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View from Here
by Sam Bergman
One of the most frequent complaints voiced by musicians concerning new music is that many of today's composers seem to have little knowledge of, or interest in, the technical ins and outs of the instruments they write for. Often, even the pitch ranges of the various orchestral instruments seem to elude a composer's grasp, and valuable rehearsal time is lost working out how a musician should tackle the note three bars before C that falls a good fourth below his instrument's capabilities. Certainly, some composers make a point of learning as much as possible about the instruments they are writing for, and a few even learn to play several different instruments in an effort to gain further insight, but for the most part, modern composers seem somewhat lost when it comes to the concrete skills required to translate their works into sound.
The major reason for this is probably to be found in the way the composer's profession has evolved over the last couple of centuries. In Bach's day, the successful composer was, all at once, author, conductor, GM, and personnel manager. He was expected not only to turn out an astonishing volume of work, but to rehearse it, perform it, and often play the continuo line on whatever keyboard was available. A hundred or so years later, Haydn and Mozart were still conducting most of their own premieres, and any composer worth his salt was expected to be a musician of at least moderately professional caliber. This was more than a matter of economics: it was generally assumed that a composer could not possibly write effectively for an instrument that he did not have at least some firsthand knowledge of.
In the 19th century, as composers moved away from the "court composer" positions and towards the freelance model in practice today, they were glad to be able to drop a few of the demands on their time, and it became commonplace for a composer to observe the first performance of one of his works from the audience rather than the podium. To be sure, many premieres were still led by the men who wrote the music (to my knowledge, no woman of that era ever conducted one of her own works), and composers were still expected to be adequate musicians, but the profession was starting to become more specialized. (It is also worth noting that it was around this time that symphony orchestras began to be extremely large. The number of different instruments involved in a new work was generally much higher than it had been in the days of the kapellmeisters, and that may have been another factor in composers' movement away from the performing side of things.)
But it was in the 20th century that composers and performers became truly separated. The advent of recording revolutionized the orchestral world, but also stagnated it. Recordings of older works were in high demand, as for the first time the public could hear a performance of a Beethoven symphony without leaving home. The comfort zone created by these older works made concertgoers more wary of the increasingly daring direction being taken by newer composers. At the same time, the newly industrialized Western world had allowed for the creation of a new class of professional performer, better trained and more skillful than ever before.
Composers, too, took advantage of opportunities to narrow the focus of their education, forgoing firsthand knowledge of many instruments in favor of in-depth studies of compositional technique. This led, of course, to the explosion of new forms of music in the middle of the century, which simultaneously advanced our concept of what music could be, and continued the alienation of an already-wary (and recording-saturated) public. Orchestras, the most staid and conservative (but also most visible) presenters of what had come to be labeled "classical" music, by and large chose the safe route of playing the old favorites, and ignoring much of what was being produced by contemporary composers. This had the effect of forcing composers into the world of academia, if they wanted to make a living while practicing their craft.
As paid work became more scarce, and orchestras more unwilling to take risks, the entire compositional profession became overwhelmed by the strange, theoretical world of academic study, and the gulf between creator and performer continued to widen. By the end of the 20th century, when I attended one of America's great conservatories, I found that many composers had abandoned any attempt to speak the language of the performing musician, and had instead retreated into their own private world, in which they were free to ignore the multitude of rules and roadblocks that musicians were forever placing in their way. I could hardly blame them, of course, but it did make it awfully difficult to communicate, even for performers like myself who were determined to raise the profile of new music.
These days, as an orchestral musician, I continue to be frustrated by this seemingly unbridgable gap between those who write and those who play. My band, as I have often pointed out, plays more modern music than any other major American orchestra, yet I honestly do not think that we are any closer to achieving a true understanding of what our composers are asking of us than anyone else. The combination of crowded rehearsal schedules, last-minute changes, and unfamiliar playing techniques makes it difficult even to find the time to investigate a composer's true intent, and many musicians feel that it's not worth it to ask a question about a technical matter, since the composer often has no idea of how to answer.
