Articles by Colin Holter
Today’s mainstream opera collects the resources of traditional opera—bel canto vocalism, the orchestra, rotating scenery—and yokes them to the movies, without whose world-spanning reach and glossy grasp they are at a steep and possibly terminal market disadvantage. Is this a problem or a solution?
The question implicit in my previous post on Corey Dargel’s music was simple: Why am I not doing this? I think I have an answer now, and it’s not the one I expected to have.
We don’t always have the resources to mount such a thorough production in CMW, but last week’s performance was a valuable reminder that the extra work, time, and inconvenience of an elaborate staging can be worthwhile and then some.
Given the simple arithmetic of these cattle calls—many scores will be sent, only one chosen—rejection is par for the course. It never bothers me, though: I reason that even though there are plenty of criteria a panel of judges might consider in choosing a selection, it’s very difficult for someone who is grossly incompetent to come out on top; if it doesn’t go my way, the person who did snag the performance, commission, or prize probably won it fair and square. It’s not a referendum on how bad my piece is but rather on how great someone else’s is, and that’s fine by me.
If an amateur is writing music with the expectation that it will be performed (and if this expectation is met) the situation gets much more uncomfortable for us professional composers to confront: What separates the amateur, a composer whose music receives program space, from me, a composer whose music receives program space?
Surely there are liabilities having to do with funding, participation, and even aesthetics for new music in its relationship with the university, but let’s not forget that intellectual curiosity—which after all should be a chief requisite for composers—is nowhere better fed than in the academy.
I’d like to solicit your thoughts on whether or not it’s true that a young composer whose music strongly resembles her principal teacher’s is likelier to have been educated in Europe than in America. First, however, indulge me as I think through two related points.
Western musicians are accustomed to digesting note material (which is to say dots and lines) first and verbal material later or not at all. In the score of YLEM, for instance, Stockhausen specifies several pitch-classes by name, and of course we were very careful to play the right ones at the right times. “Play a tone for so long until you hear its individual vibrations” is an instruction no less concrete (although perhaps a bit more psychoacoustically challenging) than a B-flat quarter-note in the middle of the treble clef, but it’s not presented in the code that musicians are conditioned to take seriously.
So-called developments in musical aesthetics are bound very closely to changes in the field of production. We will imagine, in other words, what we have the means to imagine; we’ll make what we have the means to make.
I promise I’m not trying to pick on David Patrick Stearns. “Outwardly,” he writes in his philly.com review of the American premiere of James Dillon’s multi-night extended work, “Nine Rivers would seem to be music that can be fathomed only by an ultra-intelligent few and enjoyed by no one,” just before acknowledging, startled, that such an impression isn’t borne out by the experience of Dillon’s music itself.