Monday 24 December 2012

Unfinished and unfinishable

Schubert left several major works unfinished, as did Schoenberg.  Schubert's 8th Symphony is not his only unfinished symphony-- the genuine 7th, in E, is also incomplete, although attempts were made to finish it.  He also left the great Quartettsatz as the only movement of a projected quartet.  Death did not interrupt him-- he went on in both cases to complete a massive 9th Symphony and 3 more masterpiece string quartets.  Schoenberg left many works incomplete, including Moses und Aron, a genuine operatic masterpiece, and again, it wasn't death that interrupted him.

At the risk of being self-important, I think I understand why.  It just flashed on me recently.

Take, for example, the Schubert Unfinished Symphony, No. 8.  The first movement is by far one of the finest things he ever wrote.  There is not a misstep in it.  Not only that, but it's far ahead of it's time-- parts of it sound like Sibelius, even Mahler.  But the second movement is just Schubert.  It's not even particularly good Schubert.  It's certainly not bad, but it could have come from any of his works.

I think he didn't finish these works because he couldn't follow up on what he had started.  The Quartettsatz is such a brilliant work, and again, so ahead of its time, that he couldn't add any more movements to it, so he went on to the next quartet.

The reason this flashed on me was that I was thinking about a few of my own works in which the first movement (or some single movement of the work) is so much better than the rest of the piece that I want to rip it out of the whole and discard the rest.  And that's just what I'm going to do.

Thursday 1 November 2012

When did that happen?

When did we start thinking that if there wasn't wild applause and a standing ovation at the premiere of a new work, that new work was a failure?  Why have both composers and administrators at the large musical institutions become obsessed with rapturous audience response?

Given that Toronto audiences will now jump to their feet after pretty much any concerto or Beethoven symphony, and then fail to remain in the hall after one curtain call at the end of the concert, what exactly does audience response at a concert mean anymore?

Many composers will scoff at this.  Composers who do not work for the large musical organizations don't expect wild ovations.  Or do they?  Don't they secretly hope for one, even if there are 50 people in the audience?

A connection with the audience is the purpose of the music.  But that connection can be made in many ways, some completely invisible even to professional observers.  How can we know what someone is feeling in the audience?

Good, solid premieres should be the goal.  New work takes time to find its way into the listening public's awareness.  We need to remember that the most important thing a premiere can accomplish is to make at least some of the audience want to hear the work again.  Indeed, I am a little suspicious of standing ovations and wild applause, precisely because they have become so commonplace in performances which do not deserve them.

Thursday 25 October 2012

My friend Joan Watson recently asked me for a "top 10" list of things a grad school composer needs to be successful as a professional composer.  This is what I sent to her.

1. Talent. You must be born with the talent to compose. Anyone can learn to compose acceptably, and moderately talented people can become better composers, but no one can actually make you a great composer if you don't have the talent to start with.

2. Skill. Composers must acquire every skill possible. There is no such thing as an “unnecessary” skill, and there is no such thing as “unnecessary” knowledge. Performers learn scales and arpeggios, etc., and the equivalents exist for composers. The acquisition of skill never ends. Good composers continue to learn and explore through their entire lives.

3. Passion. No one needs another composer. If you are not driven to be one, quit now. If someone can stop you from composing, you are not a composer. If you compose music only for class assignments while you are in school, you are not a composer. If you are perfectly happy with the music you are writing now and don't feel the need to change, you are not a composer.

4. Love of music. Listen to music. Know some music. Know standard repertoire. Explore unusual repertoire. Perform. Go to concerts. If you hear something you like, sit down at the piano and try to re-create it. Get a score and look at it. Try to figure out how the composer did what he did. Be involved with the music that already exists, because it is your best teacher. Many people, even some professional composers and teachers, insist that traditional repertoire is redundant, and that computers have made training in traditional repertoire unnecessary. This is not true. No great music will ever be written by someone ignorant of tradition. Ever. I guarantee it.

