Up for Adventure

I got busted last week. No, not for smuggling a bottle of wine into the Met’s Opera in the Park performance, but for my careless generalizations in last week’s post. A composer that I very much respect, who happens to be a generation older than I, pointed out to me that age is no assurance of progressiveness. So true. Somewhere out there, while a young composer was working on his or her ultra-conformist third piano sonata, my grandmother was emailing me a link to OK Go’s treadmill tour de force video—hip points go to the octogenarian in this case for sure. So if it isn’t age, what is it that makes one composer more adventurous than another?

Considering the fact that the sugary breakfast cereals you ate as a kid may have influenced your attitudes towards composition just as much as all those years you spent in college, it doesn’t seem rational to seek a definitive answer, but maybe folks can attempt to pinpoint a few possible causes in the comments section below. It’s difficult for me because, for as long as I can remember, my philosophies concerning music have always been carefree and undogmatic—although Pauline Oliveros puts most of us to shame when it comes to open-mindedness. Hey Pauline, if you’re reading, how did you get there? Or more importantly, how do you maintain your mindset?

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19 thoughts on “Up for Adventure

  1. Chris Becker

    As a composer, I try to create situations where the end result is a mystery and the process of getting there a challenge. Before a performance I did back in March with a choreographer, she and I admitted to each other that we had no idea how the program in its entirety would translate to the audience. We didn’t even know if anyone would show up.

    If a project seems daunting or even frightening to some degree, chances are I need to go ahead and try to make it happen. It’s not a masochistic trip. Sometimes it’s fear that makes important life changing things happen.

    This is a very personal journey I’m describing that has to do with deciding what if anything you want to do with yourself on the planet. Some people want to write the same piece over and over again with some variations and present it in different contexts. That’s a personal decision could be a daring one for that particular person. The kid you describe writing a sonata might be doing something that totally takes him out of his comfort zone with that act. Or perhaps its an act of prayer – a ritualistic thing where he or she speaks to the world within a older framework using an archaic set of symbols.

    That’s kind of radical when I think about it (isn’t that all a rave is, for instance?)

    Reply
  2. danielgilliam

    Define progressive. Does it mean using electronic sounds in a certain way? Using extended techniques five times every 10 seconds? Writing for unusual combinations of instruments? Following the deep listening ideas of Pauline Oliveros? Writing homophonic, tonal progressions for piano? NOT using extended techniques? Is Carlos Chavez’s Piano Sonata No. 6 progressive? Was John Cage really progressive?

    If anyone can define progressive, in a way that we can all agree, I’d be happy to discuss.

    Otherwise, I don’t feel we are responsible for “what” we write, but rather how we write it: converying your ideas to an audience and doing so in a way that pleases you, the creator.

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  3. philmusic

    Randy, don’t worry about making mistakes thats what makes us human.
    What did surprise me was that June in Buffalo did not post a complete list of their composers/teachers on their web site—perhaps I didn’t find it. Maybe the “Ryans” have a point. Its hard to tell from just a year or two.

    Anyway there is always room for improvement.

    Phil’s Page

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  4. rtanaka

    The June in Buffalo thing, at least to me, seemed like it had a theme this past year. Most of the composers there seem to have made a name for themselves during the 70s and it seemed like the list sort of represented a generation of composers within New Music circles. Course I’m overgeneralizing a bit, but there is definitely a specificity to it that can be deduced just by looking at the sorts of people they’re featuring.

    Practically speaking, it’s really not possible for any particular event or institution to be all-inclusive, so to expect things to have perfect diversity in this manner is usually unrealistic. But I don’t think any reasonable person would blame any organization for putting a show on as long as their honest about their biases. I think it’s particularly important to be able to do this now, especially when there are so many stylistic choices to choose from.

    It’s usually when people start claiming that their style has some kind of magical universal appeal to it is when people start getting irked. The avant-garde composers from the 50s and 60s often get accused of cultural imperialism largely for this reason, because they were attempting to create a universal style based on the western paradigm, heavily funded by government support.

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  5. maestro58

    What is Progressive?
    I always thought that progressive was not doing what everyone else was doing. When I was in school, I thought turning my back on the International style started by Schoenberg / Boulez / Babbit and their followers was being progressive. For a while, I juxtaposed different musics together, worked on metamorphosis of one style to another, and absorbed all I could from around me. So after years of work, I’m almost 50 and play excerpts of my work for the administrator of a new music group, who labeled my work “Conservative.”

    Musicologists and Critics are the only ones who get to decide who is progressive…and that is after you are dead. Trying to be progressive gives you nothing but heartache. Just write the best music you can and let the chips fall where they may.

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  6. Chris Becker

    There ya’ go! David’s comment woke me up this morning.

    For me, just “composing the best music I can” isn’t good enough. I have to feel like I’m being stretched in some way with each project. I believe this is because I want to keep growing – I want to feel like I’m alive. The way I accomplish that is to set the bar a little higher with each project – and to not turn away from the unknown.

    This comment was written before breakfast and with low blood sugar. Please excuse any misspellings.

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  7. danielgilliam

    so…
    Would you be composing the worst music you can? Stretching your limits, challenging yourself, and finding new ways to communicate your ideas has nothing to do with how well you do it.

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  8. Chris Becker

    I guess for me “composing the best music I can” is a by-product of what I’m describing i.e. setting the bar high, going into fear, giving up expectations, etc. But maybe I’m not understanding your comment.

    You could always go to my MySpace page, listen to my stuff and make your own judgement.

    Reply
  9. rtanaka

    At least in my cases, composing from experience seems to work best. Sure, there’s the intellectual aspect of music too, but usually they’re largely means to an end to what’s been happening to yourself. Sometimes I would start out with an idea but as the piece begins to shape into something it turns out that it really was really just an excuse to put out a self-narrative of myself. Probably nobody notices, though, it’s pretty personal.

