The Foremost Authority in the World is You

Last week, I attended a very fine performance of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. I would never suggest that the Rach II, whose undulations in musical weight are as delicately nuanced as a ballerina’s, is a bad piece of music. But when I saw it played the other night, it was not a piece of music at all: It was a piece of evidence.

It was a very fine rendition, no question. But the interpretive headroom in a piece that’s been done so many times in the past is miniscule, and it’s only getting smaller. What can you bring to such an old chestnut that hasn’t already been brought? Something, I’m sure, but something tiny. Likewise, I’m sure the soloist gave due consideration to his task and carefully developed an approach that brought out details in the piece of personal significance to him, but it’s impossible to deny that tackling such a piece is undertaken by a young pianist in part to furnish proof of his capabilities. I do not go to concerts to hear proof. I don’t care if you can play the Rach II. I checked Amazon.com: Lots of people, as it turns out, can play the Rach II. You probably don’t play it better than Horowitz. You probably never will. Sorry.

But take heart, up-and-coming pianists (and violinists, and trumpeters, and harpists, et. al.): There’s plenty of music you could play better than anyone else in the world, if you were so inclined. It’s called “new music;” you may have heard of it. You’ll have to snoop around a bit, because this stuff isn’t exactly growing on the immaculately landscaped trees of the American classical music system. But when you find a newly written piece that moves you, or a composer whom you might be moved to commission, bear in mind that you may well become the very best interpreter in the world of this music. About how many 19th-century composers can you make a similar claim?

I’ve been working with a pianist recently whose dedication and creative curiosity have produced results far beyond what I’d imagined. She’s the world’s foremost pianist when it comes to this piece of mine—and unless you take up the gauntlet yourselves, pianists, she always will be.

86 thoughts on “The Foremost Authority in the World is You

  1. jchang4

    I do think that the state of classical programming in general (which is largely fueled by what I think is a very backward classical education system) has become a serious problem in the new classical music landscape. When people like Mendelssohn start these revolutionary trends, no one can forsee how destructive they can be until we find ourselves in the state that we are currently in. As a former piano student, I remember feeling like I was primarily being trained for historical preservation… as if the pianist’s medium is a thing of the past. I would like to see a classical music program that is able to achieve a healthier balance between historical practices and modern ones. It’s a problem when about 80% of most DMA audition requirements (in piano) MUST be old classical music, and only about 20% (if at all) is left for the highly misunderstood and undervalued new stuff.

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  2. jchang4

    I’d like to see more composers take an active interest in pedagogy. It’d be nice if pedagogical compositions were a graduating requirement for composition students. I think more composers should be as smart and savvy about it as Bartok was. He is really the only composer that I can think of who wrote pieces for very very beginners through advanced performers (not even Bach, Mozart, Beethoven wrote for the very beginners). In this way, he is able to develop a lifelong relationship with practicing musicians… Because he wrote pieces from the very beginning, students from the very beginning get acquainted and comfortable with his writing style. And so, people know of Bartok from very early on, and the later pieces are just an extension of those beginnings. They don’t know of Ligeti, or Schoenberg, or Rochberg, or Dallapiccola, or many many others…. or even of Gerswhin until much later, if ever really. They especially don’t know of the really really recent guys.

    Composers should think about helping in the training process. Performers will be better equipped to play your music if you introduce yourself early.

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  3. philmusic

    “..I’d like to see more composers take an active interest in pedagogy…”

    I think that there is a great deal of great material already out there-though a lot of it is hard to find, and some of it is out of print. Recently. Nikki Melville commissioned 12 composers with this idea in mind. I’m sure there are many others I don’t know about. Perhaps we could make a list or promote the ones we (AMC) have?

    Phil Fried

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  4. stevetaylor

    People keep playing Rach II because they really like it – sure there’s an element of mountain-climbing or proving yourself, but they like it, as well. And people continue to attend concerts because they like hearing it, live or in recordings.

    To make a crude analogy (intentionally misrepresenting your idea just to be a devil’s advocate), there would be no reason to perform Hamlet anymore because Olivier has already done it so well. So we should never attend live performances of Shakespeare. (This is sort of the same thing Glenn Gould said, and he was unfortunately wrong. These pieces are like mirrors, we hold them up to ourselves to see how we’ve changed.)

    In a sense you could say composers are mountain-builders: we’re trying to make something as exhilarating and rewarding to climb as a Mount Everest, which is a lot to live up to. But it’s a big world with room for lots of mountain ranges – and like you say, it can be more fun to be the only person to have climbed Mount Holter, than the 1000th person to climb Mount Rachmaninoff.

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  5. Colin Holter

    Of course you’re absolutely right; not every programming decision is motivated by stuntmanship. But this raises the issue of musical literacy; performers play music they like, but they can’t like music if they don’t know it–and they can’t know new music if they just play Rachmaninov all the time.

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  6. gregrobincomposer

    Re pedagogy
    Quaderno musicale di Annalibera (1952) is a notebook of 12 tone piano pieces written by Dallapiccola for his daughter. The pieces are all variatoins on the BACH motive (B A C Bb). I agree that more pieces like this would be useful. I think commissions by performer/teachers that would address certain performance issues would be useful.

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  7. jchang4

    Well, part of the problem is that, beginning in the 19th century, composition and performance became highly specialized, largely separate branches of musicianship. As a result, composers and performers have kind of lost touch with each other, and a lot of new fangled compositions with new fangled ways of notation have failed to become assimilated in the performance pedagogy process. I think that is part of the reason why you get performers who won’t or don’t or choose not to play new music.

    Now, there have been attempts to bridge this massive divide, but the problem still remains.

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  8. WR

    First, Horowitz never performed the Rach 2nd concerto. Second, the idea that someone hanging out here has what it takes to write a piano concerto that, if performed, will be as adored by the audience (and therefore, by pianists) as the Rach 2…well, that’s a joke, right? Seriously, you composer folks aren’t THAT delusional, are you? The last piano concerto to get into the hearts and minds of audiences and performers is the Bartok 3rd, written over a half-century ago, and even then it was only because Bartok deliberately wrote a piece designed for popular appeal (and, amazingly, succeeded without too much pandering – there’s a lesson in there, probably). So, there you are – if you are writing music with as broad appeal as either Rachmaninoff, or Bartok in consciously ingratiating mode, maybe you’ve got a chance. But you know and I know that no one is capable of writing music like that these days; even golden boy John Adams couldn’t manage it.

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  9. gregrobincomposer

    Re Us composer folks
    First of all, How many people off the street know who Rach. is? This uninformed notion that everyone likes Rach. and no one likes new stuff is annoying. The problem begins with the notion that “broad appeal” is necessary for great art. Britney Spears has much broader appeal than Rach. This says nothing about art. Commercialism and distribution are what drives broad appeal. I may speak for myself but why would I want to even write a concerto. This is an antiquated musical form supported by a tonal language structure. Bartok is even adventurous for many music majors. I think we should all remember that broad appeal is irrelevant. True art supports itself for many generations. Plus, symphonies are having lots of problems because the old blue haired ladies that support them are passing away. Symphonies often play the same violin and piano concerto’s year after year. Broad appeal may be what you want but I want great art music that falls into the lineage of classical music. That means music in a Post Webern world. If that does not have broad appeal, oh well! Although I love Rach, people see art music as museum music . It is a historical artifact. For the art to survive, it moves forward. There is nothing wrong with a museum but that has less appeal than the present.

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  10. Colin Holter

    First: WR seems to be correct; Horowitz fan sites do not list the Rach II in his repertoire.