5. Flexibility. Learn to adapt, musically and personally. All great artists change through their careers. Not one great composer worked in one and only one language-- they all grew and re-invented themselves. Don't ever shut out a process or style because you don't “like” it. Every language and style is potentially a resource. You do not know who you are going to be 30 years from now, so you need to build the tools to support whoever that person will be.

6. Flexibility. Take whatever opportunities come your way. If you are flexible in the way item 5 implies, you also need to cultivate professional flexibility. If someone asks you compose Country and Western music for a play or film, do it. If someone asks you to write a ceremonial piece for accordion, bagpipes, and bass drum, do it. You will learn and grow. Do it for free, if necessary.

7. Humility. Great things have come before you. Great people have come before you. Respect them. Never put yourself before the art of music. Never use the art of music to aggrandize yourself. Serve the art-- do not try to make the art serve you.

8. Make an effort to be a complete human being. Art does not grow in a vacuum. The best artists are interested in everything. All the other art forms, religion, science, and philosophy are there to help you grow as a human being. The world is a fascinating place, and human beings are complex and extremely detailed. This is the well-spring of art.

9. Mentorship. No composer achieves anything unless someone believes in them. Select your teachers wisely, out of respect and commitment. Good teachers mentor their students beyond the basic process of instruction. Performers can also be mentors. And when you achieve success, take your responsibility to be a mentor to younger composers very seriously.

10. Luck. There are many people who can do the job-- not everyone who can do the job gets asked to do it.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The medium experience

I have been thinking a great deal lately about movies, because I love movies, and yet, like many people, take them for granted.  Even a cheap indy movie these days costs more than a million dollars.  And, like any piece of music, each and every detail on the screen is there because someone decided to put it there.  Even bad movies are made carefully and deliberately.

But the thing that has struck me lately is that there seem to be three kinds of movies:  ones that are immediately successful, ones that don't impress me one way or the other, and ones that are clearly bad.  The ones that don't impress or repel are what I have been thinking about.

Take a movie like "Outland", a Peter Hyams sci-fi from 1981, starring Sean Connery.  Here was a movie that opened to very mediocre reviews, and still commands just a 58% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Right from the beginning, I considered this to be an okay movie, neither a masterpiece nor a waste of time.  Over the many years we have watched and re-watched it, my respect for it has grown.  We watched it the other night, now that it has been released properly on Blu Ray.  Guess what?  It's a really good movie.

Some movies jump off the screen so positively that we don't dispute their value, at least initially.  With time, we start to question why we liked them.  "Casino Royale" is a movie that will, with time, come to be seen as actually quite a mediocre movie with many script problems.  I believe the same will happen with the current Batman movies.  I doubt that any such movie would drop completely out of sight, but we do re-evaluate them and gradually give them their rightful place.

Some movies seem so bad when we see them that there doesn't seem to be a question about it.  Of course, this is a matter of taste.  But movies which have obvious technical flaws, obvious bad acting, continuity problems, abominable scores, incompetent editing, etc., rarely, if ever, rise about these problems as time passes.  I can't think of one which has.

But remember the story of "Blade Runner", a commercial and critical failure when released, now regarded almost universally as a masterpiece.  "Blade Runner" was a "medium" experience, falling between the cracks of "good" and "bad" when it came out, which, with time, has come more and more into focus.  The details of the movie, the mood, the lighting, music, and yes, Rutger Hauer, have gradually convinced us that this is the real thing, an "important" movie.

Why didn't we recognize that when it came out?

Art is a construct, and all art, from the deceptively simple canvases of Rothko to the incomprehensible gibberish of Pound's "Cantos", is built on deliberate detail.  The artist put those things there on purpose.  Even Pollock's experiments with the random are done with intention, and with the instinctive eye of the painter.  Improvised music does not come from nowhere, it comes from the memory and instincts of the performers.

