Everything New Is Old Again

Everything New Is Old Again

I was fortunate to have been able to join NewMusicBox’s very own Frank J. Oteri and guest blogger Jacob Cooper at the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Future Classics” concert last Friday night. As I’m sure those of you who follow NewMusicBox know, that formidable ensemble presented a program of seven new pieces by emerging composers after a week of workshops and a day and a half of marathon rehearsals. It was a mammoth undertaking; everyone involved deserves major recognition for making it happen.

Before I go any further, let me provide the following disclaimer: There wasn’t a bad piece on the program. All of the composers who had music presented are highly competent, inventive artists, and each piece had something in it (in many cases, lots of things) that left an impression on me. However, I also came away from the concert with a strong impression of what was not there: Specifically, my favorite orchestra music of the past forty years, a literature whose influence was absolutely nowhere to be found on the program.

After a concert of similar (but inferior) orchestral music some time ago, a colleague sitting next to me said, exasperated, “Kontrakadenz was premiered in 1971!” His implication was that if any of that evening’s composers had heard Lachenmann’s landmark piece—a piece a damn sight older than many of them—they must not have thought about it too hard. Kontrakadenz is hardly the only work my friend could have mentioned; there are dozens of fantastic, relatively recent orchestra pieces that seem to have gone in one ear of the American new music community and out the other (assuming they went in any ears here at all!).

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I have a long-standing and only quasi-rational bias against symphony orchestras. The “big business” quality of such organizations and the degree to which market forces necessarily affect creative decisions, makes me uncomfortable. It must be said that the Minnesota Orchestra is, by American orchestra standards, a real risk-taker. No other such group in the country has an equivalent to the Composer Institute. Nevertheless, I’d love to have seen the applicant pool this year, if only to know whether the relatively close stylistic grouping of the seven chosen works was a function of the available music, the tastes of the panel, the orchestra’s (entirely natural) desire to play something that will allow them to sound good, or some multivariable calculus of the above.

Again, let me be clear: All seven of the pieces I heard last Friday were good. Some, I’d say, were excellent. Almost all of them were, in some regard, new. But none of them were new in every regard. This is the gauntlet I want to throw down before the MN Orchestra as they select future Future Classics: Keep stretching. Take even bigger risks. If a score lands in your mailbox that seems utterly bewildering to you, that might be a good sign.

Keep up the good work.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

113 thoughts on “Everything New Is Old Again

  1. jchang4

    What’s with this obsession with “newness”? Isn’t “neo-[fill-in-the-blank]” in and of itself also “new”? Why is the idea of “stretching” put on such a pedestal? Why is it considered “greater” music? (Should I qualify here with a “in some circles”?) What’s wrong with writing music that synthesizes and maybe “stretches” in its own way? Why must we always reach towards the future? What’s wrong with the present? What’s wrong with idea of working with the skills that performers/orchestras have today? I’m not advocating any one “side” over the other. I just have lots of questions that I haven’t found the answers to yet.

  2. Somebody

    There is no new music. If you got a group of people from a different culture who never heard western music and played Mozart, Brahms, and Schoenberg, and asked them which was the newest work, you would get a variety of different answers. The ‘new’ category is something manufactured by our wonderful corporate composer groups: AMC, NMB, ACO, ACF, and now the latest art puck, the Composers Institute. Newness is an ignorant attempt toward heresy. Newness is ignorant because it has now become orthodoxy. The fact that Colin is pandering this fallacy directly after the “best week ever” shows his immature insight to what actually happened during the week. Things like, “I wonder what the taste of the panel were like” describes a shallow attempt to be a journalist. Why don’t you dig a little deeper than, “I wonder what”, Colin.

    Don’t worry jchang, just keep composing, sit and audiate tone and rhythm, write it down, keep your scores for somthing more honorable than the Composers Institute. This “keep streching” thing is going nowhere, except for the children of board directors and marketing directors, and yes- board directors themselves.

  3. vladimir smirnov

    I beg to differ. Albeit I only heard the performance through MPR, there were many things in the music that would not be there had it not been for the music of the past 40 years. For example, I heard a lot of influence of minimalism in the rhythmic structure of the pieces. Even the fact that several of the pieces contained sections in a very tonal harmonic language is owed to the music of the past 40 years. You would not have heard such extensive use of consonance 40 or 50 years ago.
    As for the “sound-good” comment: isn’t it part of a composer’s job to write music that will make an ensemble sound good? To me good music is beautifully organized sound, not organized beautiful sound.

  4. perpetual

    Of course you would typically receive the types of responses to this topic of “newness.” But seriously, why does some music of today, intentionally or not, choose to ignore all the musical progress that has occurred in the past few decades or even the past century? Some stuff still sounds like Stravinsky, some stuff still sounds like Bernstein, some stuff maybe even still sounds like Schoenberg (even the serialist music of the 50s-70s sounds dated today). Is it such a crime to believe that music of today can build upon what has been written before or do some composers just want to recreate their favorites from the past?

    Many composer’s feelings seem get hurt when one says, “Music must progress, it must be new, originally and unique!” But why be offended with that comment? Do you want to write music that you enjoy? Do you want to write music that you want to be popular? Why do you do it? What’s so wrong with knowing what has occurred in the recent past, building upon it or rejecting it doing something completely different? (Rejecting and doing something different is a form of progression.)

    This dichotomy has been sung and sung again. Should we write music that builds upon the past and progresses or should we write music that pays respect to the past? In other words, should we create new original music as compared to music that aims to recreate masterworks of a by gone era? That is something that composers may wrestle with from time to time. I just say this: why not include both, why not give fair advantage to both as long as it is music of high caliber? We live in the now and we should include the best of all types of music out there presently and not exclude music because it does not fit within the latest fad or stylistic preference of a panel or artistic staff. The test of time will tell if the music stands or not. I can enjoy music that has been done before, definitely but I do find it truly rewarding and thrilling when I hear something I’ve never heard before that blows me away.

  5. vladimir smirnov

    another thought
    Well here’s another thought: in a way, the development of the music of the past century is the development of the dichotomy between serialist music and the modal coloristic music of Stravinsky-Bartok-Prokofiev. One seems to have little to do with the other, and while one was developed to a great extent, the other remained relatively undeveloped until recently because it was considered unholy for a composer to write anything other than serial music for a long time. If a composer today chooses to go back and build upon that other music that remained undeveloped it is in no way wrong for him to ignore the serial music, which has nothing to do with the aesthetics he wants to deal with. So I think it is no surprise that many composers today sound like Stravinsky or Bartok. Even though this music is a century old, the gap in in it’s development in a way makes it recent music.

  6. Colin Holter

    As usual, cbakalian’s contribution does not merit a response, but I do want to note that even my “immature insight to what actually happened during the week” is (unlike cbakalian’s litany of complaints) founded on the experience of actually having been in attendance for the MN Orch Composer Institute’s rehearsals and performance. You do not know what actually happened during the week, cbakalian. Your shit is ill-informed and -reasoned, and I am not going to take it. Please find another forum on which to loose your rabid, febrile rhetorical hounds.

    In response to the other posters: I’m aware and appreciative of the minimalist influence on the Future Classics program, but where was the spectral technique/complex deconstructionism/totalism/musique concréte instrumentale/etc.? Let me also remind everybody that these currents of musical thought are not from “the future” at all but rather the present and, indeed, the (relatively recent) past.

  7. jchang4

    Well, I didn’t mean to say that the music is from the future, but that it is reaching towards the future. It’s “progressing”. I guess it’s the “progress” mentality that I’m trying to understand.

  8. perpetual

    serialism wasn’t the only thing happening after bartok/strav and others…just as boulez said schoenberg is dead…perhaps serialism is dead…

    now doing works like stravinksy, et. all…(well first, which stravinsky, neo-korsakov, primitivism, religious, neo-classical or serial strav, i’ll assume you mean primitivist stravinsky) today exactly as they wrote them would sound passe…building upon them woud not. and i know of at least one composer that claims stravinsky, among others, as an influence (augusta read thomas).

    serialism is passe, as colin mentioned, there have been MANY *important* movements since then which are not based on past models.

    happy halloween! :)

  9. pgblu

    Okay, that colleague alluded to in Colin’s post was me. Has anyone here heard Kontrakadenz?

    I don’t think that work, or any other work of the avant-garde, has the sole imprimatur of quality, merely because of its newness. Nor does Colin, as the first commenter seems to imply. What that work does suggest, as I think more than one-seventh of composers hope, is that ‘another world is possible’ — in which valid music can be made which has nothing (or nearly nothing) to do with traditional criteria of musical quality, except in the most general sense of pacing, drama, contrast, etc.

    I have spent most of my creative life engaging with music like that, and I find it enormously exciting. From the fairly rare (but increasingly more common) perspective of someone who has had the opportunity to listen to, and become immersed in, a lot of such work, I do usually feel a twinge of disappointment when exposed to an entire evening of music that basically begs the same criteria of quality that have been around for 100 years or more.

    I think the ‘elite’ nature of that repertoire has to do with its tendency of being discussed in very technical terms, as well as its commercial inaccessibility (i.e., it’s hard to come by performances or recordings), but I think that state of affairs will in the next few decades be a thing of the past. I do NOT think its ‘eliteness’ has to do with the composers being more intelligent, more ‘relevant’ (whatever that means) or more worldly. In fact, some of the most intelligent observations about avant-garde music that I have ever heard have come not from classically trained musicians, but from people who have a background or abiding interest in the visual arts, i.e., people with more of an artistic than a musical bent.

    Disclaimer: I did not hear the music from this year’s institute, so I may have an entirely different reaction to it than Colin.

  10. swilcox

    I always enjoy reading Colin’s postings and am proud to see a fellow U of I student making his views heard so prominently. I hope you keep it up! I remember that while at Illinois I wrote a very Crumb-derivative piece for flute and soprano and received many congratulations specifically for acknowledging composers of the last 30 years. I liked the piece and wrote many more in a similar vein, but ultimately felt that it wasn’t my voice and that it was a voice I didn’t control well.

    I searched for many years for a style that I felt comfortable with and could work with. It was neither an attempt to reject voices of the recent past or adopt styles of the pre-War composers. It represents a sincere and continuing attempt to become happy with my own style.

    Beyond this, I’m not sure it would be fair to be critical of the orchestra’s or panel’s lack of risk taking. I for one can vouch for the difficulty of many of the pieces and the very limited amount of time the orchestra had to work with. My piece in particular was long, dense, and full of pulse-bending complexity that caused much frustration to the Orchestra broadly. Generally I have always wanted to see complexity supported, but to be honest, after my piece was rehearsed I wished I had written something simpler.
    Built into the choice of pieces had to be practical considerations based on available rehearsal time and on what pieces would keep the orchestra engaged. This cannot be overstated…the orchestra wants to sound good and wants to feel like it is performing well. Rightly or wrongly, if the orchestra has trouble getting into the piece on the 1st reading they will respond poorly and progress will be slow.
    …I’m not sure if I have a point here, but I still feel like it needs to be said.

