Premature Capitulation

Premature Capitulation

As composers, we’re usually allotted copious amounts of time to toil over every infinitesimal detail of our creations. Some of us even know exactly what we’ll be working on, more or less, and exactly when it will be completed as far out as 2008. On the contrary, I’m more of a paycheck-to-paycheck composer and have a hard time keeping track what I’m doing next week much less next year. The whole 9 to 5 thing has shifted my composing ambitions from possible professional career—not that I ever believed I could earn a comfortable living writing concert music—to mere hobby status. So, without much time to compose, I’ve learned to do it rather quickly. My piece This May Not Be Music was composed in three days, less than a month before its London premiere.

The way I see it, certain types of music might actually suffer from too much consideration. If Jackson Pollock spent more time on his canvases, they’d probably lose some of their impact. I’m not saying that Jay DeFeo is amiss for spending as much as eight years on a single painting, there’s certainly value in that as well. Last weekend, I was reminded that some contemporary music aficionados’ prejudices clearly lie in the Jay DeFeo camp, going so far as to doubt the artistic merits of a composition written in a short period of time.

MATA's Petting Zoo
MATA’s Petting Zoo

Unpredictability is the one certain thing we’ve come to expect from the annual Music at the Anthology Festival. Keeping with tradition, this year’s festival dared to be different, right down to its fanciful reality TV-like premise. Sure, it might sound a little gimmicky—it’s not hard to imagine a Survivor-like opening credits sequence complete with New York City montage intercut with glamour shots of the composer cast of characters and the following tag line: See what happens when 8 composers write 8 new works in only 8 days.

So, what did happen? Well, besides the new portfolio of compositions premiered last Saturday and Sunday, all eight composers stretched themselves, found new ways of working, struggled with solutions, and created an end product they may have never discovered without this experience. Passersby near Times Square and Grand Central Station were allowed to watch each composers’ process in what was called “The Composers’ Petting Zoo.” The prominent storefront window locations piped the sounds composers generated inside out into the streets. The curious would peek in, or even stop and chat for a while, making the act of composition into some kind of performance in and of itself. Composer Charles Waters taped pages of manuscript to the windows, some containing finished music, while others had questions scrawled on them: How many orchestras can I have for the price of one bomb? Can your hedge fund help pay for new music?

Well, as they say in the corporate world, time is money. Who knows, maybe it’s true, but some rebuffs overheard during the MATA festival made me wonder how this same paradigm can exist inside the artistic mind of a musician. Is there really any correlation between the amount of time a composer devotes to his or her own work and its aesthetic value? Is notated music being downsized? And if so, does it even really matter?

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.

6 thoughts on “Premature Capitulation

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    Last month, for the final broadcast of Kalvos and Damian’s New Music Bazaar, composers were invited to participate in a “composer’s combat.” A set of instructions was posted on a Saturday morning and compositions had to be turned in no later than noon. At high noon, the works were played in K&D’s studio up in Vermont by a small group of musicians in front of a small group of judges who then, Survivor-style, knocked them off one by one in the evaluation process until only one was left.

    Entering competitions has always gone against my better judgment, in a manner of speaking, but K & D are pals and compatriots in the evangelization of new music, so I had to write something. My entire composition was conceived and notated in less than the amount of time an ideal performance of it might take and I did it more for fun and as a gesture of friendship than anything else. But since that initial performance, even though it was not in fact the compositional “survivor,” several people have asked me about it and it now seems to have a life of its own.

    Initially I found this shocking. Why should this quickly knocked-off piece be getting any attention when some other pieces I’ve toiled away on for years have not? I too was operating under this notion that sweat equals worth. But, I still wonder if it’s possible to create something deep and profound in an extremely short period of time. (For the record, I am not trying to imply that everything must be deep and profound and not making any comment about the composition’s eventual duration.)

    I know that Mozart cranked out symphonies in the backs of carriages and John Coltrane seems to have uttered a masterpiece every time an improvised sound emanated from his saxophone, but arguably both were mining ideas that had a much longer gestation period than the time they actually took to bring them into the world whether on a piece of manuscript paper or in the thick of the moment in a club or recording studio.

    Similarly, is it possible to create something purposefully ephemeral over an extremely long period of time? Music is about time, but what role does time ultimately play in its creation?

  2. JohnClare

    God (insert Intelligent design deity here) or whatever higher power you believe or don’t believe in, must have a sense of humor. A piece rushed off suddenly becomes the focus of others, when a work that was meticulously written is ignored. This goes from contemporary times of musical creation (and in the 7th hour, Frank rested from his composition, and he said it was, well, gonna be on time for the competition!) to all generations of composers…Mozart as you mentioned faced deadlines for commissions.
    Composer beware, writing in a hurry may produce more performances! It may in fact produce honest, bare writing that appeals to others; or something you want to hide for a while.

