Monday 2 September 2013

experimentation and integration

My own work comes directly from tradition.  I value the same things Beethoven and Mozart did-- clarity of form, dynamic harmony, counterpoint, melody (more or less), and a general commitment to the fullness of human experience.  I have, from time to time, experimented in works which do not embrace one or more of these qualities, but I return to them as "first principles".

There are those who seem unable to grasp that, despite these fundamental values, I am in great harmony with the music of Webern, the post-WW2 modernists, the conceptual art of the 50s, the high avant-garde of the 60s, the unbridled explosion of creativity in the 70s, the amazing accomplishments of Feldman and his followers, pattern music, crossover, post-modernism, New Complexity, New Age, meta-modernism, and almost every other stand of musical development in the last 70 years.  All of these musics make up music.  Each has its place.  I can name many examples of each approach which I not only respect and admire, but like and listen to.  I have programmed, performed, and recorded music written with virtually every one of these approaches.

Why are the exponents of so many of these artistic points of view so adamant that they must be exclusive?  They are not.  I won't, in this posting, go into the Freudian problem of insecure artists who need to band together to make sure they're right, but I will say that human beings in general seem to need not only to believe, but to convert, apparently to reassure themselves that they are doing the right thing.  This is truly unfortunate, because it weakens the art of music, which is a rich and variegated human experience.

I find it funny that I am often cast in a position where I am defending the work of someone who is absolutely certain I hate not only their music, but their point of view, and their own self personally.  Even more amusing to me is that many of these composers are convinced that I hate anything that does not sound like my own music.  Most of them would be surprised to learn that I actually largely agree with many of their tenets, but that I have no interest in applying them in a "pure" form.  Experimentation is vital to any art.  But after the experiment is concluded, a lesson must be learned.  That lesson is central to my artistic process.

I agree absolutely that music must be contemporary to be relevant.  Busoni actually first espoused this.  But what many composers seem to want is music that is ostentatiously, flamboyantly, and, frankly, rather stupidly "contemporary", a music which is so obvious that it ends up lacking the power to sustain anyone's interest except as an experiment.  I agree absolutely that the point of the art must be to move forward, and that moving backwards is not the real job of the artist.  But composers cannot agree on what this actually means.
I also believe that one cannot judge a composer's output on the basis of his or her lightest works.  We don't remember Beethoven for "Wellington's Victory" or the Equali for 4 Trombones.  And by the way, the finest composers of any era have light works in their output-- look at Ligeti's "Hungarian Rock" for harpsichord, for example.  Most composers have music in their output which does not push the art forward.  I have several works which are light and occasional, and they serve their purpose.  I would not disparage them, as many of them are, I think, rather well written.  But I point to works like my Symphonies and Concertos as works in which I am attempting to move the art forward in my own way.

And what is that way?  I hope I am integrating contemporary experience into a traditional framework.  Not obviously, not heavy-handedly, but in the details.  It is fascinating to look at Turandot by Puccini or several works by late Strauss or early Britten and find the subtle indication that these essentially Romantic composers were actually listening very carefully to Schoenberg, Bartok, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, among others.

Somewhere, there is a scientist who is working on a new rubber-like compound.  It is, let us speculate, a compound which is sourced eco-responsibly, inexpensive, stronger than rubber, with excellent heat dissipation, a high degree of flexibility at low temperatures, and it can heal itself when it is cut.  Somewhere, there is a company manufacturing auto tires who could take this substance and make a new and better tire.  Somewhere, there is an scientist who has created a metal that is lightweight, completely rigid but flexible enough to withstand concussions, easily formed and with a "memory" which makes it return to its original shape.  Somewhere, there is a wheel manufacturer who can take this metal and make an almost indestructible lightweight wheel for an auto.  Somewhere, there is an auto designer who will take the tires and the wheels, along with the thousands of other developments born of thousands of experiments, and make a Porsche.

This is music for me.  Every strand of experimentation yields something.  But the highest accomplishment of a composer is to take these thousands of strands and make a coherent statement from them.  Not all of them will work in every piece.  Not all of them will be appropriate for every composer.  But each of these strands reflects a unique and different kind of human experience.  To be able to find a cogent way to weave them together would be a high accomplishment.  It would yield a work which truly reflects contemporary experience in all its complexity.  We live in a far more complex world than Mozart.  Art should not always shut out where we are as a species and reflect only one small part of what we are.  Of course, there are works where a narrow range would be acceptable, and even desirable, but for me, the goal should be a more human art, a more complete art.  Narrowly focused works are like experiments, in which we learn what that particular approach is capable of, but my goal is to take what is learned from these works and put them into a larger perspective.  Moving art forward, for me, means expanding our ability to make art reflect everything that we are.  This is the job of the artist.

