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?