The Joy of the New vs. The Allure of the Known

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. Most composers I’ve talked to admit that “writing an opera” is the project they would relish exploring in the foreseeable future.

Of course not everyone is as attracted to the stage, but the preponderance of that specific genre has given me pause. What is it about writing an opera that is so alluring to so many composers? Collaboration, for sure, is something many composers don’t get a chance to experience too much with their own projects, so that was a reason given by many. And it is the rare composer who wouldn’t want to hear their music in the context of an opera, where music is not subjugated to third tier status, as is the case with other visually oriented collaborative endeavors (film, theatre, etc.), but thrust to the forefront.

These reasons make sense on many levels, but I have another theory as to why so many different and unique composers, many of who eschew traditional form and styles at every turn, would all want to pursue such a huge and, well, traditional undertaking as they get older. It is precisely because opera is such a well-worn path in the world of composition that composers go through much of their careers staying as far away from it as possible, only to slowly succumb to its Sirens.

Writing music that is “new” or “ground-breaking” can be challenging for a composer, but it can also be exhilarating; the combination of risk along with the chance to carve out one’s own niche in the musical landscape can often allow a composer their most enjoyable experiences in their art. Breaking new ground – or feeling like we are – is an inherent part of why most of us end up being composers, and this often leads to works that are written for non-traditional or unique forces and genres. Many younger composers may begin their studies by writing short works for traditional chamber ensembles, but it is not long till they forgo the woodwind quintet and piano trio for a mixed chamber ensemble containing odd and fantastic instrumental combinations. It is quite a bit easier for others to notice you if you’re the only one incorporating [insert exotic instrument/rarely-explored performance technique/something weird] into your music.

In contrast, the “standard” musical genres/forms such as operas, symphonies, string quartets, etc., seem at once both stodgy and intimidating. In my own experience, I was asked by a string quartet years ago to write a work for them—not even a “String Quartet No.1”, but just a work of my own choosing—and I remember being extremely intimidated at first. I already had my own baggage to deal with (as is common with those of us late bloomers), and the additional pressure of wading into the same string quartet pool as those pesky “great composers” was a difficult, but altogether necessary, challenge to face.

As we become more confident in our own skins as creative artists, it seems that the negative issues that keep many of us away from the standard genres eventually evolve to become positive enticements. Where we may not care to be compared to [insert any well-known composer of the last 250 years] as we hew our own careers from the bedrock, many composers decide at some point that the thrill of putting one’s own mark on the standard genre outweighs any intimidation their forebears might present.

How about you? Any particular project, be it an opera or other major work, that you have on your bucket list for the next 5-10 years?

8 thoughts on “The Joy of the New vs. The Allure of the Known

    1. Patricia Leonard

      Great article and so true!

      I think opera is extremely intimidating because it is probably the most arduous composition any of us could create – it’s not just about designing a solid musical structure with good counterpoint, or nice melodies; there has to also be a genuine understanding of drama and the psychological nature of the subject matter on stage. To merely set text to music is a miscalculation of what opera really is – living, breathing theatre married to the music that shapes and defines its subjects. In a ddition, so many of us have done chamber music and not any opera/symphonic pieces because who would finance and play our work? The good news is that the music world will, once again, rely on living composers for new works, and our craft will be revitalized and revered once again!

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  1. Jim Schaeffer

    Rob, this is an excellent article! The Center for Contemporary Opera just completed reviewing scores for our Development Series. Over fifty completed operas were received and some of these were quite good. But less than ten had received a commission or any kind of financial support whatsoever. I think this is remarkable!

    The task at hand now is finding ways to actually produce more new operas. The situation is improving but very few companies are willing to take a risk on new operas.

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  2. Jason Hoogerhyde

    The collaborative nature of opera composition makes for an amazing experience (if you work with the right people), but I waited a long time before throwing my hat in that ring simply because there was no specific opportunity for performance. The best advice is to hone one’s vocal writing skills so that when an opportunity arises to write an opera with a guaranteed performance, you’re ready to take it on.

