Monday, February 26, 2007

Generating Heat, Generating Light

We've all heard the talk about the low-level of attention, support, appreciation, etc. for new, contemporary, and experimental music. After having spent too much of the past two weeks monitoring activity in the online new music blogs and fora, I've come to the conclusion that one problem is that we, as a community, are generating simply too little heat: too little new of interest in the way of sounds, scores, or ideas, and too little controversy or passion, and even too little in the way of intellectual challenges. But most of all, through the underwhelmingly small amount of material we present to the world, we're simply giving out the impression that nothing is really happening in little Newmusicville. At this point in time, a new music equivalent of the "Instapundit" could probably get by with a bi-weekly post delivered by burro.

It's not so much a matter of clever promotion, it's more a matter of reporting and record-keeping. More information has to be out there, and more useful information. Media are cheaper and more accessible than ever, but we hardly have a presence, and when we have a presence it's shocking to see and hear how badly we use the media. Composers' webpages are usually prefaced with lists of institutional affiliations, awards, and scholarships. Come on, children, grow up! No one cares about your diplomas and merit badges! Dare to say something about your music and yourself first (or at least pretend for a moment that you are not the in-vitro product of those institutions). And composer's blogs are rare, and usually far too timid. Why the caution? Is is fear of repercussions from hiring and prize committees? It's a composer's job to have a posture, an attitude, and opinions about music, and it's through that posture, attitude, and opinions the we make the decisions that form our work, making it distinct from the work of others. We are going to disagree, and often be disagreeable, but that's how we keep music lively. We talk about it, in and among ourselves, all the time, but why are so few willing to make it public and write it out?

In a functioning cultural landscape, there is no way that this blog by this composer ought to be in the top 50 music blogs. I could list 50 other composers off the top of my head who ought to be out there before or instead of me, with their sharper ideas and sharper words. And there are hundreds more about whose work I'd like to know more: tell us what you're writing, or about with whom you're working. Got any fresh program notes to share? How about some sound or score snippets?

There are dozens of schools around the planet with lively composition programs, with pieces being produced by the rows and rows of apt disciples. Tell us about it. There are schools with staffs of faculty composers, each with a handful of grad students: show us your work, UCSD, UIUC, Yale, Eastman, Princeton, Cal Arts, Mills, Den Haag, Berlin, Brunel! Academic activity is supposed to end in publication, and online publication is a much better service to both you and to the new music community as a whole than via direct deposit to a personnel file in a closed cabinet. A composition professor who is not encouraging his or her students to get online is not helping those students, and students who are not getting online by themselves are not helping themselves.

As people who take music seriously, who want to present work in a high qualitative standard of production and presentation, we want both heat and light. But that second quality, light, is only going to be recognized if the context is known, and, I assume for most composers, that context is one rich which is rich in experiences of sounds and ideas, precedents, contemporaries, sketches, fragments, missteps, even failures, such that it is only by keeping the volume of our recorded activities high will we ever be able to let potential audiences even begin to recognize the qualitative in our work.

Heat and light. Don't take this as a rant, but as a sober recognition of opportunity. Never before has there been such an opportunity to present ones work in its own depth, not to depend upon the received local cultural and historical context. This is an opportunity to fashion an optimal context for an encounter with your work, to share it, and yes, to promote it. For better or worse, this, my friends, is the direction that publication will inevitably go, and not taking the opportunity now carries a risk for your own work, but also for the new music community at large, and that is the risk of becoming invisible, inaudible, and irrelevant.


Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Most of the composers that I talk to don't seem to immediately grok the idea of podcasts or why they should have one. This may be partly because I've been lurking in Europe and New England for the last 4 years.

However, there are a lot of folks hanging out on myspace. They have sounds and blogs there. It seems like there's a lot going on there.

You've got me thinking about how I should change my composer website. I went to some conference on business-y stuff for professional composers. they told us to think of our (professional) web presence as a press kit, so I do just that. Maybe I should make a "press kit" subsection and try to more fully integrate all my music blahblahblah onto my professional website?

Anyway, I've got a podcast:

There are some other folks I know linked from there.

Daniel Wolf said...

les, thanks for stopping by. I think your website is already moving in the right direction, and is certainly in better shape than mine, and you keep your blog(s) active as well. The problem, I think, is with the webpages that read like material prepared for a tenure decision, which is either grossly misreading the audience, or deciding in advance that the only audience you're interested in is your tenure committee. I'd like to move instead from the premise that our interest is in music first, then in our day jobs (or lack thereof).

I have written before of my myspace misgivings -- I don't like the format, which doesn't distinguish between ones own work and just a playlist of favorites, I don't like (or am just too old for) this business of trolling about for "friends", and I really don't like the idea of hanging my work out in Mr. Murdoch's evil empire. But my mind has changed over less things before...

In any case, i look forward to reading more from you about your composing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, this. In the Amsterdam Sound Forum tonight I'm going to make almost the same point (but I'm focussing very much on discussion and reception - content could be our comparative advantage on the cultural market, right? - with composers taking up where the press left off, mesmerized as they are by Britney Spear's new haircut)

Anonymous said...

Definetely like to see more composers and performers posting in message boards, more than the one or three I've come across so far. Blogs are ok (and I like yours a lot) but a bit...aloof at times. It is asking quite a bit out of ppl to go through their own personal webpage/blog/myspace when there are 10 million composers out there.

With the msg board, if its open enough to all kinds of music, you can def generate interest. The sections on 'contemporary classical' that I see on msg boards centre on starting points and never go beyond the whole stockhausen/boulez/cage, etc. and I'm not sure anyone interested goes beyong into someone like Michael Finnissy, nevermind anyone more difficult to get hold of.

Anonymous said...

You said: "Tell us about it. There are schools with staffs of faculty composers, each with a handful of grad students: show us your work, UCSD, UIUC, Yale, Eastman, Princeton, Cal Arts, Mills, Den Haag, Berlin, Brunel! Academic activity is supposed to end in publication, and online publication is a much better service to both you and to the new music community as a whole than via direct deposit to a personnel file in a closed cabinet."

I agree completely, and, as an outgoing student of one of the institutions that you mentioned, I can envision a promising future for online publication and music distribution.

At any rate, excerpts of some of my music and research is available on my website (with ongoing updates) for anyone interested.

Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

Stefan Kac said...

You're making me feel better for having devoted what I see as maybe even a little too much time and effort towards managing my own web "presence." The reason that I read your blog regularly is precisely for what seems like a more philosophical orientation (and just to be clear, I do mean that as a compliment). One of the reasons that I'm sometimes embarrassed to identify myself as a "blogger" is because of what most blogs really are. I strive for something a bit more substantive in my online endeavors and I'm glad that someone else does too. (as for the obligatory promo, just click on my name at the top; the blog has all the relevant links)