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Time was the end result of a composer’s efforts was a score and parts on paper. And paper is surprisingly durable – they are still finding Bach manuscripts in Germany after 250+ years. But 21st century composers use a variety of digital media to do their work: notation software, MP3 or .wav files, executable application files and maybe some spreadsheet and word processing files for the business side.
Apart from the variety of files to be stored there is the issue of media durability. We have all probably experienced hard drive failure. Turns out CDs and DVDs are not forever and may degrade after 20 years. Files kept in the cloud may be at risk if the server has some sort of catastrophic failure. And another issue is platform longevity – some of the early music composed by computer 30 years ago can exist only as recordings; the hardware needed to realize it is obsolete and no longer available. Software may be abandoned by the company that created it or your version may not be compatible with later operating systems.
So what is the best thing to do? I know I don’t address all of these issues but I do keep my files in three places: on my PC hard drive, on an offline storage drive (updated from my hard drive twice per year) and in the cloud. My notation software is on a CD so I can reload if my PC fails, and other software that I use is freeware and I keep back-up copies of the executables.
So what is the best practice? What are some of the solutions for the long-term issues? What do you do and what have you found that works best?
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Keeril Makan writes in today’s NY Times:
“The act of composing is in a dynamic relationship with my emotional life. As a result, my compositions are informed — sometimes quite viscerally — by my depression.”
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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.
What do you think?
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An article in the May 14, 2012 New Yorker profiled Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who examined the effect of disruptive technologies on large corporations. Here is an excerpt from the article about one of his first case studies:
“The first industry that Christensen studied was disk drives. He saw that the companies that made fourteen-inch drives for mainframe computers had been driven out of business by companies that made eight-inch drives for mini computers, and then the companies that made the eight-inch drives were driven out of business by companies that made 5.25-inch drives for PCs.
What was puzzling about this was that the eight-inch drives weren’t as good as the fourteen-inch drives and the 5.25-inch drives were inferior to the eight-inch drives. In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior.
But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies, ‘because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it.’”
To repeat, here is the key insight of Christensen’s research: “In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. “
Christensen found that big successful companies typically saw no threat from inferior products with poor performance and so ignored them in favor of their existing high-end, high margin products. Why try to manufacture millions of 5.25 inch PC disk drives for just a few dollars profit when your much better eight-inch drives were already selling for hundreds each in the minicomputer market? But when the disruptive technologies became accepted – and improved – it was too late for the fat corporations living off legacy products.
Is there a lesson in this for new music? I think so. Let us assume that the tools used by traditional performing organizations – the concert hall, the expert players, the rock-star conductor and the traditional commissioned composer – all produce a much better product experience than the computer-generated MP3 realizations posted by Internet musicians and composers on-line. And the revenue coming from down-loadable music is certainly minimal. So if you are John C. Adams, for example, why would you undertake to realize your music for the on-line audience when the result will likely be less satisfactory and much less lucrative than writing a new score for the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
This, I submit, fits the classic Christensen pattern of a disruptive technology. The computer-realized music is perhaps less impressive than what is heard in the concert hall, but it is also very easy for the composer to get his music out there and very easy for millions to hear it. So, while new music realized electronically is perhaps inferior in quality, it is also low cost and widely available at a time when the traditional performing organizations are doing less and less with new music. Will our philharmonic orchestras perceive the disruptive effects of this technology and will they be able to stay on the cutting edge of music? Clayton Christensen would say no.
What do you say?
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The Seattle Symphony announces the third Seattle Symphony Celebrate Asia Composition
Competition. The Competition seeks to promote and recognize emerging composers who are
interested in Asian culture, music and traditions.
In partnership with local community groups, the Seattle Symphony honors and celebrates Seattle’s
Asian community with an annual Celebrate Asia event. The concept originated in 2008, through
collaboration with local Asian leaders who were keen to strengthen bonds with the broader
community through a cultural celebration.
The Seattle Symphony presents its 110th season in 2012–2013, under the artistic leadership of
Music Director Ludovic Morlot. The Orchestra performs in the acoustically superb Benaroya Hall in
downtown Seattle. The Symphony is internationally recognized for its adventurous programming of
contemporary works, its devotion to the classics, and its extensive recording history. From September
through July, the Symphony is heard live by more than 315,000 people.
The Seattle Symphony has gained international prominence with more than 140 recordings, twelve
GRAMMY® nominations and two Emmys. The 2012–2013 season marks its 110th year and the
second for Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
Award and Performance
The winning composer will receive a $1,000 award and an opportunity to visit Seattle for the world
premiere. The winning score will be premiered by the Seattle Symphony on January 27, 2013, in
Benaroya Hall at the annual Celebrate Asia concert.
