Thursday, July 20, 2006

Local Genres

The Proms season has begun in London, and I wonder if anyone else has noticed that there is actually a genre of "Proms pieces" -- twenty minutes long, big orchestra, at least one orchestration feature (lots of percussion, or a soloist, or a childrens' choir), and a tonal language that is never really avant-garde, but never really retro, either --? I've heard quite a few Proms pieces performed in Germany over the years, and they certainly provide a good opportunity for composers to make "baggage"* pieces, pieces in a composer's catalog that are ready to travel, as they are already blessed with a paid-up commission, a clean score, proof-read parts, and a good recording to recommend the piece.

There are other local genres, all of them depending upon institutional sponsorship. One is the Parisian Cantata, usually secular, always with a soloist and orchestra, sometimes a choir. It was once expected as a graduation exercise from all young composers completing their Conservatory training, and was associated with competitions and prestige. These cantatas are a mixed lot, with landmarks from Berlioz to Boulez. The most extraordinary of these pieces is Satie's Socrate. (There used to be a BMI student composer's prize genre, too; the defining feature, as I see it, was that winners all knew the secret of the ozalid copy).

To be honest, I don't think I could pull a 20 minute orchestral piece for the Proms or a French secular cantata out of my sleeve. If I'm ever to be associated with a local genre, it'd probably be one of those four-and-a-half-minute solo concertina pieces for the biennial music festival and pancake breakfast sponsored by the Mt. Baldy Village Bookmobile.
* "Baggage" is a term I get from Alvin Lucier, who got it from Aaron Copland. (Jeez! That makes Copland one of my grandteachers). Copland advised Lucier that composers needed to have a certain amount of "baggage" in their catalogues, pieces of modest scale for solo instruments and common instrumental combinations that could readily get some play.

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