The Importance of the Impractical

Last week, the chatter section of NewMusicBox exploded with a fabulous three-part series on the Self-Promoting Composer. Contributors Dan Visconti, Alexandra Gardner, and Rob Deemer offered wonderful advice on making a career as a composer in the internet age. My personal favorite part of this series came towards the end of Alexandra’s column when she stressed the importance of remaining both positive and generous. I would like to add my heartfelt agreement on those points and also my anecdotal observation that those two qualities can be incredibly useful assets. This river flows the other way as well. One of my (wonderfully successful) former students recently told me that she had accepted a commission because the commissioner is “is a really warm and generous person—and that’s the reason I wanted to write the piece.”

The practical advice from my three eloquent colleagues will surely benefit composers, who can be preternaturally shy about tooting their own horns and who will want to learn about how to tell people about their music in a way that helps to spread their true message. In this column, I’d like to discuss an entirely different aspect of the composerly life: the importance of the impractical.

As a teacher, I constantly find myself asking my students to consider the nuts and bolts issues of composing. Before they start a piece, we discuss how they intend to see it through to performance. We spend countless hours delving into the arcana of notation so they can learn to express their ideas as clearly as possible. We brainstorm names of specific performers who might be interested in their music. We work together to set dates for performances and to find venues for them to present their music. As the students gain confidence, they direct this process more and more until they are prepared to organize concerts of their own music without my aid. As a student, many of my teachers gave me similar assistance.

As beneficial as this process can be, at some point the true artist seeks to transcend the bounds of the possible. The composer who follows in the path cleared by their teachers or peers will never create music that reflects their own unique vision. The teacher in me worries when my students experiment, because this process can lead to pieces that clearly fail either by falling apart in performance or by expressing something vastly different than the intent of the composer. This creates quite a quandary, since I also understand that it’s only through risking failure that actual success can be achieved.

In my own experience, the works that risk the most invariably (and paradoxically) have been those that have been the most successful, whether artistically or practically. The piece that represented my first foray into systematic microtonality remained unheard for several years. The delay in its premiere caused me to question this compositional direction, until I finally did hear my own creation and realized that it was by far the best music I had composed to that point. Eventually, the piece caught on a bit and it continues to be performed, including on a recent tour of Iowa. Conversely, my most practical recent composition was a wind quintet. In creating the quintet, I focused on idiomatic writing and tried to resist my typical fascination with extended techniques and unusual sounds. The result was a work that holds little appeal for most ensembles because it’s too experimental for the quintets that seek more traditional works while simultaneously being too tame for those who seek the original. One final example would be my piece for two toy pianos. Although this instrumentation would appear to clearly limit the number of performances, instead this has become my most-performed piece to date. While the dozens of wind quintets with interest in new music have thousands of compositions to peruse while creating their programs, the repertoire for two toy pianos is relatively limited, so the handful of performers seeking works with this instrumentation find themselves playing whatever music they can find.

Many of the practical considerations for creating new pieces inherently limit the possibilities for a transcendent artistic experience. When we design a piece in order to fit into a program or to create a nice encore, then at best it will play well with others. I agree that this sort of music is valuable, but I also find that its value is limited. The life-altering artistic experiences are those that push us out of our comfort zone, that engage the audience on their own terms, that are impractical.

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7 thoughts on “The Importance of the Impractical

  1. Daniel Wolf

    For the penultimate scene of The Damnation of Faust, accompanying Marguerite’s ascent into Heaven, Berlioz suggests that the two harp parts each be played by 4 or 5 players, a suggestion which is usually ignored in the name of practicality. But Berlioz knew exactly what he wanted, and he that was a particular and distinctive musical quality. 8 to 10 harps do not yield 4 to 5 times the volume of a pair of harps, but their ensemble create a distinctive acoustic presence which is exactly what the composer dared to asked for.

    Bowing to conventions may be reproductively advantageous in getting ones work out into more conventional, particularly institutional, platforms, but when a composer damns the conventions and does instead what he or she believes the work itself requires carries obvious creative advantages — if not necessities — for the work itself. and will lead, in the best cases, to alternative platforms. Moreover, if novelty and reputation are of any concern, music history is always made by the exceptions not the rules.

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  2. rtanaka

    If you’re planning on skipping out on the practical aspects of doing music (i.e. business), then hopefully you come from a wealthy family or are attractive enough to find a rich spouse. Don’t confuse risk-taking with being impractical, because those two things have nothing to do with each other. Risk-takers are often the most practical people imaginable, only that they are doing things opposite of mainstream trends.

    There’s something to be said about works that come outside of the commercial sector, but if you’re lacking business-savvy then you need to learn how to play politics in order to acquire government grants and the patronage of the wealthy. Gotta know where your loyalties lie in order to be successful.