Art is detail (among other things), and we seem to be completely incapable of absorbing all the detail upon first exposure to a work of art.  I have always said that it is preposterous for critics to enter a theatre, encounter new work without preparing (by reading a script, or looking at a score, etc.,) and write a review.  I am a professional musician, and there is a great deal of music to which my initial reaction has been rather cool, which I have gradually learned to respect and even like.  I am not talking about works which seem like masterpieces upon first exposure (which are very, very rare,) but about the "medium" works, the works which don't lift you out of your seat on first encounter.

In some ways, isn't this music (and film and art and theatre and books) more important than the "masterpieces"?  Isn't art supposed to change you?  Isn't the gradual understanding and absorption of a work of art more important to our spiritual life than jumping to our feet at the end of the latest trendy "masterpiece"?

Perhaps I am thinking about this because, in addition to watching older movies lately, I am teaching a course on Alternatives, music which espouses different values from the accepted canon.  And one of the composers I have focused on is Busoni, whose work I have adored since the age of 13.  Alfred Brendel said of Busoni "His music glows when the right eyes fall upon it."  I completely understand why people don't like Busoni's music, but with the passage of time, I have come to realize that his music has probably had more influence on the way I write music than any other composer I have listened to in my life.

And for most people, Busoni's music is a "medium" experience.

Thursday 26 July 2012

I was thinking recently about new music, and about the problems of programming new works.  And I realized something, perhaps something very obvious, but which nevertheless struck me quite profoundly

Most music is boring.

Not just new music, but all music.  The few works that have survived over the course of centuries may have survived because they are the least boring works written in their age.  Most pieces are just dull.  Listen to music by Moscheles, for example, or even Mendelssohn at his weakest.  It's not bad music-- it's just really, really dull.  I have no desire to sit through it.

Do most people listen to music as background noise?  How can you actually listen to music by Vorisek or Dussek in the foreground? 

Can you really listen to the latest magnum opus from any one of a variety of new music stars and actually get excited about it?

New music has grown increasingly predictable and dull.  Even the finest composers seem to be self-replicating in each new work.  If they move forward at all, it's usually incremental.  And let's be frank, imagination seems to be less and less a part of composition.

I used to get angry at new music concerts, when the work I was listening to was incompetent, or misguided, or repetitive, or just generally out of control.  Now I find myself much more often than not simply bored.  The music might be alternative, mainstream, tonal, atonal, experimental, near-commercial, whatever, it all seems quite dull to me.

Part of this is probably due to the fact that composition has now become a polished practice.  Many of the young composers I teach have more technical skill than any of the students I went to school with.  Many can tear off complete works of considerable skill in very short periods of time.  But skill can't make music interesting.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Man Carrying Thing

For reasons I can't explain, I found myself, at morning coffee, thinking about Wallace Stevens' line from "Man Carrying Thing" which goes "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully."

Stevens is one of my very favourite poets, for many reasons.  His language is simple, but beautiful.  It is clipped, but rhythmic and lilting.  Most of all, the thinking is incredibly abstruse, obsessed with the differences between surfaces and substance, reality and imagination.  It is almost phenomenological.  I enjoy the feeling I get when I read a poem which satisfies my visceral desire for words, but challenges me with ideas.

For years, I thought I disagreed with his line, and re-quoted it as "The poem must resist the intelligence / Only just successfully."

This morning, I realized, in one of those moments of understanding, that I was confusing poetry with music.  Or more exactly, I was thinking about poetry, particularly Stevens', at the boundary between words and music.  Great poetry becomes music at some instant.and great poems flicker back and forth between poetry and music.

Music must resist the intelligence only just successfully.  Even works in which the primary goal is not visceral, like Boulez' Structures or Cage's 4'33", should provoke a "pleasure" response which we do not fully understand.  I am not speaking here about pop music, most of which is designed to be almost totally visceral, although I think an argument could be made with pop music as well.

Is there a limit on how far away from the intelligence art can get before it becomes gibberish?  Are Ezra Pound's Cantos brilliant poetry or indecipherable, solipsistic ramblings?  I really don't know.  If I read one in which he references his own past without explaining it, quotes some ancient Greek, and flings out disconnected and unexplained imagery, is it possible for me to enjoy it?  Are the moments of completely opaque reference truly out of reach, or do they somehow suggest, in a non-conscious way, the experience Pound was trying to convey?