Thursday 9 May 2013, really......

I recently had the opportunity to see comments from a commissioning jury regarding a grant that was denied (not for me-- an incensed colleague forwarded them.)

- Over all, the jury was supportive of the [commissioning ensemble].
- They felt the support materials for this application were not up to the artistic quality they are looking for.
- They agree that Mr. X is an accomplished composer, however they feel he is limited to certain gestural language. His music is very reminiscent of film music.
- music is “well done, but what is the urgency for more music like this?” “what is the need or urgency for this new piece”
- “what is going to be new in this music”
- Great soloist.  The soloist could be taking more of a risk and it feels like the music would not be giving her that opportunity.
- The jury was not critical of the composer’s music but made the decision on the artistic assessment.
- Next time the project description can outline more of the risks, edge, what’s new about the project.

Does anyone in 2013 actually say "what is going to be new in this music" anymore?  Does anyone really still believe that unless music is completely lacking in direction and discourse it sounds like "film" music?  Do "artists" on juries really feel that they have the right to tell a soloist that they should be "taking more of a risk"?  Are there really composers out there who genuinely believe that there is something "new" about their own projects?

Musicians are the stupidest professionals.  If doctors or lawyers behaved the way we do, we would all be dead or in jail.

Many years ago, John Weinzweig told me something I have never forgotten:  the jury system stinks-- but it's the best we can do.

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.

Monday 22 April 2013

Meta modernism

John Adams refers to himself as a "post-style" composer.  Franco Donatoni spoke about music having passed beyond the "school", and having entered an era of "personal style".  What both gentlemen mean is that the most interesting composers no longer belong to a definable stylistic school.  Certainly, different as they are (were), Donatoni and Adams both resist(ed) simple classification in their mature work.

I cannot think of myself as belonging to any discernible artistic movement.  Like most composers, I suffer from the fact that most people are fairly narrow minded and, frankly, rather stupid-- they hear one work of mine and label me as something.  No composer can be classified on the basis of one work.  Imagine hearing only the "Liebeslieder" Waltzes and Hungarian Dances of Brahms.  Imagine hearing only "Fur Elise" and "Wellington's Victory" by Beethoven.  Imagine hearing only "Hungarian Rock" and "Self Portrait with Reich and Riley" by Ligeti.  What label would you give these composers?

There are people who know only my lighter pieces, some of which have become very successful.  My Celebration Overture is the most performed piece of orchestral music in Canada, and it is very, very light, having been written for a community orchestra.  There are people who know only my first two symphonies, from performances at the Toronto Symphony, who think of me as a dangerously "modern" composer.  There are people who know only my educational pieces-- it frightens me sometimes to imagine that there are professional musicians who, adjudicating festivals and exams, have never heard anything of mine other than my Prelude and Fugue for Trumpet and Piano or my Song and Dance for Violin and Piano.

In Seattle last summer, my Piano Quartet was premiered.  Before the concert, the quartet and I did a presentation about the work, with excerpts.  After they had played some sections, I ask the pre-concert audience present, numbering perhaps 125 people, how many people heard the music as tonal, and how many heard it as atonal.  About 1/3 heard it as tonal, 1/3 heard it as atonal, and, presumably, the remaining third either didn't know or didn't care.

I don't care either.  I can no longer even think in terms of "tonal" or "atonal".  Music is a language that we now have free access to in every work.  Each new work makes different demands on the language that we use.  More importantly, composers who insist on being "tonal" or "atonal" actually reinforce the importance of the language they deny.  The composers who band together like members of a motorcycle gang and insist that they and they alone are the true "school" actually make their "opposition" more important by doing so.  We should no longer even think in these terms.  I am constantly astonished by this old fashioned religious zeal.  It is high Romanticism to imagine oneself as doing the only "true" work in music.  Music must go forward, certainly, but it is impossible to force it into a specific direction.  And what exactly does "going forward" actually mean?  I believe that any intelligent and thoughtful artist has to agree that, to be relevant, art must be contemporary.  We just disagree on what that means.

In a very real way, we are all now "post-style" composers.