By now, you’ve surely heard about Project 440 at Orpheus/WQXR, and the next round of cuts will take the composers to just a dozen (to be announced September 9th on WQXR). So I thought it would be interesting to talk to the remaining 30 before the cut about this process.
Q: “You all have probably been involved in a group lesson or masterclass at some point – some sort of public forum – with a teacher, composer or perhaps an ensemble and conductor. Project 440, however, involves not only a selection committee, but comments on the internet. How do you view the critiques and praise, both positive and negative – and how does it differ from a masterclass/learning situation?”
David T. Little:
As always, comments on one’s music should be understood for what they are: opinions. While a composer certainly can (and should) learn something by considering other people’s thoughts on their work–especially, say, in the case of a master class–they ultimately, for better or worse, answer only to themselves. When the time comes to sit down to write, I try put all of this aside and just create the best and most honest music possible.
Orpheus Project 440 offers young composers three main ingredients, which solidify the recipe of becoming a successful composer in the world and make it complete: exposure, the opinion of a larger audience and the critical judgment of a highly competent selection committee. The integration of these three things distinguishes it from other projects and learning environments such as master classes or public forums for composers. These usually incorporate one or two of the above-mentioned components, but have a non-worldly aspect used for isolated learning where only professionals of the field contribute their qualified opinions or honest advice. This is very useful for analysis and explanations of complex music and perhaps even improving compositional skills, but has little to do with the important relationship of composer to audience.
Due to its presence on the Internet, Project 440 is a unique and useful “reality check” with listeners who are in fact the audience whether one realizes it or not. This framework creates more vulnerability for the composer who becomes completely exposed to others not only through the sounds they create which would be typical for a composer, but also through the verbal interpretations of the listener. People have the freedom to speak candidly about the music and regardless of how we feel, it is posted and available for others to read. Furthermore, it is going to influence other listeners as well. It is my first time participating in a web-based public project and I’ve been very curious and stimulated by reading all the comments. Both positive and negative feedback is equally valuable for me, giving me a glimpse of what the listener is actually experiencing when encountering my music.
I am open to different critiques and praise, as these comments are based on the listeners’ different listening experiences on my music. I can tell that the critiques and praise I have received for my Glowing Autumn come from the listeners who are from all kinds of backgrounds. They take my music to various perspectives and levels. I deeply appreciate their individual thoughts and comments. I am very happy that my music can offer the listeners a little sound pleasure as well as an angle by which they can get to see and think what today’s young composers are creating.
It definitely differs from what you can hear and learn from a masterclass. The internet offers a no-personal interaction inviting listeners from a broader level of society, and mostly the comments you receive on line present a wide range of aesthetic levels and unfold what your music means to others. A masterclass provides a situation in which a composer can share his/her music ideas with other professional and experienced colleagues, and often the comments you receive at a masterclass deal with the composers’ understandings of what music composition is, and what might improve your composition.
I applaud the idea and effort behind Project 440 and I am honored to be selected to the next round of the competition. However, the major issue is that most comments for each composer come from friends of the composer (myself included). In an open forum where anyone can comment there is really no way of being “fair” and totally objective. That being said, I am fine with the way things are being run and I am happy the final decision comes from the committee. I would also add that I don’t think most of us would get such glowing reviews (or overly harsh ones) in a room where people, who were asked to be objective, spoke to us directly.
I view comments I receive from the Internet not at all like those I would get at a masterclass, or even from a newspaper review, though that’s closer. Comments from online listeners represent feedback one would get from a concert audience, made up of people with very diverse backgrounds and degrees of experience with music. As such, I think this is important feedback to have, and represents “the last stop” our music makes on its journey into the world, but I would expect composers to take the same attitude towards it as they do to reviews: some will care, and others will not. This seems to be an interesting new direction for the reception of concert music however, and puts the music back into the public arena in a way reminiscent of the 1930’s and early 40’s with Copland and other populist composers.
The comments have been fun and interesting to read. However, because many of the people who have commented perhaps feel as though they are in some way directly voting, there has been some amusing hyperbole. This project has been a unique experience and so I don’t really find it has much in common with a masterclass situation. While it is certainly informative to hear feedback, I don’t think the dynamic between myself and an anonymous commenter has much in common with any teacher/student relationship I have encountered. I think the project has more in common with a post-concert situation, where, after hearing my work people sometimes share their reactions and opinions without necessarily intending to be pedagogical in any way.