Poetry can do this.  Film, occasionally, can do this.  Music and architecture, it seems to me, depend on this.

Perhaps the coffee was too strong.

Man Carrying Thing
The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.
-Wallace Stevens

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Sending a Score Part Two

So you sent a score to a Canadian orchestra...

Part Two:  Mechanics

It is a simple fact that very few scores sent to orchestras ever get seen by the Music Director.  There are many reasons for this.  For one thing, as I said in Part One, most larger orchestras get many unsolicited submissions per week.  In addition to this, Music Directors are very busy.  Most maintain a schedule of meetings, rehearsals, and travel which would probably kill me.  And there is also the fact that, sadly, there are many people out there who are convinced they are composers who really are not.  I cannot tell you how many submissions I have seen from people who bought Finale or Sibelius and so are now composers, or from people who somehow patched together 16 bars of a waltz for piano in C major who want the TSO to play it, or from people who have retired with large pensions who have decided to play at being composers, or from people who are just plain disturbed.  There is a vetting process at every orchestra which is designed to keep the MD's time from being wasted.

However, someone looks at every score that comes in.  In orchestras with a Composer In Residence, it is the CIR who does this.  My situation is unique in that I am not actually a CIR, I am the Composer Advisor, which means I do the administrative things like vetting scores without getting a commission every year.  TSO is a unique situation, as is the National Arts Centre Orchestra, where the Awards Composers are not actually engaged in any administrative work.  But someone in each orchestra sees submissions, either a composer or an artistic administrator.

The presence of a CIR can be positive or negative, depending on the person involved.  I will at a later time post my thoughts about the upside and downside of the CIR programme.  For now, I will just say that some composers are capable of being very objective and some are not.  I pride myself on having adapted to various MDs, recognizing that they are all different and will have different tastes and perspectives.  This has meant that I have brought forward music of every type at one time or another.  I know that there have been situations in which the prejudices of a CIR have prevented this.  There is nothing we can do about this.  If you recognize that you have a conflict with a particular CIR who is not going to be objective, it may be a waste of time to send a score to that orchestra.  On the other hand, as I pointed out in Part One, you are probably very paranoid about rejection.  Don't assume that a certain CIR will not be totally objective because a) you don't like their music and b) you've heard bad things about them.  If you don't know for sure, assume that you are dealing with a professional.

Certainly the artistic administrators are professionals.  They generally have a strong musical background, and understand what their MD is likely to be looking for in a piece of music.

Not all orchestras will return your scores, so be sure to indicate whether or not you want it back.  Don't send it in without saying so, and then phone 6 months later and ask for the stuff back.  It may be gone by then, and it won't be the orchestra's fault.

Send professional work.  Do not send badly copied scores.  The visual impact of the score is important.  A poorly copied and/or poorly photocopied score says "I'm an amateur."

If possible, send a good recording.  Yes, of course CIRs and MDs and most AAs can read scores, but the MD does not have a lot of time to review things once they have gotten that far in the process.  In my experience, the MD will want to listen to excerpts.  If something catches his or her ear, they will ask for a score.  Make sure the recording is well done.  Sometimes, a bad recording can be prejudicial.

A word about MIDI:  it's terrible.  I have actually seen MIDI recordings destroy a work's possibilities for performance.  Of course the music is absolutely clear in your head, and of course you know the MIDI doesn't represent the actual orchestral sound, but think about this:  you hear a new work for the very first time, it's unfamiliar to start with, and you are hearing it with cheesy fake sounds and artificial "interpretation."  What is your impression of the piece likely to be?  MIDI can be useful if you deliver a new work to a conductor and he needs to learn it.  But it is not a good idea to send MIDI.  Some of the more clever composers I have seen send a score with a note that a MIDI recording is available if requested.

Be realistic about what you submit.  See Part One on general rules.

