I’m currently taking part in a three-day conference about community engagement and the arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sponsored by Imagining America. Based on both the presenters and audiences so far, it’s interesting to see which art forms are active on this front (theatre, visual arts, poetry, and dance) and which forms are not well represented in the discussion (music, and specifically concert music).
Topics such as curriculum, assessment, and education rarely emerge in discussions concerning contemporary concert music. When they do, they and the academic institutions they are fostered in tend to be portrayed in a negative light (see Tower, Ivory) by composers and performers alike. This is, I feel, completely natural, since part of the process of becoming a mature creative artist is to in some way reject or stand apart from that which taught us, lest we find ourselves in the musical equivalent of living in our parents’ basement.
I try to finish each of my composer interviews with questions about the future—where each composer sees contemporary music headed, any new trends they may be aware of, etc., but also what projects they themselves are looking forward to tackling in the next five to ten years. While answers to this last question have spanned the gamut as you might expect, one particular genre has cropped up as the easy frontrunner.
Success is a funky thing…everyone wants to achieve it, and yet the goalposts for acquiring success are not only different for each of us, but continually moving (as goalposts seem to have a habit of doing these days). The topic of what is “success” for a composer never seems to actually come out into the light, but it seems to be subliminally ever-present when you hang around enough of them long enough.
Recently Anne Midgette, the Washington Post music critic, published a thought-provoking article (complete with video) and related blog post about introducing contemporary concert music to folks who did not know where to start listening. I have an alternative that I would humbly submit: introduce the uninitiated not to composers, but to chamber ensembles.
When I was compiling the list of questions I wanted to ask composers during this interview project, I knew ahead of time that I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not the artist would have an answer for most of them; process, titles, business, self-doubt—these are topics to which any composer is going to have some type of response. The one question I really wasn’t sure about was what kind of relationship, if any, the composer had with their community.
As I’ve been asking composers what their creative process is, I’ve noticed a curious pattern related to orchestration. Most experienced composers tend to put the specific and painstakingly complex task of orchestration on the back end of their process, waiting until the piece in the abstract is sketched out (especially if it is a large ensemble work, where they have a great deal of timbral flexibility). Even those who feel comfortable composing “direct to score” on a large work will wait until they have a very good sense of what the piece is about conceptually before making orchestration decisions.
The fact of the matter is that very, very few composers would be able to be as good as they are or as successful if they did not have strong relationships with performers and conductors. It is those friendships, be they casual or intense, that inevitably spur on a good portion of most composers’ output.
While most composers feel somewhat comfortable discussing the technical “nuts and bolts” aspects of their compositional processes and techniques, it feels like you’re on thin ice when you ask them about what “inspired” a work or what ideas or mechanisms caused a work to emerge in its current shape. As I’ve been slowly racking up interviews with composers, I’ve tried to get around this thin ice by coming at the question from a side angle: “Do you incorporate non-musical ideas into your music and, if so, how do you go about it?”
As I was discussing several different issues with a colleague who is affiliated with a regional NPR radio station, the topic of my radio show that had focused on living composers came up. I’ve been seriously looking into starting it back up in Western NY and was curious if the folks in their area might be interested. After informing me of who to speak to, my colleague thought about it for a second and incredulously asked “Really? An entire hour of new music?”