Friday, March 10, 2006
A week ago I had coffee in Park Slope with composer Amnon Wolman. Amnon teaches a bevy of music technology courses at Brooklyn College and also has an appointment to the CUNY Grad Center. He had observed a class of mine last fall, and we’d been meaning to get together ever since.
Our conversation touched on many interesting issues, but what stuck with me most were Amnon’s thoughts on failure. One thought – which came in the form of advice from him to me – is that it is detrimental for composers to love music too much. Composers must have the capacity to look at the St. Matthew Passion and think, “Anyone could’ve done that.” The St. Matthew Passion, along with most of the other masterpieces we love so much, were produced in large part by hard work, failed attempts, and dumb luck. Sure there’s genius. But by contemplating this genius too much we pressure ourselves to produce “masterpieces” and risk allowing ourselves to fail. And producing failures is part of what it takes to produce masterpieces.
Amnon had another thought that intrigued me: symphony orchestras and opera companies (and so forth) should be unafraid of commissioning failures. Performing institutions do their audiences a disservice by only betting on middle-of-the-road composers and repeatedly work-shopping and evaluating composers’ work along the way. All this “hedging” takes audience evaluation out of the picture: if the Met only produces masterpieces, than this new opera by this composer I’ve never heard of must be a masterpiece, and, if I don’t like it, well, that doesn’t matter to the Met. Instead, commissioning should be like gambling: part of the excitement is knowing you might lose. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to hear some vicious booing and jeering at Avery Fisher for some God-awful pieces than polite, acquiescent applause for okay ones?
I don’t think I entirely agree with either point. But both have enough truth in them to be worth considering. Thoughts?