    Second: If writing an orchestral piece that will enter the standard rep is your goal, stop composing and invest all of your assets in lottery tickets, because the odds of contributing a new piece–regardless of its style–to the rep are roughly comparable to the odds of being struck by lightning. It will never happen.

    Obviously, as gregrobincomposer pointed out, writing music in hopes that it will be pulled into the orbit of the standard rep isn’t necessarily what makes us tick. (I firmly believe that this is a problem with the American classical music system, not with the contributions of today’s composers.) Are you a composer, WR? You take a very dim view of our situation, if so.

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  11. WR

    My point was, of course, that IF you want to complain about yet another Rach. 2 performance, you should try to be more realistic about why it’s being performed instead of new music. I just can’t believe the blame is the nearly as much the fault of audiences, performers, or the American educational system as has been expressed here.

    As a matter of fact, there actually are new concertos getting performed, and for some reason, no one wants to hear them twice (except for other composers, perhaps, and a few die-hard fans of the pianist involved). There’s a new one by Salonen, for example, that could hardly have had a more favorable launch, plus more performances, but I don’t think it has legs because it’s just not interesting. Then there’s Kyle Gann’s recent pretty little thing, which starts okay, but gets bogged down in some languors that are fatal for any sort of extended life (plus, the pianist of the premiere, whether fairly or not, is considered to be something of a joke among pianists, if they’ve heard of him at all). I don’t think there’s been much call for repeat performances of the newish Kevin Volans, but I could be wrong. And wasn’t there a Tsontakis that Hough premiered not so long ago? Are pianists clamoring for the chance to play it? Maybe, but I haven’t heard about it. And didn’t Gramps Carter drop some piano/orch thing fairly recently, too, that Nic Hodges has been playing? (Of course, this last one will get some more airings, I assume, just because…oh, god, please give me the serenity to make it through the Carter birthday year without being involved in a rage incident of some kind.) And those are just a few off the top of my head. So I’d say that new piano concertos are getting performances, but are just not being accepted, either by pianists (other than the one of the premiere) or by audiences. There’s always been a high attrition rate with new works, but it does seem plenty weird that there are virtually no new ones with real staying power.

    Of course, if you don’t want to have broad appeal like a Rachmaninoff and instead want to be in a wee little niche of your own that hardly anyone knows about, then it makes no sense to complain about not getting the performances that Rachmaninoff does. Doing so is a circular and self-defeating line of thought.

    By the way, I do agree about the terrible state of music education in America and that it has a terrible effect on musical life in that country – but it doesn’t explain the dearth of new piano concertos entering the repertoire, because that is an international phenomenon. Maybe there’s something outdated about the instrument itself? Also, I’m not a composer but merely a member of that pariah class, the audience (although I do write music once in a while, mostly for my own amusement).

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  12. WR

    Rach and hypnotherapy
    I can’t resist adding this fairly tangential thought… You may know the story of Rachmaninoff entering into a heavy-duty round of hypnotherapy sessions that resulted in his writing the very successful 2nd piano concerto. I recall that part of the hypnotic “suggestion” was really specific about his writing a new and successful concerto. This may sound crazy, but have any of you composers ever considered trying something like that? And, other than simply not liking the woo-woo aspect of it, why not? No, really, I’m serious. If such a process was involved in the creation of what is likely the single most-played concerto written in the 20th century, isn’t there at least a chance that maybe it’s worth investigating? Of course, finding a therapist as effective as Sergei’s Dr. Dahl might be tricky.

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  13. Colin Holter

    Of course, if you don’t want to have broad appeal like a Rachmaninoff and instead want to be in a wee little niche of your own that hardly anyone knows about, then it makes no sense to complain about not getting the performances that Rachmaninoff does. Doing so is a circular and self-defeating line of thought.

    As I said, though, to imagine that I will ever get Rach’s exposure is, for reasons entirely unrelated to the substance of my music, absurd. If current levels of institutional lethargy and intellectual uncuriosity remain stable, no composer born after 1950 has even the slightest chance of pushing the warhorses out. The programming apparatus behind most American classical music organizations is absolutely non-meritocratic, so I could write a theoretical piece superior to but otherwise identical to the Rach II–an improvement in every way–and it would still languish in obscurity because of whose name is (not) at the top of the score. My ambition is not to break into the standard rep but rather to challenge the idea–an idea propagated by the conservatory system–that performers are obligated to demonstrate their fitness to be professional musicians by playing old music at the expense of new. This kind of training doesn’t even prepare them to be museum curators–it prepares them to be museum security guards, lacking the critical perspective of historical musicologists but retaining, with varying degrees of genuine conviction, an indoctrinated reverence for the canon, and a willingness to tase you (bro) should you question the sacredness of the velvet rope.

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  14. philmusic

    “..If current levels of institutional lethargy and intellectual uncuriosity remain stable, no composer born after 1950 has even the slightest chance of pushing the warhorses out…”

    The question as who will compose the next warhorse, is not a question that can be answered by us composers. One of the challenges of being a composer is that much of our career depends on the activity of others; conductors, colleagues, panels, and of course, the public. The good news is that new music continues to have a place in “public” concerts.

    Reginald De Koven was very popular in his day yet he did not have any lasting success. Anyway, time will tell for all of us.

    Phil Fried

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  15. philmusic

    “..My point was, of course, that IF you want to complain about yet another Rach. 2 performance, you should try to be more realistic about why it’s being performed instead of new music. ..”

    Nope. I couldn’t disagree more.

    Not “instead of new music”–perhaps instead of Brahms or Mozart.

    Phil Fried

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  16. philmusic

    hhmmmm?

    Well, perhaps no more than other artists and certainly no more delusional than those folks who claim that the “cannon” is a closed book.

    Phil Fried

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  17. coreydargel

    WR wrote: I do write music once in a while, mostly for my own amusement

    Ah, WR, do you recognize the irony inherent in telling composers what audiences want to hear, and then admitting that you write music only for your own amusement? I trust you won’t fault these composers if they ignore your analysis, or if they suspect a little hypocrisy when you accuse them of being myopic.

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  18. rtanaka

    I trust you won’t fault these composers if they ignore your analysis, or if they suspect a little hypocrisy when you accuse them of being myopic.

    He’s merely pointing out the contradictions involved when composers complain about lack of reception of new works while simultaneously complaining about the old. You omitted the portion where he said he speaks from a perspective of the audience, so it seems that you’re just looking for an excuse to ignore it to begin with. I don’t fully share his opinion, but he does have some pretty good points.

    There is a very clear and very obvious tendency for composers to shift the blame away from themselves and into outside circumstances, and anybody who questions the authority of the composer tends to get pounced on, especially around here. Blame the institutions, blame the performers, but never speak of the quality of the work itself. I don’t think a lot of people realize how sort of whiny this sounds to people on the outside, but I guess maybe that’s just human nature I suppose…I’ve received some messages in private from some performers who felt too intimidated to post here, which is a bad sign since this is supposed to be a music-friendly forum. Who knows what horrors might be unleashed if there was actual, honest, feedback from the general public?

    Course, the issue is pretty complex, because premieres and “staying power” are often antagonistic to one another. If you wanted to be more democratic, it would make sense to premiere a new work every time, to give some other composers or pieces a chance to be heard. The idea of the “warhorses” in itself might be obsolete.

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  19. Colin Holter

    Blame the institutions, blame the performers, but never speak of the quality of the work itself.

