For rock bands, going on tour and playing the “standard repertoire” of hit songs is a non-negotiable part of the job. They may say it’s kind of boring and doing new things is a lot more fun and interesting, but performing favorite songs for adoring fans is what pays the bills. Although composers may not have binding contracts, keeping work alive is a crucial part of the venture for us as well.
Composer Arlene Sierra is the closest thing to a “musical entomologist” that we will probably find in the world of contemporary music. The first word that comes to my mind when listening to her music is “spin,” and the accompanying visual is that of a spider weaving an intricate web with speed and dexterity, into which a myriad of other tiny creatures unsuspectingly wind themselves up.
The speed at which computers and music gear in general become obsolete makes me wonder increasingly about the compositions out there that have been created for very specific equipment that no longer exists. The act of keeping everything current and updated is a big part of composer “life maintenance.”
For many composers, one of the most challenging instruments to write for is piano. Not only because of the enormous wealth of repertoire already in existence for the instrument, but also because a lot of us grew up playing and studying it. The irony of this statement is obvious, and the next question is, of course, “but if you actually play the piano, doesn’t that make it easier to write for it?” In some cases, yes, absolutely. But in a surprising number of others, not at all.
I have a friend who has the most voracious musical listening appetite I have ever encountered. Listening to music—particularly music that is new to him, of any sort—is a completely integral part of his daily life. It’s a necessity for him, so much so that in his case it should probably be added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, somewhere in between the physiological and the security requirements.
Composer Judith Shatin has been making engaging electro-acoustic music for years from her home base of Charlottesville, Virginia, where she serves as a professor and director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music at UVA. In her recent Innova release, Tower of the Eight Winds, she teams up with the Borup-Ernst Duo (Hasse Borup on violin and Mary Kathleen Ernst on piano) to present a vivid set of compositions, rendered in well-recorded, vigorous performances.
Last week here at the Box we received a communication from a reader pointing out the tendency for the language of new music to employ terms that suggest violence or aggression. For instance, it was pointed out that it’s common to read press materials containing phrases like “aggressive,” “no holds barred,” “pedal to the metal,” “face-melting,” and the like.
It seems that one of the greatest challenges for a creative person is to steer clear of being taken prisoner by the random workings of the mind, and focus on the real work at hand. There are so many reasons we can think of to not write music—it’s incredible the things we can concoct to avoid giving ourselves the quiet and the space to do the work that is really most important.