Fear of an Unknown Unknown

Fear of an Unknown Unknown

Last night I attended a concert of chamber music for woodwinds and piano. As expected, the program was heavy on late-19th-century Paris Conservatoire material by French composers of modest reputation. This literature isn’t my favorite, and, at the risk of generalizing, I think most musicians recognize its limitations. In a pre-performance spiel, the oboe player noted that choosing chamber repertoire for woodwind instruments can often be an exercise in exhuming obscure figures; he praised one, Paul Gilson, for his compositional “strengths,” i.e. distinct formal structures and clear harmonic regions. The oboist also mentioned that Gilson was potty-trained and, in terms of juice facilitation, rejected the sippy cup at an early age. Not really.

I’m reminded of a voting fallacy that emerged during the 2004 election cycle: Although voters were aware that they had been misled by George W. Bush, many chose to support him instead of John Kerry, whose potential for deception was uncharted. In other words, they opted for the known liar rather than the possible liar. Sure, it’s possible that a newly commissioned piece will be bad, but some of the music I heard last night was definitely bad—and I think the concert’s presenters knew it! What will it take to convince such a group to take a chance on contemporary music?

Well, as luck would have it, the last page of the program I picked up at the show contains several lists of names, each associated with a dollar amount. My suspicion is that having one’s name on such a list (preferably one lower down on the page) might be a good starting place. That’s why, as soon as my next paycheck arrives, I’ll be making a contribution to the organization in question—and when I send this pittance along, I’ll be including a letter stating my position.

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7 thoughts on “Fear of an Unknown Unknown

  1. mryan

    Money is the issue
    Most small organizations don’t have the money to commission new music. It is relatively inexpensive to produce the work of the dead.

  2. jbunch


    Sorry, I can’t control the VOLUME OF MY VOICE!!!

    James Bunch
    School of Music, UIUC
    1114. W. Nevada
    Urbana, IL 61821

  3. andrewscole

    Generally young unestablished composers are much more interested getting their music played and their name out there than actual money. What stresses me out isn’t the money(that’s what my day job is for), it is not having performance opportunities. Next time, take a chance on a younger, unestablished composer. Be upfront that you can give them a performance but not pay them. Offer to work on a grant with them. Yes they are unknowns, but they also might be gems in the rough. Chances are he/she will be flattered that you like their music that much (very high chances, in fact). I speak from experience as a young composer…

    In other words since I am allergic to peanuts, I’ll do it for bag of cashews.


  4. kmanlove

    Oops, enter button.

    Every time a group I’ve known has put on a daring (and I even mean marginally daring) concert of music, it has been rewarding for them. Anytime they’ve put on an interesting piece or program (and actually advertised for the event), it has been a great concert with surprising turnout.

    I’ve promoted new, exciting works and old stuff, and it is much more difficult to get people to come to the old stuff, especially if they’re not that familiar with classical music… they don’t enjoy sitting through music that they know deep down sucks.

    I have often heard that there is money out there to commission new works… this may be a pain, but it’s a pain that’s part of the job. If you’re just phoning it in, you should probably shouldn’t put the concert on the first place. If you’re putting in the effort to put the concert on, put the effort in to make people want to come. I’m a rock on this because I’ve been a part of commissioning composers for ensembles.

  5. Colin Holter

    It’s always mystified me how sometimes performers will play music they don’t really believe in. I hope Eric Ewazen isn’t reading this, because I have to admit that even though I’ve seen a bunch of his chamber music on student recitals, I’ve never once heard a player voice any real attachment to his stuff.

    And it doesn’t have to be newly commissioned music, either – there’s a lot of great music from the recent past that is criminally underplayed. I’m sure we all could come up with a list of smallish pieces we’d love to hear from each decade of the last half-century.

  6. davidcoll

    the players are often not the ones choosing the music, its the artistic directory, or the board that does most of that…but if you’re not talking about ensembles, but rather soloists, i totally agree- mystified myself….teachers usually recommend things that won’t take too much time away from the orchestral excerpts repertoire for getting a good orchestra gig- why learn a new flute embouchure when you’d have to simultaneously un-learn it each time you practice your debussy?


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