All composers born after January 1, 1978, are eligible.
Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony Music Director
Simon Woods, Seattle Symphony Executive Director
Elena Dubinets, Seattle Symphony Vice President of Artistic Planning
1) Works must have Asian influences (for example: Asian folk melodies, Asian stories and
legends, Asian traditional instruments).
2) Works must be new, original and accessible.
3) Works should be 3 to 6 minutes in duration. (There will be 30 minutes allotted to rehearsing
this new work.)
4) Works should be for orchestra or chamber orchestra with instrumentation no larger than
3333 – 4331 – T+3 – hp – kybd – str. Woodwind doublings are allowed.
5) The submitted work must have had no prior performances.
6) Interested composers should submit:
- A legible, bound, full score
- A recording of the piece on a CD (midi-format is OK)
- A clear description of the composition’s Asian influence(s)
- A biography, with current address, e-mail address, and phone number
- If selected, professionally prepared parts and 2 scores will be required 90 days prior
to the first rehearsal
Entry Fee and Deadline
There is no entry fee. All entries must arrive no later than Friday, August 31, 2012. Seattle Symphony
is not responsible for lost or damaged material. The winning composition will be announced before
Friday, September 28, 2012.
Send submission to:
Seattle Symphony Celebrate Asia Composition Competition
ATTN: Amy Bokanev
P.O. Box 21906
Seattle, WA 98111-3669
Questions and inquiries may be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org
How many performers and ensembles out there are willing to play new music? Probably hundreds. How many composers and compositions are out there waiting to be played? Probably tens of thousands. A call for scores can literally bury a performing group in hopeful submissions. The dismal arithmetic of composition means that that the number of composers and compositions far outnumber those groups willing and able to play new music. And even then the playing field is tilted toward a relatively small pool of composers associated with institutions, so the odds of getting one’s work performed are slim indeed.
Slim, but not impossible. Networking, persistence and determination can win out. The recent efforts of our friend Dennis Bathory-Kitsz to get his opera performed were heroic by any measure: he applied for state grants, did fund-raising, promotions and solicited donations at every opportunity. He organized the cast, the musicians and supervised set construction. All this despite the fact that his basement flooded, it snowed on the day of the first performance and even his house cat died during the run-up to the performance. And yet, after three well-attended performances, Dennis will likely have more fund-raising to do just to break even. How many of us would endure what Dennis has gone through to get his work performed?
Given the imbalance between new compositions and the number of groups who can play new music – what is the composer to do?
One obvious solution is to start your own performing ensemble and be your own composer-in-residence. This was essentially what Philip Glass and Steve Reich did in the early days of minimalism. Steve Moshier – to name just one west coast example – is doing this with his Liquid Skin Ensemble. In New York Bang on a Can is perhaps the most well-known group. And there are many other examples of smaller groups playing original music in unexpected venues: James Ross, Richard Lainhart, Michael Waller and Dave Seidel in the east, Paul Bailey in Los Angeles.
Similarly, by networking you could get close to a performing organization and write pieces that work to their strength. I do this by writing choral music for our church choir – it’s not the Met but still a very rewarding avocation.
Still another, more radical solution, is to bypass the need for performance altogether – and write electro-acoustic music. The Internet makes this option particularly attractive by delivering your music world-wide directly to the ear buds of listeners at essentially zero cost.
So what is your method? What works best or least?
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I recently attended a concert featuring music by Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak is one of those much beloved composers whose music I find incredibly inconsistent due, in no small part, to his incredible facility in composition. To paraphrase a conductor friend, he just doesn’t seem to struggle enough for his notes (this friend was referring not to Dvorak but to Camille Saint-Saens, however, a composer whose work, in my opinion, embodies this dichotomy even more problematically than Dvorak). Being an extremely opinionated consumer of social media, I immediately posted something to this effect on my Facebook page, something with elicited a minor controversy and one of the most stimulating discussions I’ve ever had on my wall. A couple of things came up in this discussion that have stayed with me: 1. what is this struggle and why is it so important? And 2. Is it okay to criticize the GREATS of the past?
So, what do I mean by struggle? A romantic (or Romantic) aspect of this comes to us from, like many things, Beethoven. Beethoven famously and mightily worked out his ideas in copious sketchbooks before setting them down in a score. His struggle, mind you, is rather mythologized, but it added to his mystique as a composer, even in life, and remains a part not just of his legacy but, being perhaps the gold standard of GREAT composer, of all our compositional legacies (well, at least our baggage).