    As for acknowledging recent composers … I think it’s hard for composers to fully realize their own influences, and just as difficult for listeners to accurately hear everything that goes into a composition.
    For instance, I got eight comments this weekend about the Second Viennese School including … “Is your piece twelve-tone”?
    … Really? I didn’t realize I gave off a 2nd Viennese vibe … cool!

    Though it is true that many of the compositions on the concert shared certain elements, it would be unfair to suggest that it is because we as a group were rejecting recent innovations or that we were unaware of them.
    BTW-This years’ Institute composers are some of the absolute best young composers I’ve ever met. It was a pleasure to be included in their number.

  11. WR

    It’s hard to believe that anyone is still caught up in that “new” thing. It’s so old hat, so last century. It’s like some remnant of some long-forgotten world’s fair with a theme of “Progress – Tomorrow’s Promise Today” or some such, featuring dioramas of sleek domestic scenes with radio-controlled vacuum cleaners and lots of objects plated with chrome, no matter what their function. Oh, yeah, and the inevitable scientist/priest in a lab coat hovering about, blessing all these wonders. Who cares about new? It’s tiresome. I’m far more interested in “fresh”, and paradoxically, that’s a quality that can happen in music without particular reference to anything new.

  12. pgblu

    Is ‘fresh’ the new ‘new’?
    I don’t know how far we’ll get replacing the term ‘new music’ with ‘fresh music.’ You make it sound like it has a shelf-life, like canteloupe cantaloup those melons with the orange flesh. When it’s been around a while, do we call it ‘wilted music’, and later ‘rotten music’ ? Come on!

  13. davidcoll

    The way i see it is that newness, new, ‘fresh’ or whatever adresses the reality that we are alive and living in some society, culture, community, whatever- and that as artists, its impossible to ignore that this affects all of our decisions, because we are alive right now.

    The question that comes up so often is, why is it that composers have so much in their music that seems to reflect a previous moment in time? Of course a large part is the ensembles we write for often reflect themselves some past, so theres already a dialogue- but the thing is we can engage that dialogue w/the past in so many more ways than people often realize.

    And lastly, a comment for the orchestral institution: whats so bad about a piece ending up as a disaster? One thing that strikes me is that these days theres rarely successful artists striving for perfection (an idea very much attached to previous composers and the orchestra, but not always) but rather they are searching for something personally fuflfilling— and thats a problem too.

  14. Colin Holter

    Thanks for offering your thoughts, swilcox–good points. For what it’s worth, I saw some 2nd Viennese school tintings in your piece as well! Congratulations again on the premiere.

    As far as the new/fresh divide is concerned, to me that sounds like old wine in newer, more subjective bottles. It wouldn’t be easy to argue that the developments I mentioned (spectralism, totalism, etc.) are objectively “good,” and I certainly wouldn’t try, but as davidcoll and perpetual note (or at least imply), it’s much easier to argue that they’re objectively “new.” They happened recently.

  15. philmusic

    I’m interested in “quality” music sure, but for me that’s about “form”– “style” is a secondary consideration. I think we must look beneath the surface.

    Phil’s Page

  16. dalgas

    David Coll wrote: And lastly, a comment for the orchestral institution: whats so bad about a piece ending up as a disaster? One thing that strikes me is that these days theres rarely successful artists striving for perfection (an idea very much attached to previous composers and the orchestra, but not always) but rather they are searching for something personally fuflfilling— and thats a problem too.

    That’s probably what’s rubbing me the wrong way here, too. If the pieces are chosen because they’re already relatively orchestra-friendly, its not likely that you’re going to get anything very earth-shattering. The messy-brilliant types probably will never get the chance to have their dream collide with reality, to push both themselves to examine what they’re attempting, and challenge the players, conductor and audience much past their comfort zone. It makes it all seem a little too pat.

    Of course we don’t want to waste everybody’s time with an ill-conceived jumble, but something that pushes the boudaries around a bit and fails can still be a greater experience than the piece that lives too close to everyone’s expectations.

    Steve Layton

  17. jchang4

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with preferring music that reacts against “traditional criteria” as pgblu puts it. Much of that music is very interesting and does contain a lot of depth and meaning that can be fascinating to study and listen to. I guess that I just find it rather self-righteous when such people are disparaging of music that chooses to work with the (older?/less fashionable?) traditions. Because I think much of the traditional stuff can be interesting. It’s too easy to use the Bach example, but let’s say Rachmaninoff. He was obviously writing in a very old way for his times, but pianists today continue to study and enjoy his pieces. I wouldn’t call Rachmaninoff irresponsible for not incorporating the developments of his contemporaries into his own writing. Why is it irresponsible?

  18. pgblu

    Again, it’s not about everything having to be ‘new’ in the strict sense outlined above, but at least one-seventh of the music in a workshop specifically intended for young people to try things out.

  19. swilcox

    I can assure you that at least 1/7th of that particular concert went to a piece which was not orchestra friendly and was meant to allow the composers to “try things out”… me specifically. As Osmo put it, “composers need to hear exactly what they wrote”, and I did. It was quite and education.

  20. Somebody

    I don’t know why the NMB monitor did not catch Colin’s pr*fanity. Perhaps Colin is the monitor. But, maturity aside, I think what most of you are posting is off the mark. There are times when I compose and I go for the unusual- tonally or metrically. So, perhaps Colin could have said, “write something really unusual, because I am tired of the usual….”. But, the word unusual does not lend itself to corporate marketing, hence the New Music Box would be called the Unusual Music Box.

    Colin’s apparent anger at my attitude at the NMB is because I have voiced my opinion against when the “Unusual Music” turns into “Unusable Music”. I have gone to many concerts where the composer went to the unusable category. It is a fact of life in our culture today. Isn’t there some book constanly being promoted at NMB that was just written. The staff at NMB do have a leaning towards the unusual stuff, and do promote the unusable stuff. And, any opinion differing from that leaning is met with corporate silience or immaturity.

    What I find interesting is why there isn’t somebody who writes about the usual music at NMB. And, how the usual category became bad. A composer can express himself or herself with usual tonal and rhythm patterns.

    Also, I am deeply concerned by the higher music education system complete lack of understanding syntax in music. Composer’s must develop a syntax of tonal and rhythm patterns. There is nothing worse than going to hear a concert where the programmed living composer, who probably is a board director of some important music corporation, where he or she hasn’t or can’t develop a music syntax. The music is not developed and invention turns into exploration, and some NMB staffer tells us how “new” this music is because the resulting obfuscation is streching our understand of space time continuum technolob babble, blah, hailing from the finest Princeton University experimentation laptop music labratory. Most of the “new” music I hear today has no syntax, just effect after effect, including dog whistles.

  21. AlexCohen

    Mr. Bakalian,
    It’s hard to say what undermines your arguments most. It could be your noxious attitude, but it’s probably not that. Instead I think it’s the weird and improbable alliance, in your mind only, between corporate culture on one side and the promulgation of unusual music with dog whistles. It’s like a scene from a 70s paranoia film, like The Parallax View, that hit the cutting room floor. Gray corporate men in three-piece suits (perhaps aligned with the military, who knows) are saying that what corporate culture needs is the destruction of musical syntax, and that what it needs in its place are effect after effect — no, not good enough: AT&T and General Motors need dog whistles, the essential element of any corporate culture. But to other people’s minds, whatever the merit of, say, dog whistles, it ain’t corporate.

  22. Somebody

    Example for Alex
    Okay Alex. I think I get your point. But corporate confusion you don’t understand. Here is a really clear example- The Gap. I am sure the Gap has a really complex board of directors. And how about the child labor that gets mixed into the Gap. But, from your point of view, if I can even understand what your point is, would be that the Gap is doesn’t even have a board, and that the clothes just magically show up at the store for your ignorant little hands to pick up, just because the Gap looks really cool, and has a nice logo. Thats right, dumb board of directors and dumb panels of expert composers selecting composers with stupid pieces with dog whistles. Do you have a better explanation? Do you even have a point of argument?

  23. rtanaka

    Sometimes “newness” is really just an excuse for people to run away or ignore the past. If you’re always looking forward, you never have to look back, mistakes and everything. It’s pretty convenient in a lot of ways.

    It’s one thing to be in dialogue with the past (say Shoenberg’s early works for example) but it’s quite another thing to be completely detached from it, which I think is what people have become skeptical of in recent times. People are more open to change than you might think…but at the same time, they’re going to need some justification as to why the “newness” is a good thing. Hopefully composers will have answers to these questions should it ever come up.

  24. davidcoll

    Do people just not get it?? Its impossible to be completely detached from the past- for one, we’re part of it. 2- we are composers- after all, most people are surprised to hear there are living composers 3- we’re writing music for instruments/places that usually have a lot of history.

    – but Ryan, as far as your idea of justification goes, forget it- no composer ever needs justification for doing something new, because it has nothing to do w/good things or bad things for people as a whole- everyone has their tastes, and i don’t think the majority of them demand “justifications for newness” – what does that even mean??

  25. vladimir smirnov

    As far as justifications: if you are doing something new, you need to yourself understand what you are doing why you are doing it and what is going to come out of it. Of course, the panel is going to select works that look like the composer knows what he is doing. This institute was meant to be a forum for composers to learn about dealing with an orchestra, not a forum for experimentation. If you want to write spectral music or musique concrete, then perhaps an orchestra is not the best choice of medium. There is a reason composers follow certain musical languages and not others. Some things work, and other things don’t. The ones that work stick around and the ones that don’t fall off. I would not blame a panel for not selecting pieces that just won’t work for an orchestra.

  26. jchang4

    Uh… I don’t think anyone is arguing that New Music is completely new… hence the scare quotes. I guess it’s just that some of us would like to get a better understanding of present philosophies with respect to composition. Because I think we can agree that the philosophy of music has changed throughout history, and this change is a fundamental reason why music hasn’t sounded the same all this time. So, I guess I’m asking what vladimir believes is something that all composers should know about their work: (1) what are you doing (2) why are you doing it (3) and what is going to come out of it. Anywho, I thinks it’s presumptuous of Colin to implore that anyone “keep stretching” as if implying that his reasons are the best/only reasons.

  27. rtanaka

    I don’t think the majority of them demand “justifications for newness” – what does that even mean??

    Lately I’ve been finding this quote by Bartok to be inspirational: “My guiding spiritual principal, which I am completely aware of since having found myself as a composer, is the ideal of fraternity between people, the realization of their brother and sisterhood despite all enmity and discord.”

    As such, Bartok was completely aware of what he was doing as a composer, and his sentiment above is clearly reflected in his music where he’s often trying to synthesize different types of styles together, ranging from Schoenberg, Stravinsky, to Hungarian folk musics. You can hear it, it makes sense, and it’s something that people can identify with even if they can’t express it in explicit terms. Not surprisingly, his music is performed all over the place all the time, and the “Bartok Pizz” managed to work itself into the repertoire of standard techniques.

