The Guardian recently ran an article titled “Can You Make Any Kind of Living as an Artist?” and the first sentence stated: “With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet.” This is not exactly news to those of us in the musical arts – so the more practical question for composers might be: “How can I get more done in less time?” Can a 21st century composer forced to work a day job hope to produce the output of, say, a Bach or Haydn? The answer, surprisingly, may be ‘yes’.
Let’s look at are some historical examples of composing productivity that we can use as a benchmark.
During 1724 and 1725 JS Bach wrote one cantata per week for the Leipzig churches where he had recently been installed as Kantor. Each cantata was about 20 minutes of music and consisted of choral, instrumental and keyboard parts. Bach had to compose, notate, rehearse and perform this music each week, so his productivity, assuming a 40 hour week, was something like 2 hours spent composing for each minute of music performed.
GF Handel raised the bar on composer productivity in 1741 by completing the ‘Messiah’ in just 24 days. This famous oratorio runs some 136 minutes and has 259 pages in the original score and works out to a rate of composition of almost 40 minutes per week. If we assume he worked 8 hours per day, this calculates out to about 1.4 hours of composing per minute of music. This does not include rehearsing or copying out of parts – so Handel and Bach were probably about equal in terms of composing efficiency.
Josef Haydn produced some 340 hours of music over a 42 year career. If we assume he did this in standard 40 hour, 5-day weeks, we get an output of something like 9.7 minutes per week – requiring an average of a bit more than 4 hours of composing per minute of music. Notice that Haydn worked at a rate about half that of the most skilled Baroque composers – but he is still considered very prolific.
As an experiment in 1998 I took one week of my vacation and tried to write a Baroque church cantata. And to my astonishment I actually succeeded in producing 8 minutes of usable material. Of course my 8 minutes weren’t as good as Bach, but it was performed during a church service very much as Bach would have done. Throw in a couple more hours for choir rehearsal and my composing efficiency was about 5.25 hours of composing per minute of music. Not a lot worse than Haydn!
But here is the thing: when I was writing my 8 minute cantata I noticed that only about half the time was spent actually creating music. The rest was spent breaking out parts and checking them, transposing for various instruments, making copies and organizing the pages into a rational format, etc. In other words my composing efficiency was cut in half because of the requirements of performance.
21st century composers now have the capability of realizing and delivering their music electronically – there is no need for notation and performance – and there are computers to increase our productivity over 18th and 19th century practices. I have been composing electronic ambient music for about 2 years. I do this by a combination of notation and processing – this music is not written for performance. In the first half of 2012 I have produced some 5.5 hours – realized by PC and delivered to the Internet. I have a full time job but even so I am producing over 12 minutes per week. So my composing output is something like 25% greater than that of Haydn. Now I’m no Haydn – and although I like my music it’s possible that I’m actually making 12 minutes of crap per week. Even so, I will only get better at what I am writing and can do so knowing that I don’t have to be a full-time composer to achieve a historically high output.
Contrast my situation with the composer who writes for performance – his efficiency will be only 50% of what I can achieve, and the number of new pieces performed each year for even a busy, well-connected composer is likely to be in the single digits. So his progress is restrained by the slower pace of writing for performance and his art will take longer to develop. Performance is presently deemed the successful end result of the composing process – but the lack of performance opportunities and the efficiencies to be gained via electronic music would seem to be compelling for those of us who are increasingly composing part-time by necessity. Sooner or later those among us with real talent – and the inevitable day job – will be working as I am, reaping the benefits of improved composing efficiency through electronics.
The most dramatic effect of the Internet on the art of music, therefore, may be the breaking of the historical chain of composer, performer and listener. Music will henceforth be composed primarily for listening – rather than for performing.
[Note: Philip Fried is a composer mentioned before on S21; I've known him forever as a long-time commenter over at NewMusicBox, and as composer-in-residence for Minnesota's Opera Bob. Phil had a bit of a brain-worm spinning around in his head, and asked if he could share this thought over here at our forum.]
Bear with me. Stockhausen created an opera, part of which requires an instrumental performance in moving helicopters. I saw this on video. John Cage creates a work where the player doesn’t ‘play’ in the traditional musical sense, but turns a page in time. (It would be easy to say that this is simply a theater piece for a musician to perform, Mr. Cage was a theater composer after all.) Recent European music plays a lot with timbral similarity and disparity. In the vocal realm an opera can have editorial that can’t be perceived from hearing the work. Sound artists create works that are site specific.
These works have a similarity; in effect they are creating new instruments. That is, the instruments are not playing music so much as the “music” creates a singular and unique instrument. Sometimes it’s a disposable, one-performance-only work. Other times it’s features are reusable. The laptop is not the instrument itself, rather it is part of a larger exploration of time, space, and event. A part of many.