    I’d say there’s plenty of blame to go around. Most institutions are slow to adapt, many performers want to play music that will make them sound conventionally good, and (it goes without saying) there are a lot of lazy, complacent composers out there. As you’d know if you’d ever sat next to me at a concert, my hand is the first in the air when it comes to questioning “the quality of the work.” The thing about new music (as I pointed out above) is that we don’t know whether we like a piece of new music or not until we hear it, and we can only hear it if performers and institutions play along.

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  20. rtanaka

    There sure is, and you probably know by now that I’m not always the biggest fan of insitutionalized practices either. (Where’s William when you need him?) But as Ornette Coleman said in his last interview here, we gotta find something to do other than complain. Assigning blame is just something politicians use to avoid responsibility or distract the public from actually fixing the problem — I don’t think this is good practice in general, in any circumstance.

    The reality is that there’s a lot of composers out there, many of them quite good, but a shortage of performers willing to play them. Christian Wolff said something along the lines of — 6 weeks to write a piece, 6 months to get it performed, 6 years for another performance, 60 years before getting any sort of recognition or compensation. When I heard this I thought he was joking at first, but it seems to hold a lot of weight for a lot of composers. (Unless you’re one of the lucky ones.)

    I guess the main thing is that I would treat every performance opportunity as it might be your last…because you never know, there may never be a “next time”! Ideally, I’d like my music to be understood on the first pass so there wouldn’t be a need to listen to it ever again.

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  21. pgblu

    !
    Ideally, I’d like my music to be understood on the first pass so there wouldn’t be a need to listen to it ever again.

    Wow. That would certainly be very practical. And for those who don’t have time for even one listening, you can provide an executive summary.

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  22. rtanaka

    Wow. That would certainly be very practical. And for those who don’t have time for even one listening, you can provide an executive summary.

    It would be nice if it were otherwise, but people’s time and patience is finite, and so are the resources available that makes a musical performance possible. Also, life is short. So there ought to be a sense of urgency, I think, when approaching every performance for both composers and performers alike.

    Because there are so many different types of musics out there to listen to now, people naturally have less time to become devoted fanatics of a particular style. You could say that an open-minded audience is also an audience with a short attention span. I think at this point in time trying to deny this shift in perception would be a form of nostalgia.

    So this usually means writing in such a way that makes it as clear as possible, as simple as possible, and as short as it possibly can be. If people like the music enough to warrant another performance, then they’ll do it willingly, or they’ll commission the composer for another piece.

    Maybe its time we give up on the idea of “staying power” itself? As a number of people here have already stated, even the Rach II doesn’t hold much affinity for the public at large. Or classical music as a whole, for that matter.

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  23. philmusic

    “..You omitted the portion where he said he speaks from a perspective of the audience,..”

    I thought people only spoke for themselves.

    Hate is not an opinion. Or is it?

    Phil Fried–sorry for the double post

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  24. rtanaka

    Hate is not an opinion. Or is it?

    He made some good points about how piano concertos since Bartok have not “stayed” in the repertoire, and questioned the fact that maybe the instrumentation itself is out-of-date. Because of the concerto’s history of fostering nationalism and the sort of strange, ubermench-like presence of the virtuoso, it probably doesn’t motivate people as much as it used to.

    Personally I’m not a big fan of the concerto format to begin, for the reasons above. I think that even subconsciously, people aren’t too particularly impressed by blind nationalism or a super-star performer, which if you’ve been watching American Idol lately, has become a subject of mockery even within popular culture. It may very well be out of date.

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  25. Colin Holter

    Because of the concerto’s history of fostering nationalism

    I’d like to see a citation for this claim.

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  26. rtanaka

    It’s a fairly common connection, really. Just google “nationalism and the concerto” and you’ll get a bunch of references. Its popularity is also in lock-step with its political history, also.

    (1) Orchestra — a collection of diverse instruments, each representing a faction of (Western) society.

    (2) Soloist — The enlightened “overman”, usually in the context of telling everyone what to do.

    There’s a number of concerto works that I like, but I usually get tired of hearing the soloist in the foreground all the time. If it’s not well-balanced, it has a tendency to sound preachy.

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  27. mdc

    One of the other things that must be remembered with the pieces like the Rachmaninov is that they were written by the composer for THEMSELVES to play. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Rachmaninov, and Gershwin originally wrote pieces for either their own personal performances or sometimes for their student’s needs before they entered the standard repertoire.

    Composers keep the pencils and Finale screens going, but get back to the practice room, too. You might end up as a Kalkbrenner or Moscheles, but could that be better than where you stand today?

    (where’s that asbestos jacket? I’m going to get flamed bad…)

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  28. Colin Holter

    It’s a fairly common connection, really. Just google “nationalism and the concerto” and you’ll get a bunch of references.

    I repeat: I would like you to provide evidence to support the assertion that concerti “foster nationalism.” “Fostering nationalism” is quite a different kettle of fish from “being legible as a manifestation of an individualist trope,” which is what you seem to be implying the concerto does. On the other hand, Merriam-Webster.com defines “foster” as “to promote the growth or development of.” Have concerti really made us more nationalist since 9/11, for instance? I think not.

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  29. rtanaka

    Fair enough. Sorry, I have a terrible habit of interchanging words sometimes. Maybe instead of “fostering”, something more along the lines of “reflecting” probably is more appropriate.

    The popularity of concerto works (and orchestral works in general) corresponds to a time when there was a growing nationalistic sentiments in the Western world. As such, there was a demand for large, all-encompassing ensembles which would serve as a showcasing for nationalistic might and cultural superiority. (And along with it, the massive institutional support and bureaucracies that made it possible.) We still haven’t gotten past this mentality yet, because if you remember the cultural exchange with North Korea recently, we decided to export one of our most prestigious orchestras as a representative of our country. These things still make people swell with pride, although it largely depends on who you talk to.

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  30. WR

    Hate is not an opinion. Or is it?

    I sure didn’t intend hate, and am sorry if that’s what my posts conveyed. I’m simply questioning the idea that a pianist, especially a young one at the beginning of their career, might drop the Rach 2 that they need to get their career going (or if an established pianist, that they may need simply to keep food on the table), in favor of an unknown quantity. But even if unknown, what is known is that new piano concertos haven’t been doing too well in most of our lifetimes at displacing the old faves, no matter where the composer registers on the “establishment/institutionally blessed” meter.

    Anyway, believe me, if I had some kind of general animosity towards living composers and the music they are making, I wouldn’t be visiting this site.

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  31. WR

    Ah, WR, do you recognize the irony inherent in telling composers what audiences want to hear, and then admitting that you write music only for your own amusement? I trust you won’t fault these composers if they ignore your analysis, or if they suspect a little hypocrisy when you accuse them of being myopic.

    Actually, I was speaking of what is apparently not being heard, rather the prescribing what should be heard. And jumping on me because I said that I did some amateur dabbling in composition, just because… well, jeez, I had no idea that was a crucial issue, and no, I don’t recognize any inherent irony. Somebody asked if I was a composer, and plus, I was just trying to qualify my status as an audience member with the information that I at least knew enough about music so that I could notate some myself.

    If this site is supposed to be just a secret hideaway for composers only, it’d be nice if there was some information to that effect when one registers.

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  32. Colin Holter

    If this site is supposed to be just a secret hideaway for composers only, it’d be nice if there was some information to that effect when one registers.

    I’m being 100% earnest and non-sarcastic here: What gave you the impression that this is some kind of composer clubhouse? My heart skips a beat when a non-composer who’s into new music pops up, because it’s proof that these people exist!

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  33. philmusic

    “..I sure didn’t intend hate, and am sorry if that’s what my posts conveyed. ..”

