Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Problem of Older Pieces

Recently, some good friends programmed a work of mine from more than 10 years ago and asked me to come to the concert.  I would normally say no out of hand, but because they were friends, I hemmed and hawed, and finally, when the day arrived, I just didn't go.  In fairness to me, I warned them that unless they heard from me, I wouldn't be there, but still, they were miffed.

I can't stand listening to old pieces.  There is a great deal of truth to the old cliché that your older works are actually works by a different composer.  I am not the person I was when I wrote my String Trio (which gets played a great deal) at the age of 16.  Commenting on it, introducing it from the stage, coaching it-- I might just as well be commenting on, introducing, or coaching a work by Beethoven or Shostakovich.  This music has nothing to do with me anymore.

I have observed with time that works of music have a life of their own.  It's another cliché to say that they are like children, but they are.  At some point, if a piece has been performed a few times, the composer has to let it go.  A piece of music has a karma which is distinct from the karma of the composer.  It will make its way.  Not only does the composer not have the responsibility to follow it, the composer does not have the right to claim it as his or her own anymore.  A successful piece becomes the property of something bigger, a biosphere of music.  Composers who can't let go become a liability.  There is only one way to play a bad piece.  There are many ways to play a good piece.  (I was never upset by the "early music" movement, because a masterpiece like Beethoven 7 can withstand performances by both Leonard Bernstein and Roger Norrington.)  A composer who does not believe his or her music can be interpreted in multiple ways has no faith in their work.

I still attend some performances of older works, but only rarely.  In fact, I am getting painfully close to avoiding even premieres, although that is for a different reason-- I can never hear anything good in a premiere, just all the bad things.

In the end, composing is process, not result.  Composition is personal.  The product is public.

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