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.
On the broadcast radio front, you may have heard of the Public Radio Talent Contest that's being run by Public Radio Exchange and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Basically it's like American Idol - the first round allows anyone to submit a 2-minute clip of them doing something radio-ish. Then 10 people will get picked to go on to subsequent rounds until there's just one host from each of the three categories (entertainment, talk, music) left. Each of those three winners gets a good chunk of cash and the opportunity to produce a pilot for a national show. Click on the link below to check it out.
I threw my hat into the ring on this one, creating a mini-show complete with a 40-second breakdown of Jefferson Friedman's orchestral work Sacred Heart: Explosion. Besides getting a chance to see what that sounds like, do check out the rest of the site - it's quite interesting to see how many people want to be public radio show hosts and what their final products are like. I figured if nothing else it'd be good to get some new music out there (amongst the various world-pop and rock station DJ's who are trying out).
If you want to vote or even enter (it's easy to do), watch out for their registration page - it asks you to add two numbers together and the first time you answer the question, no matter what answer you give, it will be wrong. Just expect it, answer it again and it will work.
I had a chance to interview Scottish composer James MacMillan for a November episode of WFIU Public Radio's Profiles program. The composer was here for the premiere of Sun Dogs at Indiana University with the IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble conducted by Carmen Tellez.
He had many fascinating comments about his music, his philosophy, and music's relationship to the Catholic Church. You can hear the interview along with several really terrific musical works here:
I've just returned from Kyiv (Kiev in Russian), where I visited the Kyiv-Lavra Perchersk Monastery, a beautiful, mystical, and fascinating place. But the core of the place for a musician is the sung service in the orthodox chant style. Those monks ROCK, and the acoustics (Lavra is the equivalent of "cathedral") are stunning. I'll post some sound files soon for your listening pleasure.
But it shows you where composers as diverse as Tavener and Rachmaninov draw their power and influence. Ivan Moody, a Tavener disciple, still writes in a style reminiscent of the eastern orthodox church. It gives me much hope to see composers writing more choral music these days, and working with choirs in interesting and complex ways. I wonder if any of Y'all are currently working on pieces influenced by past choral genres and how that's working out for you? Do you see interesting innovations on the horizon of choral genres? Giles Swayne comes to mind...
posted by Cary Boyce
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Female Composer Commissions in the Chronicle of Higher Ed
This article was published today in the Chronicle of Higher Education and reprinted in the Syracuse University News:
How Colleges Can Encourage Female Composers
by Eileen Strempel
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/31/06
If classical music during the 20th and 21st centuries has become increasingly invisible, as reflected in such depressing tomes as Joseph Horowitz's Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (Norton, 2005), then surely the contributions of female composers are so puny as to be nearly undetectable.
Recently I polled my various undergraduate music classes. I was curious to discover which classical performers currently enjoyed favor. Students' voices rose in pitched competition as they championed their artists. I asked about favorite male composers, and the students continued to respond in a rich and varied cacophony ringing with the names Beethoven, Schumann, Copland, and Ligeti. I asked about their favorite female composers, and a few names rang out, including Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler. I added the qualifier "living," and the room dropped to near silence. How are the works of female composers (living or dead) to receive recognition, performance, and recording if most people don't know of their existence?
On the very short list my class generated, there was only one Pulitzer Prize winner: Ellen T. Zwilich (1983). Shulamit Ran (1991) and Melinda Wagner (1999) were left off. Although they may earn such coveted accolades, female composers still generally fail to penetrate the consciousness even of music students. But what emerged from the discussion was that the composers recognized by the students, almost without exception, fell into two categories. Either the composer had been commissioned by the university (as in the case of Libby Larsen and her Syracuse University commission for soprano and string quartet, This Unbearable Stillness: Songs From the Balcony); or works by the composer had been recently performed on the campus by faculty members or students (for example, works by Lori Laitman that were recently premiered by the Syracuse University pianist Ida Trebicka). Recordings played in classrooms or names in textbooks simply didn't make a significant impact. The effectiveness of live performance, especially when connected to an artist residency and the thrill of an exciting premiere, was crucial to creating a lasting memory.