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  3. mclaren

    …Of the 20th century, we quickly discover that essentially all of them are the most vicious and selfish and sociopathic members of the entire community of composers. In fact, the more sadistically brutal and offensive the composer, the more famous he became in the 20th century.

    Without doubt the best-known living composer remains the composer best known for ridiculing and marginalizing everyone who failed to employ his favored compositional fetish: “Any composer who has not felt (I do not say understood, but felt) the absolute necessity of the twelve-tone method is useless.” — Pierre Boulez

    When the French minister of culture dared demand evidence that IRCAM had produced anything of value for all the investment the French government had made in it, this remarkably savage sociopath arranged to have him fired.

    That’s how you become a famous composer. Not by being “nice.” As Richard Taruskin remarked in the fifth volume of his history of music, Boulez employed the rhetoric and tactics of commissars at Stalinist show trials. Composers become famous by ripping one another’s heads off and shitting down their necks, figuratively speaking. Composers become famous by starting riots. Composers become famous by enraging audience members so far beyond the capacity for human tolerance that the audience members start yelling and walk out.

    Unless a composer deeply, profoundly offends a large group of people, preferably to the point of inciting them to violence in a concert hall, a composer can’t become truly well known.

    Fame in contemporary music, like fame in modern art or fame in modern architecture, is all about brutalizing the public, offending large numbers of people, and displaying the utmost contempt for the largest number of people possible. To paraphrase George Orwell, “If you want a picture of the future of contemporary music, imagine a boot stomping on an audience’s face — forever.”

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  4. smooke

    Daniel-
    Berlioz is an excellent example of these points. He often was writing the music that he needed to hear as opposed to the music that could be done well. And your illustration really hits home for me.

    rtanaka-
    I think that we’re discussing two separate aspects of the impractical. Of course, in our careers we must strive to be as practical as possible (hence my referring readers to the three articles on self-promotion that NewMusicBox published last week and discussing how my lessons involve extensive practical training). However, I believe that this should never be reflected in our art, whether or not we have patronage. We should not be afraid to write works that we have no hope of hearing. And we should work as hard and effectively as possible to hear those works. It’s a difficult situation, but I believe that we must remember that we are artists not artisans.

    -David

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  5. rtanaka

    I see your point but I’m going to have to disagree — if you write something without much thought as to how it’s going to get performed, that’s usually exactly what happens. Does anyone really write anything with the intention that it’ll never get performed? Why bother writing to begin with in that case? Something about this mindset isn’t exactly honest, here.

    If you look at the career histories of successful composers, all of them are remembered because they managed to tap into a certain cultural narrative appropriate for their time. But none of it was random or because they took “risks” for its own sake — it was because they resonated with certain things that people were interested during their respective time periods.

    I think it’s important to be aware of these kinds of things so composers don’t get lost in the sea of possibilities that are out there. If you know whom you are speaking to and for what purpose, then things like instrumentation can be chosen with intension, rather than it just being a type of “well throw some stuff in there and see what happens”.

    I mean, sure there’s a difference in timbre between 2 harps and 8 harps, but is the difference really worth the extra 6000 dollars you’re going to have to pay for that particular event? A risk-taker is someone who understands the cost of what they’re doing but does it anyway because they see a reward greater than that at the end of the journey. An impractical person is someone who takes things for granted and does costly things for its own sake and without much heed to its outcome. I think it’s important for artists to make this distinction, because I feel like it often isn’t.

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  6. smooke

    mclaren-I’m afraid that I must respectfully disagree with your assessment. First, I have met Boulez and found him to be incredibly gracious in person. I understand that he published many inflammatory remarks when he was younger, but he also has worked tirelessly to advocate for the music of others (not me, but many other composers!). And I’ve consistently found that the people who write the music that evokes the strongest response for me have also been the most generous people I’ve known.

    rtanaka-I appreciate your point and I agree that there is a place for cost/benefit analysis in the act of creation. However, I also have found great benefit in writing things that don’t get performed. At times, I’ve learned more from my unperformed pieces than from the others. And certainly I’ve seen that my peers who extend themselves and as students created works in order to realize their vision without hope of performance have also been those who have gone on to the most success later in life (and yes, they also have mainly been generous souls).

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  7. rtanaka

    Well having that leisure is fine, and I agree that sometimes unique ideas can come out imagining unlimited budget.

    But at least be aware of the costs of what you’re doing so you’re not caught with your pants down when you actually have to get around to implementing your ideas. The worst possible thing a composer can do is throw a fit when a performance doesn’t go quite as they thought they would.

    Surprises happen during the compositional process. In execution, there should be none.

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