    “..Second, the idea that someone hanging out here has what it takes to write a piano concerto that, if performed, will be as adored by the audience (and therefore, by pianists) as the Rach 2…well, that’s a joke, right? ..”

    WR I hope you don’t mind if I question your, and Ryan’s, veracity. As to us making “you” unwelcome?

    Have a nice day

    Phil Fried

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  34. philmusic

    “..I sure didn’t intend hate, and am sorry if that’s what my posts conveyed. ..”

    “..Second, the idea that someone hanging out here has what it takes to write a piano concerto that, if performed, will be as adored by the audience (and therefore, by pianists) as the Rach 2…well, that’s a joke, right? ..”

    WR I hope you don’t mind if I question your, and Ryan’s, veracity. As to us making “you” unwelcome?

    Have a nice day

    Phil Fried

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  35. coreydargel

    Relax, Colin. I don’t think WR is all that interested in being a part of the new music community, except perhaps in a pedantic way. For someone who claims no animosity toward composers, he sure seems to write snarky things about them. In fact, I don’t recall any positive comments about composers in his posts, much less an indication that there might be a composer whose music he enjoys.

    Does anyone else have a sneaking suspicion that WR is actually William Osborne writing under a pseudonym?

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  36. William Osborne

    A friend sent me a private email about Corey’s assertion that I am “WR”. I do not send posts under false names. (And I find such a foolish assertion insulting and very unprofessional.) I have no idea who WR is. My time is entirely booked this month and I haven’t even been reading these threads. I hope to join the discussions again sometime in April. Til then.

    William Osborne

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  37. rtanaka

    I’m being 100% earnest and non-sarcastic here: What gave you the impression that this is some kind of composer clubhouse?

    Well I think it’s pretty clear that 90% of the posters who participate here would identify themselves primarily as composers. Input from performers tend to get ignored (first response of this thread being one example) or in worse cases, ridiculed, which is why I’ve gotten a few messages in private thanking me for bringing up certain issues. There’s a whole slew of people who probably read these discussions but feel too intimidated to post, just because of the way things are. This site is very good for certain things (otherwise I wouldn’t be here), but I think it helps to keep in mind the inherent bias of it.

    This is also reflective of what happens outside of this forum as well. There are a lot of unexpressed dissatisfactions from performers which simply don’t get expressed because a) the composer might throw a fit, b) the composer tries to make them feel bad for making them feel bad (passive-aggressive guilt tripping), c) the use of institutional authority to intimidate the performer into doing things. Yes, these do happen, and all the time, and not everybody is happy. That’s the reality of it, and it gets covered up by our polite-society. The result of this is that a few bad experiences in this area leads people to distance themselves from composers, which results in the composer – performer divide which exists today, which is undeniable at this point. Some of us are looking for solutions beyond finger-pointing.

    So there’s no animosity here, really. Sometimes if you love someone or something, you have to tell them the truth, and sometimes the truth is unpleasant. Providing information or evidence that runs counter to certain pre-conceptions is not “hate”.

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  38. jchang4

    Giving feedback that can be construed as negative and anti-constructive is a touchy subject on these pages. Many composers who participate here take their music very seriously–it’s obviously a very personal thing for them–so it’s only natural for them to easily fall into the defensive when perceived slights are directed in what may be seen as their general or specific direction. But I hope that does not deter the greater music community from participating in the discussion. What, are we non-composers just a bunch of pansies? Afraid to step on some toes, hurt some feelings, get our feelings hurt in return… make our opinions known?

    And I don’t think my initial response was ignored as a show of discrimination or scoffing or whatever (maybe it was, either way I’m not offended). I just think that most composers do not have the interest or the tools or the know-how to discuss aspects of music beyond their specific discipline and training. In fact, most practicing classical musicians (myself included) are pretty myopic in their perspective… the scene has become so very divided and so very specialized. The specialization can be a good thing, but DIVISION? Cuz, obviously, composition and performance and pedagogy have absolutely nothing to do with each other (I’m being sarcastic here). I just wanted to remind people of the fact that it wasn’t so long ago that (for many many centuries) composition/performance/pedagogy was all basically the same thing coming from the same source. Back then the whole music scene was a far more efficient machine than the convoluted compartmentalization that it has become today.

    I’m just saying, maybe if we try to bring all these parts back together again by working more closely together (not necessarily reverting back to decompartmentalization), we’ll be headed towards a healthier future.

    Reply
  39. CM Zimmermann

    Colin wrote: ‘I repeat: I would like you to provide evidence to support the assertion that concerti “foster nationalism.” “Fostering nationalism” is quite a different kettle of fish from “being legible as a manifestation of an individualist trope,” which is what you seem to be implying the concerto does. On the other hand, Merriam-Webster.com defines “foster” as “to promote the growth or development of.” Have concerti really made us more nationalist since 9/11, for instance? I think not.’

    Have a look at Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Also, see Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. There are arguments here about the concerto form bound up with the emergence of the Enlightenment individual and ‘his’ relation to society in general. I do not have my notes with me, so I cannot give you exact citations, but have a look…

    Reply
  40. jchang4

    … a healthier future where the Colins of the world will not feel slighted by the Rach II machine, will not feel ignored by the performance community, etc.

    Reply
  41. Colin Holter

    Fair enough. Honestly, the main reason why I didn’t make comment on the pedagogical composition thing is that I just don’t have anything to teach anybody about how to play the piano, for example, as a non-pianist. That said, David Rakowski’s notorious etudes are alleged to be studies in composition rather than pianistic technique, so maybe there’s something to that–but of course, it would be a stretch to call those “pedagogical,” titles aside.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I could write music playable by little kids, but it probably wouldn’t make them better pianists if they learned it.

    Reply
  42. philmusic

    “..I just think that most composers do not have the interest or the tools or the know-how to discuss aspects of music beyond their specific discipline and training….”

    Why is that so many unnamed posters feel or pretend to feel that their limited personal experience with composers (or their “friends” experience) is somehow the “central experience” of the new music world of our time?

    I know that the bar for the internet is set really really low but there is a difference between opinion and fact.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  43. rtanaka

    Admittedly I could probably afford to be a little bit more tactful in the way I say things, but a lot of people I know right now are struggling with their art with not even an avenue to express themselves and I find this very depressing. I guess I might just see an urgency in bringing this issues to light.

    As said above, the divisions between composers and performers (and ultimately the audience as well) has its historical presidence and bridging this divide will not be easy. In many cases these divisions are institutionalized and encouraged, so it takes a lot of courage on the part of the musician to break free from this mindset.

    I remember being told in some lessons not to care about what the performer thinks, because that was the role of the composer. Being young and impressionable, I took this advice to heart. A few disasters later I finally realized how stupid that sort of advice was because it really wasn’t helping me or anybody who went near my music. So I took the opposite approach, and had every part checked several times by the performers prior to the performance. Things have been much better since.

    Reply
  44. jchang4

    uh… perfect example of the touchiness of saying anything that may be construed as “inflammatory”

    I don’t believe I said that my thoughts were fact. My thoughts are simply my thoughts. I was actually careful to begin my sentence with “I think” or some variant of “I think.” You honestly believe that you are as informed about piano performance and pedagogy as I am? This is what I was referring to. I know that composers in general have a wide range of interests and are knowledgeable about many things. But I just think that there are some avenues of music that I may have a better understanding than you, just like there are some avenues of music that you have a better understanding than me. It’d be nice if we could share this information that we have and somehow pool our knowledge.