According to data compiled by the National Association of Schools of Music, in 29 institutions reporting, 14 out of 73 composition doctoral students graduating in 2003-4 were women. The reasons that music composition remains a heavily male bastion are, of course, complex. Traditionally women have been actively discouraged from being composers. As Abraham Mendelssohn infamously wrote to his daughter Fanny, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament; never the root of your being and doing." This dissuasion, mired with societal expectations, regrettably continues. Says Larsen: "It's still hard. It's hard for all composers, but especially for women. That one particular prejudice comes up over and over and over again."
Fanny Mendelssohn -- a prolific and talented composer in her own right -- was, in the 19th century, pointedly instructed not to acknowledge composition as part of her public persona. Conversely, perhaps, in the 21st century public recognition is one key to encouraging women to write music. How else can we break the vicious cycle? A lack of visible role models leads to a lack of students leads to a lack of future role models. Visibility implies viability. In the absence of anything near gender parity on current faculties -- and with statistics pointing toward the same for the foreseeable future -- we need to find other means to awaken and nurture women's compositional talents.
Commissioning new work is one way to do that, and colleges and universities are well positioned to be the patrons, but that will require a shift in emphasis. Academe has traditionally served as cultural protector and presenter, not institutional consumer. To commission a work is a powerful gesture, an act of faith and support that encourages the creative life of the composer. By its very nature, commissioning spurs dialogue among the commissioner, the performers, and the composer as the parameters of the commission are decided -- the role in the work of a celebratory or memorial occasion, resources, venues, dates, and so on. Then more-complex discussions concerning musical interpretation and intent develop as the performers gather to rehearse and decipher the various technical, intellectual, and emotional layers of a score.
A successful performance demands the construction of a shared vision. Typical commission contracts ensure the presence of the composer for the final rehearsals preceding the premiere. The impact of Larsen's campus visit, for instance, extended far beyond the actual moments of performance, for between rehearsals she led several provocative round-table discussions for composition students, musicians, and music educators. The composer's efforts may begin with intense solitary work, but the process of musical refinement is relentlessly communal, providing inspiration but also an aesthetic, collaborative, and business role model for young artists.
Ultimately, commissioning works by female composers demonstrates the power of the arts not only to inspire change, but to embody it.
The fact that a request for commissioning new music, especially from female composers, is being made in such a public forum is nothing but good. She brings up some other points about numbers of women composers and the prejudices against them that I'm curious about. Do you feel that her statements hit the mark or, similar to the discussions about the state of concert music today, could these statments sound true but not necessarily reflect what's actually happening today?posted by Rob Deemer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
A More Perfect Union
Drew McManus, over at Adaptistration, is wondering how people feel about the impact of organized labor on the orchestra business. This subject is directly related to something I've been thinking about -- the fact that orchestra jobs are not simply "good jobs" in the standard economicspeak sense of high-paying, or high-pay-low-effort, but desireable for the specific work itself. I would speculate that the importance of the specific job is more important to orchestra players than to people in most other industries, for instance a violin player wants to play violin in an orchestra and that outcome is substantially better than teaching voilin to highschool students or working in arts administration, but a doctor who ends up being a Neurologist rather than a Cardiologist is probably going to be nearly as satisfied. In other words, the marginal utility of the first-choice musician job over the second-choice musician job is substantially greater than the marginal utility between the first and second choice jobs in most other fields.
Basic economics tells us that utility can be analyzed with money -- I spend my $20 on the new Steve Reich CD because that makes me happier than spending it on a lottery ticket or the new Milton Babbitt CD. I wouldn't buy the lottery ticket at any price, but if the Babbitt CD cost, say, $2 I would buy it. Musicians get utility from having a music job, and they get so much more utility from having their first choice job that we can consider it part of the compensation, and that compensation can offset a certain amount of monetary compensation. If you could choose between playing violin in an orchestra for $100K per year versus a job as a lawyer for $100K per year you'd take the orchestra job. What if the job only paid $50K? How about $30K? How about $0? Maybe not, but this is exactly why so many actors and musicians are willing to wait tables for years and years in hopes of getting that break that lets them go pro in their chosen fields.We also know that the demand for orchestra jobs vastly outstrips the supply, or from the other angle the supply of orchestra labor vastly outweighs the demand for it. Sure, some labor is better than others, but even the pool of adequate to superb labor is glutted. Thus, by the rule of supply and demand, the cost of orchestra labor should be dirt-cheap. And this is where collective bargaining comes in.
