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.
Is anyone else spooked by the way this Forum is dominated by male voices? We hear occasionally from Beth Anderson, we’ve just heard from Judith Zaimont for the first time in months, and I don’t believe that we’ve ever had Elodie Lauten here (I could be wrong about that).
Does anyone know a way to get more women composers involved in these discussions? I mean it’s not like they are being intentionally excluded, but maybe they are unwilling to participate for some reason? I wish I knew the answer. The way things are going just doesn’t seem right.
posted by Lawrence Dillon
Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.
This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.
Quick somebody; tell Chuck Berry the news.
posted by Jerry Bowles
Congrats to our fellow blogger, Judith Lang Zaimont, on winning a Bush Artist Fellowship. Ms. Zaimont was one of 15 Bush Artist Fellows announced this week. Each artist receives a cash award for a fellowship which lasts 12 to 24 months "to pursue any activity that contributes to their lives as artists."
posted by Everette Minchew
Thursday, June 09, 2005
Well ok then! With the hope of shedding some light on this topic I'll volunteer for an experiment. Anyone critically inclined can head over to:
and listen to either my Second Symphony or my Viola Concerto. Both are archival recordings of first performances. Let me know how you think it went and I'll let you know if I think you're right.
posted by Tom Myron
Marc Geelhoed asked this question for discussion: ----------------------- "Well, you want a topic, you'll get a topic. This one is a real bugbear among critics of both the enlightened and unenlightened varieties, so perhaps composers can shine some light on it: Is it possible to tell at a premiere performance to tell how well the new work was played, w/o prior access to a score or attending a rehearsal? I posit yes, but I know others who are more doubtful.
My theory is that if you've heard a great deal of music (and are a waste as a critic if you've haven't) you should be able to compare the work in question to other works of that style and base yr. decision on the performance accordingly. If it's in a completely foreign style to you, A) you don't know enough or B) someone's written something totally radical, which doesn't happen very often. I myself have never heard a work I was writing abt. that I couldn't assimilate somehow w/ other works I'd heard.
Any ideas on this? To bring it in line w/ the discussion, are there any performances of any composers you felt unable to evaluate on first hearing?" Marc Geelhoed | 06.09.05 - 5:02 pm | # ----------------------- My personal response is probably complicated. On first thought, my feeling is that if the performance sounds as if the musicians are comfortable with the piece (whatever that means) and that the tempi and nuances are such that one likes the music, it's probably ok. The real answer is to check with the score, but I'm really not a fan of the "the performance must adhere to the written score" concept. Until I had to specify metronome markings for computer playback, most of my handwritten scores had comments regarding the tempo (fast, slow, etc) to give the performer leeway to interpret.
The more I think about it, if I like the piece and it makes sense to me, then the performance is ok. Example: I have always preferred Louis Goldstein's expert performance of Feldman's Triadic Memories to any other, and I have never seen more than the first two measures of the score. His performance communicates something to me, so that's why I prefer it. I would also add that I became fond of Goldstein's performance early in my exposure to Feldman's music, so I really had, at most, his second string quartet on which to base any sort of opinion.
As far as whether or not there are any particular composers for whose first performances I really don't feel comfortable evaluating, none comes to mind. I think if the music is very transparent, which is true of Feldman, Satie and many others, it's easy to screw up the performance and hard to do it right. But I'm speaking as a listener and as a composer, not as a performer (because I'm not).
Thoughts on Geelhoed's question?
posted by David Toub
Digital Killed the Concert Hall Star?
It seems to me that classical musicians, and composers especially, have not used recording and mass distribution as effectively as they might, and have not taken enough account of how mass distribution of recordings has changed the habits and expectations of the population. Alex Ross, in his recent wonderful piece in The New Yorker, discusses, among other things, how easy availability of perfectionist recordings raised the bar for live performance by increasing audience expectations. I would argue additionally that the shift of the audience away from live performance as the primary means of hearing music is crucially important. So in this sense, On An Overgrown Path is right -- people are hearing less music live and more music from recordings. But AOP is wrong, I think, in suggesting that increasing CD prices would improve the situation. The problem is this: most people learn about music through recordings these days, so to increase the barrier to hearing recorded classical music is to decrease the number of people who hear Beethoven and say "hey -- I'd like to hear this live." If CDs in general were to cost more and concerts were to cost the same or less the public might switch to the "I heard this in concert and liked it, maybe I should get the CD" model. (incidentally, this IS the model that small rock-bands use to get their start. You play gigs in venues that are cheap or free for the audience in order to build a fan base, and the fan base starts getting interested in buying CDs. Then you get a record deal. If you don't hit the big time, you still make more money playing gigs, but not enough to live on, and your CDs are substantially a promotional tool. If you DO hit the big time touring becomes a tool for promoting CD sales -- which might well be enough to live on.) But the current model works great for Big Media, so pop CDs won't be getting more expensive any time soon. And the average listener would rather buy two pop CDs than one classical CD that costs the same as the two pop CDs. If anything, cheaper classical CDs would be more likely to drive up concert attendance because more people would get familiar enough with classical music to want to attend.