    Couple more examples: Schoenberg defended his 12-tone system arguing that the method was a “logical extension” of tonality — key changes were happening at faster and faster rates during late-Romanticism anyway, so he figured why not have something where the key changed after every note? Elliot Carter used metric modulations as a way to break down rhythmic hierarchies in order to emphasize the individuality of each instrumentalist. It’s not quite jazz but his music is very humanistic in the sense that it usually depicts relationships between people. Steve Reich’s phasing technique can be seen as an extension of the canon, which he mentions a few times in some of his interviews.

    These techniques have justifications behind them and is why they survive while others disappear. Nobody here is arguing against experimentation, but of course a work that’s sensitive to the needs of the orchestra should take president over ones that don’t, especially with so much people involved. There seems to be a prevailing attitude among some composers where they see ensemble time as a place to test out their ideas, but personally I think that most experimentation can actually be done in the practice room or in the composer’s own head.

    Hmm, I wonder what an orchestra would sound like…with a dog whistle? I’m imagining it right now in my head — at least to me, the results sound pretty lame so I’m probably not going to bother developing it. Although maybe someone else might find a better way to do it, who knows. Both performers and audience alike want some reassurance the the composer actually thought things out and worked things through, that’s all. The orchestra shouldn’t be just an expensive playback function!

  28. jonrussell20

    Newness is in the ear of the beholder
    We should be careful about the assumptions we make regarding how new something sounds, this is colored by our own tastes, preferences and background as much as any aesthetic judgment is. You can have newness in any genre or style, but people who don’t know that style very well (or are pre-disposed to dislike it) may not be able to detect it. For example, when I hear a new piece in a modernist style, to me – someone who does not like this style very much or know its history all that well – it sounds just like tons of pieces I’ve heard from the 1960s, it sounds very tired and old-fashioned to me. On the other hand, take a neo-Romantic composer like Rouse or Kernis – while I’m actually not really a fan of their musc either, I would never confuse it with Mahler or Prokefiev or Barber, they do things those composers would never do, “new” things, that to my ear very clearly identify their music with our own time. Or take any genre. To someone not that into heavy metal, it all sounds pretty much the same; to someone who’s really into it, their are huge differences between different bands and powerful new ideas and innovations springing up that I would probably never be able to detect. So we need to be careful about concluding that a piece has nothing new to say. There are many ways to be new, and the pieces that proclaim “look at me, I am new and innovative” are sometimes less so than pieces that, in a subtle, workmanlike way, build upon the past.

  29. dalgas

    Crank up that carousel again!:

    Two things we’re always seeking in our work, are to be original and relevant. Both of those have a personal, but also a public, side and the amount we value any part of these two-times-two attributes is as variable as our own personalities.

    Every style is of its moment. The purest attempt to work in a well-defined past style rarely recaptures the original; even if it does it’s likely to be dismissed out-of-hand as uncreative copying (even if it’s a supremely creative piece). Yet at the opposite extreme, the dictate to always “make it new” can be trap of fashion, that can lead a composer away from their best natural inclinations and creativity.

    “Progress” in music history is actually a record of rejections, acceptances and permissions, mostly of things that have been there from the beginning. Rather than any line, it’s sort of like a lumpy sphere: the boundaries bloop up a tiny bit larger now and then, and its opaque innards gradually dissolve into bigger and bigger pockets, eventually permitting us access to all that’s inside.

    I see it as a progress, not of music or art, but of allowance. What’s more, a progress of allowance that isn’t linear, but instead geometrical. We make a certain allowance, and live with it for some very long time. Another allowance comes along, our mind drifts closer to that and further from the first (though it’s always there and revisitable). But with this addition, the time until the next allowance is reduced. Next addition of allowance, next reduction in length… and so on…

    Obviously there comes a point where new allowances come so quickly that the remaining space essentially opens up “overnight” — witness the last 100-150 years. Then, aside from a few border-expanding “blips”, there’s nowhere to go in the old sense of “up and out”; instead it becomes “wander within”.

    To an “up-and-out”-focused culture, this is terrible news. Some adapt, but the other coping mechanisms are still quite active: simple denial –pretending our wandering within is still “up-and-out” — or selective forgetting and rediscovery (I call it the “adolescent” experience: regardless of anyone else’s previous experience, “its new if it’s new to me!”).

    Steve Layton

  30. davidcoll

    Mr. Smirnoff,

    I’ve got some problems here:

    1) “This institute was meant to be a forum for composers to learn about dealing with an orchestra, not a forum for experimentation. ”

    Thats really really unfortunate. Especially because if you talk to near every composer they’re always trying things that they don’t know exactly what the result is.

    And 2) “If you want to write spectral music or musique concrete, then perhaps an orchestra is not the best choice of medium.”

    Spectral music is super designed for an orchestra practically! And musique concrete isn’t for any musicians, let alone an orchestra…

    This message board has gotten so pathetic, I’m absolutely disgusted with how so many of you regard composing and the orchestra.

  31. jonrussell20

    I think we need to think more about what the orchestra is actually for in our day and age and what it’s audience is interested in.
    Now, there are some music audience members who are interested in having their preconcieved notions challenged, stretched, etc. They go to see new music ensembles, experimental improv, electronic music, etc etc. That’s great, I’m glad that audience exists and I’m glad people write for them. However, it is simply a fact that this is not the orchestra audience. That is not what the audience of symphony orchestra’s is interested in. And what’s wrong with that? The idea that new music ought to be challenging and thought-provoking is completely valid, but it is not the only valid function for new music. New music can also be fun, comforting, or inspiring. The history of classical music is a history primarily of music that gave the audience pretty much what it wanted, namely pleasure and excitement, with the emergence of occasional innovators who pushed the music and the audience in new directions – though even these innovators generally gave the audience large doses of very user-friendly content mixed in with the innovations to help lead the audience along. At one time the orchestra was at the forefront of the more innovative challenging music, but that time has long since past. An institution that was constantly evolving its size and instrumentation up through the early twentieth century, is now pretty much frozen the way it was in about 1915. The orchestra of today serves primarily to preseve the great music of the past. And what’s wrong with that? I’m glad we have museums that preserve great 19th century art, and I’m glad we have orchestras to preserve great 19th century music. I’m also glad we have new music ensembles to promote innovative, experimental music, but that’s not why people go to see orchestras. The Minnesota institute is simply aiming to prepare composers for the real world of orchestral composing. Nobody (I don’t think) complains that Swing Bands don’t do enough to promote new, challenging music, because we understand what the function of a swing band is: to preserve music of a certain era and style, and if new music is composed for swing band, we naturally expect it to be firmly rooted in this style – that’s what the swing band audiences wants. Why can’t we see orchestras in the same way? Yes, for many years orchestras were at the forefront of the most exciting and innovative musical developments around. That was great, it would have been fun to be around back then. But those days are long over, and we just need to get over it. If you’re a composer and you find that your aesthetic inclinations seem to be rooted in 19th-early 20th century romanticism, awesome, write for the orchestra, have a blast! If you find your inclinations more in the experimental / innovative direction, that’s awesome too, but why waste your time fighting an institutional structure and an audience that isn’t interested in that? There’s plenty of performers and audience who are totally into what you’re doing, so go find them! Leave the orchestra alone!

  32. vladimir smirnov

    Unfortunate or not, that is a fact of life. I am not discouraging experimentation, I am merely saying that in this particular instance I am not surprised that the choice was made toward competent and knowledgeable composers, and not ones who just wanted to play around.

    The two techniques that I mentioned come from one of Colin’s previous responses. As far as I am aware they are both suited for electronics and as fun as writing spectral music for orchestra would be, the orchestra is an expensive toy better suited for much different needs.

  33. philmusic

    “However, it is simply a fact that this is not the orchestra audience. That is not what the audience of symphony orchestra’s is interested in. …”

    Sorry I didn’t get this memo either.

    Phil Fried

  34. philmusic

    “Two things we’re always seeking in our work, are to be original and relevant…”

    This doesn’t ring any bells.


  35. dalgas

    I wrote: “Two things we’re always seeking in our work, are to be original and relevant…”

    Phil wrote: This doesn’t ring any bells.

    It should. On a sliding scale, personal originality in their work can be comfortably practically zero for an artist, either of the objective or “new to me” variety. But I’d be hard-pressed to say the same about personal relevance (except maybe in some work composed for the most commercial interest).

    It’s how each of us values the public aspect of these two things that we get into most of our battles about stylistic and social imperatives.

    Steve Layton

  36. perpetual

    i cannot believe someone just said:
    “leave the orchestra alone!”


    and if you don’t write neo-romantic music:

    “leave the orchestra alone!”


    I don’t write “neo-romantic” music nor am i am cutting edge experimental but YET i’ve managed to impress an orchestra with my non neo-romantic music and YET i’ve managed to impress an audience with my music…i’m not neo-romantic and to say that is the only way to go when writing for orchestra is very very SAD and ignorant…sorry.

  37. pgblu

    I will stick my neck out and say I agree with dcoll about the pathetic quality of some of this discussion. I venture to speculate that most of the people railing against experimental music haven’t heard much of it outside of the classroom in which it was first presented to them with the comments of a fairly disinterested professor.

    My evidence? The only example of experimentation that has even been discussed is the use of dog whistles — that may or may not be an interesting experiment, but outside of any context in which it might be compelling, of course people will assume it’s a gimmick. I have the same problem, by the way, with Jennifer Higdon’s interview recently posted: the only mention of experimentation there is of an artist who makes a pretty poor decision involving sniffing glue and passing out… so ‘experimentation’ becomes a juvenile phase which one is well-advised to outgrow, nothing more. People ought to spend more time talking about what genuinely excites them rather than what they find uninteresting and possibly know nothing about.

    This thread is primarily a source of mis-education, at least so far.

    So I repeat my question: Has anyone here heard Lachenmann’s Kontrakadenz? Or to be a bit more productive and detract from the impression that that piece (over 30 years old now) is the only or the best example: what constitutes avant-garde orchestral music for you?

  38. jchang4

    I would appreciate if pgblu (and davidcoll) would point out what exactly it is that’s bothering them about this dialogue. It doesn’t seem to me that anyone here is attacking the experimental tradition, but it could just be that I’m missing something. If we aren’t getting it right, then why don’t you help us get it right instead of complain about how wrong we are? Cuz complaining gets you no where. Do something about it. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve never heard Lachenmann’s music and I didn’t tune into the Minnesota broadcast either, but then again I don’ t think my questions were directed at either of those things specifically anyway. (Please, spare me the well-in-that-case-your-“uneducated”-opinions-are-unwelcome-here spiel) I don’t have a definition of what avant garde orchestral music is or should be. That’s why I tune in here… to try and figure it out.

  39. EvanJohnson

    I would appreciate if pgblu (and davidcoll) would point out what exactly it is that’s bothering them about this dialogue.

    I am not pgblu or davidcoll, but I think some more light might well be shone on this howler of a false dichotomy, which does indeed seem, unless I’m being oversensitive, to disparage the experimental tradition:

    I am not discouraging experimentation, I am merely saying that in this particular instance I am not surprised that the choice was made toward competent and knowledgeable composers, and not ones who just wanted to play around.

    Competent and knowledgeable vs. experimental; non-experimental vs. “just wanting to play around.”

