Sunday, June 02, 2013

A little less consorting, please.

One of the commissioning trends of late has been for several performers or groups, from chamber musicians to choirs and orchestras, to jointly commission a new piece from a composer, with the prospect of multiple performances of the work more-or-less guaranteed.  While all commissioning is good and pooling resources is usually good, and the promise of performances beyond a premier is always good, I think that a greater good to the diversity and liveliness of our musical lives would be done by if all the individuals and organizations interested in commissioning new work would each commission a new work from a different composer.

Yes, this more than likely means much smaller commissions, but the commission is basically a gift upfront and is only part (and the least reliable part) of the composer's complete compensation package. That guarantee of a first performance might compensate significantly for a significantly more modest commission when coupled with a second or third performance and good documentary recordings.  Those additional performances can be the difference between a work getting "read through" and actually being turned into real music, and the existence of the recording (and remember: I'm not a recording enthusiast) can often be the key to a work becoming a repertoire item shared with other players or groups.

The bigger picture here, of course, is one of managing the abundance and diversity of new music, in which an individual work of quality is often simply lost before it can become known and recognized as well worth singing, playing, and listening to.  (More posts on this topic to come.) A commissioning consortium arbitrarily isolates and identifies one (prospective, unheard) work as significant without offering musicians or listeners a meaningful sense of the field of alternatives from which it actually comes. I can't help but see that as representing a loss of freedom: composers will find themselves trying to compose to the patterns and models that have already had success with consortia, and players and listeners will be offered an ever-smaller menu of music to play or hear by local musical organization.

We're in an odd stage of musical history in that so much music is readily available in recorded form, that the music we actually get to hear live is necessarily only a tiny slice of that abundance but one which has been, in the end, capriciously monopolized.  I believe that the best way forward towards both dealing with the variety and trying to avoid that caprice is — perhaps paradoxically — to go in a direction that looks somewhat more like an earlier period of music-making, when news traveled slowly and musical activities were strongly localized. Yes, the immediate access to anything and everything in recorded form is here for keeps and will always form a powerful background radiation to all the music we make and hear, and the forces that would like to make the selections for us are probably there as well, but if we don't take ownership of the musical air immediately around us, we've already given up.   

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