A further frustration is that scores are becoming more and more verbally crowded (it is not uncommon for a single measure of music to have three or four different written directions in addition to the notes), yet composers do not seem to have adequate knowledge of what they are asking for. In string writing, for example, many composers seem to think that a sul tasto marking will produce a unique sound in the same way that a ponticello marking will. It won't. Another common but unplayable composer error is to ask for a melodic passage to be played col legno. This is like asking a snare drum player to be more in tune. Neither of these indicate stupidity on the part of the composer, merely a lack of familiarity with the intricate playing details of the instruments they are writing for. It doesn't help that the current generation of working composers were, for the most part, trained by other composers who didn't know much about performing either.
At a time when so many musicians continue to be openly hostile to all new music, it may seem bad form to be flogging the individuals who do the writing. But the fact is that those of us who bow, blow, and pluck for a living are expected to be able to play anything put in front of us, from any era of musical history, and to do so more or less instantaneously. These days, we are even expected to be able to switch into jazz or pop modes if necessary, forms in which we have received zero training. (Most modern orchestras have at least one member of the bass section who can play electric bass, and a percussionist or two who, when asked, can play a rock 'n roll drum set as convincingly as any session pro.) Certainly, it would be a lot easier on us if we were allowed to specialize in one or two specific eras of composition, but that's not the way it is, and we accept it. In return, it would be nice if more composers would make the effort to learn how the sounds they are asking for are produced before expecting us to produce them.
Sam Bergman is a violist
in the Minnesota Orchestra, and a news editor at ArtsJournal.com. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
To: The Musicians of the Cedar City Symphony Orchestra
From: David Jacoby, Director of Educational Programming
RE: Upcoming changes to our Children's Concert format.
Hello all! It is truly a pleasure to put pen to paper today (or keyboard to inkjet, as it were, ha ha!) to inform you, our wonderful musicians, of the exciting developments that are taking place "behind the scenes" here in Educational Programming. As you know, our "traditional"-style concert series aimed at Cedar City's young people met with an unfortunate demise last spring, and I would like to present what I feel is an objective picture of the reasons for the failure. (I might add that had the press taken the time to contact any of us in the office before running with their hurtful, sensationalistic accounts of what happened, we would not now be in the painful situation of trying to explain ourselves.)
with, I admit that it may have been a mistake to employ popular Cedar City
radio personality Mike "The Mad Muskrat" Mientkiewicz as master of ceremonies
for April's Young People's Concert. Our thinking on this was that Mr. Muskrat,
while undeniably controversial, has proven very popular with our area's
youth, owing to his innate ability to communicate with children on their
own level. (The press's characterization of Mr. Muskrat's act as "a patently
offensive collection of fart jokes, racial slurs, and sexual innuendo"
is, I feel, somewhat exaggerated.) It is unfortunate that, in our delight
at having secured the services of a local celebrity, we neglected to communicate
adequately to Mr. Muskrat that the theme of the concert program was "Debussy:
A Child's Garden of French Delights," and not some sort of free-form discussion
of what types of music are most likely to "get women into the sack." The
fact that Mr. Muskrat's rapid-fire delivery, as well as the crying of some
of the more sensitive children in the audience, made it difficult to fit
the orchestra into the program for longer than a few seconds at a time,
was another area of concern. (I would suggest, however, that the musicians'
union could have been more accommodating to Mr. Muskrat's simple request
for a few "rim shots" during the course of the performance.)
It has also been suggested by the press that the "Touch the Orchestra" portion of the program was ill-conceived, out of control, and dangerous. I take strong exception to this accusation. In all fairness, I do not think that we could have foreseen the hostage situation that arose from the relatively common practice of allowing the children to hold an orchestral instrument.
The possibility of our young people choosing to employ cello endpins as deadly spears had simply never occurred to us. Likewise, we were unprepared for the severity of the injuries inflicted when several young hoodlums stuffed two of their classmates into the bass drum, and rolled it down the aisle. Furthermore, it was never intended for the children to be allowed access to the working cannons that had been brought in for the "1812 Overture," and here we must lay the blame at the feet of the stage crew, which abandoned their posts in quite a cowardly fashion the moment they were confronted by a handful of small children wielding bassoons as heavy clubs. (This unfortunate dereliction of duty was the main impetus behind our subsequent hiring of the music-loving members of the local chapter of the "Hell's Angels" cycling club to work the stage for us during the upcoming season. They have assured us that they will be utterly professional in this endeavor, and ask only that the musicians refrain from touching them, speaking to them, or "warming up" within 100 feet of them. I'm sure we can all agree that the added security will be well worth the minor inconvenience this may cause.)
