Archive for April, 2005

Are we better off dead? If you look at music history, the composers that have remained as household names were well-known or established during their lifetime. There is no such thing as a composer becoming known post-mortem. If we cannot achieve status in this lifetime, it is unlikely that we will later. Therefore, composing for posterity is an illusion. I have a close example: my father, Errol Parker, who passed away in 1998, and whose contribution is acknowledged in jazz history books. I was really disappointed to see that there was no interest for his work, not one performance offer, not even from the musicians who closely worked with him. We actually are not better off dead!

There are just too many of us. The American Music Center alone has 2,500 members! As the opportunities dwindle, the needs are multiplied. This is a situation of too much demand and little offer, therefore we are placed in a weak position, like workers in a recession who have to remain unemployed or take less or no pay.

People want music for free. Young people who crave it cannot afford it. I personally have a hard time blaming them for stealing files on the internet, given the financial burden put on students in this country. Where does this leave us, the music-makers? It will take a long time before the industry adjusts to selling songs on the internet, and it would take a gigantic amount of song downloads at 99 cents each to amount to anything significant.

As a result of the way the institutions are structured, there are too many limitations on artistic freedom. Programs are content-oriented. I don’t want to be told what subject to compose or even what instrumentation. In fact, why should any composer need a ‘subject’? We are not writing program music. Because of film and television, people need stories, so we are compelled to write a ‘story’ for each piece, when it should be unnecessary. Furthermore, if some program gives me the story or subject, I find it limiting, not motivating.

Composing in this day and age means being actively involved in not only the writing the performing and presenting of new work. Whereas writing only requires time (and even time can be hard to squeeze), presenting requires budgets. For many composers the only way to present their work is to support it themselves, and how long can we continue to do this? As we get older, as we get pushed out of the funding opportunities (everything is geared towards ‘emerging’ artists or under 35), and as regulars jobs are more difficult to obtain, composing becomes a luxury we can no longer afford.

There is no encouragement to compose. In fact, everything seems to dissuade us from keeping up the work: no commissions – the ineluctable reality of being for ever ghettoized.

Can’t think of a new piece that fits in a conventional mold.

Making a truly inspired work would take a year of free time.

We’ve done enough already.

Realistically, if we stop composing no one will miss anything or be affected in any significant way.

Regardless, I just started a new piece, and I really can’t find any rational reason to write it.

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I believe that one of the main reasons some composers and critics are so keen on taking a stand against serialism is because of its dominance. There is nothing wrong with the style itself if taken in context. I have enjoyed music written in that style when the composer uses the series melodically (such as Schoenberg and Berg) rather than mathematically. The important point is that serialism is the last of the dominant styles.

Up until the early sixties, classical music could be divided between dominant style (i.e. serialism) and an avant-garde that would by definition not be taken seriously. But the style explosion that occurred in the early sixties was a musical revolution. What the new pieces had in common was a totally different approach to performing and relating to an audience – very long pieces, many hours for instance, or Charlotte Moorman performing in the nude with her cello – and the redefinition of the building blocks of a piece, such as tonal center, continuity, rhythm and tuning. The use of equal temperament and the A=440 reference pitch were in question. Many different movements emerged from this revolution, the main one being minimalism, but it never really became the dominant style, as it would have in the past, because serialism was held in place by academia and institutions, so it continued to exist simultaneously. To these two major trends, newer experimental, microtonal, post-minimalist, totalist and other less definable styles flourished but were never fully acknowledged.

This phenomenon is similar to what happened in art in the beginning of the 20th century: once figurative painting was put in question, the new styles emerged, such as geometric abstraction, expressionism, cubism, abstract lyricism, abstract expressionism, conceptual art and pop art. Greg Sandow, in his artsjournal blog, recently made an interesting comparison between serialism and abstact painting like the work of Jackson Pollock. I would see more of a parallel between geometric abstraction like the work of Mondrian, Albers and Ellsworth Kelly and serialism, and put Jackson Pollock in the realm of free improvisation as in free jazz. What is interesting is to look at our music scene and apply a curatorial perspective to what is happening? Let’s consider serialism as a style of the past – nevertheless, as valid as impressionism was at the time. What is objectionable is stylistic dominance. In the arts, it is widely understood that there is no unity of style and no necessity for it. I am asking for the same freedom for composers as visual artists have. We are a culture of cultures, every piece unwittingly refers to so many others, but reorients the viewer or listener towards a certain goal. But people like to see things in opposites: serialism vs. post-classic, downtown vs. uptown – maybe because Western ethics are based on the opposition of good and evil, whereas Eastern ethics focus on unity or “oneness”. The enlightened perspective is to see where the opposites connect – like the Yin Yang sign, where the white and black are perfectly balanced within a circle. I tend to see everything as closely related, even uptown and downtown. As a matter of fact, the tables are beginning to turn on downtown. Some composers seem keen on having “downtown” material, they don’t want to be called “uptown”. People are beginning to crave the political correctness, the uncompromising authenticity the downtown tag carries. And there is a seductive element in downtown music, is playful, it’s full of surprises and twists, and not so hard on the ear and nerves as some earlier 20th century music. But as downtown is being stylistically co-opted, a kind of fake downtown is likely to form and someone will have to sort out who’s real, while, from a practical standpoint, downtowners are still being ghettoized and cut off from the institutions. What we need is the end of stylistic dominance, and the openness to accept new forms of expression.

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