A performance in a moving helicopter implies that the moving space itself is part of a site specific instrument. Is the video a useful recreation or not?
Naturally all musical ensembles and performing abilities — chamber music, grand opera, solo piano, recital — have their particular time and place to perform. Then where and in what context might beginners, advanced, students and professionals in these different styles perform? Strictly speaking these rules are no longer the case. The space can become part of the work.
An orchestra has long been considered an instrument with many performers; so too are bands and many other instrumental configurations. The creation of “super instruments” — that is, joining several similar or different acoustic/electric instruments into a single formation or unit that act as one instrument (that is mostly rhythmic or gestural unison) — is quite popular especially in Europe, combining an instrument with a voice or voices, or electronics as a single formation. Or the melody, the obbligato, and the accompaniment act as one multifarious singularity. All kinds of composers and sound artists are creating sounds and music that explore and develop these new solo and multi-player instruments.
It seems to me that post-modernism is focused on music that creates new instruments, rather than in modernism which used instruments to create new music. If that makes any sense… Thoughts?
[Ed. Note -- Jeff Harrington has been doing the composer-promotion thing on the web just about as early as anyone could. Now working out of France, Jeff has written a bit about his own long experience, and wanted to share that with you all.]
Here’s a short article I wrote upon request from somebody teaching a course in Digital Musicianship. I offer it as a way to encourage discussion about the costs and benefits of the free culture model. Please pardon the informal nature of it…
My strategy… is basically to get my music into as many people’s hands as possible without expectations of renumeration. What happened to my wife and I in the early 80′s informed the process where I invented the free culture system.
We’d both had to drop out of college, me from Juilliard and Elsie from Pratt because of money problems. We were quite angry about this and started a street art project. This was 1982. At the same time we started showing Elsie’s paintings on the street in the West Village, right on Spring Street to be exact in the heart of Soho. We showed these huge paintings with a sign saying, “Not for Sale.”
This was pretty shocking to people and we started getting more and more interested in seeing where that could take us. We created series of non-destructive art works in chalk and with rubber stamps and displayed them all over NYC. Eventually, we became so famous (or infamous) that we started a whole mini-art movement in NYC and started receiving death threats… we ended up having to flee NYC, broke and regroup in New Orleans.
In New Orleans we continued giving our art away through the mail art networks. These were exchanges where you’d send a piece of art to somebody and then they’d send you something back. These turned into zines eventually, and from there into multiples and even gallery shows. When the computer networks started up in the early 80′s with BBS’s it was a natural progression to take our art give-away there.
I was probably the first serious artist to use the BBS system to distribute art, although I’m sure there were a few more; nobody at the time seemed to have come from the street art/mail art networks. I uploaded the score (as a set of GIF images) to my Variations for String Quartet onto a BBS in 1987 which is probably the earliest music give away. I started distributing MIDI files of my pieces around this time. It was very interesting to upload a MIDI file or a graphic and then watch it get uploaded by a fan to another site. At about the same time I started embedding my music into synthesizer patch downloads. I first distributed my Acid Bach series as a component of a synthesizer patch library I created for the purpose of having a compelling download. That is, I designed the patch library so that people would want it and coincidentally listen to my music. This way they’d have a high quality musical experience akin to the MP3 playback today through the use of the same synthesizer. Read the rest of this entry »
Literally… For a while now, and with far too little recognition, a group of composer-students at Michigan State University have been running their own weekly videocast/podcast. Called SoundNotion, it’s a place where composers share geek-talk with — and more importantly, for — other composers. Whatever’s going on, from the recent Pulitzers to new hot works, current web memes to just your general composerly “what’s up with that?!?”, SoundNotion is a reasonably smart, witty, casual place to catch up with concerns of up-and-coming composers figuring out this musical world today. The regular cast includes Patrick Gullo, David MacDonald, Sam Merciers and Nate Bilton, enhanced with the occassional guest composer, guest interviews, etc. etc. Here’s the latest episode, with topics including:
Q2 (from WQXR) has put together a list of 100 composers under 40.
The contemporary classical music website Sequenza 21(http://www.sequenza21.com), in partnership with Manhattan New Music Project (http://www.mnmp.org/), is pleased to issue a call for scores. Composers of any age may submit a single work with the following instrumentation: violins (2), viola, cello, piano, and percussion. Works for smaller groupings (solos, duos, trios, etc.) that employ the above instruments are especially welcome. In the interest of performing as many entries as possible, pieces that are shorter in duration may be preferred.
Several pieces will be selected from these entries for our 2011 concert in New York City (date/location TBA), performed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble – ACME (http://acmemusic.org). The program committee will include Christian Carey (Sequenza 21), Clarice Jensen (ACME), and Hayes Biggs (Manhattan School of Music).
There is no entry fee. There is also no remuneration apart from the performance. Those composers selected for the concert will be responsible for their own travel and accommodations should they wish to attend the event.