If the orchestra can force musicians into bidding wars with each other they can get hire at Wal-Martesque wages, but if the musicians band together into a cartel they can demand higher wages. And there are additional benefits as well. In the non-unionized universe an orchestra that wanted to pay higher wages wouldn't be compteitive and would be forced to pay the market rate anyway. Plus, as a result of low wages some of the best talent would be driven out of the market and while the average quality of players would still be good (because of the glutted market) they arguably wouldn't be as good. If your primary selection criterion is price, you force out expensive but high-quality options, but with unionized price-fixing the primary selection criterion becomes skill (and with higher wages the talent pool increases). Higher labor costs probably do result in fewer orchestras, but the ones that survive are healthier. You might reasonably argue that fewer orchestras and higher ticket prices are bad for classical music as a whole, but I would suggest that ticket prices and the supply of concerts rank significantly lower than other cultural factors (coolness, class identity, age identity, etc.) in driving audiences away. So on balance I would say that the downsides for the classical music scene are far outweighed by the benefits.
posted by Galen H. Brown
Thursday, August 24, 2006
'In C' Follow-Up
The first 3 paragraphs of the score posted at Other Minds:
All performers play from the same page of 53 melodic patterns played in sequence.
Any number of any kind of instruments can play. A group of about 35 is desired if possible but smaller or larger groups will work. If vocalist(s) join in they can use any vowel and consonant sounds they like.
Patterns are to be played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to the next. There is no fixed rule as to the number of repetitions a pattern may have, however, since performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, it can be assumed that one would repeat each pattern from somewhere between 45 seconds and a minute and a half or longer.
The first 4 lines of the score as it appears in the 2nd edition of Ralph Turek's Analytical Anthology of Music:
All performers play from the same part.
There are 53 repeating figures, played in sequence.
They are to be taken consecutively with each performer determinig the number of times he repeats each figure before going on to the next.
The pulse is traditionally played by a beautiful girl on the top two octaves of a grand piano. She must play loudly and keep strict tempo for the entire ensemble to follow.
Another notable deviation between these two versions of the scores is that in the OM version, he explicitly indicates how the piece should end. In the Turek version, he does not. In general, the Turek version is much more open and poetic, much more 1964 than the OM version, which is a little more clinical and PC.
It would be interesting to know the history of this revision to the score.
Regarding a comment about erotic text in choral music and a religious choir, a controversial choice can can cause unintended results and schisms.
A couple years ago for an oratorio, I had in mind a "nightmare" movement involving a somewhat occult/erotic text by Baudelaire. At one of the early discussions with the commissioning ensemble, there was a minor shockwave and controversy. Some of the devout among the choir had philosophical allergies to this particular text. I settled on something else, as I felt it my job to make them sound good without dividing them on such issues. But I've sometimes wondered what might have been... maybe I can still use it one day.
Have others had similar experiences? Different solutions? Have you gone to the mattresses over the issue? (sorry...)
posted by Cary Boyce
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Will choral music always be tonal?
I am a huge fan of the late Stravinsky choral works: Requiem Canticles, Canticum Sacrum, Sermon, Narrative and a Prayer, The Dove Descending (Anthem), Babel, and Introitus. (Less fond of The Flood and Threni and those hideous late pieces of Schoenberg.) It seems these works rarely get performed. I remember MTT doing Requiem Canticles in LA in the 80s. It was peculiar to see the string section sitting around with not a hell of a lot to do. It never occurred to me as I got to love that music that it might not be gratifying for the orchestra to play. His cutaway scores seemed to create an orchestration that fostered a roomful of individuals rather than an orchestra.
