Composition titles – even though you still can’t copyright them – are more meaningful than in the past. Throughout the classical era, pieces were identified mostly by their form: sonata, concerto, prelude, with and a key signature and number. Operas were titled based on their librettos, but composers didn’t mind using the same title and popular subject, which would be almost unthinkable now. Still, due to some zeitgeist phenomenon, pieces can still share the same title, when, without the composer’s knowledge, someone else used the same idea – as if efficient titles were in limited supply, to be used and reused as needed. Note the current popularity of film remakes: a story is told once, set to film, becomes a success, and then years later, it lives again in a different version.

With the pervasive influence of the moving image, every musical piece can easily be perceived as a story onto itself. Compelled to write program notes, I find that having a ‘story of purpose’ for the piece helps present it. On the other hand, I wish we didn’t have to be specific. Not every piece needs a completely stated subtext, unless the subtext serves as a basis for the piece. If the music is abstract by nature, the subtext is redundant: one does not need to find the live model to a non-figurative painting. But if someone innocently looks at a Rothko and says, oh my, that looks like a sunset! And another person says, oh, that looks like my aunt’s bathroom in Kew Gardens! In one case, the spectator relates to the piece as a link to the universe; in the second, the spectator links the piece to personal experience. By leaving the subtext of the piece unspecified, the spectator is free to associate with anything – when listening to music intently (i.e. not as background, as in most cases) words and images come to mind… and that is what makes the musical experience utterly personal. Therefore it may be unnecessary to force content into it, unless people are becoming less prone to using their imaginations, to reading and listening, becoming more passive, ever entertained by moving, talking images. The listener now consciously or unconsciously expects a complete experience including not only music, but story-telling, images, action.

That’s why a lot of new experimental music lives not on the way it sounds, but on the exciting challenges or new concepts it brings forth, in other words, on its ‘action’ or description: hey, this guy used 24 boom boxes, an interactive internet feed and children playing found objects – wow! That’s exciting. How does it sound? Could be a total cacophony…. or recycled musak from 34 elevators…That’s no longer important. Well-written pieces that sound good but do not have any associated subtext are at a disadvantage. I still would like to reconcile the desire to be in the modern world and have a piece sound ‘good’ in a traditional sense, in terms of comfortable dissonance at least. I read somewhere that people who write accessible music are not taken seriously. Is that true?

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