By the end of June, which marks the half point of 2013, I will have been in a total of 12 cities in 4 different countries. (I’m including my home base of New York City as one of those twelve.) Although it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, I believe I have gained many valuable experiences. But as with everything else in life, I will need to balance time to process those experiences with the time I’ll be taking acquiring new ones. It’s an even more elaborate mental dance than what I go through every time I make a decision to listen to either a brand new piece of music or one that I’ve heard before, or to do neither and attempt to create a new piece of my own. Admittedly this last option is the one that is least viable when on the road, although those experiences away from home can serve as great catalysts for inspiration on the creative front whenever there’s time to sit back and process them.
In Paris, I discovered a whole block of sheet music shops which simultaneously increased the weight of my luggage and significantly reduced the amount of money in my bank account. But I still have not had any free time to study the scores of some of Jacques Charpentier’s Études karnatiques I acquired there. (I couldn’t afford all 72 of them.) In Nice, I wandered through a remarkable musical instrument museum that made me think of some really bizarre timbre combinations, but I have not yet had time to test any of those ideas. Being back in Cannes for the third time made it seem almost familiar to me, but I met so many new people during my third time at MIDEM that it sometimes also felt like a completely different place. I still haven’t listened to all the recordings I was given while I was there.
In Winnipeg, I witnessed a miraculous performance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim that almost didn’t happen due to one of the singers becoming ill right after the dress rehearsal. This unexpected element—as well as the distinct possibility for a complete failure—kept everyone riveted and made this extraordinarily difficult piece (which to my ears was a real challenge for everyone involved during the rehearsal) come off almost perfectly as well as with more heightened emotions than any other performance of it I had ever experienced. This lesson will probably make me more relaxed in rehearsals of my own music from here on out. Or perhaps the reverse, since undoubtedly it was the adrenaline rush of this thing almost getting cancelled that pushed everyone involved over the edge and into the sublime.
In Albany, I finally got to experience a live performance by one of the orchestras most dedicated to music by living American composers, despite the fact that they perform in a hall (albeit an incredible gorgeous one with terrific acoustics) that only enshrines the engraved names of dead European composers. (Admittedly, none of the composers whose names I’d wish were also there had been born when this concert hall was first built.) There was a valuable lesson here about how difficult it is to reconcile my love of new experiences with my attachment to things and my obsession with preserving them. If you want to keep something the way it has always been, it is by definition impermeable to something new. Or maybe not. The Albany Symphony makes that old hall new every time they play a piece of new music in it, and the hall retains its authentic, unchanged 19th-century interior nevertheless!
Is it possible to both honor the old and do something new in one’s own compositions? As I explained when I spoke to a composition class at Yale back in February, this is something I ask myself all the time when I am working on a piece, as I’m sure many others do. Though inevitably to some the resultant music will sound hopelessly anachronistic, others will hear that same music as a slap in the face to tradition and everything we should hold dear and sacred—you can’t please everybody. It’s a precarious balancing act. I got my feathers somewhat ruffled in Buffalo when I heard orchestra musicians tell visiting jazz composers that they should avoid using odd meters in symphonic scores, especially since I had witnessed orchestras doing all kinds of oddball stuff only a few weeks before that.
Then again, that new oddball thing is probably rarely what the audience attending most orchestra concerts wants to hear. And aside from not being able to please anybody (if that oddball thing is what you decide to do), you also might discover that many people are pleased by things other than what you yourself are pleased by. I suppose that particular lesson hit home most clearly when I ventured across the Hudson River to Newark to visit NJPAC for the very first time. I went there and heard the New Jersey Symphony give a stellar performance of a new piece (albeit one that was not particularly oddball, at least not in the way it sounded). As is the case with most orchestra programs, they also played a frequently performed piece. And they gave a solid, but by no means life-changing, performance of it. But unlike me, the audience seemed to appreciate the more familiar music more; they went totally gaga. Then again, in Cleveland, I experienced enthusiasm and in some cases euphoria among both audience members and members of the orchestra during two nights of being exposed to music that was completely unfamiliar to them.
Therefore, no matter what I’ve encountered that might suggest the contrary, I don’t think we should try to change the music we write to conform to some kind of standard that an audience will relate to. This is fool’s gold. The audience is not a monolith. And besides, you can never completely predict how someone else will react to something. And if you try to do so and it’s not sincere, listeners will see and hear through it. But that doesn’t imply that you should be completely oblivious if no one comprehends what you’re trying to do. As I wrote here last week following up on my trip to Washington, D.C., I think that any music—no matter how arcane—can attract an audience that is larger than the audience it currently has. The onus is on all of us to spread the word about what we do and what others do that we believe needs to be heard.
In less than two hours, I’ll be making my first-ever trip to St. Louis where I will moderate a session at the League of American Orchestras Conference which is essentially about, at least as I see it, how orchestras can more effectively engage their communities by programming new music. Then immediately following that talk, I take a series of flights to hopefully arrive the following morning in Dublin, at the behest of Ireland’s Contemporary Music Centre, to publicly ponder how the digital realm will continue to change the way we experience music. Too bad we don’t yet all use the same currency or the same electrical outlets. (The latter would have shaved off an hour I spent frantically searching for the right adaptors amidst my pile of wires at home.) Anyway, stay tuned!