Mozart is the most famous and sublime antithesis to this notion. Young Wolfgang Amadeus, perhaps the first freelance composer in Western music history, had famous, prolific facility for composition, sometimes producing sets of parts before producing an autograph manuscript of a score. Much like Beethoven’s struggle, however, this facility is largely the product of mythmaking, particularly stemming from Mozart’s years as a stupefying child prodigy and propagated primarily by his father, Leopold. Mozart, unlike Beethoven, didn’t see the need to work out his ideas on paper, but you’d better believe that ideas as gloriously worked out as his, particularly in the works of his last decade, were arrived at after careful consideration.
As to the question of criticism of the GREATS: a composer friend of mine took issue with this notion, suggesting, somewhat ironically, I think, that I must be supremely confident in my own compositional abilities to feel comfortable criticizing GREAT composers like Dvorak or Saint-Saens for “not being great enough.” Hubris (I am confident in my abilities or I wouldn’t be a professional composer, but I try, at least, to keep grounded about where I fit in. We stand, after all, on the shoulders of giants), however, is not what drives my criticism.
Just as writers must be prolific readers, so should composers be prolific listeners. In the act of listening (or reading) one absorbs certain lessons about how to write one’s own work. How else are we to arrive at something resembling a confident voice as artists if we are not free to criticize, good or ill, the work of others, good or GREAT? The key, of course, is to apply that same criticism–turned up to eleven, perhaps– to our own work.
I bring this up because Dvorak teaches me about my own strengths and weaknesses as a composer. Like Dvorak (or Saint-Saens, or Hindemith…), I have an amazing facility at generating notes, something which has proven to be a double edged sword, to say the least. On the one hand, I am able to finish a piece relatively quickly, which comes in handy when facing a looming deadline. On the other hand, I have become increasingly suspicious of my initial ideas, and will agonize for long periods over my ideas (in my head and on the computer), often putting pieces down for weeks or months at a time (when the schedule allows it) before reaching a final decision on a passage. This is more problematic the older I get, it seems, although recently I have found that ideas are flowing very easily…which fills me with dread that the piece I’m working on is no good!
Perhaps this dread is also part of the struggle. Or perhaps Dvorak’s and Saint-Saens’ advocates on my Facebook wall are right: not every piece should be a masterpiece. Maybe I should just relax and let pieces do what they will do. I should be so lucky as to find the kind of audience that Dvorak and Saint-Saens (and yes, even Hindemith) enjoy!
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“For me the only new music would be music that a composer of genius successfully created on the periphery of all the movements of our time and in the face of all current slogans and manifestos. Generally speaking, whatever the intellectual movements in force, not enough attention is paid to matters of temperament and originality…” –Henri Dutilleux
On 22 April, the newly established Ensemble: périphérie will begin its inaugural tour. The ensemble’s 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 E:p is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected—that is, music that lies on the periphery.
From our “Call for Scores,” we received over 130 high-quality submissions and selected the following composers for performance: David Smooke, Philippe Bodin, Mike Barnett, and Mark Zuckerman. We also commissioned a new work by German composer Klaus Hübler, and will perform works by Russian composer Irina Dubkova, and German composer Robert H. P. Platz, one of our advisory board members.
If you are in the area, please come to one of our upcoming performances:
22 April at 7:00 pm – Daehler-Kitchin Auditorium, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA
24 April at 7:30 pm – Riverside Recital Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, hosted by the Center for New Music
25 April at 7:30 pm – University of Minnesota, Morris
Please also check our website for more information, and for audio excerpts of the works performed (coming soon).
The Washington Post’s music writer Anne Midgette put out an interesting blog post about the importance of linking to other critics when publishing a review on a piece or concert or CD. I found it pleasing to read a prominent music critic’s acknowledgment that her opinion is not the be-all, end-all.
In contrast, Montreal Gazette guest blogger Arthur Kaptainis published a preview of the Montreal New Music Festival a couple weeks ago where, at the end of the post, he suddenly rails against Michael Daugherty’s Grammy win. Kaptainis’ opinions aside, he is factually incorrect inasmuch as he cites Daugherty’s win for the “Metropolis Symphony”, when the New Classical Composition Grammy went to Daugherty’s piano concerto, “Deus ex Machina”. As I read Kaptainis’ piece, it became clear he was using Daugherty to attack the Grammy’s in general.
Just wanted to share these with our community of critics to see what others think!
To provide full disclosure, Michael Daugherty personally drew my attention to the Montreal Gazette article. I am a student at the University of Michigan, where he teaches, but he is not my private instructor.
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I just saw this blog post on Alex Ross’ twitter feed and read through it. It makes a great argument (by great, I mean it uses real statistics) to prove funding the arts produces MORE jobs than funding other, more popular areas of the economy, namely alternative energy.
Here is Ross’ tweet, to whet your appetite:
“Alternative energy…generates 1.67 jobs per $100,000 spent, while the arts generates 2.94 jobs per $100,000 spent”
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