    So, although I don’t have a horse in the orchestral race, I do believe that considering a work like Kontrakadenz (to take pgblu’s example) as “just playing around” is somewhere on the spectrum between misunderstanding and ignorant.

  40. philmusic

    I see a lot of speculations here about the MN reading program and a lot of “what ifs..”

    I encourage you all to apply. It is possible that some of you have applied and been turned down for a reading or have not even applied because you think there are unstated rules. I too have been turned down-in fact twice before my work was accepted. In my experience The MN Orchestra reading sessions are far more open style-wise to “experimental music” or any kind of music than many a “new music ” group. So many of these so called “new music groups” are private parties that have a bad habit of excluding particular styles or musical “Teams”. I have mentioned this before.

    Phil Fried

  41. vladimir smirnov

    experimental tradition
    “experimental tradition”? Please tell me what music we are talking about when talking about experimental music, because to me those terms are mutually exclusive.

  42. EvanJohnson

    Please tell me what music we are talking about when talking about experimental music, because to me those terms are mutually exclusive.

    Well, then there’s really no point, is there?

  43. rtanaka

    Someone had once told me that in Europe you could throw a rock randomly and hit a composer who has influenced by Lachenmann in some way, though less so in the States due to its stronger tendency to lean towards postmodern methods. If that’s you’re aesthetic, fine, but the original question still goes unanswered: why?

    The reason why many audiences and performers are put off by modern music isn’t because they’re close minded, but it’s because they’re not “buying it”. I know lots of very intelligent, progressive minded people (well-versed in history and philosophy and such) who thinks its just a bunch of fooling around as well. Hope I’m not bursting anybody’s bubble here, but that’s usually the normal impression that people have of modern music.

    The problem is that music has become so insulated from itself that a lot of the times outside perspectives get stifled. In rehearsal and in performance, nobody really cares what Lachenmann did 40 years ago, and composers shouldn’t be using Xenakis as an excuse to cover up their lack of knowledge in orchestration techniques. What they need is an answer to the simple question, “why”, which I don’t think is an unreasonable demand to place on the composer.

    I can appreciate the logic and structural thinking that goes behind Lachenmann’s works — if you listen to his solo piano works (Ein Kinderspiel and such), he obviously has a good understanding of pacing, gesture and harmony. But simply throwing his name around as if it were some justification in itself tends not to do any good. Maybe 90% of the people have no idea who Lachenmann is, or even if they have heard of him, don’t particularly like his work all that much. Personally I find his larger ensemble works to be kind of boring, but I’m willing to suspend that judgment as a performer if I can be convinced why what I’m doing is of some reason.

    Sometimes the reasons don’t even have to be all that complicated either — last year I played in a brass ensemble written by a student composer. The piece wasn’t very well orchestrated and there were a lot of sustained high notes with no breaks which tends to be a nightmare for a brass player. There were a lot of complaints going around among the ensemble but before the concert the composer made an admission that the piece was dedicated to his mother who had passed away recently. Then a lot of things all of a sudden made more sense, and I think the piece managed to come through despite its technical flaws. At the very least, it felt a lot better as an ensemble, anyway.

    So, why? I’m sure everybody has different reasons for doing what they do, and that’s what makes playing new music exciting. But without one to begin with, it just becomes a technical exercise — busy work, in other words. There are jobs much better paying that music if that’s what I’m going to be doing with my time.

  44. pgblu

    Evan, I think he means that “experimental” and “tradition” are mutually exclusive; not “experimental” and “music”.

    You’re right, v, that the phrase sounds contradictory. In fact, I also find it problematic, but as long as people know what one is talking about, it’s all right.

    I think the explicitly experimental tradition begins already with Berlioz, who asks for some of the most remarkable things from his orchestra, particularly in Harold en Italie. I think it was he that suggested muting the oboe by having the oboist play into a cloth bag that covered his instrument and his head. The result is not a gimmick, but a muted oboe.

    Ablinger, Berlioz, Castiglioni, Dusapin, Erber, Ferneyhough, Gervasoni, Hopkins, Ives, Jolivet, Krenek, Lachenmann, Murail, Nunes, Oliveros, Panufnik, Quell, Radulescu, Stockhausen, Tudor, Ustvolskaya, Varese, Wyschnegradsky, Xenakis, Yim, Zimmermann. I admit not all those people wrote for orchestra. Still, it’s a fairly good, if random, set of 26 places to start.

  45. jonrussell20

    Perhaps “leave the orchestra alone!” was an excessively provacative exlamation on my part. I wasn’t trying to say that composers of anything other than a neo-romantic persuasion have no right to write for ochestra or that their orchestral music has no value. All I’m trying to say is that they may be wasting their time trying to get an instutition which in every way – from what it’s audience is interested in hearing to what it’s performers are interested in playing to the economic reality of players unions (limited rehearsal time, a great relucance to hire any players beyond the standard orchestral complement) – seems to be stacked against what they are interested in. Believe me, I’d rather hear experimental than neo-romantic music any day. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to many orchestra concerts. The point I was trying to make was simply that the days of orchestras being at the forefront of culture, being cutting edge institutions, clearly seem to be in the past. This is not cause for rejoicing, but nor is it a great tragedy, ensembles come and go, their functions shift, culture evolves. Original, cutting-edge, mind-blowing music will continue to be wirtten, with or without the orchestra.

  46. ctanderson

    i have only read about half of this ongoing argument, but i wanted to respond (for whatever it is worth), in defense of “young composers” and “experimentation,” at least in regards to my own music:

    i am twenty-three, and make it a point to experiment in some manner (either subtlely or obviously) in each successive piece i write. i am certainly not saying that all composers ought to be doing such things (if someone can direct me to where these compositional rules are coming from, i would be interested to see them…), or that i am any better than anyone else. for what it’s worth, though: i see no reason to continue composing my own music if i cannot consistently experiment, and if i get a chance to do that with an orchestra, great. if it does not work in such an ensemble context, then fine, it does not work, i will make note of such things and try something else in the future.

    i fail to see why there would be anything inherently wrong with such an attitude/methodology.

  47. Somebody

    You cannot experiment with music. Or, you cannot experiment with tonality and meter. An experiment is a scientific proceedure used to discover or test a known fact. You know, get out the corn chips, feed them to guinea pigs and see how long it takes befor they look like americans. There really is no scientific proceedure with tonality and meter. There is not way to test known fact with tonality and meter. I need to repeat this, the words usual and unusual apply here, the problem being no composer wants his or her music to be called unsusual or usual.

    And we are talking about what an orchestra will play again??? I mean really, gafrump, gafrump… I do not think new, neo-romantic, tonal, atonal, old, happy, or sad music come into play. I do believe you need a friend on the board of one of the composer groups of this great nation or perhaps be a board director, or a board director of an orchestra or the american league of symphony orchestras. Or graduate from Yale. I didn’t graduate from Yale. I don’t have any orchestra board member friends. I write music with a very clear syntax of tonality and meter and I can’t get a score under the door of any orchestra.

    And remember, when a composer has no syntax of tonality and meter he or she is left exploring not experimenting. You can’t experiment with music. You could experiment with people and music, but that would be a social experiment. It is amazing to me that our higher education system is still teaching young composer a bunch of “new music babble” in place of actually teaching them to compose. You know, music concrete accent gu.

  48. AlexCohen

    Clear tonal and metrical syntax, Mr. Bakalian, when all other people offer is dog whistles. The injustice of it all.

  49. philmusic

    “some time ago, a colleague sitting next to me said,…”

    Didn’t you mean a “Collie” sitting next to me? Or perhaps a “Pug.” You know that new music is go’in to the dawgs! I think I’d better go wet my whistle!

    Phil Fried

  50. sniggleron

    Did you ever consider that perhaps it’s not for nepotism that your music is not considered Mr. Bakalian, that perhaps it’s you and your bitter ways? Or maybe it’s because you’re really not a very good composer?

    After reading the venom you spew in post after post, I imagine that you are your own worst enemy.

  51. Somebody

    Bad Composer
    Yes, I am a very bad composer. My music is very bad. You are so correct. Now I know everything is all my fault.

  52. rtanaka

    Maybe Mr. Bakalian might not present himself very well, but he does have a point about the idea of syntax. Maybe read the recent Ornette Coleman interview for the idea of music being a language (although it doesn’t go too much into detail), because in virtually every other musical culture in the world this idea is fairly prominent. It’s really only Western classical music, particularly of the modern variety, that really tries to actively undermine this sort of thing.

    Course a lot of this comes from a general lack of experience with the performance-practices of classical music, which seems to be a problem everywhere. (There was a point in time when it would be unthinkable for composers not to also be serious performers, but not anymore, it seems.) People wouldn’t be so quick to scoff at the idea of the vernacular if they knew process that goes on behind ensemble playing.

  53. vladimir smirnov

    Ablinger, Berlioz, Castiglioni, Dusapin, Erber, Ferneyhough, Gervasoni, Hopkins, Ives, Jolivet, Krenek, Lachenmann, Murail, Nunes, Oliveros, Panufnik, Quell, Radulescu, Stockhausen, Tudor, Ustvolskaya, Varese, Wyschnegradsky, Xenakis, Yim, Zimmermann. I admit not all those people wrote for orchestra. Still, it’s a fairly good, if random, set of 26 places to start.

    Here’s the problem: to me most of these composers (well maybe not Stockhousen) are innovators and visionaries, not experimenters. Xenakis’s music is intricate, evocative, and beautiful, and I am 100% positive he knew exactly what he wanted and notated it that way, and I am sure that if a Xenakis score were to end up in front of a panel, they would recognize genius no matter what the style. To me musical experimentation implies the post-Cagean “draw some squares on a page and see what the performer does with it”, or notate “play 19 16th notes in place of 13” rhythms , which the composer obviously has no idea what will end up sounding like. Noone is questioning innovation as long as it ends up GOOD MUSIC. However, I do question composers that do not have a vision of what they are doing, but rather put down the notation first, and then ride on a seat of faith in hope that something good will end up. Having an idea of what you want the music to SOUND like is what is important to me. However, I sense that to many of the “experimental” composers on the forum, “experimental music” is just a set of stylistic directions, and not experimental in the sense that I think of experimental music.

  54. Somebody

    What is your point Alex
    Alex and sniggleron, all you are doing is making me feel bad. The feeling goes away, just like a breeze. What is your point? Is your point that the current music world (system) that a composer faces today is perfect, and I am just a bad composer? All you do is heckle. But, I might be wrong yet again, because you are such a superior composesr to my frustrated venom. I gotta ask, what do you want? All I am saying is, there could be a better way for composers to interact with performers, orchestras, and non-profits. What on earth are you saying? What do you want?

  55. Somebody

    Just as I suspected
    Hmm, Alex, you don’t have a point. You are just mouthing off. That is what creeps like you do, defend an empty cave.

