect that most of those groups also have substantially lower operating budgets than the major orchestras and that the reduced budgets come largely from not maintaing full-time rosters and not paying seven figures for superstar conductors.
posted by Galen H. Brown
The problems of orchestras and their survival is just one aspect of what seems to me to be a much larger, over-arching problem. After all an orchestra is an orchestra; since there have been orchestras they haven't changed all that much in terms of structure; mainly they've just got bigger. If you want what they can do, they can do it. It's not especially realistic to expect an orchestra to be something else. I suppose concerts can be made to be more user-friendly in one way or another, but ultimately a concert involves people sitting (or standing) and being quiet and listening and paying attention, and I'm not sure how much that can ever to be made less "stuffy." There are very few other things in life where that kind of serious silence is so crucial to what the experience is about, and it certainly isn't the case in lots of other music. I can't tell that people worry that much any more that they have to dress up for a concert any more than for anything else. Although I agree that it is a very desirable thing for orchestral programs to have more recent music, I'm not sure that that's a major aspect of the problem. (There are a number of composers who seem to get a quite a lot of performances all over the place, and a lot of their music doesn't interest me, so whether or not there's more or less of it around doesn't really worry me that much). If it were just a problem of concerts being stuffy there would be other ways that people would be getting the music--recorded music, for instance, might be booming instead of contracting.
I think the real problem is that most of the people in this country haven't had any particular contact with any kind of classical music at all, so what an orchestra does is just foreign to anything they know, and therefore irrelevant to their lives. And that includes anything, however simple or populist or easy to listen to. This is really a problem of music education. It's not as though the masses are just bored with hearing the Beethoven symphonies. If they had any idea of what a Beethoven (or Tschaikovsky or Brahms or any composer you want to name) symphony was or sounded like and if they could make any sense of it, there would probably be some kind of crowd still coming out to hear that, and once they got there and heard other kinds of music, they'd probably like some of that as well. I'm not sure how good general music education ever was in this country--my own experience of it was that it was pretty bad--but any thing is better than nothing, which is mostly what it is now. I'm not sure how much exposure to "serious" music (or for that matter any serious exposure to music of any kind) there really needs to be for some number of people to find it appealing and interesting, but it takes some. We're now seeing the results of the gutting of music education that started with the Reagan years, and if things stay status quo the situation will probably only get worse.
posted by Rodney Lister
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Orchestras are a luxury these days. They are expensive, unwieldy, untenable through ticket sales, and appeal to a limited audience. I suspect the answer is not ďeducatingĒ a new audience (not that such efforts arenít necessary), but instead lie in examining, from the ground up, what role an orchestra concert serves, and what the modes of presentation are. The orchestra will never die, but it needs to be reconsidered.
This isnít he first time the mighty orchestral machine, and the economic engines that drive it, have contracted rather than expanded: Neo-classic music arose, in part, because of the economic devastations of World War I, and composers wisely looked to other more economically viable avenues to explore.
I think, then, that the last item of David Toubís post was the most important: New ways of presentation, not only for orchestras, but also for art music in general are essential. In these days of MTV and movies, the old paradigm of ďwalk on, bow, present high art to enlighten the people, applause, bow, walk outĒ has become outdated. While it will always be useful and recitals will always be with us, shouldnít we look for ways to include the audience in the context of the performance? Minimal staging, spatial thinking, a sense of narrative and drama, lighting, and any number of other options can greatly increase audience enjoyment, particularly of new works that arenít tried and true favorites. Witness the success of MTV or the power of opera and ballet.
My string quartet was choreographed and danced recently with the quartet playing live onstage. The audience was packed with people you couldnít ordinarily drag to a classical concert, let alone a new music concert, and they were enthusiastic to say the least about the whole experience. The resulting video was made into a work of art itself, and serves as one of my proudest moments for a piece thatís more than ten years old.
Iím convinced. Interdisciplinary applications and ideas apply to more than scholarship and research. If we really want to reach people, and I think most composers do, then we need to apply a twenty-first century vision to making music in our time, rather than relying solely on the same old traditions.
posted by Cary Boyce
David Toub has called in his cronies to answer my question about hearing music in our heads (below, April 30), and I await their answers with interest. With the response so far: I don't know if I buy the "inherent in being creative" part. And I'm not concerned whether or not it's normal, whatever that means. All I'm wondering is how it works. How can we vividly experience sound where no sound exists? What parts of the brain are being brought to bear on this relatively useless task?
But the whole question reminds me of how funny it is that some people praise music for being "memorable" or "catchy" when, for some of us, all music is memorable. What a joy it is, from time to time, to hear a piece that is completely arresting, yet fails to stick to the roofs of our mouths like peanut butter!
posted by Lawrence Dillon
rigor may not have set in yet, but...
Is the orchestra dead? In clinical parlance, it's CTD, or "circling the drain." It's not dead in that there remains, and will remain for quite some time, an audience. But in general, orchestral concerts are contracting, not growing.
