That Was Nice

Speaking of student recitals, one of my favorite soapboxes upon leaving such an event is the silliness of being obliged to offer musical proof: Performing an especially tough piece to demonstrate that one has the requisite technical facility. This practice bothers me so much that I must have written about it on NewMusicBox before, so I’ll cut short my pending diatribe and simply say once again that I don’t go to recitals to see the presentation of evidence. It occurred to me more recently, however, that composers are sometimes guilty of an analogous offense, or—more precisely—of considering music in analogous and equally empty terms.

How many times has your concert-going companion leaned over to you and muttered through the applause that the brand new piece you just heard was “well written”? Apart from being just about the faintest praise imaginable, this phrase is essentially an abdication of real opinion in favor of a pseudo-objective semi-compliment. I’m as guilty as anyone; sometimes I just want to say something nice, and “well written” is the first candidate that comes to mind. On the other hand, sometimes I’m genuinely struck by the craft and solidity of what I’ve just heard, and “well written” would be an accurate, if bland, term for it. Sometimes it may be the only word that really fits. Why, then, does it bother me so much?

I guess it bothers me for the same reason that warmed-over, joyless renditions of Ysaÿe sonatas do: A successful execution of a lackluster concept, particularly one whose raison d’être is the demonstration of competence, is much less appealing to me than a flawed or even failed execution of a fascinating concept. I don’t care if a piece is well written. Well writtenness is not a quality that motivates me to invest myself in a musical experience. Put another way, I’m more interested in where the bar is set than whether the piece makes it over or not. Brave pieces, ambitious pieces, mysterious pieces—all of these kinds of pieces sound much more engaging to me than well-written ones. Of course, as a composer, I want to do my job well—I want to make well-written pieces. But I also want to make pieces that no one would ever describe, after hearing them, as “well written.”

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