Edward T. Cone: Not Theory, Practice…

How Music is Born and Popular Recognition

FRANK J. OTERI: I came across a very interesting statement you made about how your music comes into being. You were talking about pieces you had written, not commissioned because you said that implies a fee, which was rarely ever involved. Pieces are often willed into existence by forces other than the composer. Someone gets asked to write a piece for certain forces, and then they get a fee, and then the piece happens, and often times that piece will be written for the commission and it will never be done again. It’s a strange way to midwife a piece of music. I wonder if there’s something wrong with the way that we give birth to music nowadays?

EDWARD T. CONE: From my point of view there never has been a really healthy relationship between music writing and the calling forth of music writing, the commissioning of it, since the days that composers were paid to be composers—as Haydn was paid to be a composer, as Bach was paid to be a composer, as in quite a different way that Beethoven was eventually paid to be a composer. From then on, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the composer became more and more set adrift. Let’s face it, this is the situation that we’ve been in for many, many years and I don’t think it’s going to be changed. If you are asking about the health of the situation, I think Bach’s and Haydn’s situations were much healthier as far as composition is concerned.

FRANK J. OTERI: To take a look at it from another angle, I’m a composer and Randy is also a composer, and I don’t have commissions from orchestra X, let’s say, and I have rarely written for orchestra. The things I have written for orchestra have never gotten played. You’ve written over eighty pieces, and I know this one disc on CRI, there’s some music on it that is extraordinary. Your Serenade for Flute and Strings is an amazingly beautiful piece.

EDWARD T. CONE: Thank you.

FRANK J. OTERI: The disc has four pieces on it. What about the other 76 plus pieces of your music? I’ve never heard them, and most people have never heard them. I imagine that you wrote them because you wanted to write them, which is why I write the pieces I write, and my music rarely gets heard. But isn’t there something somehow wrong with that? All that work and nobody reaping anything from it…

EDWARD T. CONE: As a matter of fact most of the pieces on that disc were “called for,” as I said, I won’t say commissioned because they weren’t paid. They were called for, but as you said, they were played once and then they sort of disappeared. But let’s face it, wasn’t that what happened to Bach and Haydn, too? The only difference is that when Bach wrote a cantata for one week, he didn’t expect to play it again because he wrote another cantata for the next week. Haydn just kept churning out the quartets and the symphonies because each one replaced the one that had come before. Now, let’s say you get asked to do a string quartet. The quartet that asked for it will play it once. They won’t play it again and they won’t ask you for another quartet, they’ll ask someone else for another quartet.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. I guess what’s happened though is those pieces that were written in the past that were assumed to be one time performances, kept the composer writing new work. We’re now in a situation where there’s all this repertoire that was created in the past that performers turn to first, rather than turning to the work of a living composer. Certainly, even in your own writing about music, a good bit of it, if not most of it, is concerned more with the music of the past than the music of the present. Is it so healthy for us to have such a focus on the past at the expense of the present?

EDWARD T. CONE: No, I don’t think it is. The point is when you say “at the expense of the present.” I would equally say it would be bad to focus on the present at the expense of the past. Certainly, we’re much more conscious of the past today than people of another period were. In the first place, we have reproduction, which they didn’t have, and the music of the past is much more available to us than it ever was before. I think in that respect we are now getting more like the situation in other arts, such as architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, where the works of the past were always around, when they were always visible or readable, and now we’re getting to that situation. I think it may be unfortunate that this has come just at the moment when contemporary music became much more disassociated from the public than it had been before. So that this is when you get to focusing on the past at the expense of contemporary music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Fault is probably too strong of a word here, but what caused that disassociation and is it reparable? Should it be reparable? Should the living composer be a more public figure in society?

EDWARD T. CONE: It depends on what you mean by public figure.

FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly, you think of Liszt as someone who was a public figure. Beethoven was a public figure. Wagner was a public figure.

EDWARD T. CONE: Well, Leonard Bernstein was a public figure.

FRANK J. OTERI: Very true.

EDWARD T. CONE: Perhaps more as a conductor than as a composer. I doubt that he would have been a public figure if he hadn’t been such a successful conductor.

FRANK J. OTERI: And also a composer for Broadway musicals.

EDWARD T. CONE: Yes. Who else is a public figure? Would you say Stravinsky was a public figure?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, to some extent Stravinsky definitely was. Stravinsky was also very visible as a conductor of his music and a frequent lecturer. I guess the closest thing we have to a contemporary composer at this point who is a public figure would be Philip Glass or John Adams, who are very visible, but really not quite in the same way.

EDWARD T. CONE: Yes. It seems to me that what is really the question here is the whole situation of music in our culture. Let me give just one personal example, which seems to me to illustrate what is wrong. And I say this not because I’m unhappy about it, I just observe it and think it’s interesting. I happen to have won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award twice for books that I’ve written, and a third time for a book that I edited. I’ve never seen this in any public organ, I mean non-musical organ. If anyone won a literary book award once, it would immediately be reported in The New York Times. If you won it twice it would especially be reported. If it were three times it would get a special article.

FRANK J. OTERI: What amazes me is that pieces win the Pulitzer Prize in music and are not recorded and are unavailable. Lewis Spratlan won the Pulitzer Prize two years ago for Life is a Dream but there still hasn’t been a staged production of the work nor has it been recorded. I think we’re at a point where, certainly with the media, concert music is extremely marginalized. There’s a whole generation of editors who aren’t even aware of it. This is why we created NewMusicBox, to create a venue to be able to spread the word about new music in America because the radio outlets don’t play contemporary concert music. For the most part the classical stations avoid it. The non-classical stations don’t know what to do with it. The newspapers hardly cover it. The New York Times is one of the few exceptions, but their coverage is on again off again as well.