We have heard from several of you on the subject of insuring that music is at the forefront of all our children's programming, and we are working to be responsive to your concerns. However, it is necessary that we all recognize the changing environment around us, and adapt to it as best we can. The simple fact is that children in today's world do not view music as something to be studied, appreciated, and paid homage to. Rather, their exposure to music is generally as "background" to another activity, such as watching a movie, playing "Blood-Gushing Aliens of Doom VI", or hurling themselves violently into other young people as strobe lights flash around them and older young people ingest large quantities of controlled substances (this last activity, which may be unfamiliar to some of you, is called "raving", and I can assure you that it is the very height of "cool" for Cedar City's youth.)
In an effort to connect more fully with our young audiences, while following through on our commitment to make music an integral part of the concerts, we will be employing several "cutting-edge" innovations designed to bridge the gap between "our" music and "their" music. For instance, it has been decided that the use of synthesized "drum tracks", played at high volume, will replace the more staid, old-fashioned modes of percussion on any works composed after the late Baroque. This, it is hoped, will give the children something of a "beat" to latch onto, thus drawing them into the overall concert experience more effectively than could a marimba or a set of finger cymbals. Secondly, we are encouraging you, the musicians, to be more "free" in your interpretations of solo passages in the traditional literature. While it certainly cannot be disputed that Beethoven and Mahler were great masters of the symphonic style, they simply do not test well with our younger audiences today, and we feel that the frequent injection of individual acts of virtuosity would "pep up" these tired old warhorses. (For example, the traditional oboe cadenza in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony could be replaced quite easily with something approximating Jimi Hendrix's guitar riff on our national anthem. Likewise, the brass chorale that opens the final movement of Copland's Third Symphony would connect much more effectively with the youth if the brass were augmented by a close-harmony, pop-based male vocal quintet, along the lines of the "Backstreet Boys." We realize that you are not singers, of course, and management has generously indicated a willingness to discuss doubling fees for anyone volunteering for such "extras.")
Finally, this year's children's series (which has been dubbed "Symphorchapalooza 2000-2001," a name which tested very well among 12-to-16-year-old boys) will be led by a succession of high-profile guest "conductors," each of whom has established a national reputation for connecting with young people in a musical fashion. While we must necessarily keep most of these conductor's identities secret in order to avoid dangerous situations at the Cedar City Civic Center box office, suffice to say that you will be privileged, during the upcoming season, to find yourselves working under the baton of, among others, Sisqo, Beyonce Knowles of "Destiny's Child," Eminem, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan. We are sure that you will enjoy their exciting brand of music-making, and that you will adapt beautifully to any subtle changes in podium style. (We in the Educational Programming department have always had the highest respect for the adaptability of our musicians.)
With these improvements firmly and irrevocably in place, we look forward to a wildly successful season of educational music-making, and hope to overcome some of the mistakes of the past. Please join me in helping to make this transition to the New Millennium of classical music performance a smooth and conflict-free one. I look forward to hearing your wonderful and unique symphonic sound continue to grow and expand with the times!
Yours in educational excellence,
is a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra and a news editor for ArtsJournal.com.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
View from Here
Nearly every American orchestra makes a point of playing up the occasions on which it deigns to present a new musical work. Even orchestras which commission one new piece per season or less love to trumpet their supposed forward-thinking ways, in the vague hope that such brief bursts of enthusiasm will make up for nearly a century of deep ambivalence towards modern composition. The few orchestras (including, I am happy to say, my own) that have a modern work in the weekly program more often than not seem determined to point out to anyone who will listen that "we have a deep and abiding commitment to the music of the many wonderful composers working today."
But despite all this outward praise and public feting, the relationship between composer and orchestra is often strained and distant. The rigors of the orchestral rehearsal schedule have much to do with this, of course: professional American orchestras hold, on average, four rehearsals to prepare for the week's concerts, and the lion's share of rehearsal time is usually devoted to whatever is to be the "major" work on the program. Since most orchestras commission shorter works from living composers, these new pieces rarely get the attention that, say, a Brahms symphony will receive in a given concert week. This, sadly, is just the way the time-crunch cookie crumbles, and, unless orchestras begin commissioning full-length symphonies again, we are unlikely to solve this most basic of problems.