  56. AlexCohen

    Creeps Mouthing Off
    My point is this, Mr. Tilt-at-Windmills Bakalian: a) if you follow this thread you’ll see almost sixty posts by composers who can’t agree about what kind of music is fresh or interesting; b) you shouldn’t expect unanimity, then, among people who make decisions; c) you shouldn’t conclude, then, that someone who hasn’t picked your music is in cahoots with corporate malfeasors, where he or she might just be picking music that he or she finds more interesting. But since the world seems out to get you, why don’t you start your own ensemble and bring it directly to the people. Steve Reich did it, Philip Glass did it. I’m not sure that your approach, instead to pick on Jennifer Higdon and Harold Meltzer and a young composer like Jacob Cooper, is fruitful. It certainly wouldn’t be Dale Carnegie’s approach.

  57. Somebody

    Okay Alex, I get the point, or points. But why did it take you so long to express them. They all can’t agree on what is interesting. No unanimity, duh. And, not getting picked. Well now, I don’t send scores to “get picked”, I work with musicians. This threads topic is a waste of time, I think many have stated that, no unanimity, ah, great point.

    I do not think there is anyone out to get me. I don’t know how many times I can say this. Just because I feel the NMB, AMC, ACF, ACO, MTC is the most stupid system for american composers doesn’t mean I am paranoid. Yet, you feel the need to be a jerk and apply this wacked out meaning upon my complaint. Are you actually protecting these groups as valid non-profits? What are you hiding? Did you sit on a panel of experts and pick the best score ever?

    Is this still about the Harold, Jennifer, and Jacob thing? What part of board directors giving themselves grants don’t you understand. Why does me criticising their scam make you feel like I feel I think someone is out to get me in a corporate grey suit? Furthermore, so what if I was paranoid. So @#$% what if I thought there was a conspiracy.

    Start my own group of musicians. What instrument do you play Alex? Ya wanna get together and play some music? That is if you got the balls to play with a paranoid flutist. And, by the way, about 12 years ago I requested that AMC put together a program for it members to get together an play each others music. It went nowhere, and did the celebrity thing instead.

    Go purchase some GAP stock, creep. Some slick GAP stock, clean store in a oderless american shopping mall. But, critics of the GAP, they are just paranoid, they think that the GAP is out to get them. Jerk.

  58. AlexCohen

    Mr. Bakalian,
    I am not a composer. I live in the Capitol area and have a job and have developed an interest in new music and take extension courses. Sometimes I would read newmusicbox to understand what composers think the issues are. Sometimes it’s been helpful to me. Ever since you started posting it’s been unhelpful to me, and perhaps unhelpful to every reader who is not a professional musician. Every system, in every field, has its problems, plays its favorites. Readers who aren’t even disenfranchised composers know this. But your filibuster-like railings accomplish nothing but turn off the casual reader interested in what’s going on new music. And most other people who posted have asked you to stop. But you’ve won a great battle for new music, in that you’ve gotten a non-composer, me, to stop posting after this one, and to stop reading newmusicbox. They don’t have the guts to cut you off, cut you out, they are letting you destroy them by lessening their readership. So I and other non-composers will have to learn about new music somewhere else. We’ll have to ask the experts, as you call them, about who to listen to and what to listen for — oh, wait, maybe that’s not what you wanted. At least enjoy driving every other newmusicbox reader crazy. And, by the way, for someone who has been upset by being called various things, calling me a creep and a jerk, when that’s what everyone else has thought of you but not said, is misperceiving this situation. Write back about me whatever you want, I’m going back to my nice job and my nice family.

  59. jbunch

    A composer of new music must keep in mind:

    * Always know exactly what they want and never try anything just to see if it will work.

    * Never write for orchestra, unless they Neo-Romantic

    * Foster a defensive position about his or her artistic decisions, because the orchestral audience knows exactly what they want, and is suspicious (or else absolutely hostile) of any preemption of their expectations whatsoever.
    Media markets are always suspicious of newness, and demand that it be justified. Take New Kids on the Block’s latest CD for instance. We just weren’t ready for Wilco yet, and you can see how the market reacted by the vast array of NKOTB fans out there.

    * Know that educational reading sessions are for brilliant, professional, all knowing composers who don’t actually need educational reading sessions.

    * Never be ambiguous or imagine that music can be anything other than the prescriptive management of behaviors and responses (that is what that great artistic failure Cage refused to see).

    * The mere presence of experimentation precludes the possibility of it having “syntax.” And a connected thought, that every syntactical method of structuring is always more successful and enjoyable than non-syntactical methods – for example Structures by Boulez (a profusely syntactical work) is much more loved and appreciated by most listeners than is, say a Fantasy by Mozart.

    * If you’re more warm, accessible, and cultural/ideologically synthetic like Bartok was, you’ll be just as popular. You might even get a performance technique named after you!

    * When you give your philosophical justification of your newness, everyone will accept it, and it will be as if it never needed justification. Your ability to justify is what makes something good – that is – not experimental, but progressive.

    * Experimental composers constitutively view the orchestra as an “expensive playback function,” this is because they are unconcerned with human relationships and are motivated by selfish dilettantism.

    * What ersatz-spectral composers don’t understand is that the orchestra is an “expensive toy” best suited for other endeavors. A much better way to articulate the tenets of spectral music like massive complex pitch spectra (with it’s microtonal deconstruction of the well-tuned lattice), is naturally a pierrot ensemble piece, or a piano solo.

    * It is not a mark of selfish dilettantism to call the orchestra an expensive toy.

    * While inexperience cannot be a good justification for technical failure, a more human, emotional reason will suffice “I was really sad, so I wrote a 2 minute long F# 7 at ppppp for the tuba.”

    * Things like tonality and meter are mystical concepts that can’t be methodically hypothesized about and systematically rearranged to achieve unique results. You just have to feel it. man.

    * Innovators like Ferneyhough never write musical figures like “play 19 16th notes in the time of 13.”

    * Non-experimental / non-innovative music, unlike experimental music (the music of bricoleurs – people who just “play around”), always produces GOOD MUSIC. Always.

    * The dichotomy between innovators and non-innovators is a matter of personal taste, rather than that someone literally does something that no one else has done before. So Stockhausen and Cage are not innovators. This is because they are/were spacey assholes that kept writing piles of nonsense whose only function was to prod the definitional contours of what is and is not music. Jesus Criminy!

    * The style of music you write should guarantee the kind of reception it will receive. Logically. If you write neo-romantic music, then orchestras will play your music. If they don’t, that just means that fowl play is involved.

    Ok. Thanks for this most helpful education you guys.

  60. pgblu

    Yes, v, I’ve been a bit sloppy with the word experimental, but I will say it’s an extremely slippery slope: when I work, I want to get the sense that I don’t ‘know what I’m doing’ — though I do generally make sure I know roughly what it will sound like (two very different things), and that it is compelling. I do not feel that I need to put the nature of that compellingness into words to satisfy Mr Tanaka, but I would say that this involves a great deal of ‘experimentation,’ on some level. If you want to limit that word to the realm of randomness and unpredictability, I don’t think it’s a useful word anymore.

    No visionary has created visionary music without being open to experimentation. For each of the people on my alphabetical list, I can name an instance where I believe they went just a bit beyond the limits of their own imagination, and we can be grateful that they did. In some cases the result was even, err, extremely forgettable.

    And for the last time, I am not trying to proscribe or prescribe anything (make aesthetic pronouncements), but perhaps just give encouragement to composers who want to go out on a limb, even if it’s supposedly expensive for our society, and even if they can’t articulate what it is they want. (If the music doesn’t articulate that on its own, then that’s a tough break; and you move on to the next piece.) All that does not mean forsaking one’s craft or applying bizarre ideas merely in an attempt to circumvent one’s incompetence, which so many nay-sayers seem to imply.

  61. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    But c’mon Colin, whaddya expect from a guy who describes himself as “a composer of adventurous, but emotionally accessible music. He is fascinated with timbre and physicality. “

    I want me some of that timbre stuff. :)

    Having a better day now,


  62. Frank J. Oteri

    Much of the discussion here has interesting parallels to an article by Bernard Holland published in The New York Times this past Sunday: “The Audience as the Arbiter.”

    Two provocative comments therein will undoubtedly trigger some further debate here:

    [I]f broad acclaim and the universal acknowledgment of genius have been denied you, you have not an uncomprehending public to blame but the choices you yourself have made and, more important, your own gifts or lack of same….For thinking big, you need to need the people.

    The posterity myth has a few success stories but is for the most part an excuse for failure in the present. Starry-eyed critics of the 1930s and ’40s predicted that by 2007 we would be singing Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in the shower. Most of us still lean toward “Embraceable You.”

  63. Colin Holter

    It’s OK to be old.

    It’s less OK to be dumb, but sometimes you have to cut people some slack.

    If, like Bernard Holland, you are both old and dumb, then somewhere along the line, you’ve failed. How is it possible that this self-appointed idiot, banging his comically oversized wooden spoon on the table when he’s served anything more unusual than the musical equivalent of applesauce, has had the public ear for so long? If late Sibelius is too “remote” for you, an induced coma may be your only escape from the terrifying imponderables of twenty-first century life.

    Every couple of months I read a Bernard Holland piece, rant and rave about how stupid it is, then quickly forget about the whole thing until several months later, when I rediscover his signature brand of crotchety senility, as I have today.

  64. philmusic

    Never write for orchestra, unless they Neo-Romantic

    Never write a blog unless it’s pedantic

    Never mention music from across the Atlantic

    Never have opinions unless they tyranic

    When referring to the experimental

    Only mention things tangential.

    And remember never to define your terms

    Because too much agreement makes us squirm.

    If fact would it be such a bereavement

    If we were all really in agreement?

    Phil Fried

  65. rtanaka

    Ok. Thanks for this most helpful education you guys.

    Keep in mind that most of the sentiments I’ve mentioned here is not particularly out of the norm for a performer who plays new music. Since I am a performer myself, I get complaints like these from my collegues all the time, although they are usually too polite to bring it up during rehearsal.

    I know lots of people who, after bearing it for a while, quit playing modern music all together. Some people I know turned to improvisation or started composing their own music because they simply couldn’t stand working with composers anymore. (Corneius Cardew is a famous example in his reaction against Stockhausen, though his personality is a bit extreme.) I’ve been noticing that a lot more performers have been getting into composition lately…ironically, their works tend to get performed much more often because they actually have the means of delivering it to an audience.

    If none of this matters to you or you simply don’t care, then so be it. I wish you the best of luck.

  66. rtanaka

    For composers towing the modernist-line, I would suggest reading the Aesthetics section on Adorno, since the influence of the Frankfurt School of thought is obvious among modernism:

    Theodore Adorno

    Some highlights:

    The artwork’s necessary and illusory autonomy, in turn, is the key to (modern) art’s social character, namely, to be “the social antithesis of society” (AT 8).

    The social functions emphasized in his own commentaries and criticisms are primarily intellectual functions rather than straightforwardly political or economic functions. This is consistent with a hyperbolic version of the claim that (modern) art is society’s social antithesis: “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” (AT 227).

    Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged: “Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless” (AT 132).

