I Gotta Be Me

After 28 years, there was finally a performance of three of the fourteen songs which comprise my 1982 song cycle the nurturing river this past Saturday night. (You might recall my writing about how the manuscript for this composition was lost, but that a photocopy of said manuscript luckily survives as part of the American Music Center collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.)

These are an insanely impractical set of songs which require a singer with a more than two-octave tessitura and an even wider range. And the piano accompaniment is filled with carpal tunnel-inducing pounding, big stretches, and inside the piano tinkering. But the songs found a perfect vocal ally in Phillip Cheah, whose remarkable fluidity both as a baritone and a male soprano made people think I actually wrote these songs for him. And my wife Trudy Chan’s extremely nuanced performance at the piano kept the ostinatos from appearing robotic and monotonous. I was extremely lucky to have her play these—I still remember my banging away at these without any nuance when I was composing them decades ago—and I’m also very lucky to be married to her. I’m obviously already totally biased, but the compliments from people who came out for this event convinced me that my personal musical archaeology these past few months was the right thing to do.

But before you start thinking I’ve wandered off into an insufferable narcissistic head spin as a result of this one small victory, this performance inspired a larger more ambivalent and potentially irresolvable quandary, which is actually the reason I’m writing about it here. Since these songs were so well performed and so well received, I thought I’d mine through some of the other music I was writing around that same time in the hope that I’d find some other lost gems. This has been pretty easy to do since luckily (or unluckily, as I will soon explain) manuscripts for all these other pieces are safe and sound in my apartment.

Right before I embarked on this cycle, I had composed two short unaccompanied SATB settings of psalms in Hebrew. Until a short six-voice piece I composed last December, it had been the only music I had ever written for unaccompanied voices. Right after completing the nurturing river, I became enamored of the writings of the 17th-century English libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and began setting some of his poems to music, but I soon abandoned my efforts. At first it seemed like these two projects were also ripe for revisiting. However, after inputting all the music I had written into Sibelius, listening back, and seeing it all neatly engraved, I realized that while some of it was listenable (after all, I do listen to everything), none of it was “me”.

Obviously it was me, since I had written it, but identity is carefully evolved over time and something we all work hard at constructing for better or worse. It’s why it can be such a disconnect to hear things like the early Copland-esque and non-minimalist Brass Sextet composed by Philip Glass in the early 1960s, or Milton Babbitt’s 1946 musical theatre songs, composed a year before he came up with the idea of total serialism. Yet I actually love listening to those pieces. Brahms judiciously destroyed every manuscript sketch, leaving for posterity only his sanctioned complete works. Verdi infamously threw the score for an opera based on King Lear into the flames soon after he completed it. In more recent times, Augusta Read Thomas excised numerous items from her work list when she was signed by G. Schirmer, something she discussed at length with Molly Sheridan for NewMusicBox this month.

I must confess that, as a listener, all of those anecdotes leave me extremely disappointed. I want to hear everything. So, am I being a hypocrite by not putting all my juvenilia—or even subsequent pieces I no longer feel terribly proud of—out there? I’m inclined to think that the issue is not exactly an either/or. For composers whose music is well-known, I think that little harm can be done to their reputations by having material around that does not adequately reflect their established musical identities. In fact, having such marginalia out there actually reasserts the value of the identities that they eventually honed and mastered, since no one creates an identity ex nihilo and hearing the steps along the way can be extremely instructive to other composers. But for the rest of us, whose music is not so widely known, an early non-representative work might be the only piece of music someone will hear for quite some time and lead to impressions that are false and difficult to counter. So for the time being at least, I probably won’t be putting any other early pieces of mine out there, but I also won’t throw away the manuscripts, at least not knowingly.

6 thoughts on “I Gotta Be Me

  1. Armando

    I think that’s the right approach. I’ve been thinking about this myself as I’ve been finalizing a commission for what will be, officially, my third symphony. I say officially, because unofficially it will be my fifth, since I wrote two symphonies as a student (my first, really a song cycle setting Ana Akhmatova’s “Requiem” in English translation, as a sort of self-imposed “graduation exercise” when I was finishing my undergraduate degree; my second, two years later, as I was wrapping up my master’s degree). These two pieces, while since withdrawn from my catalog, are still out there in the ether in works lists on various web sites. It’s led to my resorting to NOT numbering my “official” symphonies AND my continued desire to revise at least the first one (which would involve completely rewriting the thing, since I now think that setting Akhmatova–or any poet–in anything but her original language to be anathema). My energies are needed elsewhere, however, and so I’ve decided not to bother and let posterity, if it should ever be interested, be bothered with this issue.

