Archive for June, 2005

I just received the program for the American Symphony Orchestra’s 2005-2006 season (under Leon Botstein, music director). The program includes works composed in the 1930s by Roger Sessions, Randall Thompson, Ernest Bloch, Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams; a memorial program on Polish composer Witold Lutolawski; works written in the 50s and 60s by Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (actually a US premiere), Frank Martin, Arthur Honegger; a complete Schumann program; and a Russian program including Rimsky Korsakov and one act opera by Dargomizhsky (US premiere), awkwardly marketed with a mention of Amadeus, apparently subscribing to the new Lincoln Center myth that Mozart ‘could have gone to Russia’ although he never did in real life (see this year’s Mostly Mozart program). I wish they could have included a 1990s music program in the series but I guess that wouldn’t be retro enough.

On the positive side, I see a real effort to find material that is not run-of-the-mill. On the other hand, if a 50 year interval (as for the Schoeck piece composed in 1955) is what it takes to get a new orchestral piece premiered, I’d say, let’s keep on writing our orchestral music and write up a will… and choose your executor well!

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It seems that our Western civilization entails a conditioning to pursue success versus happiness. From early days of schooling to the pursuit of careers, to psychotherapy even, people are constantly brainwashed with the power of positive thinking and the idea of success as presented through the mass media. What is success in a happy pill society? And what does it mean for a composer? Actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem.

Are a Pulitzer Prize and a teaching job success for a composer? Many Pulitzer winners are actually not very well known at all. And even the household names, do they actually make a living strictly from composing? Don’t they most often have to rely on teaching jobs to get by? Is success defined in ‘professional terms’, i.e. earning a living as a composer, which then would mostly apply to those who in commercial music. Is success in selling yourself? In marketing? The capitalist system prompts us to equate success with money and fame. However, from an artistic and creative standpoint, a lot of the music produced strictly for money is worthless from an esthetic and spiritual point of view.

Some people are famous but not rich. There are levels of fame. One can be famous in a small circle, semi-famous, relatively famous, just for 15 minutes. There are so many of us. We’re a democracy, not an aristocracy. What is it that drives our society to constantly look for kings and queens?

I would like to try and redefine the elements that make a composer successful, not according to capitalist standards, but according to a set of alternative values: communication, quality and continuity. The first element is communication: It is important that the music is heard, and we can take full advantage of the accessibility of recording and what I call the ‘free distribution system’, which does not make money but makes it possible to be heard. The second element is the intrinsic quality of the piece. Quantity is not quality. Is the piece unique? Does it bring a new approach? Is it, if not totally new, pretty and enjoyable? Or so difficult it makes the listener feel really smart? Does it linger? Does it make people talk? The third element is continuity. Is the composer able to continue to create new work regardless of commissions? That is being truly successful.

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Concert of Pre-recorded Tapes of Pandit Pran Nath performing Afternoon & Evening Ragas with live commentary by La Monte Young & Marian Zazeelam Sunday, June 19, 2005, 3 pm, at the MELA Foundation Dream House, 275 Church Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10013.

At Mannes College, the Institute and Festival for Contemporary Performance series, June 14-22, with music by Robert Dick, Rzewzki, Haleh Abghari, Takemitsu, plus scholarly programs on Berio, Jolivet, Davidovsky and Elliott Carter and more.

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To most non-musicians, the activity of composing is largely misunderstood. I sometimes hesitate to even mention I am a composer to certain people. For most, the word composer spells Beethoven (well actually, not everyone even knows Beethoven, like a 7-year old I knew who thought Beethoven was a dog).

I never thought of myself as a composer until Greg Sandow said so in the Village Voice in 1983. I thought I was making music, and I still think that way. Composing is more like thinking music as opposed to making music, but there is a grey area somewhere.