    Here Adorno makes it clear that modern art should be about its social irrelevence and lack of practical application. In a lot of ways, modernism got exactly what it wanted, because that’s the situation we face as composers today. If the above is what you’re going for so be it, but keep in mind that by doing so you’re largely towing an aesthetic approach to art that’s nearing 50 years old — it would be, in a lot of ways, fulfilling its own kind of status quo. In the post-Cold War, internet-ridden social climate of today, I feel that such practices are largely out-of-date, but that’s just my opinion. Perhaps other composers might have better reasons why they continue to adhere to the traditions of modernism?

  67. philmusic

    Never write for orchestra, unless they Neo-Romantic

    Never write a blog unless it’s pedantic

    Never mention music from across the Atlantic

    Never have opinions unless they tyranic

    When referring to the experimental

    Only mention things tangential.

    And remember never to define your terms

    Because too much agreement makes us squirm.

    Experimental and innovative can in no possible way be related

    In fact would it be such a bereavement

    If we were all really in agreement?

    Phil Fried

  68. pgblu

    he said she said
    Seriously, Phil: why do you do this?

    Ryan, I have worked with many dozens of performers over the years, and befriended many of them. If I ever presented them with a difficulty that I wasn’t sure would work, they weren’t sure about it, either, and generally were interested to see if it would work.

    A composer ought to assume that performers are just as curious as they are.

    I think it’s fine if performers get tired of new music and decide to give it a go themselves! That will only enrich the world! But to assume that innovation-oriented composers “don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter to them” what performers think (what’s the difference between those two, exactly?) is just antagonizing.

    As for the Adorno — I strongly recommend people read the text, and not just Ryan’s “highlights.”

  69. Colin Holter

    Thank you, Ryan, for that delicately nuanced reading of Teddy Wiesengrund.

    Let me offer the following addendum: If this is your first encounter with Theodor Adorno’s writings, go read them yourself, then read the decades of gloss, exegesis, commentary, and argument they’ve engendered, then fabricate an opinion about them. The world in general, and this thread in particular, will be better off with one less uninformed opinion.

  70. Somebody

    Good Bye Alex
    Well, Alex, I have a nice job too, and a beautiful family. And it is good to see you go away. I don’t know where to start. You live in DC, you are a new music new person, and I have scared you away. Politics, politics and more politics. I should have seen this coming. I stand for equal competition for all composers, that all composers get a chance to express themselves. I criticise the AMC, ACF, MTC, and the ACO as setting opaque adjudication. I am asked to site examples, and everybody tells me to shut up. The one stinking question that has not been answered by anyone, is, if you don’t like my idea of an egalitarian system for composers, then what on earth are you standing for, are you standing for the status quo, the system that sets up board members like Harold and Jennifer to grant themselves awards. Alex, you have acted like a composer, using words like tonal and metric syntax, and now you tell me you are not a composer. The problem here is, what would happen if it was a true egalitarian system, where any composer had equal opportunity. Line us all up, set up the performers, everybody bring you music, let’s see who is the best, Harold, Jennifer, Jacob, and if your music is so much more expressive than all the nobodies, great, but I am having a tough time believing that, otherwise we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today. Good bye Alex. Have fun with your standard political “make it personal to distract from the issue” stuff in DC. DC, hmm… gotta be a republican. Alex, are you sure you are not Harold?

  71. rtanaka

    But to assume that innovation-oriented composers “don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter to them” what performers think (what’s the difference between those two, exactly?) is just antagonizing.

    Well in my experience, a lot of the times it’s the little things that drive people crazy, moreso than the music itself. Having well prepared parts, for one. Parts should be legible and clear enough to play off of. Instructions should be clear so we don’t end up wasting the entire rehearsal period asking unnecessary questions. (This is probably why Vladmir speaks out against the Post-Cageian stuff.) If there’s any unusual logistical things that need to be worked out, it should be worked out in the score so that it can be pre-planned.

    Also, things which are impossible to play (not just difficult, impossible, like Xenakis’ Metastasis where the horns are required to do a 3 octave trill) should be worked out prior to the first rehearsal. Yes, most performers are happy to look at the part even while its in progress. I’m not perfect either so sometimes things slip through, but by the time the first rehearsal comes along 99.9% of the logisitical problems are gone, and I only have to spend maybe 15 seconds or so dealing with them. Then the rest of the time can be spent actually practicing the music. This, to me, seems like common sense.

    Something is awry, though, because I run into situations way too often where a lot of these things are simply neglected. I mean, it’s not just an anomaly, but it happens all the time even at the grad/professional levels. When I get a poorly-thought out, crummy looking score, the only thing I can think of is “does he/she really even care?” At that point, everybody stops giving a crap and the usual result is a luke-warm, half-inspired performance.

    Of course I’m painting a broad picture here (otherwise I wouldn’t continue to do it) but these things happen way too often, and I’m convinced at this point that the aesthetic has something to do with it. Even if you’re not wanting to compromise with the audience, at least include the performers in the process, right?

  72. jonrussell20

    To Somebody,
    Of course there is some degree of politics, inbreeding, and nepotism in the music world. This is because the music world is run by humans. No sphere of human activity is exempt from this. Yes, we should fight for fairness and justice in all spheres of life, but the music world is farther along in this than most spheres of activity. Anyone can join ASCAP or BMI; anyone can join AMC or ACF; anyone can apply for the countless competitions, commissions, fellowships, residencies, and graduate programs out there, and an enormous number of different people win these at various times in their lives. And nowadays, anyone can form their own ensemble, anyone can publish their own music, anyone can distribute their music on myspace or CdBaby or any number of other places. As helpful as institutions like AMC can be, if anything we need them less today than we ever have, our destinies are in our own hands to a degree never seen before. Are there politics? Of course! Are the most famous composers who get the best opportunities always the best composers? Of course not! Can things like personality and personal conections come into play? Again, of course! Show me an area of human activity where this is not the case!! In music today, however, there are more opportunities and avenues to get your music out there than ever before. If you happen to have been born into great musical connections, well you may have an easier time of it, but if you genuinely have talent and something worth saying, unless you are completely passive or a complete jerk, your music will eventually be heard and you will be recognized.

  73. philmusic

    I believe that this is a free and open forum. At least I don’t talk about my sumptuous dinners with important friends.

  74. Somebody

    [This post has been removed by the moderator.]

  75. rtanaka

    Mr. Bakalian — If you think so lowly of them, why care what sorts of things they’re doing? There’s a lot of freedom involved in not taking these things too seriously — finding out about the politics of music was disappointing at first, but at the same time it no longer bothered me that I wasn’t winning any of these things.

    Another quote by Mr. Bartok: “Competitions are for horses, not artists.”

  76. jbunch

    Part II
    Is it possible, do you think, that we can stop equating non-neo-romantic, or non-tonal, non-narrative, or experimental aesthetics with Modernism?

    For one thing, experimental does not mean atonal, or even non-narrative. It can mean one or both of those things, but they are not essential to it. And, unless I’m mistaken, post-structuralist thought (perhaps better put, a compositional methodology that recognizes the sillyness of assuming that there is one ideal linguistic, and thus seeks to continually enter into a relationship of critical contemplation and re-invention with the musical ideas of the past) is not part of the modernist concept, but rather part of what is now lumpily referred to as post-modernism? Actually, that mindset may just be timeless (one can hope).

    Of course, most of us are too hasty in classifying ourselves, so we settle with falling into dumb camps based on sonic signals that really have nothing to do with the categories that we are invoking. Modernism is a historical term, as well as an ideological one. Even if you attempt to write music that goes no further than what you perceive to be the ideas of the composers of the Modernist period, what you are doing should be called neo-Modernism, in the same way that neo-Romantics purportedly go no further than the ideas prized by the Romantics. We all know that’s hogwash though. Just like you should know that it’s hogwash to portray experimental composers as bungling idiots who don’t care about people’s feelings and are unconcerned with the ways their music fits into the world socially and critically. It’s only evidence of the fact that when you talk about experimental composers, you actually have something else in mind: a jerk who also happens to be a bad composer (can’t prepare parts right, isn’t nice to people). You simply CANNOT make the massive and irrational move of inducing that every experimental composer is like that jerk that got pissed because your cellist friend couldn’t play scalar left-hand pizzicati in 128th notes.

  77. rtanaka

    I would suggest reading the article on Adorno, if you haven’t already. He is quite explicit in saying that art should be prized on being “anti-social” and being “socially functionless”. Given his immense influence, it would also be dishonest to say that these sentiments do not exist among some circles. A lot of works fit right into the glove of his agenda, in fact.

    As said earlier, I am making a generalization. I did not mention any specific names, nor am I accusing anybody in particular (maybe except for Xenakis whom I have a person beef with), and I can attest to having many positive experiences doing new music (yes, even the “modern” ones), which is why I’m still involved in it. But my experiences as a performer tell me that the lack of practical knowledge is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed. Why? Because as I get older I’m running into more and more composers that have absolutely no means of getting their work out, and a lot of it has to do with mere logistical things which in hindsight always look silly. I don’t wish this upon anybody. I feel like I’m repeating myself here, but I think that it’s important.

    The weird thing about new music is that there’s always this sort of strong sense of tension between the performer/conductor/composer that doesn’t seem to exist in other types of musics, or even in playing older classical works. It’s really uncomfortable in a lot of cases, and not in a good way. Speaking of which:

    Adorno regards authentic works of (modern) art as social monads. The unavoidable tensions within them express unavoidable conflicts within the larger sociohistorical process from which they arise and to which they belong. These tensions enter the artwork through the artist’s struggle with sociohistorically laden materials, and they call forth conflicting interpretations, many of which misread either the work-internal tensions or their connection to conflicts in society as a whole. Adorno sees all of these tensions and conflicts as “contradictions” to be worked through and eventually to be resolved. Their complete resolution, however, would require a transformation in society as a whole, which, given his social theory, does not seem imminent.

  78. pgblu

    This is a free and open forum because the moderators trust us to have a productive conversation and stay on topic. That explains why you can post expansive rhyming non-couplets, but it doesn’t explain why you do.


    Ryan, it’s awfully hard to pin you down, because you don’t stay on topic… first we’re talking about modernism, then incompetence, then right back to modernism. Are they the same thing for you? Was Adorno talking about crummy scores and apathetic composers when he wrote his essay? Of course, nobody is actually in favor of crummy scores and apathetic composers, so you’re not really saying anything controversial there.

    Also, where did you get that last quote? I’m not sure it’s completely kosher.

  79. rtanaka

    The last quote comes from the same article posted above. With all of the unresolved dissonances and disjunct textures that are characteristic of modern music, I think that it’s fair to say that the introducing “tensions” and “contradictions” into the scene is very much part of the aesthetic. It then becomes the performers or audience members to “resolve” the contradictions that the composer sets up for them, rather than the composer resolving it themselves.

    Using this kind of thing as justification, I’ve met a few people who very much took delight in pissing off the performers, or went about creating art with the intension of annoying its audience. (I’m hoping that nobody here is of that variety…) Maybe you might see how this kind of attitude can easily turn into crummy scores because if the intention is to generate contradictions, what incentive is there to cater to the needs of the performers?