The general problem tends to be that composers and musicians exist not only in different worlds, but different dimensions of the musical universe. Composers make their living breaking music down to its most basic elements, and using those elements to create something new. Musicians are tasked with translating a collection of dots on a page into something that the public can understand, based on their previous experience. By necessity, composers must focus on the theoretical aspects of music, while musicians have no time for anything but the most concrete ideas. Especially in an orchestral setting, subtle elements of a composer's intentions are too often lost, crushed beneath the weight of the collective effort of 97 musicians to simply play the notes.
there are several other factors behind the uneasy composer-orchestra relationship,
and these are issues that shouldn't be as impossible to resolve. In my
last few columns, I have written much about the roadblocks that musicians
feel are placed in their way by well-meaning (and occasionally, not-so-well-meaning)
composers. But musicians are, of course, equally guilty of souring what
should be a productive partnership. Nothing irritates an orchestra more
than confronting something it does not know how to do, and since much new
music involves learning new playing techniques, and evolving old ones,
musicians often project their frustrations onto the individual who has
created such an uncomfortable situation: the composer. Suggestions from
the composer on how the performance might be improved are often met with
disdain or outright hostility.
Any attempt by the composer to explain her/his motivations or ideas that influenced the work are treated by the performers as pretentious, unnecessary exercises in self-gratification, and are largely ignored. Worse, orchestra musicians who claim to like a complex or difficult piece and treat it seriously are often met with eye-rolling and sarcasm from their colleagues. Even musicians who claim to have nothing against contemporary music tend to feel that the preparation of such works is "more trouble than it's worth."
So what can supporters of new music do in the face of such, shall we say, benign opposition? What steps can be taken by both composers and musicians to improve what will always be a rushed and somewhat haphazard relationship? I have a few modest suggestions, which are presented here in the hope that they will inspire further questions and answers in others who find themselves in uncomfortable collaborations:
oMusicians: When confronted with a new, handwritten part filled with accidentals, sixty-fourth note runs, and compound meters unlike any you've seen before, don't just assume that neither you nor anyone else in the orchestra will be able to play it correctly, and use this as an excuse to not put in any serious preparation time. Yes, you will probably not have any real idea of how to play the piece until you hear it with the other 95 members of your orchestra, but it couldn't hurt to break out the metronome, learn the runs, and supplement your part with whatever personal code will help you remember the sequence of all those accidentals. No, it's not fun, and you may still be frustrated at the first rehearsal, but the small advances you will make by working the piece ahead of time will improve not only the final performance, but the overall rehearsal process.
o Composers: Handwritten parts filled with accidentals, sixty-fourth note runs, and compound meters unlike any we've seen before are not a good way to endear yourself and your music to those of us who have to interpret the score. If there is a way to simplify, do it. Sure you may want the subdivided feel that a meter mark of 20/16 provides, but honestly, it's going to sound the same if you write 5/4, and we'll get it a lot more quickly.
o Musicians: New works that have not been performed before are very likely to have a few typos and note mistakes in the parts. These are not the result of the composer's innate desire to waste your time, and keep you from rehearsing the rest of the works on the program. Handwriting individual orchestral parts from a score is excruciatingly boring work, and computer substitutes like "Finale" have a bad habit of causing more problems than they solve. Do your best to be patient with everyone involved when the rehearsal is held up with questions of notation and instrument technique.
o Composers: The above musician advisory notwithstanding, there is no excuse for turning in parts that have been cobbled together at the last minute, full of careless mistakes and unnecessary typos. It's disrespectful to the musicians, and it winds up costing you precious rehearsal time. Allow enough time in your compositional schedule to properly prepare professional-looking parts, and you will be rewarded with cooperative musicians.
o Musicians: Just because you don't understand the piece you've been asked to play doesn't mean that there is no merit to it. Remember the first time you played "Le Sacre du Printemps" in youth orchestra? You didn't understand that, either, but it's second nature to you now. Don't write off anything after only one or two rehearsals - give it your all for the whole week, and if you still hate it after the last performance, at least you'll know that it wasn't for lack of effort on your part. You'd be surprised how satisfying that can be.