Project 440 offers composers a relatively unique opportunity to receive honest feedback for their work. While certainly not the case for all comments posted, many seem to be uninfluenced by personal opinions of the composer or the composer’s type of music. Such unfiltered opinions are seemingly hard to come by, especially in a world where we are all taught to “play nice” with each other. This being said, I am in a rather unique (and perhaps unfortunate, depending on which way you look at it) position in this competition – being the only composer whose work has received no comments (as was pointed out in the following article: http://bit.ly/brk9V3). So accordingly I have no point of reference for personal reaction.
I enjoy the anonymous critiques. I’m always amazed at how entertaining and candid comments are on public online forums. In this instance some reviews are written by friends who are being generous and showing support for your work, but others come from people who want to state an opinion about your music, even discuss it’s merit, either because they disliked it or because it resonated with them in some way. It’s interesting to start a discussion where everyone feels safe to genuinely express themselves . In a typical masterclass setting, you often get a very diplomatic response to what you present, and it’s refreshing to get a completely frank opinion whether it’s positive or negative feedback.
The biggest difference is the anonymity of the comments in Project 440. Whereas in a masterclass or other learning situation, I would know the person giving comments and have some sense of their background, interests, and tastes, in the Project 440 comments I don’t know anything about the people commenting. On the one hand, this can make the comments seem somewhat less salient – negative comments are easier to brush off, but positive comments also don’t seem quite as meaningful, since I don’t know the backgrounds of the commenters. On the other hand, it can be very revealing – and intimidating – to be evaluated by the “masses” rather than a “master.” In a masterclass, the person commenting is an expert coming from a world that you know and are familiar with. With Project 440, on the other hand, you’re explicitly opening yourself up to popular opinion, something composers of concert music don’t often have to do. For a composer like myself, who aspires to speak to a much wider audience than the new music specialists who often hear my music, it feels like a true test of whether I am accomplishing what I hope to in my music, whether I am, in fact, able to reach a wide and diverse audience. In this sense, the reaction my music gets in the Project 440 comments is of far more import than the opinion of a single expert at a masterclass.
Ultimately, I write my music hoping that others will find something individually meaningful while listening. But the word ‘others’ doesn’t necessarily mean a group of cognoscenti-composers, performers, or musicologists. Receiving praise (or criticism) from those who hold doctorates in music can be helpful, but is sometimes tempered by politesse and a collegiate cordiality. What often gives me the most food-for-thought is speaking with non-musicians. Once we get the I-don’t-know-anything-about-music nonsense out of the way, people speak from the gut, recounting their first impressions, how it made them feel, of what it reminded them, where they were thrilled, where they were lost, or where they fell asleep. In other words, I feel lucky to have this opportunity: a public internet-based forum that truly involves listeners, both professionals and amateurs, anonymous or not, could possibly bring a fresh, open, unabashed discourse on new music.
I have really enjoyed following the comments on my Project 440 page. I am not sure how much of a parallel I see to a master class or school environment; it feels closer to the performance experience of sharing and connecting through music. Probably half of my comments are from people I know, and most of the rest are from people they know (I must say I actively encouraged visits to the page), so the comments have helped me check in with whether the music is communicating what I hoped it would, both to musicians and to non-musicians. I feel encouraged when I see adjectives such as “fresh” and “delicate” and “playful.” They confirm that my intentions came through.
I think when one opens up to the world of public opinion, which can be both random and of extreme temperament, you have to accept the inevitable. I don’t think it’s wise to take anything personally but you should weigh up any comments that you read objectively and be honest about whether or not they ring true. After that you can choose whether to take them on board or to ignore them – which I always find hard to do. Through all this you have to be honest to yourself and remember who and where you are. With a teacher or a mentor I think you yourself place a great trust in their hands; ie, you want them to be as honest as possible about your work as you are searching for your own path and you are inviting them to be a crucial part of that process. To be honest though, you can learn about yourself and your work in any situation, and sometimes the most unlikely circumstance can lead to a real clearing of thoughts. It all depends on whether you can genuinely receive honest critique and not let positive feedback become too absorbing.
I’ll pose another question to the final twelve before the four winners are announced. What would you want to know?