    I can only speak from my own experiences and I’m also making a lot of generalizations here, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But I notice that pieces written in the neo-whatever style tends to have a lot less logistical problems because more attention is paid to the practical aspects of music making. If you don’t like the way it sounds, fine, but there are also practical reasons why these works get played more often. It’s not just about pleasing the audience.

    There are a few performers out there who like being thrown off by these logistical challenges, so if that’s what you’re going for, you will have to befriend a few of them. But they are rare, and in a large ensemble like an orchestra, it’s not very likely that you’ll find 60 of those kinds of people hobbled into one place. That’s why, as a few people said earlier, I think music that focuses on experimentation is better suited for smaller ensembles. At least then there’s time to come to an agreement on how to go about working something out.

  80. madamecynthia

    have you ever thought that maybe you have a completly overblown perception of your work? Maybe that is the reason why no orchestra wants to play it. After all there are so many anonymous competitions in the world-if you never get anywhere with your music-the most obvious conclusion is no-one finds merit in it.
    And back to the theme of new and old- the upsurge of European composition teachers ( Ferneyhough, Murail, Levy, Anderson, Tutschku, Czernowin just to name a few) shows that the intelectional rigour of composition seems mainly to come from the other side of the Atlantic.

  81. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Ryan, you’ve brought the topic around to part of its original premise … but your conclusions seem to me, having grown up through the tail end of the modernist era, to be drawn from scattered and incomplete evidence.

    Naturally, if you read Bernard Holland, you’ll believe the conclusions to be justified, and not a few people would agree with him and you.

    I believe, on the other hand, that for some like Holland, the changes in composition are cause to display a long-standing resentment vindicated; I’m not sure how it is for you.

    You put too much emphasis on Adorno. He appears more significant than he is, and very much sweeps everything from a diverse artistic era into his paltry bag of philosophical tricks. A great deal of my music from the 1970s would appear to fit Adorno’s model perfectly … except that I first heard of Adorno in 2006. (It’s like looking at the social and political stresses of the 1960s through television commercials — oh, so that’s what it was like, people think … even people who lived through it can be led to forget what really happened in their own lives.)

    Compositional interests have shifted dramatically in the past twenty years or so, not just with the neo-this&that, but in terms of what has been explored and experienced. It’s already been said here and elsewhere that postmodernism is characterized by the ability to pick and choose from a historical menu to bring forth the present. What is characterized as new in both pop and nonpop often strikes me as ground already covered, sometimes by grabbing ideas from the ‘other side’ and incorporating them. From a very personal artistic point of view, the one real shift that I’ve witnessed has been not the neo, but minimalism — and that’s nearly two generations ago.

    What I’m getting that is this: the children of modernism survive in postmodernism, as do the children of just about every other 20th century style or musical philosophy. I believe the reason they survive is not some musical recidivism, but because they have ongoing meaning to musical sense.

    For example, you talk about the audience having to create resolutions. How many steps is this from Wagner? Yes, 150 years, but what did you expect to have happened?

    How about the annoyance of audiences? That diminishes some of the musico-political significance out of the post-war era. It was not annoyance, it was confrontation, the kind of confrontation that was built from rejection and anger (see how it survives in the language in this very thread). The fact that much of it became academicized is to be expected, because (as the economics topic reveals) composers found refuge in the academy, where free expression was not so tethered as in the pre-1960s industrial economy.

    Sometimes this confrontation was made with the performers themselves. How about those new complexity composers? What’s the point of all that? Perhaps (as has been expressed to me) it’s to keep the performers’ attention all the time, to get past the burn of the hot sauce into the flavors that reside underneath. It’s never comfortable, and that discomfort creates a performance that’s always electric. It has to be, because one can only strive to be perform it correctly, but never actually do so (at least by today’s performers).

    And let’s look at that (and I apologize for jamming so much into a few paragraphs so quickly). Tomorrow’s performers may not experience the struggles you and your colleagues do. A few years ago I started noticing that previously impossible, annoying, maddening or just plain poorly performed pieces started showing up on concerts created by young ensembles. What’s all this then, I thought? These angular pieces were being assimilated by a generation that could simply play them technically, the challenges overcome, and the music coming out for almost the first time. Past the burn, into the flavor. (I’ve mentioned before my own experience with this, a piece for trombones and electronic playback that was very hard and no one wanted to bother, and 30-plus years after its composition it was performed brilliantly.)

    As for an orchestra who can deal with logistical challenges, recently attention has come back to the BMOP here on New Music Box. Why can that orchestra, a regular union orchestra, play this music? There are several factors, the most prominent being first that it is engaging music, and second that whatever challenges it presents can be overcome by musicians with a mind to do so. Is it comfortable? Of course not. Is it technically blistering sometimes? You bet. It’s art, and despite the derision of artistic concerns in recent years (the postmodern rejection of message or ‘story’), the mythical simple pleasures of entertainment have shown no evidence of reappearing. Complexity even broods beneath the surface of, as Holland would prefer, “Embraceable You”.

    I’m not suggesting you’re naive and I’m wise, and I’m not piling on; frankly, I wish there were more intelligent folks like you presenting your side of the argument so you wouldn’t have to make all the points by yourself. Working with performers always gives me a great appreciation of the split of brain hemispheres composers like me expect. (But it doesn’t stop me from being challenging when invited. When Tom Peters asked me to write a piece and said I could do “anything”, I pressed him on it. Anything? Yup. And to see him on stage playing the double-bass, at one point overside the bridge while plucking a melody with his left hand, and singing in quarter-tones, having just played bungees of bells with his feet, I appreciated what kind of brain and musical sense it took for him to turn my imagined music into something that worked in the real air and on stage.)

    If I have any real argument with your viewpoint, it’s that it strikes me as skewed by some sort of accountancy attitude — that logistics and on-the-spot playability and ease of access are actually significant factors outside the temporary economics of the modern (mostly American) performing arts. Performers are still struggling with that high and unprepared 4th horn entrance in the Beethoven Ninth; should it have been changed? Or is there more to its purpose? And so it goes. In an instant-gratification culture (now in its third generation), logistical and performance challenges might appear to be deliberately made to blister — instead of being the burn before the flavor.


  82. pgblu

    Ryan, I’ve always been compelled to take your posts with about a pound of salt. But now your repetitive, extremely tendentious method of argumentation has gotten to be too much for me. Thanks for the discussion.

  83. rtanaka

    Well, this does go back to the original point, which is, why. And I feel like I’m repeating myself because nobody has really given a sufficient answer, or they feel justification of their methods in itself is not necessary for a composer, which is another attitude you find among the avant-garde. Newness in itself is always good — it is often a dogma.

    Horn players don’t mind practicing for Beethoven’s 7th because the gesture is well-incorporated into the music. There is a reason for it being there. (I mean, it’s still part of tonality…just an uncomfortably high note.) Some gestures, say, tempo changes that happen nearly every bar (characteristic of academic music) really feels kind of arbitrary to me. It often looks impressive on paper but the effect of slowing down or speeding up, which is what its function is supposed to be, is lost because it’s often obscured by rhythms and meters that do not compliment the changes in tempo. It’s hours and hours of extra work for something you can’t even hear.

    All I am saying is that justifications help, and it doesn’t hurt for composers to think of a few things to say about what they’re trying to do in relation to what they’re giving to the performers. It doesn’t have to be a perfect explanation…just something to make us feel good about ourselves doing it. Nobody wants to see anybody fail here, and I really don’t enjoy getting complaints from performers because as a composer myself I’m sympathetic to what they’re doing. But there are certain protocols that have to be observed depending on its instrumentation and ensembles. A number of people have scoffed at me for suggesting that they learn how to write idiomatically before stretching the limits — unfortunately this type of attitude often leads to disasters during the rehearsal process, if they’re even allowed in to begin with. If you don’t respect the way things work, it’s not likely that it will respect you back. That’s just the way things are.

  84. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    The trouble with your “why” question is that it ask for a response to your statements. I certainly can’t answer “why” I’m doing something if what I’m doing isn’t what you describe.

    The answers you’ve received haven’t answered the “why” of given composers’ approach. That approach just doesn’t happen to jibe with your description of it.

    Your “why” asks why composers aren’t skilled, are antagonistic, fool around, violate standards, and write the impossible. I and others just don’t happen to agree that that’s the case. So there’s no answer to your question; it gets one of those N/A responses on the questionnaire. :)


  85. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    Just thinking about your earlier question about the Xenakis three-octave trill you mention. I don’t have a score, but I’m guessing your “why” would encompass such a moment.

    I’d ask “why”, too. But I’d try to frame the “why” as: What is the effect needed here? Can I hear that it is compositionally essential? Is there another way to produce this effect? Is its difficulty a matter of technique or physics? If it is a matter of physics, shouldn’t I assume Xenakis knew this? Then what was he trying to accomplish? Should I simply try to execute it? If it is a matter of technique, how long would it take me to learn? Could it have been scored differently to produce the effect — perhaps using beat tones? By the end of that flash of questions, my “why” is likely answered — and if not, I’d believe it to be my lack of knowledge or experience, and try to expand that knowledge or experience.

    When I’m composing, I have a reason for everything that I write down, but the process is very complex and multidimensional. As a composer, you must know this. I often don’t recall the choices I made, but know that at the time they were important and no accident. The accidents I will see as I’m cleaning up the mess and producing a legible draft; I’ll also fix up the technically impossible, such as notes out of range or pitches that can’t be voiced as quickly as written.

    At the end, the music will speak for itself — and this is the significant point which you avoid. You want a translation into words, something to help out, some sort of program notes for the performer. Sometimes I get the feeling you want a Cliffs Notes version of the music rather than actually cracking the cover of the original. But it’s in the score and in the case of electroacoustics it’s in the finished recording. To you it may seem opaque, but that doesn’t mean it is. The brilliant and successful performances of difficult compositions demonstrate that.


  86. Colin Holter

    tempo changes that happen nearly every bar (characteristic of academic music)

    Clearly you’ve never tried to get a piece with tempo changes in every bar played in the academy. It’s like pulling teeth. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: The academy is hostile to difficult music. “Academic” music is bland, international, mildly piquant, quasi-atonal bullshit. Please stop conflating it with radical music.

    It’s Wednesday, so my new thing should be up soon. Hopefully it’s perfunctory enough to forestall this kind of circular discursive clusterfuck.

  87. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Oooooooooooo! So Colin’s gonna end the discussion in one stroke! To have such power! And such descriptive elegance!

    Maybe I better go sharpen some knives. Yumm!


  88. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Nah, no bold strokes. The comment Colin made above was just an advertisement for his column today, which is a diversion from what we’ve been discussing. So I hope we can continue here our menial little cluster-whatnot.


  89. dalgas

    Not much to continue, Dennis, I think you’ve addressed it pretty well. Ryan’s just got to get away from that “seems arbitrary, is arbitrary” myopia. Nothing’s ever arbitrary in art; even a decision to put in something “aribtrary” would be intentional. Everything’s there for a reason, but it’s an art reason.

    As I have in my bio someplace, “each piece creates a world”. Its world, its interactions and relations. Maybe even its own meaning, though that isn’t at all essential, and even if there maybe nothing like any concept of meaning you hold. In great art, we feel all this by being both mystified and confirmed, often in one and the same moment. The figuring out comes later, and by you; art that’s perfectly obvious stops being art.