o Musicians: Most composers are competent professionals. Very few are destined to have their music placed beside Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky in the canon of the future. A new piece shouldn't have to rise to the level of the greatest music in history to be considered worth playing. After all, most of us are damn fine musicians, but with few exceptions, we will not be remembered alongside virtuosos like Heifetz, Primrose, and Joachim. Yet the public still shells out good money to see us play, and we should expect no more of our composers.
o Musicians: When a composer asks you to knock lightly on the back of your cello, squawk through your double reed, or snap your fingers in the course of performing a piece, do it without complaint. What may seem gimmicky and corny to you may actually create an unexpectedly arresting effect for the audience. Percussionists have been creating new ways to play their instruments for centuries - there is no reason that the rest of us can't do the same.
o Composers: Stop making us sing. Seriously. If we could sing with any degree of accuracy and confidence, we would be rock stars. It's profoundly embarrassing to be forced to display our lack of vocal talents in a forum where we are supposed to be exhibiting our musical prowess. So enough with the singing. And while we're on the subject, chanting is really pushing your luck as well. We will knock, we will stomp, and we will put the bow anywhere you want it on the string, but don't make us open our mouths. We're not built for it.
So there's my short list of suggestions for improving collaborations between those who create and those who perform. I'd love to hear more ideas from others who have experience in these situations: drop me a line at email@example.com, and tell me your gripes and your solutions. I'll publish the best in a future column.
Sam Bergman is a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, and a news editor at ArtsJournal.com
View from Here
In the last two weeks, my orchestra has presented performances of two very different works of modern music. Over the course of rehearsing and performing these two pieces, I have found myself asking several questions about the way musicians and audiences relate to these unfamiliar sounds. Do audiences need to have a familiar reference point to grab onto when confronting new music? Is it the responsibility of the performer to convey to the audience what the composer meant by the notes s/he has written, even if that meaning is unclear? Do audiences have a right to expect that the music they hear when they go to a concert will be at least somewhat pleasant to listen to, and not merely an undecipherable barrage of sound?
Should the worthiness of a composition be based on whether an audience can appreciate it? On the face of it, it's hard to make a case for music that people do not like to listen to, but certainly some of history's greatest musical works were at first received badly by audiences. (Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which sparked a near-riot among its first audience, is the classic example.)
I'm not sure that I have answers for any of these, but it's worth exploring. Two weeks ago, we (the Minnesota Orchestra) gave the U.S. premiere of Nicholas Maw's Romantic Variations for Orchestra, a standard-form theme-and-variations that draws broadly on the works of Purcell and Britten, with several nods to Brahms's Haydn Variations as well. The music is by no means traditionally tonal, but there is a good deal of melody, a lot of romantic imagery, and no small number of familiar-sounding motives for the audience to take hold of. In between, there are a number of complex moments that would probably take multiple listenings to grasp fully, but nothing that would surprise or offend anyone who is used to hearing, say, Stravinsky's neoclassical works. The score is quite difficult to play, particularly for the strings, but it is rewarding to hear the results of the hard work that must be put into it. The longer the orchestra worked on the piece, the more nuances we heard, the more "inside jokes" we caught, and the more we enjoyed playing the piece. At the performances, the work was quite well-received, although it should be noted that, with the balance of the program being filled by Shostakovich's sparse, sarcastic 15th Symphony, we had attracted an audience which was not frightened of modern music in the slightest - had the Maw been paired with a Beethoven symphony, it is possible that we would have seen a few more stunned faces than we did. But overall, the Maw was a complete success from the orchestra's point of view.
