Music is at once the most anti-social and social of the arts, the solitary pursuit of proficiency—practice, composition, study—only manifested in extroverted gestures directed towards and among collaborators and audience. Trust and generosity are, in music, not really sentimental qualities. They’re the currency, the supply chain, the raw materials.
One of the most important tools for a composer to develop is an intuition about material, about its possibilities for manipulation and development. But now that I’ve had enough practice turning off that intuition, I can see and hear how it’s not necessarily the material, or even the choice of material, that makes or breaks a piece of music.
There’s a certain phase in the career of a composer when a commission or a request for a piece of music reverses time and causality: what seems like a hire actually ends up feeling more like a job interview. I think almost all composers have been faced with writing a piece in which there was also the pressure to prove oneself, to work in a complete survey of the composer’s skill set.
The HONK! Festival identifies itself as a festival of “activist street bands,” and while some participants still fit squarely in that category—preaching revolution, buoying the oppressed, putting the call-and-response of political protest to a drumline beat—others seemed fired up less by demonstration than by musical immoderation: the sheer multiple-forte thrill of brass and percussion with the leash off, or the welcome-all-comers triumph of volume over precision.