[Ed. note -- please welcome a new contributor to S21, composer Joseph Dangerfield. As a Fulbright Scholar, Joe spent time at both the Moscow Conservatory and Maastricht Conservatorium, and is currently Assistant Professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.]
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The act of composition, by which I mean the act of artistic creation, is, in reality, very private. We all have private thoughts and ideas, some of which we share with others; some we keep to ourselves. During the conception of those ideas, do we share our train of thought with others? I would say, not typically. So, why was I worrying about what an audience might think of a piece that I had not yet written? Upon careful reflection of the question, my answer astounded me: I considered the audience in the early stages of my work because the academic environment in which I was typically surrounded virtually demanded it. In other words, I felt the subconscious need to “please” the local academy with my work, for various reasons. While lecturing and composing on a Fulbright Grant in Europe (2009-10), I felt no need to consider the academy, the audience, even in a peripheral sense, or anyone else. I was able to focus on my musical and artistic intentions, and compose while thinking only of myself and the performers for whom I was writing. The end result was a piece that I am very proud of, which received an exceptional performance, and an outstanding response from the audience.
While abroad, I also did a lot of reading, which I normally cannot find the time to do in the typical academic year. However, the most engaging book I encountered this year was Glenn Watkins’, The Gesualdo Hex. One of the passages that I found particularly enlightening, with regard to my current quandary, was about composers and serialism, and how the discussion about the merits of such a doctrinaire system ensued during the 1950′s and 60′s.
Watkins begins by stating that Schoenberg, after the period of composition for which he was strictly “serial,” became less interested in allowing the system to control what he wrote, referencing Schoenberg’s late style, and his lengthy correspondence with Leibowitz. The communications between them are quite telling, and give an excellent insight into Schoenberg and his music. Watkins further provides evidence that Boulez was only interested in strict serialism for approximately two years (1950-52), following which he warned composers against such ” arithmetic masturbation.” Berio eventually also agreed with this statement saying that serialism lead to a “tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance.” Watkins goes on to state that according to William Bolcom, “Milton Babbitt’s scientism in the United States came from a different perspective that ultimately congealed in the university composer, who was challenged to provide an intellectual cachet to match that of engineering, philosophy, or science departments.” Watkins further quotes Bolcom: “Composition had to become ‘intellectually respectable’…and serialism felt like science.” Watkins concludes by providing other examples of composers who went through a window of system-controlled composition to find their unique voice. One element that appears to be consistent is that each composer at one point determined that a system was not a replacement for artistic creativity, rather it was one useful tool that could be changed and manipulated to meet one’s artistic needs.
Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between Watkins’ statements and the internal debate that I was having, which led me to the following questions:
1) Are we as composers, today, pressured to write in a particular way or ‘style’ that is perpetuated by the academy, our teachers, or even the audience?
2) If so, how do we overcome the pressure, use what we find relevant, and set out to create an art that is uniquely our own?
Now before you say: “Yes, yes, Joe. We are well aware that serialism can be arithmetically stifling,” I want to point out that the most interesting part of my current conundrum is that the pressure that I feel at home is not to write music of the so-called avant-garde, which I like, but to write more conservative music. At the college where I am currently an assistant professor, concerts of contemporary music receive an audience of maybe twenty; most of them begrudging students that are there to meet specific course requirements. I am told that is because it is a “conservative community,” and no one is interested in and/or understands new music. That statement concerns me as an educator; others are willing to simply allow that moniker to be the reason for not trying to expand the community’s understanding of ‘music as art.’ For instance, while living in Cologne, Germany last year, I worked with German composer/conductor Robert H.P. Platz, a protégé of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The city of Cologne is a beacon for contemporary music. There are concerts presented daily, and usually, to full halls. Robert and I had several discussions about music, modernity, and how fortunate he was to reside in such a place. He told me that “Cologne was not always a center for new music – It is so now due to the forty years that Stockhausen worked to educate the public. He also invited innumerable composers to Cologne for concerts, thereby exposing everyone to a variety of new music. Now there is a network in Cologne that is sustainable.”
I had a similar experience working at the Moscow Conservatory with Ukrainian-born Russian composer Vladimir Tarnopolski and the Ensemble Studio New Music. Tarnopolski, now a professor of composition at the conservatory, was once a student of Edison Denisov. After Denisov’s departure from Moscow to Paris, due to the stifling atmosphere created by the totalitarian regime, Tarnopolski worked tirelessly to bring contemporary music to the forefront of the Russian consciousness; A difficult task following the Soviet era. In 1989, he initiated the Association of Contemporary Music in Moscow. In 1993, he formed the Centre for Contemporary Music in Moscow, and its premiere ensemble, the Ensemble Studio New Music. The conservatory even created a special department to house the centre and the ensemble. In 1994 Tarnopolski began an annual festival of international music called the Moscow Forum, the main focus of which is the integration of Eastern European contemporary music with contemporary music from Western countries. What began as a single-minded effort is now a tireless force. The Centre, its ensemble, and the festival all enjoy enormous success, and perform works by some of today’s most interesting and vibrant composers.
Now that I am back in America, I have renewed hope and vigor, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, which I believe I allowed to wane over the past few years. A colleague and I have formed a new ensemble, called ensemble: Périphérie, whose mission is to promote contemporary music by presenting stimulating and inspiring concerts of new chamber works, by commissioning new works from both emerging and established composers, and by inviting audiences to join us in recognizing great art of our time. One of the primary goals of ensemble: Périphérie is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected–that is, music that lies on the periphery. Our hope is, that with time and effort, we will be able to help bring contemporary music to the forefront of American culture, in the same way that contemporary art has enjoyed prominence here.
for more information about ensemble: Périphérie, please visit our website: http://www.ensembleperipherie.com/Index.htm for more information on Joseph Dangerfield, please visit: http://www.josephdangerfield.com/index3.html or his blog: http://domainemusical.wordpress.com/
 Glenn Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125-128.
 Michael Hicks, “Exorcism and Epiphany: Luciano Berio’s Nones,” Perspectives of New Music 27 (1989): 254.
 Luciano Berio, “Meditation on a Twelve-Tone Horse,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 July 1968.
 Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125.