Scores with CD recordings (if available) will be accepted at the address below until 5 PM on Monday, January 31, 2011. Please do not send parts at this time. Materials will be returned if accompanied by an SASE with appropriate postage.
Sequenza 21/MNMP 2011 concert
243 West 30th Street,
New York, NY 10001
Deadline: 5 PM on January 31, 2011 (receipt of materials; not postmark deadline)
Age limit: none
Entry fee: none
Limitations: only one (1) work per entrant will be considered.
Instrumentation: vlns (2), vla, clo, pno, perc
Prize: a New York performance by ACME, sponsored by Sequenza 21 and MNMP.
Return of materials: With SASE
Submitted works that do not conform to the above guidelines cannot be considered for inclusion on the program.
Magnus Lindberg’s important early opus Kraft received its long-belated NY premiere this past week. While the requirements for the piece itself – a large orchestra, massive percussion section, antiphonal spatializing, electronics, amplification, and several soloists – are daunting enough to make the piece a logistically challenging one to present, Lindberg goes still further to personalize its requirements. He stipulates that the percussion section use found materials from a local junkyard in their performance of the work, thereby locating each performance and making it a site-specific entity.
Here’s a video of the NYPO’s percussionists going on a scavenger hunt with Lindberg in preparation for the NY performances of Kraft.
This type of piece personalization makes each orchestra’s rendering of the work a unique experience; but it’s also curtailed the number of organizations who have, to date, presented Kraft.
Kraft, and other pieces with daunting requirements, raise certain aesthetic questions for composers. Is it important for each performance of a new piece to have a sense of personalization? Should composers strive to think big, even if it means that they’ll get less performances as a result? Or is a more portable and utilitarian view preferable?
Of course, one can make strong a case for both options and many variations in between. Lindberg himself has composed works which are far more easily programmed than Kraft!
But the piece does throw down a gauntlet. Composers: are you willing to wait years for performances of your music if that’s what making highly personal work requires? Or do you prefer getting your music out into the world right away and thus favor more practical solutions?
Last May I began my monthly task of searching for composition competitions, calls for scores, etc., and came upon the Indianapolis Composition Competition. I noted the substantial cash award, plus the performance by the ICO as part of Indiana State University’s 44th Contemporary Music Festival. The announcement stated that:
The Indiana State University Contemporary Music Festival/Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Composition Competition was established to recognize outstanding composers of orchestral music. In addition to a monetary prize, the composer receiving first place will be invited to attend a performance of the winning composition by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra as part of the Festival’s activities. The winner also will be invited to speak at the Festival on a topic relating to his or her music. Other guests featured at the three-day Festival include the Principal Guest Composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, guest pianist Michael Kirkendoll, guest scholars, and composers participating in the Music Now concert. Since its beginning, more than 200 established and emerging composers—including eighteen winners of the Pulitzer Prize and five winners of the Grawemeyer Award—have participated in the Festival.
My immediate reaction (particularly to the bolded sentence) was “Ok, Joe, you have 0.01% chance of even being seriously considered. Is it really worth the time and $20 entry fee?” I pondered my options for a bit and came to the conclusion, that yes, it was worth the time and entry fee, because if I did NOT enter, then I had a 0.0% chance of obtaining anything. So, I entered, and had completely forgotten about the competition until I received an email and letter last week stating that I had, in fact, won the award. I was stunned. OK – now what?
I contacted the hosts and awarding organization and thanked them for the award, and told them that I was honored and happy to accept. They said “Great! Now send us the parts!” I responded, “OK, I will!” I hung up. Then a sense of dread immediately ensued – I was planning to make some minor revisions to the piece following its premiere in April 2010 and I had not yet done so. I reminded myself to stay calm, clear my mind, and then I set to work. I finished the revisions in a couple of afternoons, and am now preparing the parts.
Now that the initial shock of winning the award and the stages of hurried preparations are behind me, I reflected upon my initial thought – not to enter – and must laugh a bit at myself. Had I not entered, I would not have won. My advice to all of the “young and emerging composers?” Enter every competition you can. If you do not have a piece that fits the instrumentation, then take a year and write one for the next year’s competition (if it is annual). I am not suggesting that composers should “dive-bomb” every competition, rather we should take the time to search for competitions and calls for scores (I do this once every month), mark the competitions that we feel are important, and work diligently toward our goals. We are the best arbiters of our music. If we do not make the effort, who will?
[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.
I’ve been following the Bravo TV reality series, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” (fifth episode this week). It tracks a group of young-ish artists, most of whom have already been exhibited, and assigns them a fresh project each week to be conceived and completed in about 1.5 days.