So why doesn't the math work out to make classical CDs popular? Part of it is surely the combination of high overhead costs for producing the CD and a small market to begin with, but I suspect another factor is copyright. How many different recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony does the world need, exactly? And even if Beethoven's 5th sold more copies than The White Album (and I would not be surprised if it has) those sales are split up among hundreds of different recordings. The revenue from a copyrighted work travels down a narrow channel, but the revenue from an unprotected work is spread over all of the various versions. And the audience for protected (i.e. new) classical music is tiny. Furthermore, in the case of new music most of the actual money contemporary classical composers see is commission money -- CDs are predominantly a promotional too. In fact, under the old CRI model CRI didn't even expect to make up in sales the cost of producing the CD, so you had to find your own funding. Increasing the cost to the consumer of new music CDs is a good way to make the audience less likely to take risks, which will suppress sales and thereby suppress the PR value of the CDs.
Let's now turn to On An Overgrown Path's economic analysis: "The Deutsche Grammophon LP of Karajan conducting Tchaikosky's Pathetique Symphony which was my first classical record cost me one pound ten shillings ($2.20) as a student in 1969. By my calculation graduate starting salaries in the UK have increased by a factor of around twenty since then. That would price the LP at £30 (US$54.60) in today's terms. A full price CD in the UK today is £15 (US$27.30), so real prices have halved before deep discounts and budget priced labels such as LSO Live are factored in. In orders of magnitude I reckon recorded music costs about one quarter of what it did thirty five years ago. Concert tickets have shown little or no price deflation in the same period. So the balance of pricing has swung massively in favour of recorded and internet streamed media, and against attending live performances."
I found an inflation calculator (based on the Consumer Price Index), which tells me that "What cost $2.20 in 1969 would cost $11.68 in 2005." So for starters AOP's economics seem wrong -- if we believe his numbers ($2.20 then, $27.30 now) the CD is MORE expensive today in real terms than it was in 1969. Of course $27.30 seems pretty steep to me, and $11.68 seems on the low end of right -- so more likely in real terms the cost of a classical album has remained about the same. Plus, I'm not smart enough about economics to take fluctuation of exchange rates into consideration -- the dollar was considerably stronger in 1969 than it is today. But "real terms" is not whole story -- AOP's model of tying the appropriate cost of an album to wage level is deeply flawed. To be at any given economic stratum in 2005 actualy requires a higher salary in real terms than being at that stratum in 1969 did, because you have to have more stuff to be at that stratum. Grad students in 2005 need to have almost all of the things that grad students in 1969 did, but they also need computers and dozens of other additional things. (This is the same reason why switching Social Security benefit calculations away from "Wage Indexing" to "Price Indexing" would be so disasterous.) So the cost of a single album is a much smaller portion of one's salary than it was back then. I can't find hard data on ticket prices, but according to one source "Apparently, ticket prices rose much faster than the general price level [of other kinds of goods and services] without causing a drop in attendance. (I say "apparently" because we have no summary measure of ticket price movements.)" So while the underlying economics are flawed, AOP's instincts are correct -- the cost of live music and the cost of recorded music are diverging, with the cost of live music being higher.
But in addition the reasons I mentioned above there's another reason why these costs will not, cannot, and should not converge -- Baumal's Cost Disease. The above source for my information on ticket prices is a short article explaining this phenomenon. I recommend reading it, but the very short explanation is that while in most industries the amount of productivity possible by one employee increases steadily, in the performance arts productivity remains constant because you still need the same number of people to play a piece or act in a play. But since artists live in the same economy as workers in other industries, their salaries have to increase proportionaly to the salaries of their counterparts in those industries seeing increasing productivity. Since there's no increased productivity to provide the money for those salary increases, these arts groups need to find increased revenue elsewhere, and one place to do it is with increased ticket prices. So ticket prices stand to continue to increase, and financial pressures on arts groups will tend to increase over time as well.