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  3. Elliott Miles McKinley

    Somehow, through sheer naiveté perhaps, I managed to plow through the starting quartet “wall” and now have penned six of them, with a seventh planned. I love writing quartets and find them to be among the most compact and expressive media in which to explore for the sake of pure music. That said, I would love to write an opera and have had one in my mind for the past seven years. The only thing I am waiting for is the necessary combination of text permissions (that is the hardest hurdle) and performing commitments. When that happens, I’ll be happily at work on one. What is still waiting for me in terms of the traditional formats: The orchestral symphony. Though I’ve written orchestra works, I somehow feel a bit intimidated to write and orchestra work and call it a “symphony.” Fortunately and unfortunately for me, I will not write an orchestra work unless commissioned. Thus, I dare say, given the current economic climate and state of the orchestra these days, it may be quite a while before I am asked to do so–if ever. If given the opportunity however, my answer will be: “hell yes! when do you need to score and parts?”

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  4. Armando Bayolo

    Hang on, hang on…not all of us are in this field or got into it to “break new ground.” I think that right there is a sure fire way NOT to break new ground (“standing on the shoulders of giants,” and all that…). As far as I’m concerned, the writing for mixed ensembles rather than the tried and true woodwind quintet, etc. is more about writing music with as wide a color palette as possible without the use of electronics, necessarily (even so: I’ve been known to write for traditional ensembles like orchestras and string quartets–one of which is my current bucket list project, if any quartets are reading. It’s been 12 years since I’ve written one and it’s an old genre still full of possibilities).

    What I find odd about opera and the prevalence of opera as a desirable genre for composers is how ultimately irrelevant it is in the general/popular culture of the day. I can understand wanting to write film scores or pop albums (though those are becoming largely irrelevant too), but opera? Seriously?

    And yet…I kind of want to write one or six too. I think you have it exactly right about it being a collaborative project where music is at the forefront (unlike a film score, where the music is often the final step in a long collaborative process). Also, the fact that opera has moved from the mainstream since the advent of motion pictures allows for far greater experimentation and genre bending in the opera house than has been possible since Wagner was a contemporary composer.

    Weird!

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  5. Matthew Saunders

    Dream projects keep me going… but since I put myself on a strict composing ban for any project that doesn’t have performers and at least a tentative premiere date, some of those dreams seem pretty far away. When I was a senior in high school, I thought that I would write an opera, and be my own librettist to boot, but the project quickly overwhelmed me, and I moved on to other things. Most of two decades later, an opera is one of my dream projects, but not until I find a librettist who likes the story idea that I have, and not until I know that it will be produced. Only then will the project be worthy of a chunk of my finite lifespan.
    Your point about some of the “standard” forms being intimidating is a good one, and over the last couple of years, I’ve started in on some of them–woodwind quintet being one that always freaked me out for some reason until I sat down and wrote one. Sometimes, though, it is the non-standard forms and ensembles that seem to go the best–one of my most-performed pieces is for horn and marimba, a combination that a performer suggested to me. Opera? Who knows? Maybe eventually, but at this point, no one will be lumping my name in with Puccini and Adams in a hundred years.

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  6. Lauren Bernofsky

    This article is very timely, for me — I have wanted to write an opera for a few years now, and I was recently commissioned to write one! And the opera will be completely relevant to current needs, because it will be used, multiple times, by a small opera troupe from Indiana University as they go into schools, libraries, and hospitals to perform for children. My librettist is the esteemed author Scott Russell Sanders, and the opera will be an offshoot from a wonderful book of his, “The Engineer of Beasts.”

    I have never thought about “breaking new ground” as a composer — I think only about writing music that I like the sound of, that is rewarding for the performer to play, and that serves whatever purpose it’s meant to serve (educational music, virtuosic piece for professionals, dramatic work, entertaining piece for kids, etc.)

    I love collaborations, and I’m really looking forward to working on this one. It will be a short opera, only 25 min., but I’m hoping it will be a stepping stone on the way to my one day writing a full-length opera.

    Reply

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