The Other Foot

This week a mysterious package showed up outside of my apartment, very overstuffed and secured with no less than three discernable kinds of tape. Contraband? But no, a glance at the return address reminds me that I’ve agreed to look over some entries for a student composition prize, and soon the scores are spilling all over the desk and onto the floor.

Although the adjudication process is blind, I do know that these are all students aged 14 to 20, competing for a state-wide first prize of $500—a pretty fair sum, even more so for the under-twenty crowd. I’m supposed to write comments and then somehow numerically rank each work’s merits according to isolated criteria that are rarely isolated in practice: melody, harmony, form, etc. Already I’m skeptical: what a damn fool way to evaluate a composition. So I focus mainly on the written comments, only grudgingly pausing to decide whether what might be someone’s very first attempt deserves a 6 or a 7 for “style”; then my raw data will be averaged in with data from the other judges, who I haven’t met.

How to go about this in a sensible way? Very quickly I’m able to separate the scores into a few main groups: loosely “neoromantic” works; pieces that seem to be in love with being “weird”; and things that sound like Corelli with bass lines that descend stepwise to the dominant. This last category, specific as it is, ends up being the largest; interestingly, I find neither minimalism nor any kind of serialized technique—something I might have expected with a slightly younger crowd, but it puzzled me in this case since I suspect the entries contained more than a few college freshmen.

With everything fitting so neatly into these three camps (not even one dark horse!), it became a lot easier to evaluate the entries. I played through some really nice pieces and boring ones, some corner-stapled, some bound with more care, some fairly well-notated and some clearly printed off Digital Performer (no, Virginia, “Strings” is not a valid staff name in an orchestra score). In one of these transcribed performances everything gets off by a 32nd note early on and it’s just a long, hot, slog to hell from there. It was the one piece I literally couldn’t read; had its author known about quantization settings, things may have turned out very differently.

Finally I’m able to reconcile my inner curmudgeon with the part of me that genuinely wants to help. Fortunately for my limited reasoning skills, the score with the highest numerical marks also happens to stand out the most. Playing through all these scores has reminded me just how easy it is to write vaguely sad, angsty-sounding music; this high-ranking piece stood out mainly for expressing a genuine sense of tingling, quiet joy, and expressing it in a way that was clear and assured.

All in all, wallowing in other people’s music can be a great way to spend the time away from one’s own. And after last week especially, it felt good to be in touch with the way I used to compose when I just did it for fun and everything was basically in the style of Rachmaninoff (don’t ask). More so than our later efforts, perhaps, our earliest compositions tell a story-about what kind of things we find meaningful and what kind of person we really want to become. It’s not that mature compositions can’t sometimes do just the same thing; they’re just so much more effective at smoothing over the seams. For the beginning composer there’s a sense in which every choice is a monumental one, because these choices are the first chance we get to start figuring out who we are as composers.

It would be interesting to do something like what filmmaker Michael Apted has done with his excellent “Seven Up” documentary series, in which he interviews the same individuals every seven years to try and understand how humans develop. I wonder how much each of these composers will veer from their initial efforts; will the Corelli-heads discover Stravinsky and find that their pieces are becoming more neo-baroque? And what of the authors of those pieces which seemed calculated to be as strange as possible—will these composers keep pushing this even farther, or will they hit some kind of impasse?

Also, more than few beginning composers took it upon themselves to sign their names next to the double bar-line. I found this touching; may they always look at the piece they’ve just finished and proudly claim ownership.

7 thoughts on “The Other Foot

  1. danvisconti

    They were mostly “weird” in the *same* way. This group was mainly defined by a desire to be “modern”, in a way that was sometimes genuinely exhuberant but just as often un-informed, or poorly realised. These were pieces that seemed to be “trying out” a lot of things, usually strung together and unintegrated. These pieces included extended techniques or attempts at them, but usually to unclear aims or sometimes being umplayable. “Complicated” rhythms were another characteristc, as in all-of-a-suddden outbursts of some obscure, finicky rhythmic figure in an otherwise fairly normal piece. Lots of passages in 5/8 or 7/8 with long ties and no pulse that should probably be in alternating 2/4 and 3/4–you know, because writing a piece in 5/8 is badass.

    But what I hope I’m making clear is that these “weird” pieces were not really uptown or downtown, complexist or Cageian. Mainly, they were experimenting with the vocabulary of the 20th century and not so much the aesthetic positions.

    Reply
  2. c.cerrone

    Last time I checked, being “weird” is a pretty important thing when it comes to art.