Don't try stratagems.  The American composer David Del Tredici once sent a score to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  Across the cover was scrawled:  "Jukka Pekka!  Great to see you last week!  Here's that score you wanted!"  This seemed very suspicious to me, as I couldn't imagine music more inimical to Jukka Pekka Saraste, so I asked him if he even knew who David Del Tredici was, and of course, he didn't.  Not a good way to start a relationship with an orchestra.

A general word about the internal dynamics of the orchestra:  if there is a CIR or equivalent, odds are that everything that has to do with new work will end up on his or her desk.  Notwithstanding the personality conflicts which might exist, do not try to do an end run.  I cannot tell you how many times composers have written letters to complain about me which have ended up on my desk.  It doesn't matter if you send them to the MD, the CEO, the board chairman, the AA, if it's new music, it ends up on my desk.  Ironically, once or twice, composers whose music I fully support and intend to take to the MD have written snide letters directly to the MD intimating that I am not to be trusted.  These letters all end up in my hands.  The same is true in most situations where there is a CIR.  Sometimes, you may have direct access to a MD, in which case you have the option of pitching a work directly.  Sometimes this works, as there is no substitute for a personal relationship.  But it is professional courtesy to then let the CIR know.  Remember that the MD liking a work is a good start, but it does not guarantee a performance.  There are many other factors at play, and the CIR is one of them.  The best CIRs are objective professionals who understand the complexities of getting music played, and take offense only at being blindsided.

It is okay to follow up, but don't be a pest.  At the TSO, for example, we do score review two or three times a year at most.  It's an all-day job.  We are as prompt as is possible.  Don't send a score and call two days later to find out when it's being programmed.  Two months is a quick turnaround time.  Remember, all major orchestras programme at least two years in advance.

Remember that not all rejection is rejection.  There are many, many works which the MD believes in for which we cannot find a suitable home.  These remain on a shelf and in our minds, but may never get programmed, despite their merit.

Final advice:  stay in the game.  A Canadian composer submitting music to a Canadian orchestra will be taken seriously.  Your work will enter a whirlpool of programming possibilities, and if a suitable arena opens up, it might be programmed.  Most of the Canadian content on the TSO's current and coming seasons has been in our minds for several years.  Make yourself known without being a pest.  Recognize the needs of the orchestra.  Be realistic, be patient, and be confident of your vision.  

Or turn away from orchestra music and embrace the world of the new music ensemble.

More to come.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

So you sent a score to a Canadian orchestra....

Part One:  Rules of Engagement.

After years of experience with orchestras across the country, and after many questions and comments and complaints from composers, I thought it might be useful to post some observations, advice, and suggestions on the complexities of dealing with orchestras.

The orchestral environment is a complicated one.  Many composers do not feel the need to have anything to do with orchestras.  Many others, after their first experience with an orchestra, decide not to go back into the environment.

The situation is a little awkward, because, as professionals, we need major exposure, and nothing except opera gives more high profile exposure than orchestral music.  Even a composer like John Tavener, known almost totally for his vocal music, had to have an orchestral success with "The Protecting Veil" before he became internationally known.  And it was, I believe, the only purely orchestral work he had written at the time.  But this is about career, not art.  The two are undeniably linked:  to be the best artist you can be, you need to be free to undertake the projects you are passionate about.  To be in this position, you need to build a substantial career.  But unless you really need the orchestra, it might make sense to look elsewhere to fulfill your artistic vision.

The lesson is simple:  the orchestra world has an internal life of its own.  If you don't like it, don't engage it.  I always cite the example of Ligeti.  After the first several orchestral masterpieces, he more or less completely turned his back on the orchestra, preferring at most a chamber orchestra for the violin and piano concertos and the final Hamburg Concerto.  Here was a composer who could have picked up the phone and called any orchestra in the world and told them he wanted to compose a new work for them.  Any orchestra would have moved heaven and earth to get a new work from Ligeti.  But he seemed to have no use for the ensemble any more.

If you have decided to pursue orchestral composition, there are a few basic "rules" to keep in mind when starting out.