Why hasn't the orchestra grown significantly in the past decade? I'd attribute the following factors:
Growth of digital music (doesn't replace live concerts, but makes a lot of sense economically and sonically)
Lack of adventurous repertoire (sorry, but having one or two "token" contemporary pieces just doesn't cut it)
Economics: unlike Europe, orchestras are not significantly funded by government, so they think they have to stick to mass-market draws like Beethoven to barely break even
There are probably others, but this is what immediately comes to my mind.
Now, there certainly continues to be important works for orchestra by modern composers. John Adams is perhaps the best known, but certainly others write for orchestras as well (I suspect more often this is from the uptown bunch, but I could be mistaken)
However, I'm just not seeing a whole lot of evolution, other than the occasional willingness to include some exotic percussion or perhaps a sampler or two.
Personally, I'm torn between whether or not I'd want to do anything for orchestra at this point. In terms of musical language, the only major feature of symphonic orchestral writing is the ability to scale. While some (Adams, Corigliano, Feldman in particular) have been able to get very quiet and compelling works out of such large forces, others seem to write for an orchestra the way they would for a smaller ensemble, just multiplying the amplitude as it were by including larger numbers of instrumentalists. I remember the premiere of the orchestral version of Tehillim in the 80's at Avery Fisher Hall. Unlike the version for smaller ensemble, which works very well, I felt there were a lot of problems with this version (and I believe I recently read that Steve Reich felt much the same way). It was hard for Mehta to coordinate the different forces, and the voices and strings sounded strange having to use amplification. The performance was terrible, yes, and there were technical glitches involving the speakers and microphones. But still, it just seemed to weighty compared with the recording I knew of Reich's ensemble playing it with far fewer forces.
So I think the orchestra is still viable, but perhaps we may need to issue a DNR (do not resuscitate) order? Some possible therapeutic options:
Expand the repertoire: This repertoire largely exists, but if most orchestras continue to ignore music of our time (and no, Schoenberg and Stravinsky no longer count as "contemporary") the next generation of concertgoers will likely blow them off. When was the last time a major orchestra in the US played Orchestra by Feldman? Something by Adams other than the usual staples? Even Boulez doesn't get that much performance time.
Increased Federal funding for the arts: I'm not holding my breath for this one, but wouldn't it be great if orchestras could worry only about playing the music and not whether or not audiences will flock to their concerts to increase their profit margins?
Embrace digital music: I guarantee you, the first orchestra that consistently performs new music AND makes it available from the start in MP3 or AAC format will have a significant first mover advantage.
Develop new forms of concert experiences. Like his music or conducting or not, Boulez was on to something with his Rug concerts in the 70's. Why do symphony concerts have to be these stodgy affairs? Why can't we all just wear something comfortable and come to listen to the music, not to see and be seen?
The orchestra needs to evolve or die. There is a lot of great music written in the past 20-30 years for orchestra, but so much of it just doesn't get heard in the US. That's a shame, since the sonic potentials of the modern orchestra have not been fully realized.
posted by David Toub
Is the Orchestra Dead?
Elodie Lauten wonders if the conventional symphony orchestra is not a relic of the past?
posted by Jerry Bowles
Sunday, May 01, 2005
There's an interesting thread going on right now in the Why Patterns listserv (Why Patterns is a mailing list for people interested in the music of Morton Feldman). Feldman's Composition for Violin from 1984 is, like much of his later music, notated in a way that many purists would find unusual. Rather than writing B-natural, Feldman may write it as a Cb, etc. THis isn't done consistently, leading to speculation that he was aiming for a microtonal effect that one could not realize easily on a piano. Indeed, the performer/composer Marc Sabat has recorded this piece using a different tuning system, and he provides a really nice account here.
The issue has to do with interpretation. How much freedom can/should a performer take with new music? Or is it more a case of, as Glenn Freeman aptly put it, good music being left alone, since the "masterworks" will play themselves if musicians follow the composer's written instructions.
Personally, I would like my music to be interpreted. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of notes that my computer can play just as well. Real performers can bring a lot to a composition. There are numerous recorded performances of Feldman's Triadic Memories, all of which are very different (and all of which have their passionate supporters and detractors). So while some music may indeed "play itself," I don't know that it's true that all of Feldman's scores provide so much detailed instruction that it should be obvious how they should be performed. Triadic Memories, for example, lacks a metronome marking, leaving it up to the performer's tastes and understanding.
In the case of Feldman's Composition for Violin, the microtonal version leaves me a bit cold. I like a lot of microtonal music (Ives, Young, Lutoslawski in particular come to mind). But it is not at all clear that Feldman intended anything other than perhaps a subtle differentiation by the violinist with certain notes (ie, does a C-flat really mean the same thing as a B-natural?).
To make a long story short, should performers have such discretion, even to the point of rendering a new tuning system (just intonation, etc) when there is no clear indication by the composer that this should be the case? How much leeway does a performer of new music have? Should they have any discretion at all? Interesting questions...
posted by David Toub