This past week, we debuted the revised version of Johannes Harneit's Violin Concerto, with the stunning talents of Christian Tetzlaff applied to the solo part. Harneit's music could not be more different from Maw's: where Maw is a populist composer, Harneit is an academic. His concerto is rhythmically complex, completely atonal, and consists mainly of multiple components layered thickly together, without any one theme or set of sounds coming to the fore. The solo violin part is a technical nightmare (although the brilliant Tetzlaff made it sound almost easy), and includes every non-standard style of play that one could conceive of: playing behind the bridge, long col legno passages, and one section in which the soloist actually appears to be attempting to play in thumb position high up the fingerboard. (For those unfamiliar with the nuances of the upper string instruments, thumb position is, to put it simply, not something we do.) The orchestra mainly participates in angry bursts of sound that contain many more notes than the audience (or even the musicians) will ever hear. Meters are, perhaps intentionally, more complex than they have to be (e.g. 20/16 instead of 5/4), and the conductor presides over a score that would send most men screaming for the safety of the nearest pops concert. (In our case, the estimable Ingo Metzmacher had studied the work so carefully that he would often not look down for pages at a time, but few have his skill at interpreting new music.) In short, this is not a composition for the faint-hearted, and the audience reaction was significantly less positive than it had been for the Maw the previous week. (The negative response was somewhat blunted by the excellent decision to have the composer take the stage before each performance, and spend ten minutes or so answering questions about the piece from the Minnesota Orchestra's new music advisor, Aaron Jay Kernis.) But crowds were small, despite the popular Bruckner symphony that was paired with the Harneit, and after 35 uninterrupted minutes of the concerto's impenetrable wall of sound, most of our ticket holders looked unsure of what they had heard, but quite sure that they had heard enough of it.
But does this mean that the Maw is a success, and the Harneit a failure? Should the worthiness of a composition be based on whether an audience can appreciate it? On the face of it, it's hard to make a case for music that people do not like to listen to, but certainly some of history's greatest musical works were at first received badly by audiences. (Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which sparked a near-riot among its first audience, is the classic example.) There is simply no way of predicting what music will be judged by history to have achieved greatness, and what will be consigned to the ash heap of history, with only our present point of view to go on. We can be fairly confident in certain musical judgments, but you just never know what might turn out to be popular fifty years down the road. (Comedian Paula Poundstone made this point in a different context once, and the joke speaks to the musical world as well. Mentioning that The Wizard of Oz was initially considered to be childish and boring, Poundstone asked incredulously, "What if it turns out that Rambo III was really good? And they show it every Easter?")
But if we cannot judge the music we perform and listen to based on what it sounds like, how can we possibly declare any living composer to be more or less worthy of performance than any other? If we cannot make any sense of the barrage of noise that comes at us during a performance of music by the likes of Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, or Johannes Harneit, must we really blame ourselves for our lack of understanding? After all, the decline of the art music industry coincided with the rise (and near-dominance) of the atonal, modernist, and serialist schools of composition in the middle of the 20th century. And if our audiences continue to dwindle, it won't matter how daring we are in our programming: no one will be listening.
So it isn't hard to draw the conclusion that composers (and the ensembles that perform their work) need to get back to music that is intended for the enjoyment of the audience. There is a limit to this, of course: no one wants the world of new music to go the way of crossover schlock and mindless background noise designed solely to be non-offensive. New music should always challenge as well as entertain, and composers should always be encouraged to seek out new ground on which to plant their artistic flags. Study after study has proved that the "dumbing down" of the orchestral repertoire has not resulted in the hoped-for migration of pops audiences to the serious side of the program page. So we should never allow our discomfort with certain styles of composition to cause us to swing too far in the other direction. But for our audiences to be willing to embrace the new works we put in front of them, we must give them reason to trust that we will not completely disregard their desire to hear music that pleases them. A challenge is welcome - an intellectual bludgeoning is not. And we would all do well to remember it.
Bergman is a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, and a news editor for
ArtsJournal.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the persistent conundrums that American orchestras face is the proper way to program, market, and present new music to our audiences. Supporting the cause of contemporary music is a much more complicated proposition than many musicians would care to acknowledge, especially for a large, unwieldy, and generally tradition-bound organization like a symphony orchestra. You can hardly pick up the arts section of any big-city daily these days without reading some puffed-up, self-important critic's latest diatribe about how a) the local symphony isn't programming enough new music, and b) the whole symphonic form is dying a slow and painful death because of it. (This is the time of year that these rants are most common, since it is around this time that most orchestras announce their schedules for the upcoming season, schedules which inevitably include plenty of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler that the local critic has heard hundreds of times and is frankly sick of.) But simply throwing more of the annual budget into a basket labeled "Commissions," the preferred strategy of most major American orchestras, does little to improve the situation, and in fact imperils further the symphonic medium that so many of us have dedicated our lives to.
a member of the artistic staff of a major orchestra what the hardest thing
about programming new music successfully is, and you will probably get
some variation on the old line, "The public doesn't like it." It is time
to divest ourselves of this ridiculous notion. What the public does not
like is not new music, but lazy attempts to pass off half-baked compositions
and performances as great works of art. The public is not stupid, and we
shoot ourselves in the foot when we constantly present new works with that
tired old high-minded attitude that makes the audience certain that if
they don't like the piece, it must be their fault. Critics have become
virtual yes-men whenever the words "world premiere" appear on a program
page, terrified to give a living composer a bad review, lest the composer
turn out to be the next Beethoven fifty years down the road.
