Lost to the Ages

Student: “Dr. Deemer, I have a problem…”
Me: “Oh? How can I be of assistance?”
Student: “My computer crashed and deleted my score and parts. I didn’t have any backups, and they’re due tomorrow. Any suggestions?”
Me: “Umm…brew plenty of coffee.”

We’re just finishing up finals week here in Fredonia, New York, and we made it through an entire set of composition juries without having that exact situation happen. Computers crashed and scores were inadvertently deleted, of course, but the forlorn students at least had PDF backups to print from. I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but unfortunately it happens much too often, especially among inexperienced students who carry the only copies of their files on thumb drives or those who accidentally save their work to the desktop of the campus laboratory computer (which is wiped automatically when the student logs off).

I’m not overly concerned about the students having to re-do their scores or even that they’re risking their files by saving them on media that could easily find itself in the washing machine. It’s better they learn that lesson early and on a short assignment rather than years later when they’ve lost a movement of a symphony. What does concern me–or at least gets me thinking–is the idea of losing a work of musical art. Much ado is made when an unknown work by a well-known composer is discovered in some attic and suddenly the music community and, indeed, the world is allowed one more glimpse into the life and being of one of our legends through a forgotten musical nugget. Less, however, is discussed about the flip side of that coin: the destruction or loss of a musical work with no physical remnants, audio recordings, or aural memory to allow it to survive.

It’s impossible to say how many hundreds or thousands of musical works have been lost over the course of human civilization; as it is, we can only hazily estimate what music may have sounded like before the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and what we know of the music written between then and the 19th century hinges on what manuscripts happened to be protected through the years or what folk songs got passed down through the generations.

Of course it’s one thing to think about music that disappeared before anyone who’s currently alive got to hear it, but it’s another to consider music written within the last century that has either intentionally or unintentionally been destroyed. Stories about composers destroying their own works with which they were not pleased are commonplace; no one will know how many manuscripts Brahms, for example, fed into his parlor stove shortly before his death. (Admittedly a much more romantic picture than our current situation, where a composer could literally delete their entire oeuvre with a well-placed mouse click.) There are few of us who haven’t culled works from our own catalogs for various reasons–it’s one of the methods by which we as creative artists regain control over how we are perceived.

A tragic story that still resonates throughout the film music industry goes back to 1969, when the “studio system” was on its last legs. Studio executives at MGM decided that the space storing much of their musical archives was needed for other purposes and, not seeing the historical significance, ordered entire rooms full of music scores, orchestrations, sketches, and original recordings summarily transported to a landfill outside of Los Angeles; other studios were also guilty of such wanton acts of stupidity, but the MGM debacle was of such a scope that composers decided to fight for the preservation of film music archives, resulting in the creation of the Film Music Society in the early 1980s.

This whole idea of losing one’s music crossed my mind recently after listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one of my favorite interpretations. Years ago while I was working on my master’s degree in composition, I was also pursuing a performer’s certificate in conducting; at that point I was unsure whether or not I wanted to be a composer who conducted or a conductor who composed. My final conducting project was to conduct the Fifth Symphony on our last orchestra concert–by memory. I don’t remember putting more time into any one piece I ever conducted and the result was a damn good performance, if I do say so myself. As this was in 2001, I captured myself on VHS and proudly showed the video to my family members a few weeks later. Long story short, that VHS tape and any visual proof that that performance ever happened was lost in my own overzealous purging later that summer, as I prepared to move to Austin, Texas, to begin my doctoral studies. A momentary lapse of judgement (and lack of forethought) lost me a valuable reminder of who I was and what I was capable of back then, as well as a potential conducting portfolio ingredient.

Obviously there are some genres–jazz quickly comes to mind–in which specific musical creative events occur and are lost on a daily basis. We can’t keep everything, so it goes, but when it comes to our musical creations, this is how we as composers are going to be remembered, so it may be healthy to remember how very ephemeral our work can be.

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