    I’m not necessarily saying that composers should try to write music for little kids in order to make them better performers. I’m saying that I think performers get exposed to new music too late in life, and that may be part of the reason [it may be part of the reason, I really do try to mince my words here, so please don’t immediately jump to inflammatory conclusions] why many performers end up choosing not to partake in new music, end up choosing to play Rach II instead of something newer. Right now, there are “pedagogical composers” who try to write pieces for kids using notation that you might find in new music. But these pedagogical composers tend to primarily be performers… and performers tend to be pretty out of touch with actual new music. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I think it might be better and more relevant to have composers write these pedagogical compositions, or at least to have composers/pedagogues/performers working together in some way to make them more useful/better.

    Reply
  45. jchang4

    I guess what I’m saying is that I could write music playable by little kids, but it probably wouldn’t make them better pianists if they learned it.

    Incidentally, it is exactly this kind of divisive thinking that fuels the composer/performer divide. Why do you think that your hypothetical “pedagogical” compositions would be of no use to a developing pianist? What do you think makes a better pianist? Being able to play scales and arpeggios? Octave passages? An even alberti bass line? A lyrical melody? And since you won’t be including these in your compositions, that makes them pedagogically useless? What if, in learning your “pedagogical” piece, a child also learned how to read and play and maybe even appreciate the kind of music that you write? Is that completely useless knowledge? Is that completely useless to the pianist?

    Reply
  46. Colin Holter

    What if, in learning your “pedagogical” piece, a child also learned how to read and play and maybe even appreciate the kind of music that you write? Is that completely useless knowledge? Is that completely useless to the pianist?

    Wow, damn. Sorry. Maybe I’ll take a stab at writing some pedagogical music. . .

    Reply
  47. rtanaka

    Why is that so many unnamed posters feel or pretend to feel that their limited personal experience with composers (or their “friends” experience) is somehow the “central experience” of the new music world of our time?

    Phil, I often agree with the things you say here, but this statement is just dishonest. I’m assuming that the audience here is mostly intelligent and does not need a “this is just from my personal experience and opinion” disclaimer before and after every post. (And these assumptions have to be made if you really want a more in-depth discussion about anything, really.)

    The only thing I can do here is to be honest with what has and hasn’t worked for me in the past. I’ve made mistakes and I’m not proud of them, but I’m at least willing to be upfront about them. If you disagree, feel free to post your own stories. I hate to be blunt, but you have a tendency to dismiss people’s opinions based on vague allusions that there are “different ways to do things” without providing specifics. In a lot of ways this is very clever, because it allows you to appear to be more open-minded without actually arguing a point. (This is the sort of passive-aggressiveness I was talking about earlier.) :p

    Reply
  48. WR

    What gave you the impression that this is some kind of composer clubhouse?

    It was a post wherein it was said that I “admitted” writing music for my own amusement sometimes, and that fact was somehow ironic and made me hypocritical (and I’m snarky?!?!). The way that message read from my POV was that only “real” composers were invited to comment here, because the rest of us, sort of by definition, cannot have anything legit to say.

    That, and unless I’m completely misconstruing where people are coming from, it does seem that it is mostly composers commenting.

    Reply
  49. WR

    “..I sure didn’t intend hate, and am sorry if that’s what my posts conveyed. ..”

    “..Second, the idea that someone hanging out here has what it takes to write a piano concerto that, if performed, will be as adored by the audience (and therefore, by pianists) as the Rach 2…well, that’s a joke, right? ..”

    WR I hope you don’t mind if I question your, and Ryan’s, veracity. As to us making “you” unwelcome?

    Have a nice day

    Phil Fried

    I don’t mind at all. So, do you, then? Have what it takes to write a Rach 2? Because I’d be only too thrilled to be anyone’s cheerleader who can pull off that feat, which the likes of Ligeti, Barber, Adams, Lutoslawski, Henze, Ginastera, Persichetti, and many others have not been able to do.

    The point is not to insult you, but to emphasize what seems to me to be the really very far-fetched nature of the idea. Maybe you don’t think it’s far-fetched, but given the lousy success rate of new piano concertos with players and audiences over the last 50 years or so (and I’m not talking about whether I think those concertos are any good or not), it would be more interesting to hear why you think it isn’t far-fetched, instead of just accusing me of not being very nice. And, also, to me it doesn’t seem especially unfair to say (imagining myself in the shoes of the pianist), in response to the thought expressed in the original post that Young Pianist X will probably never play that concerto as well as Horowitz, that Composer X will probably never write a concerto as successful as the Rach 2, either. It may not be very kind, but neither was the Horowitz jab.

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  50. philmusic

    “..I’m saying that I think performers get exposed to new music too late in life, ..”

    Well 4 change I just have to point out that you are very uninformed.

    On the elementary k-12 front – there is too much leveled original, new music out there–so much in fact that the numbers go into the 10’s of thousands. go check with MENC. What we could use, that is what we educators who teach instrumental music could use, is not original materials as we have way too much–but high quality arrangements of –dare I say it-the classics in all ensemble types.

    Phil Fried

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  51. philmusic

    “..Phil, I often agree with the things you say here, but this statement is just dishonest….”

    Naturally, Ryan I expect everyone to question my veracity as well.

    My apologies if I was too strident or defensive, but my behavior right or wrong does not excuse anyone else’s bad behavior.

    Let me ask this; why is it so hard to make a statement in support of an idea without recourse to negativity?

    Phil Fried

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  52. rtanaka

    Let me ask this; why is it so hard to make a statement in support of an idea without recourse to negativity?

    I could just be manifesting some of the frustrations coming from my experiences and from my collegues, but it’s a bit difficult to come off as being positive when you have to introduce topics into a context where people don’t even acknowledge that the problems exist. Though I guess you have a point in that I could probably afford to reword some of the things more positively. I usually write these posts on-the-fly during small breaks I have, so they tend to be a little bit raw. (And full of grammatical errors.)

    But — The big shift in mentality that a student has to go through when they become a professional musician is that they need to internalize the things they are good at and shouldn’t need a constant affirmation of how good they are at doing certain things. The fact that this site has a lot of good things and a lot of good ideas floating around is obvious — but in my opinion this should already be assumed so that we can talk about things which can actually be improved.

    If this was a personal relationship it would be different, but I’m assuming that this is a professional atmosphere and we can be all adult about it and such. I’m really not trying to be negative here — but the art world is in very bad shape right now and things really are in dire need of change.

    Reply
  53. jchang4

    Obviously, we travel in very different circles: MENC and MTNA are very different organizations, and I come from more of an MTNA background.

    As far as an MTNA perspective, I don’t think I’m wrong in my conjecture that students tend to be introduced to new music later in life. (Perhaps my definition of new music is different from yours?) And if a student doesn’t study for long enough… well, then they completely miss out on it. It also depends greatly on the teacher’s advocacy of new music, which is a rare thing. Personally, I didn’t actually play/practice new music until my junior year of undergrad, and that was only because I personally sought it out. But this is only what I have observed in the private piano teaching sector and I realize that maybe my perspective isn’t a holistic view.

    I’d be interested to learn more about these k-12 programs that include new music in their music ed divisions.

    Reply
  54. philmusic

    “..I don’t mind at all. So, do you, then? Have what it takes to write a Rach 2?…”

    Commission me and find out.

    Phil FRied

    Reply
  55. WR

    “..I don’t mind at all. So, do you, then? Have what it takes to write a Rach 2?…”

    Commission me and find out.

    LOL! Is there a refund if it doesn’t turn out to become the most-played piano concerto of this century? Let’s say in the first 25 years? Actually, given the molto accelerando in the rate of deterioration of the planet, you might be able to accomplish that with just a few performances, before orchestral concerts become a thing of the past altogether in the face of global catastrophe (not to mention the normal dying off of us old geezers, where most of the support for orchestras comes from, I think).

