Drop the Feather Duster, Call a Composer

For performers and conductors, the master’s recital is sort of a strange ritual. Most of the graduate students I know are performing all the time anyway; the idea that their degrees would be staked on one brief-ish and probably ill-attended concert is a bit nonsensical. One manifestation of this nonsense seems to be the rep: The academically mandated recital is often the province of orphaned, mutant pieces that fulfill some arbitrary requirement rather than set the players’ imaginations afire. Pieces for unusual combinations of instruments emerge from the dustiest corners of the music library, flop and flounder under the stage lights for a bit, and are promptly escorted back to their cells. Often the programming impetus is something like “we needed a piece for tenor, bassoon, and piano, and this was the only one they had.”

If there were ever a situation that begged—begged!—for a composer, this is it. Not only will you get a piece that is calibrated to your very own technical and logistical needs as a performer, you’ll be fostering a relationship with a real live human being that’s likely to mean more to you than your off-the-shelf score. That’s my pitch to performers; now, here’s my pitch to administrators and faculty: You can mandate this kind of collaboration easily. At the University of Illinois, grad students in percussion are required to include a premiere on their recital programs. As far as I’m concerned, every performer on every instrument everywhere should have to meet this requirement to graduate. Think of how many new pieces would be played—and how many old, irrelevant pieces that nobody cares about would not be.

A graduate recital doesn’t have to be just a hoop to jump stressfully through. Although everyone agrees that working closely with composers is a skill that instrumentalists and singers should cultivate; it’s not one, unfortunately, that many working performers are regularly called upon to exercise. Bundling every graduate recital with a brand new piece would make for more interesting recitals, more thoroughly integrated music departments, and busier composers—win/win/win.

5 thoughts on “Drop the Feather Duster, Call a Composer

  1. jbunch

    We should probably also mandate that composers have to study/perform on an instrument or conduct: and I mean really study/perform not just sing badly in the choir for a couple semesters. That would lead to more naturally developed relationships with performers, more expertly written/idiomatically conceived writing from the composers, and more work for performance educators (=more financial support). It’s also a win/win/win. So I guess that would put us at win/win/win/win/win/win.

    O and it would be awesome if we could also figure out a way to pay everyone (composers and performers) for the enormous amount of work that both endeavors require (then we could add at least two more wins) (and make life as an artist possibly livable).

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  2. colin holter

    I agree with all of that. . . and even if you weren’t making an implicit comment on the futility of “people should do X!”-type pronouncements, I agree with that too.

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  3. danvisconti

    collaborating for credit
    When I was doing my undergrad, a few performer/composer pairs got together and convinced the administration to offer a new “collaborative new music” course listing, which counted for elective credit and was more instructive–and realistic–for both performers and composers. Having a course credit attached really seemed to make a big difference for some players (and teachers) that had previously been on the fence.

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  4. jbunch

    collaborative courses
    Hi Dan, yes we’ve had a few things like that at UIUC. When Keeril Makan was teaching here, he and Masumi Rostad co-taught a class on writing for string quartets. Professor (Stephen) Taylor has taught a Max/MSP course which ends up being collaboration heavy. Also Zack Browning taught a seminar in 20th/21st century piano music that was split down the middle pianists/composers – most of the projects in that class were collaborative composition/readings.

    It’s kind of hard to get credit for student-led initiatives here (unless it’s done as a independent-study basis), but what I find is that student-led initiatives are hard to get off the ground. Maybe it’s just because we’re in the middle of Illinois and not in a big metropolitan city (and thus, the career incentives for doing anything locally are really miniscule).

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  5. Troy Ramos

    I think it’s a fantastic idea to incorporate new music into grad recitals. It would benefit nearly everyone, it seems..

    However, in regard to this sentence,

    “Think of how many new pieces would be played—and how many old, irrelevant pieces that nobody cares about would not”
    , I have to take issue with the word “irrelevant”..

    The dedication to the music of dead Europeans gets under my skin too (though, not all the time), but I wouldn’t say that ” old” music is irrelevant. I’m in favour of the performance of all music, from all periods. It just needs to be proportioned better (say, 70% new music and 30% “old”?:)

    And I’m not so sure about the performance requirements for composers, either. I did my grad work in England and was given total freedom to compose; no performance requirement or anything. It was brilliant because I could focus just on composing.

    I think it’s a good thing if composers want to conduct or perform. I just don’t think it should be required. I believe I will always be in favor of having fewer rules, especially at universities.

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