    [And Colin, cool it. You’re going right down to the level of the other personal attacks. If the people invited by the AMC to create posts head there, the whole thing devolves to endless USENET-style flame-wars.]

  90. rtanaka

    Yes, the music will speak for itself. Now Xenakis is dead so there’s nothing anybody can do about that now, but I generally think that he cares more about how the music sounds in his head rather than the reality of how to go about doing it . He seems to have this sort of Platonic attitude toward his mathematical abstractionisms, but that’s just my interpretation. His music is, however, very powerful when done right. I just don’t think he really cared about the performer all that much. I mean that trill is only 1 measure, and it just gets blended into the background. You can hardly hear it.

    A piece can be good despite technical flaws. But I don’t think its good to take comfort in the flaws, even if it’s done by reputable people. Nobody is perfect. Performers are very much open to collaboration, but all too often, I think, things are done in isolation, and by the time the first rehearsal comes around it’s too late to try to fix things. I think things can be done better than it has been done in the past, and composer can help to improve the situation as well. Just a little bit of foresight, please!

    Colin, at least know that if you’re going to throw in 6 tempo changes in 10 measures, that’s going to take several hours of work for those few measures, probably more if you’ve thrown in a few wrenches in between. Now you’re going to have to ask yourself if its worth making the performer toil through that sort of thing, and whether or not given time constrictions, the execution of a good performance is possible. If it’s done knowingly, then I think it is OK, because then you can visualize where the piece might end up in the long run. A lot of the time it isn’t though, and that’s when you run into problems because people begin projecting unrealistic expectations. You can generally take things for granted while in school, but I guarantee that once thrown into the real world, so to speak, people will become extremely busy and won’t have as much time to dedicate themselves to practicing. I think that’s why a lot of those types of things seem to exist in only in academia.

    If you wanted to write a score like Ferneyhough, for example, then you will need a performer who is aptly dedicated to that kind of aesthetic — they are rare, but they do exist. They also tend to be virtuoso types, so you will also have to contend with the fact that if you write in such a way, you will have to compete for their attention.

    Now I can hold my water as a horn player, but I’m definitely not a virtuoso and I’m definitely not interested in that kind of music. If you try to give something like that to someone like me, then I will probably say no thanks and maybe refer you to someone else. I don’t think this is a big deal. Some musics are better apt for some players, and that’s the way things work. But performers are not universal sound-playback machines…and I think there is a tendency to develop a dehumanized perspective towards the performer if things are done too much in isolation from one another.

  91. rtanaka

    Ryan’s just got to get away from that “seems arbitrary, is arbitrary” myopia…

    Arbitrary was probably the wrong word. Probably the biggest complaint I have (and this echoes many of the performers grumblings as well) is “unnecessarily complex”. Sometimes I run into things where the tempo speeds up but the rhythms slow down in a solo passage. Mathematically there is no reason why this sort of thing cannot be simplified — it’s silly. Also, if you don’t care about rhythmic precision in spurring passages, then the use of gracenotes often can make things a 100 times easier, both physically and mentally. Gracenotes are way underused in new musics, in my opinion. These a few specific things that I can think of off the top of my head for now.

    Just please be careful of what sorts of things you write — aesthetics are subjective of course, but it’s really obvious when things are not thought through.

  92. philmusic

    “..the intelectional rigour of composition seems mainly to come from the other side of the Atlantic…”

    No, I did not get this memo, nor do I think did Milton Babbitt,Elliot Carter, George Perle, etc etc. etc. etc.etc etc. etc. etc.

    Phil Fried

  93. madamecynthia

    I obviously should have used capital letters for the word MAINLY, as in not exclusive but dominant (and composers you mentioned are certainly at the very end of their composing careers).
    Or would you care to contemplate why so many top-teaching positions are given european composers?

  94. Somebody

    Madame Cynthia
    Well, you do know everything don’t you. Again, the personal attack. What do you stand for Madame? Do you stand for an egalitarian system for all composers, or do you stand for a system that just gives opportunity to a small select few. And, as I have repeated over, and over and over again, I do not send my scores out to symphonies or contests. You would have to be one stupid composer to do so. A short phone conversation with any major or minor orchestra management reveals they don’t look at them. Do you know of any equal opportunities for all composers, where all composers are considered equally? If so, please enlighten me, then perhaps your comments would become more valid. Personal attacks, shesh! What kind of system do you want for american composers?

  95. philmusic

    ..Or would you care to contemplate why so many top-teaching positions are given european composers?

    I have!

    Probably for the same reason that American composers hold so few “top-teaching positions” positions in Europe and Canada.

    Phil Fried

  96. madamecynthia

    Equal system for composers? What does that mean? Everything gets played no matter of the quality?
    Art has it’s own micro-economy that establishes a vertical of artistic value. But it seems you belive that all musical establishments in the world have no idea what musically worthy is.
    As said there are many composition competitions that are completely anonymous so the judges only look at the scores-or are you implying that all the competitions are riged and foul play is involved?

  97. philmusic

    “..the intelectional rigour of composition seems mainly to come from the other side of the Atlantic…”

    Ok “SEEMS” –this is would be a question of the different musical trends in Europe and America–If you are saying that there is an anti-intellectual trend in the US I agree.

    I mentioned names that one might recognise and there are many others. Yet unlike Europe–how would you get know them? Maybe here!!!!

    Phil Fried

  98. Somebody

    Egalitarian – Madame
    Yes, egalitarian. Equal opportunity for all composers, good and bad? I mean played, rehearsed, or simply read by a competent conductor, but produced for performance is another question. Have you ever called an orchestra and asked what happens to your (if you are a composer, madame) score if you send it to them? Most of them say things like, “you are a composer, why would you write a piece for orchestra?”, or “I don’t think we have time to look at your score.” My favorite, we don’t look at living composers’ scores. Yes, I stand for a music culture that gives opportunity for all composers. You got a problem with that? And, could you please enlighten me on specifically what contests have complete anonymous adjudication? A score by its very nature should define the composer that wrote it. And, I will repeat, I am talking about board members that grant themselves. Do you have any discussion about board members of MTC granting themselves orchestra residencies? And who on earth is talking about the world. I do get my music played, primarily small chamber groups. Why are you constantly making this a personal thing, like I am suffering. I am talking about the AMC, MTC, ACF, ACO – composer groups like that. How many damn times to I have to repeat myself. Actually, I am kinda enjoying this because I get to repeat how poor the service is of the AMC, MTC, ACO and the ACF, and yes stuff like Bang on a Can. Are you just so into the status quo as being the vertical micro economy social babble iconic whatever?

  99. mdwcomposer

    I do not send my scores out to symphonies or contests. You would have to be one stupid composer to do so.

    Uh oh, I think somebody just called me a stupid composer. Guess I’m among the elite now.

    — Mark Winges

  100. mdwcomposer

    Hard to generalilze. I’ve had the following things happen when I’ve sent stuff / applied for stuff:

    • silence
    • performance
    • rejection form letter
    • comments about why it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for
    • residency
    • email (not a “form letter”) with comments
    • broadcast
    • interesting email exchanges with people I never would have met otherwise
    • commission
    • returned by post office
    • lost in customs
    • variations on all the above

    Pretty much the same gamut of responses as job interviews, potential dates, and the rest of human experience: win some, lose some, some get rained out.

    — Mark Winges

  101. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Now there’s the question … actual experiences…

    I’ll follow Mark in a list of orchestral pieces. The few submitted cold were not acknowledged, so I quickly stopped doing that and engaged in getting performances of other material, sending letters to orchestras instead. As you can see, I get very few orchestral opportunities, and all (even the ones not acknowledged) were written for specific orchestras.

    Here’s all my orchestral stuff, in chronological order, beginning 23 years after I started composing, and the first year I actually submitted an orchestral score anywhere (I’m very patient):

    • Silence (1987) and never performed
    • Rejected (1987) and never performed
    • Silence (1989) and never performed
    • Commissioned (1990) and one performance
    • Commissioned (1990) and one performance
    • Commissioned (1991) and one performance
    • Commissioned (1995) by soloist, rejected by orchestra, never performed
    • Commissioned (1999) and two performances
    • Commissioned (2000) and four performances
    • Commissioned (2001) and two performances
    • Commissioned (2004) and ten performances
    • Commissioned (2005) and indefinitely postponed
    • Commissioned (2006) and awaiting a performance date
    • Commissioned (2007) and scheduled for 2008 performance

    All but one of the commissions were by community and regional orchestras. Most large city orchestras are provincial, nepotistic, or star vehicles, so I don’t even try.

    In terms of smaller, non-orchestral music, I rarely ever submitted scores cold, and now prefer to talk with performers first. I do not pursue those clearly uninterested.


  102. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    A half-hour piece from 1986 (orchestra without brass, six percussionists, two pianos, chorus and descant soloist) was premiered by a large group that I assembled from musical friends. It was performed once in 1988 by another ensemble.


  103. madamecynthia

    No, I am not a composer, I studied piano and musicology however I am just not gifted enough to be a professional musician and went to business school, and have worked in the managment of two major publishing houses and at an international festival.
    I never wrote any music myself but I managed contracts, performances and recordinges for composers. I have also worked for an international composer competition – but when 3-4 jurors are faced with 100 scores, and they can select 5-6 for a performance, they inevitably have to make a decision what is to be played. One can disagree with the selection but to imply foul-play at such events is malicious, tedious and misinformed. Grants, commissions, stipends are usually given to people with whom one shares an aesthetic viewpoint-artist-friends who share a similar aesthetic is a common thing.

  104. Somebody

    What is the Competition?
    Dear Madame, so what is the competition you spoke of that is totally egalitarian? Yes, I know, 3 judges, 100 scores, and the problems. That is one of the absurd problems. You didn’t speak of that issue before?

  105. madamecynthia

    I was obviously speaking about the notion that there are always more scores sent in than can get played- there is always some kind of selection made.That is unescapable. There is nothing egalitarian about art or any intelectual endeavour- there are very few who are born with capabilities we all are jealous of, and I myself am not excluded from tthis list- as I said I am a failed pianist myself.

  106. Somebody

    Failed Pianist?
    I am so sorry you have come to the conclusion that you are a failed pianist. I am so sorry that you feel “art” is not for the nobodies, and only for the manufactured celebrities. Your sentiments and your pathologies are revealing symptoms that I am attempting to remedy. The music field is filled with jerks and creeps that proclaim dominance, leaving a pile of ashes out of dreams. Your posts, vividly speaking out against my efforts is truly obvious. My recommendation is buy yourself a brand new copy of some Brahms Intemezzos and start playing the piano again. There is nothing to fail. Your pathology is what I am trying to stop from happening in our young musicians today.

  107. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    (Since the topics disappear and are hard to find once they’re gone from either the homepage or hot topics, I’m just posting to bump this back up on the topics list. Several times this voice in the wilderness has asked for an expansion of the homepage so topics don’t disappear. If anybody else cares, perhaps you could also contact Frank.)



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