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?”
I’ve been mulling over whether or not to write about Jan Swafford’s piece in Slate magazine about contemporary concert music, “A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music: All the new noise explained.” Many of the positives and negatives of the article have been hashed over, but one concept still seems to be left hanging—the actual point of his piece.
While many of the questions I’ve asked the composers I’ve been interviewing have focused on topics directly or indirectly related to the artistic side of their careers, I have also been inquiring about their experiences with the business of having a career as a composer. After the many stories I’ve heard already, it is hard to imagine too many career paths outside of composing that would allow for such a myriad of options.
Last week I helped my colleagues sift through 140(!) submissions for NYSSMA’s Young Composer’s Concert that will occur at the Winter Conference in Rochester this December. These submissions were sent in from all over the state of New York by composers who ranged in age from a girl in 2nd grade to several 11th graders; instrumentation ranged from solo piano to full orchestra and styles were all over the map.