    Actually, it has long been one of those “if I win the lottery” fantasies of mine, to commission music from composers whose music I like and/or respect. I’d love to do it, had I the funds. Sadly, I don’t (yet).

    Reply
  56. philmusic

    You should also commission:

    Colin

    Ryan

    William

    Corey

    David Cole

    and the whole NMB crew!, and thanks for asking!

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  57. coreydargel

    WR,

    Some people on this site have passionately taken issue with some of the things you’ve written. That does not mean that we hate non-composers. If you draw that conclusion, then you run the risk of appearing self-centered (i.e. you think the world revolves around you).

    I find it hard to believe that you don’t realize what you’re doing. You come into a forum that, as you noticed, is primarily geared toward composers and composer-advocates, then you spurt out a list of current-day and recent-day composers who can’t write a successful piano concerto; then you say that most likely none of us has what it takes to write a piano concerto as good as Rach. And please don’t pretend that you’re not making artistic-value judgments. You have done so explicitly — “I don’t think it has legs because it’s just not interesting” — and, yes, snarkily — “Kyle Gann’s recent pretty little thing”).

    Reply
  58. Colin Holter

    Perhaps it is time we leave the intra-web and return to our composition desks?

    He’s exactly right. Everyone shut up.

    Reply
  59. Chris Becker

    I missed
    this
    . Might be of some interest to those mulling over the concerto / soloist form and its possibilities in the 21st century.

    Reply
  60. seedmuse

    Maybe someone in this massive thread said this already. Here is what I think: Colin and everybody else get off your lazy asses, master an instrument and become the worlds foremost authority in your own music by performing it yourself. There is plenty of antecedent for this concept and I find this is the sickness in the institution.

    To allow a composer to gradute without mastering an instrument is absurd and the reason why all of you are whining about not getting performances. Trust me, you wouldn’t write half the crap you write if you had to perform it yourself.

    – Matthew Pierce

    Reply
  61. Colin Holter

    I don’t know why I feel obliged to post a measured, reasonable response to your comment, because your tone certainly doesn’t merit one, but here goes.

    I (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) have, in fact, written for myself. It doesn’t solve any of the problems we’ve identified here. Let me say again: I am not complaining about receiving too few performances. Because I have pieces I can perform by myself, I could go out and do my thing every night, assuming I could find an agreeable venue. What bothers me is the culture of performance that privileges dues-paying and an ability to reproduce old, well-liked pieces in an old, well-liked manner over investing in the work of living composers.

    Reply
  62. seedmuse

    In the spirit of civility, and to rise above the disagreeable tone, as you point out, I would like to thank you for your response and tell you, as I am sure you suspect, the tone was meant to get attention.

    Fine sir, what you find disagreeable in the world is in your control. I respectfully disagree. What I point out does solve the problem. What is in your control is performing your own music in a concert of your own music. Isn’t it interesting that the man we are talking about here is Rachmaninoff, one of the finest pianists that ever lived?

    Put yourself in his shoes, and then read what you said as if you were him, “What bothers me is the culture of performance that privileges dues-paying and an ability to reproduce old, well-liked pieces in an old, well-liked manner over investing in the work of living composers.”

    What do you think he did about it? He booked a gig.

    Reply
  63. jchang4

    Though I think I may have already converted you (Colin) to “my side,” I was mulling over this thread (and at the same time trying to further refine my argument) and noticed something interesting about your earlier (perhaps now abandoned) idea that any “pedagogical” works that you might write would fail to serve a technical purpose for the pianist.

    Doesn’t this belief betray exactly the sort of mechanical “proof” thing that was bothering you in the first place? It’s interesting how inherent the idea of proof is not only to piano performance but to classical performance in general. It is simply an unavoidable mentality… As a classical instrumentalist one must “master” one’s instrument.

    Furthermore, it is interesting to note that your own music requires a great degree of virtuosity to perform, that perhaps much of your music actually serves to further this idea of a proof requirement that you so disdain [Your stuff’s not easy at all… but maybe I’d find it easier if I had been introduced to it earlier :) ] Maybe eons from now (haha, will humans still be in existence then?) composers will be complaining about students working on your stuff as a sign of proof, rather than try their stuff out.

    Just some random observations. Carry on.

    Reply
  64. rtanaka

    The composer-performer divide is exactly why I turned to improvisation for my musical studies. It’s an activity that has the potential to combine composition, performance, and also serve a pedagogical function if the teacher is inclined to help their student develop their own voice. Couple of my friends who’re now teaching lessons said that there are some types of students who become more receptive to that type of approach. (I certainly would’ve been one of them…who knows, things might’ve been different if I had teachers who were more receptive to it earlier on in my life.)

    As with performance, there was a period in history where composers all knew how to improvise on some level…as far as I can tell, all of them did until Romanticism where the two activities started drift apart. The interesting thing is that this division exists pretty much exclusively in Western classical music and nowhere else, because most other types of musics have largely retained their music-making approaches based in the act of performance. (Jazz, pop, world, folk, etc.)

    What this division seems to have done, in my opinion anyway, is that the performer is often expected to play much more difficult things because they’re expected to be the “specialist”. There’s often a “look at what I can do” aspect in classical that I rarely see in other mediums — sort of the spectacle of the act of music-making in itself through one’s technical proficiency. But there’s a sort of danger involved when the technique becomes an end in itself because it has a tendency to dehumanize the process of music-making.

    Incidentally, improvisation as pedagogy is the current topic in the most recent Critical Studies in Improvisation. Some of them make some pretty radical claims, like saying that improvisation should be at the center of pedagogy, rather than supplemental as it is now. If they can manage to convince some people of this, I’ll finally be in for a job. :)

    Reply
  65. pgblu

    I also agree that improvisation should play a larger role in pedagogy. But I do not see it as a “solution to the composer-performer divide” — it’s a nice, pleasurable circumvention of it.

    Specialization is always in danger of fostering alienation between sub-disciplines, but this is not a direct cause-effect relationship. It is just a danger that requires our vigilance.

    As a thought experiment, let’s split up into listening specialties: we’ll go to a performance of Gurrelieder, and I’ll listen to everything below 110 Hz, you listen to everything between 110 and 330, and Colin listens to everything between 330 and 1100, while jchang listens to everything above 1100 Hz. We’ll all report back to each other about our impressions.

    Reply
  66. Colin Holter

    we’ll go to a performance of Gurrelieder, and I’ll listen to everything below 110 Hz, you listen to everything between 110 and 330, and Colin listens to everything between 330 and 1100, while jchang listens to everything above 1100 Hz

    You guys are going to miss out on all the neo-Riemannian meat and wedge progressions. Suckers!

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  67. jchang4

    while jchang listens to everything above 1100 Hz

    Why do I get stuck with the shitty frequencies? No fair.

    Reply
  68. rtanaka

    Well I always suggest that performers ought to have a try at composition, and visa versa for composers. If they decide to pursue both avenues (which tends to be a rarity but seems to be less of a taboo nowadays) the end result is that they usually end up improvising in one form or another. The activity is simultaneously both at the same time.

    In the group that I play in, we have experimented with doing simple forms and modulations — improvise in form ABA, or modulate keys from the tonic to its fifth, variations on themes, and such. The idea behind it is very simple, but difficult to execute and even harder if you want it to sound musical. But since those things serve as the basis of Western music in a lot of ways, I think it is important to be able to understand what are the fundamentals of the medium we’re working with.