What I wonder is whether choruses today and in the future will avoid masterpieces like Ligeti's Requiem, or his Lux Aeterna, the Webern cantatas, or the late Stravinsky choral music, just because it's too hard for singers to hear.
What choruses really seem to want is the warm and fuzzy music of Randall Thompson and the ilk; the new age tonality served up by Morton Lauridsen. Stuff they can HEAR. Most choruses in the world are community choruses and they sing what they are able to. Professional choruses are rare in the US. We live with one in LA (LA Master Chorale) and they are supportive of [some] new music.I think the government supported European choruses of the 50s and 60s are long gone. I know that Erik Erikson and his group are famous for being the Kronos of the choral world. But besides them, will choruses of the future perform non-tonal music? Would you compose a large scale "atonal" work at this point in time?
posted by Roger Bourland
Does anyone know if Terry Riley ever revised 'In C'?
Also, can anyone point me to the score for Ligeti's "The Future of Music"?
posted by jodru
Monday, August 21, 2006
New Music Clarification
I've adopted a boilerplate for New Music Liner Notes:
In this work, the composer defibrillates the imitative cells in their discreet segmentation in the form of invariant and hypoglycemic polyphonic inversions. The harmonic milieu, and its subsequent extraterrestrial ambulation, signifies the victimization and hardcore politicization of its own internal variable discontinuities. Therefore, when the rhythmic propulsion, or percussive lack thereof, (and the resulting soaring stagnation of imaginative orchestrational "strata") incorporate the emasculation and subsequent feminizing of the coda-like appendage, the final augmentation (soon diminished) hangs in suspended animation for the duration of the tintinnabulatory extrusion of the vestigial virginal form.
posted by Cary Boyce
Monday, August 14, 2006
Much has been said recently of an “original voice” being much overstated or over-rated.
The music that really counts, the music we all go back to hearing again and again, by performers and composers both, has that most rare of qualities. Bach had it. Mozart had it. Beethoven had it. Mahler had it. There are many imitators, but no one else quite sounds like them. Sergei Prokofiev, Stravinksy, Debussy, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Irving Berlin, and Frank Sinatra had it.
It’s no guarantee of success. There are thousands with an original voice from whom we’ll never hear a note, read a word, or view a paint stroke. There are hosts of others with nothing original or special to say, many with laudable careers, but they probably won’t last more than a decade.
Like most serious artists, I aspire to it, but I try not to worry about it. Like chasing a dream, composers and artists or every discipline can twist and break their psyches trying to find the Holy Grail. Perhaps it appears, or it doesn't. Is it subjective? A matter of taste? Is it marketing? I don’t really know, but I doubt it. As in science, some individuals have a special insight. And every era has their great and original moments.
I think the best we can hope for is to find the magical whisper of an original voice in the shouting morass. And the rest will fade sooner than later.
S’cuse me, gotta go put on some Louis Armstrong ...
posted by Cary Boyce
No More Great Artists
from a Forum in the September 2006 issue of Harper's, on whether or not video games can be used to teach (creative) writing skills:
"Everyone in the overdeveloped world will have the tools they need to create this amazing stuff, whether it be blogs or films or [video] games. None of it will rise to the peaks that we associate with names like Joyce or Proust, but a great deal of it will be fantastic. And there will be so much of it that it will inevitably divide into niches, into small groups devoted to the art they are making. In a way it's the fullfillment of an ancient dream. Everyone can have a creative life and a meaningful dialogue with the culture. Everyone will be an artist, but the price is that no one will be a great artist. There will no longer be a place for such a being."
-Thomas de Zengotita
posted by Corey Dargel
Friday, August 11, 2006
Sun-Dogs, Music, and Religion
James MacMillan was in Bloomington, Indiana last week for the premiere of a new choral work, Sun-Dogs, which was sung by the IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble conducted by Carmen Helena Tellez. It was a grand event, with many workshops, panels, discussions, and of course some fine music making.
He's a thoughtful fellow, and generous with his time and his views. You can read some of his articles, as he doesn't shy away from either religious or political debate.