I’m usually pretty even tempered, but when I read last week that Luigi Nono had once pulled a piece of his music from a concert upon learning that a work by Gian Carlo Menotti would also be on the program, it made me extremely angry. I believe composers have the right to do absolutely anything they want within their own pieces, but does that right include determining the context in which their music is heard?
We can’t determine how anyone experiences our music. We can’t guarantee that everyone in the audience is in rapt attention or is even open to the compositional language being explored in any given piece. That said, the music that gets played both before and after your own work can definitely have an impact on how the audience perceives your piece. I paid a lot of attention to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s use of timbre in his Piano Concerto which the New York Philharmonic premiered under his direction last week. But perhaps that was due in part to the concerto being preceded by Ravel’s orchestral version of Le tombeau de Couperin and the work being followed by Ravel’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, both of which are shining examples of timbral exploration. But what would have happened if instead the new concerto was surrounded by a Beethoven symphony and a work by Webern? Would I have paid more attention to Salonen’s structural conceits?
Over the years, I’ve frequently had my own music played on multiple-composer concerts, and the egomaniac that lurks somewhere in my subconscious inevitably worried how the music would hold up against its companions on the program. At times, part of me secretly wished that the other pieces on the program were less interesting than mine (as if interest was quantitative), in the hope that my piece would stand out. But I’ve just as often hoped that none of the other pieces would be an embarrassment because if folks hated the other pieces, they’d probably wind up hating mine, too.
In the final analysis, both worries are silly and ultimately out of any individual’s control. Most of the time, unless you have your own ensemble, curate your own series, or happen to be able to throw your weight around as Luigi Nono did, you rarely have the ability to choose who else gets to share the stage with you.