Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An age of repertoire, not of works too big to fail

I'll risk some historical over-generalization and make the claim that music moves between periods of rapid innovation, marked by singular works exemplifying the particular innovations, and periods of consolidation, in which the technical gains of the innovative era are refined and developed as elements, conventions even, of musical repertoires.   The extreme experimentation of the late 14th century, for example, was followed by the consolidation of the 15th; the radical innovations of early opera were soon enough followed by the establishment of a fairly strict regiment of conventions. 

I will further claim that we are now well into a period or consolidation, one in which both the most apparently traditional and radical strains of repertoire are better characterized by features broadly shared rather than by striking individual stylistic or technical traits.   

Which brings me 'round to the new music-political news of the day: the New York Philharmonic announcing a $10 million gift from Henry R. Kravis to support composers-in-residence and a biannual commission of some 250 grand.   This is clearly good news, and the selection of Magnus Lindberg as the first comp-in-rez under the gift is a solid choice.   However, the decision to award a single very very very large commission for a single work of new music is not so good.  

As a commenter to Lisa Hirsch's fine blog , Iron Tongue of Midnight, complains, it would have been much better to slice that commission in, say, ten parts, which would have had a more significant impact across the new music community and forced the orchestra to put at least that many premieres on their calendar.  Instead of putting all of their money on a single composer, there would be a greater field of opportunity for innovative work.  As it is, a commission of this size — basically unheard of in the new music world, in which, let's face it, 25K is a large commission — puts incredible stress on the success of a single piece by a single composer.  It literally becomes a piece that is too big to fail.  

Unfortunately, pieces which have been built up as too big to fail have a pretty lousy track record of near misses (Repons) and total failures (Montezuma, anyone?), and when expectations are so high and so much money and prestige is at stake, commissioners will feel obliged to make safe, familiar choices among composers and composers selected will feel obliged to play it safe with their works.  But in an alternative environment in which newly-commissioned works of music would be more frequently encountered, the whole calculation of risk falls another way and, while there will certainly continue to be room for commissioning composers who are already known quantities on the circuit, there will be room for some unconventional choices as well.  Moreover, it seems to me that this approach would also be a better fit for our current age of repertoire, as both the diversity and commonalities of the various strains of new musical production cannot be represented by singular examples;  the old, institutionally-nourished masterwork ethic is no longer operative.



Lisa Hirsch said...

"Pieces which have been built up as too big to fail have a pretty lousy track record of near misses and total failures" seems like something you could say about most of the new opera commissions of the past 20 years. How many of them have gotten a second (third, fourth, fifth) run elsewhere, or been revived at the house where they premiered?

Daniel Wolf said...


Off the top of my head, and stretching the 20 years a bit, operas by Henze, Glass, Adams, Cage, Feldman, Turnage, Rorem, Rihm, Walter Zimmermann, and Tom Johnson have received multiple productions. (Johnson's Riemann Oper, admitedly a lighter piece for chamber resources, has actually had dozens of productions.)

It would be useful to have a more complete and detailed list.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Also, Adamo and Saariaho. And Einem - "The Visit of the Old Lady." Bennett's "The Mines of Sulphur"?

Anonymous said...

Sciarrino´s stuff, Lachenmann´s Das Maedchen...

Paul H. Muller said...

Any bets on what will happen in the future with "Dr. Atomic"?