Back in high school, shortly after I first started composing, I sent my music—music which was, as I’ve mentioned, abominable—to several luminaries of the western Maryland music scene, such as it is, for comments. I was eager to hear a professional’s opinion of my clumsy, unschooled attempts. Rather than laud my (clearly un-laudable) efforts as I’d hoped, one pianist responded with a question: Why would you want to write music when there’s already so much great music out there?
I don’t know whether he meant this question rhetorically or not, but it has thousands of answers: Because I have to. Because I want to and can’t explain why. Because I’m not satisfied with the old music. Because I love the old music but don’t find it sufficient to make my 21st-century life more comprehensible.
However, it’s a question that has indeed been weighing on my mind as I reach the final pages of a piece for string quartet that I’ve been working on since the early fall. The string quartet is an assemblage of instruments with an indelible history; I find myself thinking less about “two violins, a viola, and a cello” than about the ensemble of Op. 131, K. 465, the Lyric Suite, the “Intimate Letters” quartet, Reigen seliger Geister, etc. In this context, the matter of why I write music in the face of so much insurmountable historical precedent is very much at the fore: Why would a quartet learn and present my piece when they could be learning and presenting the Grosse Fuge?
Hopefully it’ll be because they see something in it that can’t be found in the masterpieces of the past. (Maybe they’ll sense a whiff of “unicorny,” to steal a term from Randy, a quality on which Beethoven’s best music seldom traded. I might even hope for “unicornirony.”) Maybe it’ll be because they appreciate the stunt-like thrill of taking on a 40-minute quarter-tone nightmare. But maybe they won’t. Will I be able to blame them for playing one of those great quartets of the past instead of mine?