Basic rule 1:  you will never succeed in bending an orchestra to your will.  Do not imagine even for a minute that you can "demand" anything from a professional orchestra.  Orchestras are living organisms, with complex internal structures which are generally invisible from the outside.  The dynamics which guide activities are opaque.  It is safe to assume that the Music Director is in charge of everything musical, but even the MD has to make adjustments.  All artistic organizations depend on the synergy of the artistic director and the administrative director.  They exist in a symbiosis:  the MD envisions artistic projects, and the General Manager (or equivalent) figures out how to implement them.  Not all things are always possible.

Basic rule 2:  you will have to earn the trust of the orchestra, from the MD, through the players, and into the administration, to arrive at a point where you have the artistic freedom to do whatever you want.  No orchestra is going to commit to a massively complex (and therefore expensive) project with a composer they don't know.  The history of every composer I can name with orchestras has evolved over time.  I myself wrote my first work for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of their now-gone Evening Overtures series, a pre-concert series devoted to chamber music.  Then I was commissioned for a short work for a young peoples' concert.  Then I was asked for a longer work for a casual concert.  Gradually, I gained their trust, and when the time came for my Second Symphony, I asked for and received a full 2 1/2 hour rehearsal to workshop the piece.  You have to work your way up to that grand opus.

Side rule:  have a calling card piece.  Don't send your 45 multi-media masterpiece to an orchestra who have never programmed your work and expect them to fall all over themselves to do it.  They might-- lightning does strike from time to time.  But it's not likely.  Send a short work, 4 to 10 minutes long, ideally with a good recording,  If it works as an opener, even better.  You would be astonished to find out how much effort orchestras put into finding decent openers.

Basic rule 3:  conductors, conductors, conductors.  No orchestra imposes repertoire on a conductor.  They may ask a conductor to programme a work, but the conductor can always refuse.  Music Directors are in a slightly more complicated situation, but even they can ask a visiting conductor to undertake it instead.  By far the most direct way to get a work programmed is to engage a conductor.  If you went to school with someone who goes on to conduct, you have a good connection.   These types of connections build careers.

Basic rule 4:  soloists are problematic.  Every orchestra will hire soloists based on the expectations of their audience.  Your uncle Otis might be a great bassoonist, but he is never going to be a soloist with the Montreal Symphony.  Don't pitch a concerto with him to a major orchestra.  And if you do manage to interest a high profile soloist in your work, don't do the old get-me-the-gig-and-I'll-play-your-piece routine.  If you tell the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that Superstar X wants to perform your violin concerto with them, the first thing they will do is speak to Mr. X's management and ask a) if this is true and b) would he rather play your concerto or the Mendelssohn.  Remember, big name soloists cost money, which means the orchestra has to sell tickets.  Your concerto with a major soloist might sell on the basis of the soloist, but standard rep will sell more, and the orchestra needs to recoup the costs.  And believe me when I say that a major soloist playing a new work will cause many, many letters of complaint and threats about canceling subscriptions.

Basic rule 5:  patience.  As a composer myself, and after years of dealing with composers and teaching, I can tell you that composers are not very bright.  We are blinded by ego.  We truly believe the music world needs us desperately and that we are right about everything.  Anything perceived as a rejection can set us off on tirades, letter-writing, name-calling, and a lot of other unhealthy things.  Believe me when I say that no orchestra in this country is aggressively excluding your work from their programming.  Canadian orchestras need Canadian repertoire.  They look for it constantly.  But it must serve their programming needs.  (See "Basic rule 2" above.)  In my situation at the TSO, I have had scores submitted which I considered very interesting, which I took to the MD, but which simply couldn't work in the programming plans at the time.  In several cases, these works continue to sit on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity, which may or may not come.  But at least the MD is aware of them.  Do not start writing letters of complaint.  Do not tell interviewers and conference attenders that orchestras are not really interested in new work.  Do not attack orchestras' commission applications on juries.  The dynamics behind the scenes are far, far more complex than you can imagine.

More in Part Two.