Archive for January, 2005

Strange article in the last New Yorker magazine — I’m just getting to it now, it’s been a busy week of reading — about George Gershwin. The magazine is justly praised for its thorough, sensible studies of famous figures from the past, essays that give fresh insights into the strengths and weaknesses of people who have helped shape the way we view ourselves and our world.

But this article was different. Gushing from beginning to end, the writer portrayed Gershwin in the most simplistic manner: the poor, misunderstood genius who was destroyed by the evil classical establishment. She seems to have dug through every negative comment ever made about the man and his music, and brought back the juiciest bits in order to make her case.

I’m not denying that GG was criticized by some in his day — nobody is going to achieve the kind of wealth and fame he found overnight without getting a fair share of potshots from the rest of the profession. But for every one of those sour grapes, there were extraordinary compliments paid — see Ravel and Schoenberg, for example.

None of this is a knock on Gershwin, of course — he did what he did better than anyone else, and that is cause for celebration. I’m just tired of the stuffy classical music establishment stereotype — people keep using it to promote popular culture, and popular culture just doesn’t need that kind of help.

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Is music fundamentally a sensual experience? Is it emotional? Intellectual? Intuitive?

The answer is yes — music is fundamentally all four. Anyone who refuses to experience music sensually, emotionally, intellectually and intuitively is missing an essential ingredient of the human capacity for enjoyment and meaning.

Jung labeled four cognitive functions of the mind: thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. In his article “Toward a Pedagogy of Composition: Exploring Creative Potential” (1986 Journal of the College Music Society), composer John J. Carbon posited that the best composers in history have been able to tap into all four functions, if not equally, then at least in a meaningful way.

Every composer has a particular strength. Among living composers, for example, it is facile to say that Milton Babbitt is a thinking composer, John Corigliano is a feeling composer, Augusta Read Thomas’s forte is sensation, and Meredith Monk has helped to redefine intuition. Mind you, it would be a huge mistake to say that any of these composers are restricted by these functions. Rather, we can speak of these functions as specific affinities that are most readily expressed through their musics.

In addition to strong suits, everybody also has a blind spot — a cognitive function that feels awkward, or simply doesn’t exist with the same vitality as the others. Again, the best composers find a way to bring these blind spots into their expressive arsenals, to find a balance, specific and recognizable, in their music. Rarely an equal balance, although a composer like Beethoven comes awfully close.

Rarer still is the composer who focuses solely on just one of the four functions with any success — but more on that in a future post.

In any case, I tend to agree with Mr. Carbon: I’m happiest when music suspends me dizzily in the midst of all of my brain functions. That’s the music I come back to time and again: each listening shows me something new about myself.

But when people criticize music for being too emotional or too intellectual (to name two of the more common complaints), in some cases they are simply broadcasting their own limitations, their own inability to match the balance proposed by the composer. Rather, as listeners, we should be open to all the ways in which music communicates, in order to integrate our own blind spots into an expanded consciousness and appreciation.

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In our ongoing, online (friendly) arguments about the music world, Kyle Gann reminded me of Henry Cowell’s comment that there were two musical traditions in America, the music that’s played but not talked about, and the music that’s talked about but not played.

Still true? What do you think?

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Much is being made these days of the declining size of the classical and new music audiences. The problem may be expressed as economic, cultural and egotistic.

From an economic standpoint, smaller audiences mean an end to a couple hundred years of art music primarily supported by the concert-going public. It’s a frightening prospect for our larger institutions (cavernous concert halls and opera houses), but a solvable challenge. Contemporary visual artists, for example, don’t rely on ticket sales for their financial well-being.

The cultural concern is partly based on the logical premise that fewer listeners today will mean a decreased chance for art music’s survival in the future. This is a particularly sensitive area for living composers, many of whom fear that their work will not survive them because contemporary culture undervalues artistic achievement.

Although this concern makes sense on the surface, a quick historical survey shows that it is hardly a foregone conclusion. Of the music from the past that has survived, some of it comes from composers who were celebrities in their day, and some of it comes from composers who were completely underrated by their contemporaries. Similarly, we have forgotten the works of many composers who were considered the superstars of their time, as well as those who toiled in anonymity. When it comes to posterity, there are no guarantees.

So, despite the logic of the concern, I can’t say I share it. Let the future make of us what it will; our responsibility is to make the present as good as it can be. As Kundera says, “the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgement on us, of course. And without any competence.”