    The good thing about doing composition in this way is that people will always argue or disagree with intellectual matters (I know this from doing a lot of philosophy) but you cannot really argue against what someone has actually gone through. And I generally do think that people’s experiences are pretty unique, and art is almost always interesting if the artist makes an effort to be honest with themselves. This generally means putting yourself into a position of vulnerability, though, since we’re all human being honest generally means revealing imperfections.

    This is the sort of thing they teach you in writing classes, though I think there’s some applications to it in music as well. The sign of a bad writer is mainly that everything they write turns out to be a romanticized idealization of themselves, which I think has a tendency to happen with some composers. I guess there are risks involved in doing something new, but being honest with yourself is a different kind of risk.

    It took me a while to acquire this kind of comfort…especially around school, the pressures to write things in certain ways can be pretty immense. Styles (in whatever form) generally has more to do with ideology than personal narrative, so there’s definitely going to be some conflictions when writing any sort of music.

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  10. pgblu

    False dichotomy
    Ryan : composing ‘from experience’ and ‘intellectual aspects of music’ are not two different things. I try to stretch (according to my own definition) just like CBecker described, but I wouldn’t classify my stretches as particularly intellectual. In fact, if I intellectualize them too much (which I sometimes do), nothing gets accomplished.

    I like ‘self-narrative’ and will have to think about that for a while. Is a piece of music I write ever NOT about me? Hmm…

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  11. rtanaka

    At least when I write, intellectual matters become a means to an end for something else. I’m kind of into the idea of equality, so I tend to utilize a lot of syncopations and pitch rotations (12-toneish techniques) as a way to depict that sort of thing. (e.g. Breaking down hierarchies.) But when the piece itself is done, you do sort of realize that you have preferences for certain thing over others, and that’s where my personality starts to show.

    When I first started writing I would get excited about the things I’ve learned and would try to write pieces about it…but then I sort of realized I was being sort of redundant because if people were really interested in that sort of thing they’re probably better off just reading a book about the subject. It’s a lot clearer, and people won’t have to spend the time trying to decipher what’s going on.

    I think that if you can show that you’ve actually applied what you’ve learned in your own life, then I think the connection comes across as being much more meaningful. So it’s not so much “look how smart I am”, but “here’s what I’ve done with my education”. But then again, I’ve always been kind of a practical-minded person.

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  12. pgblu

    Mystified
    Dear Ryan, your last post I find quite mystifying. Especially the middle paragraph. You think that rather than incorporate some established idea into one of your pieces, you’d do better to refer your listener to a book about the idea? If that isn’t what you mean, then what? What are musical ideas for except to be re-used in different contexts?
    Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

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  13. rtanaka

    Well, I consider poverty to be a problem, and I could very well intellectualize it and maybe make some arguments why its a bad thing and such. But I’ve lived a fairly good life so I don’t really have any first hand experience…if I were to write about a piece about the direness of poverty, then it would probably sound bland and contrived. Sort of like…poverty makes me sad, poor me, and people would be rolling their eyes.

    I think similar things could be said about most intellectual matters in general — so maybe one would identify with some aspects of an idea that they read in a book. Since we’re talking about poverty, maybe socialism or Marxism or some such…maybe they might want to turn that idea into a piece. The approach itself I think is fine, but there’s already thousands upon thousands of things written about that subject and the arguments for and against that sort of thing are usually pretty similar to each other. A composer could say “this is a piece about socialism” or something, but okay, so what? Where’s the twist?

    I don’t know…I’m just really talking about myself right now. Nowadays most of what I write is just about what sorts of things I’ve done and what sorts of people I’ve met and dealt with. And people are all complicated and sort of crazy when you really get down to it so it’s been enough to keep me occupied. It’s mostly about perspective and trajectory to me, which I think that every person has a unique one if they’re willing to share it to people. Sometimes ideas can get in the way of writing music, because it’s really tempting to let ideology be a mask for who you really are.

    But then again, sometimes ideas are part of who we are…but it’s only if we actually apply them in practice when it becomes part of experience. I dunno, maybe I’m getting older and more jaded…people say all kinds of things in public but a lot of the times their words aren’t consistent with their actions. It’s a good bullshit-detector, either way…I think people just want a little honesty once in while.

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  14. pgblu

    Ha
    Hence the confusion: I thought you were talking about musical ideas, since you used the phrase “incorporating what you have learned” — but you were talking about extra-musical ideas. Well, that’s a different bird entirely.

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  15. swellsort

    Personally, I always associated ‘adventuresome’ with curious. After all, some people are more curious than others (in oh so many ways).

    But seriously, to be progressive is to be curious. Some people have an easier time fitting into a mold than they do making their own mold. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing…
    MarkK

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  16. rtanaka

    Hence the confusion: I thought you were talking about musical ideas, since you used the phrase “incorporating what you have learned” — but you were talking about extra-musical ideas. Well, that’s a different bird entirely.

    Is it, though? I don’t tend to make a distinction between musical and extra-musical ideas. At least in the brain, they’re all of the same thing until we do something to make it come out. Since we’re musicians, we just so happen to use the medium that we’re most comfortable with, which is music.

    Again, music or not, ideas don’t really become a part of you unless you use them in your own experiences. I have a lot of knowledge stuck in my head that I don’t really use too much — not that this is a bad thing — but when I sit down to write a piece I feel like I should write what I know best. What I know best should technically be myself, since it’s what I have the most experience with, provided that I’m being honest. You usually find out a lot about yourself doing art in this way.

    Reply

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