    Improvised exercises often helps to internalize the feeling of form and harmonic progressions through the act of doing it itself. A lot of the times the students aren’t able perceive these larger-scale structures because they’re only looking at individual notes, or the instructions they get in theory books and classes come off as being too abstract because they have no real hands-on experience.

    So why not do these things in theory 101? If you can understand why V goes to I, then even Schoenberg starts making a whole lot more sense in the long run. Even if they’re not planning to make a career our of improvisation, but I think these things can have very beneficial outcomes both for composers and performers. If anything, it demystifies the process of being creative and turns it into something very ordinary — less intimidation, less stress in general.

    Reply
  69. pgblu

    This isn’t meant to start an argument at all, but can you explain what exactly is the advantage — artistic, pedagogical or otherwise — of improvising something like “modulations to the dominant” and “ABA forms” (rather than writing them out) and applying criteria of “sound[ing] musical” that are essentially borrowed from notated music? Would not improvisation have its own unique strengths, and in the best case broaden one’s definition of what is musical in the first place?

    Improvisation can indeed reinforce things one learns from sight-singing, musicianship, score study, notated performance… but free improv (i.e. without ‘charts’ or harmonic plans – I assume that’s what you mean w/ respect to your own group of performers), as such, seems simultaneously too rich and too clumsy to deepen the players’ understanding, or the listener’s experience, of these musical phenomena.

    Reply
  70. rtanaka

    When I was taking theory and skills courses, I had a lot of trouble understanding what was the point of learning all those rules because I couldn’t see how they related to the music I was playing and writing. I mean, I could understand it on an intellectual level maybe, but it tends to click a lot faster when you’re doing it in real time. If you’re going to be a classical musician you will probably run into I-V modulations and ABA forms (or some variation it) all the time, so being able to feel it I think is very helpful. You can analyze a piece and know that it has key modulations, but actually feeling it move from one place to another as you’re doing it is a different experience altogether.

    I think that, especially in the beginning, musicians have a tendency to look at the notation note-for-note and strive for pure accuracy. This can be a significant source of stress, because they might feel as if they are constantly being judged for every move they make. (It certainly was the case for me, and I turned to improv to relieve myself from my practice routines.) But improvising helps to acknowledge the fact it’s not that big of a deal if you miss a note here or there as long as it retains the overall harmonic structure. Even professionals make mistakes all the time, but they still come off convincingly because they generally know how to recover from mishaps and mistakes which is pretty inevitable. At least for me, it made the process a lot less intimidating, and by doing so, I was able to have a lot more fun with doing music in general.

    Basically its the mentality that it’s not the notation that makes the music, but the music itself. In American music at least, I think that jazz has done a very good job balancing the two things, because in most programs it’s pretty much expected that musicians do both composition and performance, and the “divide” we see in classical music is almost non-existent. During my stay at CalArts I was impressed by the versatility of the jazz musicians there and decided to try to emulate it in my own medium.

    It’s not to say that what I’ve been doing should be done by everyone, because the structures we’ve used are pretty specific to my training and the people I’ve worked with. But I think it has a lot of pedagogical potential because it can help musicians refine their skills even while allowing them to do things in their own way…even if the results may differ wildly (Kenny G and Anthony Braxton?) the activity itself is something that’s common to all musical culture. So it can also help to promote the idea of inclusivity within the medium.

    Reply
  71. Colin Holter

    You can analyze a piece and know that it has key modulations, but actually feeling it move from one place to another as you’re doing it is a different experience altogether.

    Do you agree, though, that this is something performers can (and often do) accomplish with written music as well? You could make the case that all performers of large-c Classical music should study historical improvisation to better understand the conscious and unconscious rules that informed composition in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Would the composition or improvisation of an original “historical replica” cadenza satisfy your requirement?

    Reply
  72. jchang4

    Do you guys follow Kyle Gann’s blog? He often makes a lot of very interesting points, and not long ago he brought up a quote from Miles Davis’s autobiography (sorry, it’s a bit extended):

    …I just went to Gil and told him, “Gil, you don’t have to write music like that. It’s too close for the musicians to play. You don’t have to make the trumpet players sound like they’re perfect, because these trumpet players are classically trained and they don’t like to miss no notes no how.” So he agreed with that. In the beginning, we had the wrong trumpet players because we had those who were classically trained. But that was a problem. We had to tell them not to play exactly like it was on the score. They started looking at us – at Gil, mostly – like we were crazy. They couldn’t improvise their way out of a paper bag. So they were looking at Gil like, “What the fuck is he talking about? This is a concerto, right?” So they know we must be crazy talking about “play what isn’t there.” We just wanted them to feel it, and read it and play it, but these first ones couldn’t do that, so we had to change trumpet players, and that’s why Gil had to reorchestrate the score. Next we got some trumpet players who were both classical and could feel….

    Then we had to have some drummers who could get the sound that I wanted….

    …Legit drummers can’t solo because they have no musical imagination to improvise. Like most other classical players, they play only what you put in front of them. That’s what classical music is; the musicians only play what’s there and nothing else. They can remember, and have the ability of robots. In classical music, if one musician isn’t like the other, isn’t all the way a robot, like all the rest, then the other robots make fun of him or her, especially if they’re black. That’s all that is, that’s all the classical music is in terms of the musicians who play it – robot shit. And people celebrate them like they’re great. Now there’s some great classical music by great classical composers – and there’s some great players up in there, but they have to become soloists – but it’s still robot playing and most of them know it deep down, though they wouldn’t admit it in public.

    This is kinda inflammatory commentary (and perhaps a bit myopic/propagandistic), but it does highlight a very real impediment in much of present day classical training. I agree that there needs to be more integration of actual listening in the training of classical performers because, for many, classical ed is largely based on note-reading. Few pianists that I know of actually listen to what they are playing… Like REALLY listen. For instance, they don’t hear the harmonic shifts. They see them, they can identify them, they play the notes, but they don’t actually hear it, and it shows in their playing. Improv is one way, and perhaps the easiest, to get the ears and hands (and breath) working together. In piano pedagogy, we do talk about incorporating these things into our teaching… but how can you teach what you have not been taught yourself? This is why the change is so slow in coming. This is also why piano performance and piano pedagogy need to be integrated studies. Yes, there is a gap even between piano performance and piano pedagogy… as if they are mutually exclusive things! It boggles the mind. Everybody needs to hang out with everybody else more.

    Reply
  73. rtanaka

    Do you agree, though, that this is something performers can (and often do) accomplish with written music as well?

    It’s possible, and no doubt that the best performers out there know what they’re doing when they play notated music. I don’t have anything against notation, because I do a lot of composing myself and I know that it has its upsides. But in so far as basic theory goes, my opinion is that this is one of the best ways to nail the fundamentals of Western music in a very short amount of time. Some students will have a better response to hand-on experience as well, so this is also something to consider.

    Here is a sample. All improvised. The rules we gave ourselves – 1) (Sorta) in the style of a fugue, 2) start in G minor, then modulate to the dominant and back. There’s a big relaxation when you get back to the G, because it feels like you “returned” to something after having left. Even if you’re playing notated music, you should be able to feel this! Otherwise you’re just going from note to note.

    Just to be clear, I’m not interested in reviving older performance-practices or doing historically “accurate” performances. I’m all into doing modern interpretations of older works, and I think its great when performers turn pieces upside their head with their interpretations because it makes even listening to old works exciting. Our group has also done exercises with phasing techniques, metric modulations (which is sort of related to phasing anyway), improvisations off of modern works (although maybe Bartok is a bit not-so-modern at this point), and 12-tone exercises, as well. I know improvisers who only do tonal stuff, while others will do nothing but extended techniques and noise-based gestures the whole time. But if they’re allowed to be creative in this way, they’ll eventually find their own voice in regards to what they might want to do.