Finally, there is the egotistic concern, which may be expressed as follows: My music is so wonderful; how come most people prefer garbage? To celebrate January 6, I’d like to share a little epiphany I had on this subject about ten years ago:

HBO was broadcasting a live performance by Madonna. I don’t remember where it was, but there were thousands of people in the audience. She was gyrating and belting some inane, energetic song, and the audience was jumping up and down, screaming. I was pouting: What are they so excited about? Any adolescent could have come up with this song.

Then it happened: she shifted into a much lower gear, the music got quiet, she stood motionless in a single, soft spotlight, and began singing a lyrical ballad. Madonna was baring her soul. And what was her audience doing? They were still jumping up and down and screaming. And that’s when I realized: This is not what I want.

Although circumstances vary widely, most performances of my music take place before one hundred to two hundred people. They sit quietly. They listen with varying degrees of attention and comprehension. They don’t jump up and down screaming while my music is being played, for which I am grateful. Many of them come up to me afterwards to share their listening experiences, which I always try to encourage.

So when it comes to Matters of Size, I will always take quality over quantity. A few good listeners are gold. Would I be happier if millions of people could hear my music all at once, instead of hundreds? Honestly, the answer is no, because the distinction means nothing to me. I speak, someone listens, they respond, I listen — and the circle is complete.

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What is the job of a composer? To write music. But what kind of music? How should it sound? We want composers to spark our imaginations, to bring us fresh and stimulating ideas. In other words, we want something new, whatever our notion of newness is — even if it’s not particularly new in an objective sense. But how much newness is the right amount?

Most young composers, and some older ones, battle with this riddle on a daily basis. Teachers, critics, colleagues, friends and enemies seem to have clear conceptions of how your music should sound. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember who is supposed to be in charge.

How should new music sound?

To help young composers cope with this question, I give them two simple rules.

1. Be Curious About Music. What does this mean? That is up to you. If being curious means reading all of the latest theoretical treatises, then do it. If it means improvising for hours a day, then do it. If it means going to seven concerts a week and listening to dozens of recordings, then do it. Hopefully it will mean all of those things and more, but the crucial message is this: if you are going to commit a lifetime to composing, you have a responsibility to yourself and your listeners to do everything in your power to understand and master the art form. If you go about it half-assedly, expect a half-assed response.

Sure, there are lots of musicians out there who don’t know what they are doing, and the world loves them for it. If fifty-nine million people preferred the guy who doesn’t understand his job, why should you bother to learn yours? The answer is simple: if you were one of those fifty-nine million, then don’t bother. Competence is clearly not an issue for you.

2. Write What You Want To Hear. Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, for many of us it is the most difficult thing you can ask. So many composers are searching for the *right* music, the music that will win them acceptance from whatever group they are hoping to impress, whether that group is made up of professors, peers, critics, performers, or even family members. Forget about them! If you really understand what you are doing, and are honest with yourself and others about what you like to hear, chances are someone else will enjoy it too. How big do you want your audience to be? Is fifty-nine million enough? Peter Serkin: “I would rather have ten people who love what I am doing than 10,000 who don’t mind it.”

So what is the job of a composer? Educate yourself, and then just tell us what is going on in your head. If every composer did this, we would be that much closer to understanding the world we live in. And that, my friends, would be a welcome change.

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Welcome to the launching pad of my Sequenza21 blog, a space where new music will serve as a catalyst for wide-ranging discussions of culture, politics, history, art, marketing, psychology and possibly even the weather. I have a few things to say on many of these topics, and I’m hoping your feedback will give me even more to say, and much to think about.

I am a full-time composer who gets great satisfaction from other roles as educator, conductor and administrator. A lot more personal/professional detail may be found on my website, but for the immediate purposes of this post, the generic outline will do.

What I Hope to Accomplish:

By pulling together an assortment of ideas from current cultural thinking, historical precedents, dissenting voices and some of my own pet notions, I hope to explore the ways that new music can illuminate and coalesce the disparate strands of our lives in the early twenty-first century. The direction is clear; the destination is yet to be discovered. I start with the axiom that there are no two points so distant from one another that they cannot be connected by a single, straight line — and an infinite number of curves.

What I’d Like to Avoid:

Polemical arguments, and — in particular — critical dichotomies: I am not a fan of the current ubiquitous form of logic that separates the world into X and Y, then says X is good because Y is bad. If I have a particular view to espouse, I hope I can make a compelling argument without relying on my ability to demonize those who feel differently — musicians, listeners, critics, politicians — even when they deserve it.

I am confident that the true demons will do our dirty work for us.

That’s my launching pad, and with a bit of luck I will be able to hold things on course — although I am not averse to the occasional surprise side trip! Again, although I have a plan in mind, reader response will do much to inform the direction from one post to the next. Please don’t hesitate to join me: I’ll do my best to make the journey worthwhile.

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