If you say you are a composer, people expect you to be some household name, and if you’re not, they just don’t understand. Some people I am being introduced to, after three sentences, have the nerve to ask how many CDs I sell. No one would think of asking a total stranger, “and by the way, how much income did you declare on your last income tax?” They do that because they have no clue as to how to relate to a living composer. I have heard the phrase “It’s a passion!” many times even from a shrink, who would supposedly be able to understand the difference, but just couldn’t.

Isn’t a passion more like a hobby of sorts, a passion for golf, for butterflies, for the great outdoors – but music is not a passion… unless it is meant as something like The Passion of Christ, etymologically speaking – something painful that one is subjected to. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they say passion. “You enjoy what you are doing”. A lot of people who work ordinary jobs then don’t really enjoy naively imagine that creators enjoy their work. Sometimes I try to explain that a lot of what is involved in composing is not all fun, like inputting notes in Finale for hours, attending to rehearsal arguments or productions from hell that make you think never to do this again. Composing can be painful, it can bring on anxiety, it can take over your life, it is, as they said in the sixties, a ‘trip’, but not a passion. Again, there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Some people seek pleasure, but that fulfillment does not necessarily bring happiness or peace of mind along with it.

Along the lines of pleasure, this brings me to the question as to what is actually a good time. Do you enjoy having a good time? Without being a masochist, a so-called good time such as vacation or party is not always enjoyable. When I was growing up, going on vacation was a dread as I was separated from my piano for an extended period.

I asked the question to Barry Drogin. These are his comments.
“The semiotics of pleasure are definitely in the forefront of my consciousness lately. When I am “in the zone,” I experience satisfaction, some kind of thrill, during the act of composition, when I think I’ve found a solution to a musical problem, or if the beauty of the music itself pleases me. But it can be torture if I’m blocked, or if I think I’ve spent too much time on the wrong path. Not to give away the subject matter of my book by going too deeply, but consider also Kyle Gann’s “No more guilty pleasures” at http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/essay_gann13.html
(although in that case he was writing about letting in other stylistic influences, what he calls totalism.)

I guess, to go to an extreme, the question might be: If a masochist only has a good time when he/she is having a bad time, is he/she actually having a good time or a bad time? Or what of people conditioned to feel guilty about having a good time? Do they enjoy the good time in the present tense but not in the past tense?

I think the point of my answer is that human experience is complex, and although an individual’s experience might be universalized, it doesn’t mean that another individual having the exact opposite experience is not common and cannot be universalized as well. Makes life for a contrarian like me so easy: anyone says A, I have no problem saying not A, both A and not A are typically true. Say not A, I have no problem going back and defending A. More from Barry Drogin at http://www.notnicemusic.com/proposal.html

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Should a piece of music be a reflection of the order or disorder of the universe? This is a very old thought but there still may be some bang to it.

The partisans of order: The Pythagorean model is one where numerical ratios and proportions translate from the cosmos to the musical scale. Plato tried to hang on to something ‘solid’ with his now called “Platonic Solids” representing universal forms such as the icosahedron.

The partisans of constant change: the Heraclitus model is that of constant change, as is the I Ching model, where one situation/hexagram flows into another. Aristotle also believed that reality is constantly changing – but that there is an underlying eternal universe with no beginning and no end… which reminds me of the famous ‘one hand clapping’ Buddhist koan, as it points to the same idea.

Modern science is now looking at non-linear dynamical systems explaining laws of seemingly unpredictable events… like weather systems; the world is not a static cause-and-effect reality, but a constant flux of ever-changing energies and events.

How can these ideas translate into musical models and styles? The idea of continuity in music is very much in question in new compositions. A lot of new music is full of silences and ruptures. There is a reflection of a chaotic, constant change craving the unpredictable. On the other hand, the classic minimalist approach is based on the continuity: everlasting drones, constant tonal center, constant rhythms. Paradoxically, serialism makes music based on totally controlled and predictable systems, but to the ear it sounds unpredictable except for the fact that there is no way to guess what the next phrase is going to be.

Should music be ‘in tune’ with the universe, and with what exactly? Be a reflection of chaotic events such as the weather? Or tune into the constants such as the earth’s rotation?

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