    Nice Miles quote, by the way. Play what’s not there! I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten blank stares for saying stuff like that. Notation is supposed to be more like a roadmap to get one place to another. It points to something, but it’s not a thing in itself like a painting is. Steven Nachmanovich had a good talk regarding that issue — “the map is not the territory”. Notation is not the music. Music is the music.

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  74. rtanaka

    That Miles Davis story reminds me of a time I did a gig at a studio…they brought me in to play the Horn and a violinist (different person than the one I’m playing now) to make some pretty simple melodies for an album a guy was making for an independent label.

    He was obviously based within a rock medium and didn’t have much classical training so he did everything “by feel”. He sang to me sort of what he wanted and I sort of scribbled out a sketch of it on a piece of paper. He added a few comments, a few different attempts were tried, then that was it for me and the rest was going to be done in the editing room. Easy 20 bucks.

    The violinist, on the other hand, got very upset. I mean, really upset, that she wasn’t given exact directions as to what she was supposed to do. The idea of just “feeling it” seemed totally alien to her. Probably worse is the fact that she seemed like a very intelligent person, and that these types of stories are probably more common than we think. Are we raising our musicians to be highly competent, highly intellectual, but more or less robotic drones?

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  75. Colin Holter

    Just to be clear, I’m not interested in reviving older performance-practices or doing historically “accurate” performances.

    think that as models for improvisation go, though, this is your best bet for understanding tonal music. An effort to reconstruct Beethoven’s improvisational practice, for example, would be enormously time-consuming and research-intensive, but imagine how much you could learn to intuit about the syntax of tonality that way!

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  76. rtanaka

    think that as models for improvisation go, though, this is your best bet for understanding tonal music. An effort to reconstruct Beethoven’s improvisational practice, for example, would be enormously time-consuming and research-intensive, but imagine how much you could learn to intuit about the syntax of tonality that way!

    I guess so, but in doing replications of historical practice there’s a sort of an attempt to relive or revive the past aspect that I actually find sort of creepy. Young jazz players sometimes will say something like “I wanna play just like Miles!” but if he heard someone say something like that he probably would’ve (literally) slapped them in the face cause that totally misses the point of doing music for personal-expression. If Beethoven was arrogant enough to really want duplicate clones of himself some 200 years after his death (which I don’t, but if he did,) screw him, really. My personal opinion is that I think that performance-practices should be of the present so that the music becomes relevant for its time. It needs to be, otherwise I don’t think audiences will see the point.

    I saw a performance of a renaissance work (unfortunately don’t remember which one) but during one of the recaps the quartet added a little bit of sul pont to the ostinato part and it was pretty mind blowing — hey, it doesn’t say to do that, but then again, it doesn’t say not to do that, so why not? That’s sort of what I mean about playing what’s not there — notation is actually most about telling performers what not to do, in a lot of ways.

    As it currently stands I think a lot of performers simply aren’t getting the performance practice skills which are relevant to its times, which is why the violinist above was taken totally off-guard by the idea of “doing things by ear”. In theory, she should’ve had all the skills needed to get the job done, but was totally taken off guard by the way things are actually done in real-life situations. In either case, something is definitely wrong with the way the pedagogical system works right now, and it’s reflected in music school’s generally low job acquisition rates. These are all related, I believe.

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  77. Colin Holter

    Of course I didn’t mean that players should aspire to improvise like Beethoven specifically, which would be a pretty tall order and require more idolatry than study anyway.

    At any rate, you seem to be demanding that players a) improvise in order to understand the workings of tonal music and b) abandon historical performance practice to arrive at more relevant interpretations. Does this strike anyone else as kind of backwards? The example you gave of an early music group playing at the bridge may indeed illustrate living musicians trying to inject some vitality into old music at the expense of historical practice; on the other hand, maybe they looked into the kinds of bows used in the 16th century, contemporary instructional treatises, accounts of performances, etc., and discovered that sul pont. was actually a part of the performance practice of the era that 19th-century notions of ideal tone have since effaced. Personally, I hope they took the latter path. This is America, and I’d never suggest that you can’t play music in whatever wholly arbitrary manner strikes your fancy–but I’m prepared to say that you shouldn’t.

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  78. Trevor

    First time for everything…
    For perhaps the first time ever, I have to side with Ryan on this one. Why, pray tell, shouldn’t performers be able to take those liberties? I know the cult of composer is strong in these parts, but when its valued over how the music actually sounds, something is amiss.

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  79. rtanaka

    This is America, and I’d never suggest that you can’t play music in whatever wholly arbitrary manner strikes your fancy–but I’m prepared to say that you shouldn’t.

    I don’t think there’s such thing a thing as an arbitrary decision. There are good, bad, and maybe inconsequential decisions, but it’s rarely without a reason if you think back hard enough. I think it’s important to allow performers to try things out and give them the liberty to do what they want within the framework. One useful thing to do is to record your improv sessions and listen to it later on. It doesn’t have to be a critique of it, necessarily — just talk about it and think about why you decided to do certain things as certain times. If you do this enough, you sort of get a better grasp on your own tendencies and find out a lot about yourself in the process. And everyone is different, so the possibilities are also endless.

    A while ago, I was at a talk by Nicholas Hodges who had similar things to say about notation, despite the fact that he’s famous for playing a lot of hardcore modernist works like Scarrino and Carter. A Bb on a score actually doesn’t give the performer much information on how to do it — doesn’t tell them how loud to play it, what sort of articulation, what sort of feeling — but it does tell them that it’s not a B natural, or C. So if there are certain things that you definitely don’t want happening when they play your music, you should write it in. Otherwise everything else is fair game.

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  80. jchang4

    I hope all this talk of anti-historical performance practice does not betray a lack of study in historical performance. I don’t really have a stance either way–I get where both sides are coming from–but I think it would be silly to completely ignore performance practices of periods past based on some notion that by doing so you will somehow sound more “present”. There’s a lot to learn from past performance practices–especially in an instrument like the piano–a lot of “tricks” that can be used in playing today without necessarily sounding “old.”

    An understanding of virginal/harpsichord fingering practices, of the acoustics of past keyboard instruments, of how these acoustics may have effected compositional and performance practices/decisions, etc are useful things to know and can be applied to current performances without necessarily making these performances sound dated. I might find a passage where a funky 3-4-3-4 fingering could be quite effective in getting a certain sound or in falling neatly under the hand. I might find that I like using less bass in a particular passage to get an entirely different effect, I might question and experiment with my use of pedal. Etc. Having a knowledge of historical performance practice can actually help you to think outside the box and thus sound modern/fresh/new. Historical performance practice is a useful tool. Besides, the belief that historical performance practice is somehow completely accurate and definitive in it’s explanations of past performances is a complete farce. I don’t believe that we will ever really know how things sounded back then… It’s all just conjecture. There was a time when people believed that Bach should be played metronomically… It was believed that that was the correct historical performance practice. Now, many people use a bit of rubato in playing Bach, and now that’s considered the correct historical performance practice. But when you think about it, there’s no arguing with the fact that many people for a long time now have been playing Bach on a completely foreign instrument from the original so that the sound is completely different from back then anyway no matter how you choose to treat the tempo. For me, it’s all a gray issue. I don’t even know how to approach playing from exclusively one stance or the other.

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