Thursday, February 04, 2010

C is for Citizen

I just had a chat with a composer colleague, someone who has sent in all his boxtops and made something of a career, with a teaching job, regular commissions and a good number of performances.  After making some snide remarks about sneaking out of concerts to avoid music from across some — to me obscure — new music-partisan divide, he went on with the ritual mantra complaint about lack of an audience for new music.   After calling the guy on his lack of consistency, I probed a bit deeper and was able to establish that although he was exclusively a composer of concert music, he didn't, actually, like concerts.   I stopped my questioning before I could figure out if he actually liked music, as that would have been too depressing even for a cynic like me, but I did suggest that concert music might not really be an optimal line of work for him.  

This encounter immediately made me recall the counter-example John Cage, who, in later years with all the seniority, fame, notoriety and certainly a full desk of his own work at home, made a point of attending as many concerts as possible whenever he was at home in town and took pride, when attending festivals or conferences in skipping some discussions but attending every concert.  I remember him once saying during a festival that "I want to be one-hundred percent" and, I believe, unless he was physically unable due to illness, he usually succeeded, even in uncomfortable environments like Darmstadt.  Here was someone with well-known preferences and associations who had fought and suffered through some horrible — especially when petty — turf wars in Newmusicland, who nevertheless went out of his way to hear music that he had good reason to expect to be outside his own taste range, challenging his own habits and preferences, and he — the self-identified anarchist, thus with some honest skepticism about communities and a disdain for most institutions — managed to provide a model for participating and contributing to the community.   


Miguel Frasconi said...

Thank you for the excellent post, Daniel. I remember one particular visit I had with Cage where he spoke passionately about the awful concert he attended the night before. But at least he attended, and was planing on seeing another concert the following night.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, thank you for your post, I’m reading your blog with great interest!

Re: disconnect between composer and audience.

Not every experiment is a work of art, and not every work of art is a masterpiece.

Let me give two random examples:

1) Luciano Berio, Luftklavier

2) Rodion Shchedrin’s piano concerto:

You can argue about the artistic merits of either work, but one thing is clear.

In both of these pieces, both music professionals have been able to GRASP THEIR AUDIENCE BY THE BALLS, so to speak, FROM MEASURE ONE – and this is a very important feature of a good composition IMHO: grasp-build-sustain-release.

Note that Berio’s piece is, one could say, minimalistic to some degree. Yet it’s not boring, like Philip Glass whose music always seems to be lacking something, something most important.

You can’t stretch the definition of composition and music itself indefinitely.

I could combine two sound layers – the sound of birds singing and djembe drums – in one soundtrack.

Is that music? Is that composition? Maybe, maybe not . ..

It is valid to work with abstract signs (Webern), it is not valid to overload expression (most of Schoenberg).

Many professional musicians tell me they like Schoenberg on paper, but they have trouble LISTENING to that composer for more than several minutes (with the exception of, perhaps, “Pierrot”).

And by “valid” I mean within certain bounds, even if defined loosely, but beyond which the words “composition” and “music” become meaningless.

There are some very general aesthetic principles that still govern – proportion and balance.

One can break up music texture, engage in combinatorics (and, as you have alluded to earlier, a computer could do that – fair enough, that can be called computer music). But it's an experiment, that's all it is.

Computer-generated music lacks the breathing, rubato feel of a human composer’s thought flow.

Taking the performance world: Sviatoslav Richter used to play in obscure small towns in Russia (then Soviet Union), and some saw it an eccentricity.

Yet he NEVER seemed to have a disconnect between his music-making and the audience. He tested his art on sometimes below-average (musically) audiences:

this is from Moscow, but would’ve worked in Aprelevka or elsewhere)

Daniel, the above are my own thoughts on these controversial issues.

Earlier, you have alluded to your involvement and interest in contemporary music, including its more complicated manifestations. I like it too.

As a member of the audience, I want to feel the composer CARES, is ready to descend from her esoteric heights to my mundane human needs.