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  2. ndemos

    Re: I Gotta Be Me
    I had a very similar experience about a year or so ago. There was a string quartet interested in performing a work of mine here in Atlanta. Trouble was, the only half way decent string quartet I had in my catalog was written during my grad school days at IU. With some trepidation, I dusted off the piece and allowed the group to perform it on one of my neoPhonia New Music Ensemble concerts. It was a truly fascinating experience to hear a live performance of the work again after decades! In fact, a lot of my undergraduate composition students had not even been born at the time the piece was written! However, even though I would never approach writing for string quartet in the same manner as I had done as a student, there were still unmistakable (at least to me) touches in the music that sounded “like me!” I realized that I did not have an aversion to presenting this piece (and, perhaps, by extension other early works) in public. These pieces are “musical photographs” of the person I was at that time. I might venture back into the vault more often!

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  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    That’s funny. People in new nonpop care about their reputations? Or maybe, always being shameless, I just leave my stuff out there. Or maybe, especially when you get to a Certain Age, you are simply confounded by what you’ve written, have no idea where it came from or why you did it, and figure you might as well leave the opinion to others. Or maybe it’s just that earlier work often fascinates people (including the creator); some of my best performances have come from pieces written in the 1970s.

    Actually, I tried the editing-history route, destroying about 40 of my pieces back in 1976 — a very public event, offering the pieces. Would anyone save a score and buy it for $1? No? How about an electronic piece? 50 cents? No? Then into the pyre it goes! Nobody wanted anything. Humbling, refreshing to watch 40 compositions representing so much of my life burn away. Here’s me cutting up a tape piece before burnign it.

    I don’t do that anymore. No, I don’t yearn for those old pieces — they’re gone — but having lived longer than I ever expected to (having been a gloom-&-doom youthful composer), there’s a hole in my history. Which will eventually become a pit because ain’t nobody gonna archive me anyway … so yup, I put whatever I have out there.

    Okay, onward, more work to be done that will embarrass me in ten years — should I live that long.

    Dennis
    Blood Countess Opera

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  4. Tom Myron

    Withdrawal Symptoms
    As V.T. once said to N.R., “Baby, some pieces just withdraw themselves.”

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  5. mclaren

    …strive to produce music as much unlike ourselves as possible with each new composition.

    The goal in that case being to produce a series of pieces which absolutely no one in the audience could possibly believe issued from the pen of the same composer.

    Some of us, in fact, throw out a new composition with disgust if we conclude “it sounds like me” and only embrace a new composition if “it doesn’t sound like me.”

    In fact, the 21st century seems to have brought us two distinct groups of contemporary composers: those who cultivate a stylistic monoculture, and those who practice musical xenogenesis.

    Examples of such composers:

    Stylistic monoculture – Brian Ferneyhough, Tom Johnson, Eliane Radigue, Iannis Xenakis, Zoe Keating, Michael Gordon, Pamela Z, Curtis Roads, Joan Tower, Ellen Fullman, Aaron Jay Kernis, Tom Nunn, George Perle, Ben Johnston, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, David Diamond, Kraig Grady, Tod Dockstader.

    Musical xenogenesis: Warren Burt, Kyle Gann, William Duckworth, Jean-Claude Risset, Barry Truax, Paul Lansky, Larry Polansky, Salvatore Martirano, David Rosenboom, Jacob Druckman, The Hub, Jonathan Kramer, Igor Stravinsky, Laurie Spiegel, John Chowning, Henry Cowell, Allison Cameron.

    Neither approach to composition qualifies as “better” or “worse.” They are simply different.

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  6. Kyle Gann

    That’s a brilliant characterization, McLaren, and potentially very helpful – well worth adopting into the public discourse. But I think I’d put Nancarrow in the xenogenesis category. Almost all of his music is for player piano, but he hardly ever used the same idea twice, and his style ranges from meticulous formalism to wild improvisation.

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