...simply throwing more of the annual budget into a basket labeled "Commissions," the preferred strategy of most major American orchestras, does little to improve the situation, and in fact imperils further the symphonic medium that so many of us have dedicated our lives to.
I don't want to turn this column into an attack on serialism, post-modernism, or any of the other schools of composition that have served to alienate audiences in the last eighty years or so. Too many factors have contributed to the decline of our industry to blame the whole thing on composers who may have forgotten that they are supposed to be writing music that people might want to listen to. Likewise, although many musicians (particularly those in symphony orchestras) could certainly be accused of having supremely bad attitudes about any piece composed after 1940, I don't think it would be fair to expect these musicians, who have little to no control over the way concerts are presented, to turn this sinking ship around. It seems to me that the only way to improve the standing of contemporary music in the orchestral arena is for programmers to become much more knowledgeable about the composers and works they select for performance, and for composers to be held accountable for the work they produce. Too often, an artistic director will schedule a major commission, committing thousands of dollars and countless working hours, from a composer whom s/he knows only by reputation, or on a social level. The result is that only composers who have mastered the art of self-promotion get played frequently, and the quality of their work is often a secondary concern at best. Furthermore, composers who are commissioned to provide a piece for an orchestra outside the high-profile East Coast cabal are often tempted to assume that the musicians and audiences in whatever backwater the performance is to be given in will not know the difference between a carefully planned and executed new work, and a last-minute slap-dash rewrite of an older piece. The results are often quite insulting to everyone involved, and do much more harm than good to the cause of contemporary music.
Lest you think that these are merely the wild accusations of a frustrated, cynical musician, consider the following situation, which occurred during a recent season of the Minnesota Orchestra (my employer.) Late in the season, the orchestra gave the world premiere of a new work by a well-known composer, who had been paid a quite large sum of money for the commission. The composer traveled to Minneapolis for the premiere, and the piece was generally well-received by the press and most of the audience. (Minneapolis audiences, I should point out, are quite used to new music, and both the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have received multiple awards for their contemporary music programming.) However, shortly after the premiere, it was discovered that the piece was a near note-for-note rescoring of an earlier work by the same composer, a fact that had not been revealed to orchestra or audience. Of course, it is not unusual for composers to reuse themes and even entire movements in multiple works, but it is unusual (and improper) for anyone to try and pass off such a perfect rewrite as an entirely new piece. As of this writing, no action had been taken against the composer, largely because of the embarrassment that could be suffered on all sides as a result. Nonetheless, severe damage was done due to the thoughtlessness and callous disregard for the artistic integrity of a major orchestra by both the composer and the artistic staff which failed to do its homework. Certainly, this is an extreme example of the problems that orchestras encounter when commissioning new works, but it is indicative of the larger issue. Artistic staff simply must have a better grasp of the work of the top modern composers, and those composers must take every commission seriously if we are to convince the public of the worthiness of the performances they see on stage on a Friday night.
These are serious charges to be leveling at the music world, which is, to be sure, full of knowledgeable people who would like nothing better than to see new music succeed on the concert stage. Cautionary tales like the one above do not mean that the whole system is broken, only that it is time to take a hard look at the way we go about the process. We as an industry have lost a whole generation of listeners with our cynical attempts to tell the audience that it is their responsibility to make the sounds they hear from our instruments palatable to their uncultured ears. We will not ever get this generation back, and we are in danger of losing their children's generation as well, unless we change our tune, and fast. The responsibility for that change falls on all of us - musicians, composers, and programmers - and the sooner we stop passing the buck, the sooner we’ll begin to get our audiences back.
Bergman is a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, and a news editor at ArtsJournal.com.
He has commissioned and premiered viola works by several talented young
composers, and is a strong advocate for new music in the orchestral sphere.
He can be reached at email@example.com.