Recording a classical album doesn't cost much less now than it used to -- you still need an engineer, a hall, an editor, and the rehearsal and performance time of the players. But distribution costs have been decreasing rapidly, and distribution mechanisms have been getting more and more wide-reaching. And thus, the affordability of making a classical recording available in comparison with the affordability of performing a concert will continue to increase, although Baumal's cost disease will affect classical CDs under current production strategies as well. If composers find ways around Baumal in CD production (take advantage of the increasing realism of synthetic instruents, write for smaller ensembles, do the recording and engineering oneself, et.) CDs will be more and more important to the career of the composer as live performance opportunties become more scarce due to the need for ensembles to conserve costs to fight the Cost Disease.
There's still a lot more to be said on this matter, and I think there's a huge potential to improve the state of the industry if we think carefully about the facts and adjust our behaviors accordingly.
posted by Galen H. Brown
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
who's in, who's out?
This is, as we all know, a great forum with a very spirited discourse that is healthy, and reflects the diversity of thought that characterizes the musical/creative world. Given some comments recently about Varese being "second-rate" and just no longer relevant, it got me thinking about many other posts from the recent past about individual composers. Not to get back into this list thing, but here's what I pretty much distilled from many comments within the past few months (DISCLAIMER: this is not comprehensive. Some composers will be omitted unintentionally. My apologies in advance):
(the late) George Rochberg
OK...the first first four on my list are composers I have always liked, and still do, so I'm with the in crowd there. I also like many of Ligeti's works, especially Lontano and Atmospheres, am ok with his string quartet and a few other later works, suspect he's a tad overrated, but am fine with most people really liking his music. Rochberg I respect, but never really got into his violin concerto, but I'm still probably fine.
But I'm definitely not with the in crowd regarding Boulez, Carter and Babbitt. Well, no one's perfect, so let's look at who's out per the Forum:
I can't comment specifically on Maazel (I like his conducting, but have not heard 1984) so I'll give the forum a pass on that one. But I'm in really bad shape with Varese and Schoenberg. I still like their music, and it doesn't matter to me if Varese lacks expressive range or if the 12-tone technique has become irrelevant.
So I'm in sync with some of the consensus opinions (points for liking the minimalists and Partch and being 80% favorably disposed towards Ligeti) and way out of sync because I think Varese and Schoenberg are ok and really can't stand most of the music of Boulez, Carter or Babbitt. (ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: I'm not disputing that Pierre, Elliott or Milton are nice people and perhaps fabulous teachers. This is just business; it's not personal).
At first I was worried I was out of the mainstream (as if I were a die-hard liberal in the US these days...oh wait, I am). Then I came to my senses and stopped worrying.
So here's my question:
Not that it really matters at all, but who is "in" and who's "out" in your opinion? Does anyone lose credibility because he or she admits to liking (or disliking) certain composers? For example, if someone was really not happy with one of the composers in favor, should that matter?
posted by David Toub
In comments below, Varese's narrow expressive range has been cited as a reason to consider him a minor composer. The issue of expressive range has been very interesting to me, ever since I heard George Crumb address it many years ago. Crumb was (is) often accused of having a narrow expressive range. He said that he felt that different composers had different ranges. He cited Beethoven as someone who had an enormous expressive range. Then, surprisingly to me, he cited Stravinsky as someone who had a very narrow range, claiming that Stravinsky was forced to radically change styles in order to give the illusion of expressive range in his music.
He didn't seem to feel that Stravinsky was any less of a composer for the narrowness of said range, rather that he had found a creative way to keep composing.
What's your take on this perspective? It's given me a lot to think about over the years.
posted by Lawrence Dillon
Monday, June 06, 2005
Mr. Postman, If You Please
Could you please post an inquiry to Sequenza21 for me? It's this:
I've been asked to write about Edgard Varese's influence on today's composers. My usual suspects are coming up dry. Have any of you guys been strongly influenced by Varese, positively or negatively? Know of any composers who have, and in what way? What do you feel is his legacy, direct or indirect, on today's music? Is he as important a composer as he seemed 30 years ago? Thanks for thinking about it.