Must We Supersize Our Music?

Reading through two recent articles in NewMusicBox about the economics of music rentals and ensuring that new work enters the repertoire gave me pause. While the writing of both articles was excellent, as was the analysis therein, the articles seemed to me to imply that new symphonic works mattered more than any other branch of new music.

Do some of us approach new music through the lens of symphonic music, as if it were the only game in town? If so, do we then artificially make it into the gold standard, the quality and importance of which other genres must live up to? Furthermore, what ramifications does this have for composers who do not write for the orchestra? And what effect does this have on the education, presentation, and performing of all new music, both for young players and professionals?

In talking to a number of composers and publishers, it does seem that we unwittingly create a bias towards orchestral music. In the publishing world, this happens through the cold reality of economics. As one of the articles pointed out, publishing a new work is an enormous investment, both in financial and in human resource terms. Come the end of the day, many companies feel they must favor large scale works as it is only large organizations that can afford to pay the prices necessary in order for publishers to recoup their expenses. The ramifications of this are unsettling. I know several composers who have been told by publishers to come back when they have some orchestral music under their belt, even when the people at the publishing house love their music. Similarly, I know of published composers who feel their publishers discourage them from taking commissions for chamber music. They feel pushed towards other projects that are of less creative interest to them, simply because those are the ones large enough in scope to make the publishing of the music a profitable venture.

But it is not only publishers who help create these scenarios. Foundations and other organizations can often unknowingly give their donors and the public the perception that only composers of big orchestral pieces are the composers to know, thus perpetuating the myth that the symphony is the holy grail. It also extends to the classroom: most composition programs still emphasize writing for orchestra in a young composer’s training, making symphonic readings, competitions, and the likes the standard-bearer against which to rate a student’s talent and technical abilities.

Now, do not get me wrong. I love orchestral music. In fact, I am writing a large symphonic work right now for a wonderful orchestra where I will be in residence. However, even though I have conducted and played in orchestras for some time, in my composing career, my attention has been primarily on chamber music. I now pause to wonder if this orchestral commission is a mixed blessing. It heartens me to know that a new audience and new players will get to experience my music. But it saddens me to think that simply by writing for an orchestra some may qualify my work to be of higher merit than before. Bigger does not necessarily mean better.

3 thoughts on “Must We Supersize Our Music?

  1. Kyle Gann

    Talking to Brick Walls
    Amen. I’ve spent my career trying to convnce critics and composers to quit privileging orchestra music, with such meager results that I’ve come to consider it a quixotic quest. John Adams goes around the country saying that the best music these days isn’t being written for orchestra, but no one seems to hear him. The orchestra is classical music’s Master Narrative, and many people are incapable of thinking outside of it.

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  2. Rob Deemer

    Only one of many
    I agree with your sentiments, Belinda, but I think you could take that a step further and make a case for several instruments/ensembles/genres that are similarly seen as “better” than others. We’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that same attitude you mention wasn’t directed towards string quartets (or similar ensembles like piano trios, piano quintets, etc.) over non-string ensembles (woodwind & brass quintets, etc.) as well as composers who focus on orchestral genres over wind band or choral genres…and don’t forget about the almighty opera, which can rise above everything else in many circles. Your comments about publishers of course beg the question “If that’s what publishers are doing for composers these days, are they as necessary as we are led to believe?” Of course that’s been discussed and will be again elsewhere, but it’s one more dent in the idea that Publishers Know Best.

    We all have our own genres that we’re more comfortable with than others, but it’d be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater here – the fact that you’re getting to write for an orchestra is a crazy good thing and shouldn’t be overthunk. I do think it’s imperative that students get exposure to writing for orchestra in the same way they’re given opportunities to write for a string quartet or a solo flute work – they’re all hard as hell to write for (if you know what you’re doing).

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  3. mdwcomposer

    Belinda:

    I don’t even think it’s just genre, it can also be age. I have heard incredible children’s choirs (admittedly many are not from the US), yet I think that ensemble gets dismissed not only because it’s not an orchestra, but also because it’s kids.

    By “incredible”, I mean singing close clusters (sometimes chromatic) in tune, singing pieces with complicated lines, having an understanding not only of the text, but of where the musical line goes, and almost always from memory.

    I have no idea what it would take to change the “public mindset” – looking at Kyle’s comment above, if no one is even listening to a comment from John Adams, I don’t know what it would take. But all we can do is write what we believe in. Just as the performers play what they believe in. Whatever the genre or age.

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