Horizon Expansion

Beginning composition lessons with a new teacher is always an opportunity for one’s aesthetic worldview to be shaken up. Listeners and colleagues might offer comments or suggestions after a performance, but here’s a person who gets paid to tell you how to make your music better, a person whose expertise, opinions, and beliefs on music (and many other topics) may differ radically from your own. Maybe this person thinks what you do is stupid. Maybe he or she thinks it’s pretty okay. Maybe you can’t really see past the poker face. In any case, it can be a convenient time to reevaluate the foundations of one’s compositional thinking, to assay the assumptions that underlie one’s music.

One of the assumptions I’ve been moved to confront since I’ve started working with a new teacher has to do with scale. It was suggested that my pieces might not be reaching their potential because their conceptual theses can’t be fully argued in the relatively short time-frames with which I usually work (my pieces tend to be four to ten minutes in length, generally speaking). This is at once a reassuring and frustrating thought: Although it buttresses my conviction that the not-specifically-musical ideas in my music aren’t getting irrevocably lost, it also means that I may have to be more aggressive about seeking opportunities to mount larger and longer pieces, which are of course harder to secure—and I might even want to stop writing smallish pieces, which are the only ones people seem to be asking me for! What to do?

I’ve been reading quite a bit about La Monte Young recently. Although my music is nothing like Young’s, I’ve been inspired by his temerity. Even when he was a teenager in Los Angeles, he refused to not be taken seriously, and even his very earliest pieces (which, as it happens, are quite long) show it. Throughout his career he’s been intransigent about the things that matter to him; although he’s paid dearly for it, in anxiety as well as money. I’d imagine, he’s earned a place in the music history books—and his music, no matter one’s opinion about it, is completely uncompromised.

This kind of obstinacy is a gamble, however. (It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that all facets of the American composer’s life are gambles of one sort of another.) Is it worth limiting one’s options in the short term to realize what may ultimately be a much more valuable project? To over-simplify, is the bad piece we hear better than the good piece we don’t?

5 thoughts on “Horizon Expansion

  1. SingCal

    Hmmm…
    I don’t know that I would say whether a piece that gets performed is better or worse than a piece that does not. It seems to be much more concrete than that; for anyone but the composer, a piece that is never performed is nonexistent. What we’re talking about here seems to be subjective assessments of another’s work (“I think your pieces are too short”), and those can’t happen for an audience member (or fellow musician) unless a piece finds a venue. There’s certainly merit in writing longer music, but if you’re doing it to more eloquently express your message wouldn’t a successful writing experience be contingent on being able to share that message with others? In other words, does it matter what wonderful things you have to say if you can never tell anyone?

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  2. kmanlove

    It’s funny: as your music has aspirations to go longer, mine has been getting much shorter. Music has such a great way of subverting and confusing time, and you and I both know that they are 45 min pieces that seem short and three min pieces that seem like they’ll never end. I certainly thought your chamber ensemble piece could’ve been longer, but it didn’t have to be.

    That’s the great thing about realizing that you don’t need to pander to some standarized idea of how long a piece should be. If you’re in control of how people experience the piece in an active way, time becomes very arbitrary. I know I might get a thousand replies saying that I’ll never get performed and I’m alienating people, blah blah blah. But people ask me to write long pieces, and they get performed, all is good. If you want to have a long piece, find performers who do that. If not, you might hear your “not so fit” performer say, “Maybe five minutes was even too long too” or even worse, “Maybe it should’ve been longer?”

    I personally always hated first comp lessons. We awkwardly listen to my pieces, and then they ask me painful questions like, “Do you think that piece was too long?”

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  3. Colin Holter

    personally always hated first comp lessons. We awkwardly listen to my pieces, and then they ask me painful questions like, “Do you think that piece was too long?”

    I think I might have asked you that at our first studio class. If I did, sorry.

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  4. jbunch

    There is a danger here of a false dichotomy don’t you think? What I mean is that if you write a piece and then find out you really need to change some things about it later (either because it’s literally unplayable, or because you find out that the performers have no idea how to deal with a certain kind of material [ and that the result of their confusion is unproductive and generally shitty] ) this should not be considered “compromise” with all of the ick that the scare quotes can provide.

    On the other hand, what if YOU’RE wrong about your own music? Imagine if we tried to do foreign diplomacy with the idea that compromise is anathema. Well, you probably don’t have to do too much work to imagine what that would be like right now do you? Why are we horrified by “cowboy diplomacy,” but fixated upon “cowboy aesthetics?”

    Ok, that was a little off topic – and I’m not sure I really believe what I just said – despite its logicality, but to take it back to length…I am mystified by how to estimate proportions in music. You could measure things out, come up with a beautifully conceived formal plan, then the material will muck it up. One problem that I always face is the process of conceiving and notating a piece happens on a timescale that neutralizes my ability to envision the real time unfolding of the music. I could sit with a score (away from notation program) and listen to it in my head (that works a little), but the void between the compositional minutiae and the imagining through the score presents its own problems.

    The other thing that helps me is that over the distance of a series of pieces I can make observations about common errors in my thinking – specifically the fact that I tend to “misunderestimate” the length of time it takes for a type of material / gesture to be literally present in the sound field before average listener X has had the chance to become aware of its “subjectiveness.” I think Lachenmann calls this “Eigenzeit” – “experienced time.” The amount of information contained in a gesture is proportional to the amount of times you will have to repeat / sequence / place that gesture in order to suggest its value as an object of attention. On the other hand, I am also interested in the situation where the listener faces an overload of information density (all of it behaving within its own structural logic) . In this case, you might repeat the same gesture 20 times and they might not even get that they are listening to the same thing just said 20 different ways. That’s cool!

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  5. jbunch

    Yay I killed it this time! What is that – like 10 for me? Watch your ass Keith Manlove – my thread body count is almost as astronomical as the JKG.

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