Articles by David Smooke
In the past two decades, I cannot think of a single instance of a musical style—whether experimental or otherwise—frightening the public. Where is the new version of punk and its associations with anarchistic youth running amok? Where is the experimental music that causes society to take notice, in order to condemn its nature? In today’s world, is it possible to create music that will frighten the world into taking notice? Or have we seen the end of music that scares people?
All of this has me wondering: What intellectual and artistic tools are necessary for composers? What abilities should all students of composition seek to master? I perceive this list as a starting point and am curious as to what tools you believe are necessary for the craft of composition.
For the past several years, I’ve been spending a large amount of time playing a very small piano. In attempting to blend with other instruments, I found myself playing the metal tines directly in order to produce a greater variety of sounds at volumes other than the mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte range typical of the toy piano itself. Schoenhut Toy Pianos, the premiere contemporary manufacturer of these instruments, created an instrument specifically for me in order to allow me greater access to the working innards.
Recently, I’ve been revising a piece in advance of its premiere while working with the player for whom it was composed. These revisions have mainly consisted of scouring through the score and removing superfluous notes. The process of deleting notes has helped to create a better piece.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear nearly 100 pieces live, by over 50 different composers. Most of these works have been new to me, as have many of the composers, and nearly all had something to offer an interested listener. All of this has me wondering again exactly what constitutes “good music.”
I’ve had several pieces that have seemed to me to be purely unlucky. There was the quintet that lay dormant for three years before receiving its premiere, the duo that’s been performed nearly a dozen times but has only been recorded during performances that didn’t go very well. To paraphrase Tolstoy in a way that surely will cause him to spin in his grave, all successful pieces are alike but each miserable piece is unique.
Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Bowling Green State University in Ohio in order to experience the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music‘s New Music Festival 2011. I was heartened to enjoy the camaraderie among the dozens of composers who came from as far away as Germany and Holland to enjoy the performances, and was astonished at the major figures on the new music scene.
Even though in general I’m happiest holed up in my home, at times wonderful opportunities push me out of the nest towards greater adventures. Right now, I’m anticipating upcoming trips for concerts, each of which will hopefully allow me to connect with composers who are new to me and to reconnect with old friends who I haven’t seen in a while.
Last week, I found myself participating in a Twitter discussion on the merits of self-publishing vs. working with a legacy publisher. This conversation gradually evolved into one about self-promotion during which many composers expressed their angst at the prospect and their lack of ability to do so effectively.
What are the unique challenges for this new generation of musicians, and are we flexible enough to help current students to overcome these obstacles? Does our curriculum prepare students for life beyond the concert hall, or should we be doing more to develop critical thinking and writing skills? In short, what is the role of a music theory department in the 21st century?