The completed works are then displayed in a private gallery showing, followed by a critique from a panel of judges (a core of regulars, plus one fresh prominent figure per week; one week it was Andres Serrano.) The projects range from utilitarian-but-arty (design a book cover for a classic novel re-issue) to almost-unspecified (“do something outrageous”), and at times the artists receive their assignments by lot, with no say as to the subject agreeing with their own affinities (or preferred medium).
Although it’s the usual winnowing-out design typical of such programs — and I don’t at all care who gets tapped as eventual winner — I’d pinpoint the same two interesting elements within each hour-long segment:
• The very different processes each of the artists follows in interpreting the assigned project. These are profiled in some detail — surprise! — and follow the gradual development of each new work. This manages to take up a big slice of the program, some 20+ minutes. It’s exhilarating to see cameras paying attention to a working-out that stems from labor which is primarily ‘head-work’. And rare.
• A refrain in the judges’ comments, present virtually every week: that the works they find successful do *in some respect* provide for viewers to respond to the piece — and actively. (For example, they very much admired works in which the artist incorporated a mirror, or sign-in boards to register comment, or placed him/herself actually physically into the piece; etc.)
Of course the judges want the artist’s individual personality to be expressed in the piece; but beyond that, and far from an auteur context where a viewer is only meant to “receive” an utterly complete document, the judges want the art to invite the viewer to respond, so that the work is ‘incomplete’ unless and until someone reacts to it in a way that registers to other viewers. (This forested tree demands the listening ear be there! so its fall can be heard.)
There’s plenty of opinion flying about throughout the episode — in addition to the judges, the artists themselves comment liberally on one another’s work throughout the show. If you pay no mind to the trumped-up personality conflicts and the bland or fatuous criticism (or the commercials), the show can be worth screening.
The level of the works — particularly those by three of the competitors still ‘alive’ — is certainly professional. And the prize is $100,000, plus a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. Sarah Jessica Parker is one of the program originators.
Would that composers could reap the same on-camera attention for our head-scratching hours…!
Too long has music been subject to the limitations of the human hand,
and subject as well to the interfering interpretations of a middle-man:
the performer. A composer wants to speak to his public direct. Machines (if properly constructed and properly written for) are capable of niceties of emotional expression impossible to a human performer.
I came across the above statement from Percy Grainger (quoted in Richard Taruskin’s monumental Oxford History of Western Music [volume 5: The Late Twentieth Century]) while preparing a lecture this week on the impact of electronic music in 20th century music. I myself have never been much of a practitioner of electroacoustic composition, although I have done some tinkering around studios during my student years, but I have a number of friends and colleagues who are incredibly passionate about electronic music. What none of them share, however, is a sense that the inabilities of performers drives them into the computer music studio (most of these composers — people like Alexandra Gardner, Evan Chambers, Daniel Eichenbaum, Sam Pellman, Steven Gorbos, and many others — in fact are quite adept and comfortable writing for live performers as they are working in the computer studio).
I understand the historical context in which Grainger made this statement. The first half of the 20th century was a time rife with musical experimentation and a very real sense—one that still permeates some musicological circles—that a drastic break from past practice had been accomplished. This sense of giddy experimentation was accompanied by growing frustration from composers at the inability of certain performers to adequately realize the sounds these men and, increasingly, women were envisioning, particularly in the area of rhythm. Composers as diverse as John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Conlon Nancarrow and, as we’ve seen, Percy Grainger, were driven to reveries in which they imagined a music made entirely through mechanical means. Varèse realized this vision in a justly famous composition, Poème Électronique, but had to wait almost two decades before the technology existed to create this work. Nancarrow, dissatisfied with the abilities of performers to realize his mathematically complex rhythmic relationships retreated musically into the pre-electronic automata of the pianola or player piano (much as his political views forced him into exile in Mexico shortly after his return from fighting in the Spanish Civil War). Neither Varèse nor Nancarrow, however, ultimately rejected live performance; Varèse continuing to compose for combined instrumental and electronic forces into the 1950s and Nancarrow lived long enough to see and work with performers who had developed the technique to realize many of his player piano Studies on the standard concert grand as well as in transcriptions for large ensembles.
Why do I ramble like this? Well, to me the relationship between a composer and a performer is one of the most rewarding professional relationships one can have. Not only that, for a working composer it is simply essential to develop strong relationships with performers, who, other than the composer him/herself is the strongest advocate for a work or even a body of work. Not only that, but to read such a thought from Grainger, who aside from being a composer (known primarily today for infectious and extremely charming and clever music for wind ensemble, much of it utilizing folk music from the British isles) was quite accomplished as a pianist is surprising and a bit shocking. It made me wonder, also: are such views prevalent among any composers working today? Are any of you fellow composers out there dissatisfied with the level of performance available to you (or perhaps it is simply the unavailability of performance outlets) and thus driven toward electroacoustic composition not for the compositional possibilities and expanded palette such electronic tools present but because, quite simply, electronic realization is the best performance you dream about?