Archive for November, 2007

I got a nice review of my November 3rd concert on CVNC. The author was enthusiastic about the things he liked and politely silent about the things he didn’t. I suppose I can’t really prefer it the other way around.As is often the case, my music was held up in contrast to “dry, formulaic serial” works. I know that’s meant as a compliment, but it’s become such conventional wisdom when applied to my generation of composers, I can’t help feeling we’re overdue for a fresh look at the post-WWII era. The generation of American composers that came of age in the mid-20th century is pretty consistently reviled these days, blamed for everything wrong in the music world. Having inherited the world they created, I can’t say I’m completely objective, but a dismissal of everything they stood for seems a bit harsh. I don’t have first-person insight into those times, but I think questions need to be asked about what those generations were up against, and what they were trying to achieve.

A young American composer c. 1950 was entering a music world in which the most respected living composers were Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith, and the most performed composers were of the Respighi/Rachmaninov ilk. The previous decades had seen a wonderful and unprecedented surge of composer émigrés: musicians fleeing the Holocaust and the privations of war. Many of these Europeans came with prowess and experience that US-trained composers couldn’t match, and they were soon snapping up much of the Hollywood and orchestral commission work available.

What was left for a young composer trying to pay the rent? Well, there were a number of options, but one of the most fruitful possibilities was this nation’s belief in education: more than any European country, America believed that one could, through talent and hard work, become anything one wanted. In the early years of the Cold War, this belief in the value of education meant that resources were poured into the nation’s universities as never before. It soon became clear that professorships held a promise of patronage and security for the American composer on a level no other profession could match. More and more composers came to this oasis for the arts, and drank deeply.

The cost? In order to obtain and retain these professorships, composers had to focus on their intellectual and scholarly qualifications to an unprecedented degree. When it came time for tenure review, you had better be able to prove to your peers in other disciplines that you weren’t just dabbling in something frivolous; you had to show that what you were doing was just as complex and erudite as anything else in the sciences or humanities.

What was it like for these academic composers, when they came up for review? I wasn’t there, but I can only guess: it must have been hard to be taken seriously by scholars from other disciplines who were increasingly dividing the music world between the classics of the past and the fun-but-not-serious music of pop culture. What could composers do to protect their livelihoods? Publish articles in scholarly journals, shout out their credentials, take pains to distance their work from music whose calling card was the catchy tune.

It doesn’t seem fair to blame them. As I noted above, there were other options for putting food on the table, but this was one of the best. Sure, many of them abused their positions, destroying the lives of competitors, championing artistic stances simply because they stood in antithesis to what had come before. But is that so different from any generation of composers, in which the majority is just trying to stay afloat as the gatekeepers of musical employment shift from the bishops to the princes to the middle classes?

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It’s great to have a couple of days when I’m forced to take a break from administrative duties – they can become addictive. Every once in awhile, I feel a nagging concern about one loose end or another from the office, but the cold sweats and goose bumps only last a moment, then I get back to hanging with family and doing lots of composing.

This is the time of year to express gratitude for the end of autumn and its many rewards.

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Planning to pass through Wroclaw, Poland on Wednesday night? Then be sure to stop by the THE KAROL LIPINSKI UNIVERSITY OF MUSIC to hear a performance of my quartet Devotion. You won’t find me there, though. I’ve got another bone to pick.

Bone below.

Most of us who have taken an undergraduate course in music have fallen prey, at one time or another, to what I think of as The Related Notes Syndrome.

The Related Notes Syndrome starts as a simple fascination with pitch patterns: the discovery that compositions are built from motivic cells. In its purest form, this fascination is completely harmless. You trace the ways Brahms uses the same three-note motive over the course of a four-movement piece, exclaiming AHA each time it recurs, transformed”¦ and your listening experience deepens.

There are two ways in which this harmless entertainment becomes a syndrome: first, there is the ensuing belief that there is something innately profound about related note patterns – in other words, the more of these patterns one can find in a piece (or compose into a piece) the more serious and meaningful the music is.

Wake-up call: the fact that groups of notes are related to other groups of notes does not make a piece profound. It simply makes it music.

The other manifestation of the related-notes syndrome is the voracious tracing of related-note patterns in works from different composers/time periods. As in: “The Beatles went up a fourth and down a third, which means they were obviously listening to Stravinsky, who pilfered it from Schubert, who found it in Bach, who must have somehow come across the same pattern in Dufay” etc., etc.

Experienced musicians know that these kinds of corresponding patterns can be found in all music throughout history. There are only so many ways to put notes together – what makes a piece great, or even memorable (which isn’t the same thing), is the context in which these patterns are presented.

Just go to any rehearsal involving a group of professional musicians. I guarantee at some point they’ll break off in the middle of a phrase because there is something that needs to be worked on, and one musician will complete the phrase with a lick from a different piece that has the same note pattern as the one they are rehearsing. Happens all the time. Why? Because finding these connections is child’s play.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of crying Eureka over these common connections. I’ve done it myself. Time has taught me, though, that while I thought I was tapping into the nerve center of inspiration itself, I was actually engaging in the most trivial of musical pursuits.

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As I write this, I am listening to tracks from the recording session I had on Tuesday, taking notes in the score of where the glitches are, in the hopes of finding clean takes of every moment in Exit. I find this task both thrilling and stultifying: it’s exciting to hear great musicians playing my music so effectively, and to know that I’m getting closer and closer to a pristine rendition of the piece — but it’s tedious to spend so much time listening to the same passages over and over, passages I’ve lived with for so long I have a hard time hearing them as if for the first time anymore. I’d rather be off creating something new. Instead I have to fool myself into thinking that my creative urges are satisfied by the effort it takes to listen knowledgably and innocently at the same time.

Egads, there’s a nasty note. Scrap that take.

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I’ve been stymied again and again by writing fiction – at various times stymied, frustrated, mystified, thwarted, staggered, even outright defeated – but I haven’t been grotesquely shattered as yet. By and large, writing fiction does the opposite – it fosters endurance.

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My Telling Tales program went very well on Saturday night. I’m going to have more to say about exactly what happened in the near future – but right now I have to go on a bit of a rant.

Rant starts after this sentence.

Should we ever be surprised when people in positions of authority abuse their power?

I found myself wondering this after a recent conversation with one of my composition students. We were discussing a new piece we had just heard on a concert.

How many times have I heard composers say they put something in a piece in order to give the audience a slap in the face, or a nasty jolt, or just to make them squirm? It seems like an inappropriate way to think of treating someone who is, for the time being, under your power. And yet these composers are often the same ones who complain the most about the abuses of politicians, administrators, figures of authority. Don’t they see that their revenge is not in any way an improvement?

I know, these composers don’t think of themselves as being in positions of power – but they are, nonetheless. Any time a group of people convenes to listen, the person producing the music is in charge of their time. You can say, “well, they can just get up and leave,” but any abusive dictator can say the same, and it doesn’t make their actions any more excusable.

So, again, should we ever be surprised? If even composers can’t resist using their ephemeral powers as an opportunity to abuse their dependents, who can we count on to be immune from this disease?

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I don’t often pay much attention to bumper stickers (my eyesight’s not good enough to read most of them), but I saw one yesterday that made me laugh out loud:

FORGET THE VILLAGE -
WHERE’S THE PARENTS?

Seems to me if you’re asking WHERE’S THE PARENTS, you could have benefited from living in a village that taught better grammar.

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