It’s Not About Me (It’s Never About Me)

It’s Not About Me (It’s Never About Me)

Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time on the short side of the microphone, being interviewed by various parties about an upcoming concert. While I’m thrilled that some excitement is building, I’m also wrung out from the process of trying to appear quotable, trying to boil down years of thought into pithy statements, trying to talk about ephemeral and experimental art in a way that can be understood by anyone.

When I was younger, I used to love talking about my music. I knew the exact reason why every note was where it was in all my scores and would take opportunities to tell people whether or not they asked or cared. Now, I’ve composed a lot of music. Honestly, at times I can barely remember what pieces I’ve composed, much less what I was thinking while I wrote them. And as I become better at composing, I say more in the piece itself, leaving less to be explained verbally.

Unfortunately, this makes me a pretty terrible salesperson for my music. And I find the whole process of trying to convince people to listen to my music to be demoralizing at best, demeaning at worst. I tend to think that if people are interested, they’ll look into it. And if they’re not interested, they won’t give it a fair listen anyway. I have plenty of friends who have never listened to my music, and that’s fine with me.

The great exceptions to the rule—when I am ready to sell and sell hard—are when the moments arrive when I can expound on interesting projects or when I can help others fill their needs. I have no problem explaining the myriad reasons why the other people involved in a concert are amazing and worthy of high praise. And I love being asked for recommendations for musicians, for teachers, for job openings, for listening. I believe strongly in my ability to pair people with the things they seek. I advocate easily and often for my students and my peers. But I’d really rather not talk about my own things.

And yet, I’m finding myself spending a lot of time lately talking about myself. As you might have noticed, here on NewMusicBox, I write weekly about my experiences. And this Thursday I’m launching a new music ensemble—League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS)—with a concert at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania.

LotUS is an incredibly exciting project, about which I will be talking over the weeks and months ahead. Our first season also will include concerts on the Ethos New Music Society series at SUNY Fredonia (February 19), at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (March 19), and at the Windup Space in Baltimore (March 20).

This Thursday’s concert—for two pianos, percussion, and toy piano—will include the American premiere of Of Risk and Memory, a two-piano piece by Arlene Sierra, alongside works by John Cage, Thierry de Mey, Peter Garland, Georges Aperghis, Huang Ruo, and myself. In addition to the composed works, I will improvise on toy piano alongside master percussionist Tim Feeney. I have designed the concert in hopes that it will create an immersive theatric experience in which the visual element will help to support the sonic.

This is the sort of project that I can get behind, that I can sell to all who ask. And so I was very happy to be able to talk about LotUS with so many people. But now the concert is in a few days and I’m ready to stop talking and to make some music.

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.

4 thoughts on “It’s Not About Me (It’s Never About Me)

  1. mclaren

    Surely there exists a comfy middle ground twixt talking about yourself and getting people jazzed about the cool stuff that’s going on.

    As a listener, I hugely appreciate a composer who takes the time to explain hi/r perspective on the piece. Listeners usually want to get behind a piece of music and understand it better. How is it put together? What’s going on below the level of surface detail? Are there deep processes at work? If so, what are they? How did the composer arrive at this particular piece? Were there false starts? Was this part of a larger composition? How did the piece originally start, and how did it change over the course of the process of composing?

    Context helps a lot. Is this composition one of a type? If so, what are its characteristics? Or is this particular musical form a one-off? If so, how is it built? What dramatic structures underlie this composition? How did the composer balance unity and variety? How did the composer deal with the collapse of tradition forms like the fugue and the sonata? Where does this composition fit into music history? Where does this piece fit into recent American music? What school of composition does the composer come out of — downtown, uptown, West Coast, electronic, algorithmic, homebuilt-industrument maker, xenharmonic, new complexity, minimalist, neorthyhmic, what?

    In fact, let me be the first to urge composers to go to town talking about the work — and playing it. Wouldn’t it be great not only to excerpts of a piece of music and then the composer explaining, “Okay, here’s what I did here, and here’s how it works. and now let’s hear this next section of the music to hear how it relates”? And wouldn’t it be even cooler to hear the composer playing early versions of the compositions and explaining “This was what I tried first, and it didn’t work, and here’s why — but now here’s what I changed. Listen to the differences…”?

    There’s a near-total absence of communication about the music from contemporary composers to the audience, and from current composers to other composers. All the info seems to get squeezed into weird equation-filled academic papers in obscure academic journals. But that’s worthless. What we want is a give-and-take that lets people know the sum and substance of what a particular composition is about, and why a particular compositional trend has appeared, and how it’s changing. One great example of this is Alejandro Vinao’s Children of Nancarrow podcast.

    Talking about yourself may hold little interest, but can’t you talk about the music? Lots of us would like to know more. The claim that “the music speaks for itself” might have rung true back when well-defined traditional musical forms like the sonata and the gavotte held sway, and composers essayed only the most microscopic extensions of standard musical structures like the symphony and the sonata-allegro form. But today, in the 21st century, most traditional forms have been cast aside and an audience often finds itself faced not only with new forms and new musical structures but even new instruments and new tunings. Help us out here! Getting thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool ain’t the best way to introduce people to new music.

  2. Ryan Manchester

    I’ve been enjoying reading your posts lately, from working day jobs to this one about forming new music ensembles. It has been encouraging to read that a career in music is a slowly evolving affair, especially if we are writing music for art and ourselves as opposed to money.

    I moved to New York about a year and a half ago, and sometimes the complete saturation of the new music scene can be overwhelming. It seems the more active composers there are, the more gimmicky and mediocre the music actually is, and more discouraging, this type of music seems to be gaining all of the financial support of grants and contests.

    To reiterate the above, it has been nice to read about a composer that is making waves and getting noticed for MUSIC! Not some circus tent type of event with every kind of side show to fluff up the poorly written music, but real, honest, innovative music. These posts have helped especially in the last few days.


  3. holbrooke

    It seems the more active composers there are, the more gimmicky and mediocre the music actually is, and more discouraging, this type of music seems to be gaining all of the financial support of grants and contests.

    Come on man, without real criticism of real music you just come off sounding jealous and bitter.


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