A couple of weeks ago I started the chattering for the year by throwing out a zillion questions about the process of composing amid the hard realities of chronological time. After some back and forth in the reader responses debating whether Franz Josef Haydn’s immense output of symphonies was worthwhile, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz astutely reminded us of an excellent article he had written for us in 2006 which summarized the results of his survey about composer productivity.
The question of how much a composer should be writing continued to gnaw at me this past weekend as I attempted to work on a new piece and actually completed something, although admittedly it lasts merely half a minute. I also tried to catch up with unlistened to recordings. Among the recordings that made it from my Zeno’s paradox listening pile to my rack system were the most recent Sonic Youth studio album, Rather Ripped, which is their 15th, and two discs on Naxos American Classics. The first featured the world premiere recording of Alan Hovhaness’s 1979 Guitar Concerto, opus 325, which was quite a pleasant surprise. The other was a disc devoted to the sacred choral music of Carson Cooman, who is only 25 years old and has already completed over 750 works. (He uses opus numbers, too!) Cooman’s music demonstrated a clear compositional voice and made for a wonderful hour of listening.
None of this music suffers artistically from being the product of very prolific creators. But perhaps where it might suffer is in its potential reception among listeners. I’m a huge Sonic Youth fan and only yesterday listened to this record which came out nearly two years ago; it sits among 24 LPs of Sonic Youth on my shelves vying for attention among thousands of other choices. Music takes time to be experienced and appreciated, and creating a ton of music creates a time burden for even the most devoted listeners. People seem less inclined to listen to composers’ 100th piano concertos than their first or second ones.
There’s also a pernicious belief among some avatars of the new that if you are constantly cranking out material you’re not spending enough time questioning your compositional language. But might the real reason some of us complain about someone else’s vast output be ultimately because we don’t have the time to digest it? Another listening highlight of the weekend was a disc featuring six of Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantatas sung by countertenor David Daniels. But the disc’s booklet notes begged the question: Will anyone ever record all of Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantatas—there are 600—let alone be able to find the time to listen to them?