Monday, March 14, 2016

The Composer and the World

The relationship between any artist and the world can be a complex one. Mind you, it doesn't have to be. You can be the useful sort of artist who is always reliably producing what people want--much like John Williams as he cranks out film score after film score to Hollywood blockbusters. And I don't in any way want to diminish what he does. Well, ok, I did say a couple of unkind things about him in a post once, complaining about how his work was rather derivative. But that is likely a necessity. If you are trying to burnish age-old archetypes, then you need to use well-known musical cues.

But you can be another sort of artist: the kind who is "pushing the envelope" or doing something that is "edgy" and therefore will appeal to the intellectual elite who live in New York or London. This is also a guarantee of a successful career, though one that will be less lucrative. Gets your name in the history books. This kind of artist/composer is exemplified by someone like John Cage.

Music composition is, like dance and theatre, a uniquely social art form as it needs performers (with the exception of electronic music) to be realized. Most successful composers have forged links with performers to get their music heard even if they had to virtually invent new kinds of performing ensembles as both Steve Reich and Philip Glass had to early in their careers. There were simply no pre-existing groups who could play the early music of Reich or Glass. But most composers have worked within the existing structures and institutions of musical ensembles even if their music was experimental. We can think of the examples of Pierre Boulez or Arnold Schoenberg or Bela Bartók or more recently John Adams or Esa-Pekka Salonen. These figures have successfully negotiated the existing institutions of classical music as avenues to performances of their music.

There is yet another group of figures who were so far out on the fringe of things that they existed largely outside all the means of musical production and either had to build their own instruments and find people to play them, like Harry Partch, or found a way of realizing their musical ideas without any recourse to performers at all, as in the case of Conlon Nancarrow.

Sometimes I think that I vaguely resemble Mr. Nancarrow who spent much of his life in exile in Mexico City, carefully carving slots into player piano rolls. You can read about him here. But I am not the free-spirited experimenter that he was. Nor am I interested in pushing the envelope the way that Cage did. Nor am I terribly interested in sterile abstraction as we find in the music of Boulez.

Sometimes I think that the difference between great talent and not-so-great talent sometimes boils down to having the right vision at the right time in your life and being in an environment where it can grow and be developed. I guess it is a bit complicated!

How it seems to work is that a composer has some kind of aesthetic vision and finds ways to realize this in compositions and then finds ways to enable people to hear the compositions. If he is very, very lucky some of the listeners at least will find enjoyment in the experience. It is pretty much a crap shoot! And the only thing that drives you on is the strength of that original vision.

I think that this is a piece that might have captured just a touch of my original musical vision. It is from a suite for guitar and this movement is titled "Chant". Here is the post.


Jeph said...

your penultimate paragraph speaks to my current situation very well. I just had a work performed last weekend. The difference between this and other outings was that I had my performers in mind from the very start of the process. It wasn't all abstraction, I asked myself, knowing their technique, what sort of piece would these performers have time to learn and play well, feel committed to and be enthusiastic about? I think the most pronounced effect was that my music got simpler and stronger and stopped trying to say so many things at once. It was tailored for the occasion, the pragmatic approach.

Bryan Townsend said...

Until I started writing for orchestra, just about every piece I wrote was inspired, partly at least, by the particular performers I had in mind. Pace Boulez, music that not only comes from an aesthetic vision, but also is written to be enjoyed by performers and audiences is a good thing!