    In fact, it strikes me that its incredibly important, especially at that age, to be as weird as you can be. You can only find your voice through exploration, experimentation and, yes, imitation of many kinds of musics. Otherwise, you never grow.

    Which is why it saddens me that your post seems to privilege the “neoromantic” music by not attaching a pejorative descriptive term (which weird certainly is). You could have just as easily framed the article as saying the entries were filled with “conservative” or “generic” or “unexploratory” pieces and the and then there were a batch of “experimental” pieces. Especially in the case of competitions, which are already so riddled with stylistic bias, your almost dismissal of works which are at least trying to do something new (at least to a 18-year old) makes me very sad.

    And to qualify that that they weren’t, you know, really weird (ie, not Cagean, downtown, uptown, etc) is silly — it takes a lot of time to parse the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. A very good place to start is 5/8.

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  3. colin holter

    Which is why it saddens me that your post seems to privilege the “neoromantic” music by not attaching a pejorative descriptive term (which weird certainly is).

    Where I come from, “neoromantic” is a pejorative descriptive term.

    I didn’t get the impression that Dan is condemning experimental or radical impulses among the pieces he’s judging; rather, it seemed that he identified a particular strain of pseudo-eccentricity that believes itself to be weird.

    This is 2009. There’s nothing especially transgressive about 5/8. But when I was 16, the notion of writing pieces in 5/8 and 7/8 – which I did, quite extensively – seemed deliciously off-the-wall and “weird.” I think this is the spirit of well-meaning but underinformed experimentalism Dan was talking about – better that, of course, than the well-meaning but underinformed traditionalism that leads high schoolers to write neoromantic music, bless their little hearts.

    Reply
  4. danvisconti

    Last time I checked, being “weird” is a pretty important thing when it comes to art. In fact, it strikes me that its incredibly important, especially at that age, to be as weird as you can be.

    I very much agree, and for the record it’s also what I most desire in a new work: that it be homemade, full of character, and idiosyncratic rather than generic, “off the shelf” stuff. But in the context of my article, I wasn’t using the word “weird” to stand for this quality, which fortunately was present in all three categories.

    it saddens me that your post seems to privilege the “neoromantic” music by not attaching a pejorative descriptive term (which weird certainly is). You could have just as easily framed the article as saying the entries were filled with “conservative” or “generic” or “unexploratory” pieces and the and then there were a batch of “experimental” pieces.

    Again, I didn’t at all intend to use “weird” in the pejorative sense, nor to signify experimentalism per se. So it wouldn’t really have been accurate for me to use the labels you suggest, and I’m not sure labelling all the other pieces as “conservative, “generic,” or “unexploratory” would have been an improvement.

    The point of grouping the compositions in the first place was ensure that pieces of similar style would be compared to each other, fairly, and I think that understanding of what is and isn’t exceptional must follow from that.

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  5. philmusic

    “..Last time I checked, being “weird” is a pretty important thing when it comes to art. ..”

    Style is a great thing. Content is better.

    Phil Fried, no sonic prejudice.

    Reply
  6. rtanaka

    The thing is, you can’t force yourself to be weird because being an anomaly is not something that you have control over. Western society puts a lot of pressure on people to be “unique”, and I’ve seen a lot of people go through great lengths in an attempt to become a novelty but most of the time the results turn out to be pretty ridiculous. It’s really not something you can acquire through sheer will-power.

    The most difficult thing to do as a composer, I think, is to simply be yourself. If you write from your experiences and speak honestly through your work, the music will have a sense of integrity that’s undeniable, regardless of what style you might be writing in. This is harder than you think — we live in a world where novelty takes priority over substance, and style is often used to mask (rather than clarify) the composer’s intensions.

    I’ve always been kind of a “weird” kid growing up, but it has mainly to do with my background, upbringing, and the environments that I happened to be a part of. I’ve always sort of stuck out amongst most social circles as being somewhat unusual, but it was never really something I was actively going for. It just sort of ended up that way and that was something I had to accept as part of my life. If you want to be unusual you have to do unusual things — not just in the abstract, but in reality as well.

    But it turns out that most people lead fairly interesting lives, because their experiences are unique to them and only them, irreplaceable by any other means. The question is if they’re willing to share this with others, allowing themselves to be vulnerable in the eyes of the public. You have to resist the urge to be hip (or anti-hip, which is pretty much the same thing) and just speak what you believe to be true.

    Reply

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