  3. Garth Trinkl

    Frank, since you mention that K & D are your pals, and Molly Sheridan has recently mentioned that Greg Sandow is a NewMusicBox pal, you might want to let Mr Sandow know that it was Alice Goodman, and not Alice Hoffman, who wrote the librettos for John Adams’s Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer.

    Unlike you on your quickly composed K & D work, apparently, Ms Goodman did in fact spend alot of time, creativity, and intelligence on her librettos, and she should, in my opinion, be recognized for her outstanding contribution to American music and culture, and cited correctly by pals of NewMusicBox.

    Thank you.

  4. dalgas

    But, I still wonder if it’s possible to create something deep and profound in an extremely short period of time.

    I spend a lot of time at the Asian Art Museum here in Seattle, and this principle’s more than affirmed by some of the Japanese and Chinese ink scrolls. Once the gesture is initiated and the brush is touching the paper, it has to happen right there and then and there’s no taking back.

    It’s also what a lot of the currently big new-music improv movement is about.

  5. sgordon

    I think Frank brings up a good point with Mozart and Coltrane – that both were mining ideas which had long gestated inside them before setting them on paper or sending them out the bell of a saxophone. I would think that, under pressure to sompose something on the spot, any composer would be doing exactly the same – now, I don’t know that any of us are improvisers on the level of ‘Trane, but I would guess most composers who have been at it long enough, were they to sit down and improvise at the piano or guitar or whatever their main instrument is, would knock out something that sounds like them, at least to some degree.

    The challenge to compose a work in a short period of time is going to make one tap into that improvisational side, so while it may not be the fully formed work you would normally release into the world, it might have it’s own pros for not having overthought it so much and simply going with the emotion of the moment. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was reportedly composed live, on stage, after Mingus’ band heard the news of Lester Young’s death. I can’t think of a better example than that.

    It’s a funny time to bring up this subject, what with the flood of insta-compositions popping up in the wake of Katrina, mostly written by the thousand-some-odd composers who put out works on 9/12 to commemorate 9/11. Is it valid? Is it pretentious, even if heartfelt? It’s one thing to blow a blues, feeling the emotion of the moment, but what of those who have released symphonies or string quartets? Is it wrong to approach such works with skepticism? Only the composers themselves know how much of their work is new, of the moment, and how much of it is “sad tune #13” that’s ben sitting in the shoebox for three years in search of an excuse.

    I took part in a competition, for fun, a few years ago for electro-acoustic composition. We had more than a few hours, thankfully – three days in which to compose. All we knew in advance was that on day 1, a series of sound files were posted online and one had to use only those sounds – stretched, skewed, shifted and twisted as you saw fit – as the source material for your composition. Rules regarding various other aspects – length, etc – were held until that time as well. While obviously I couldn’t truly concieve the finished product until I had the source materials in hand (or, um… in ear…) I did, before hand, have an idea of the type of work I wanted to write, the general structure and arc of it, the mood and texture, and so on and so forth – but malleable, taking into consideration that there would be variables that would come up in the rules. Because for all I knew, the track would have to be thirty seconds or less and contain an interpolation of the Theme from Gilligan’s Island.

    I’m curious, Frank – and anyone else who participated in the competition, or similar ones, should feel free to share their experiences – how much of your work for K&D came from pre-existing strands of thought? Did the composition start, in the back of your brain, when your first heard there was going to be a competition, or did it only really start that morning? Looking at your work now, a couple of weeks removed, does it show signs of things you may have been working on in your head for a long time? Those long gestating ideas that flowed from Coltrane’s sax and Mozart’s quill?


  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Seth raised some interesting points (which actually inspired a new thread yesterday afternoon), but to answer his question (“how much of your work for K&D came from pre-existing strands of thought?”)…

    It’s strange. At the time Dennis asked me to participate, I was in the middle of re-examining a solo composition I had never completed nearly 20 years ago which was based on the rules of various children’s games. The music I had originally written based on one of those games, snakes and ladders, actually didn’t effectively convey the game, so I was creating new music that I felt was more in keeping with the original idea I had.

    Turns out that K&D’s composer combat was also something of a game and was remarkably simpatico conceptually with snakes and ladders, but I hadn’t yet consciously made the connection. Then, on the Saturday morning, when I learned the exact specs of the required “komposer kombat” composition, it dawned on me that my 1986 snakes and ladders concept, which was not effectively realized by me back then but which seemed to finally be working for me now, might be even more effective for an ensemble piece in which players compete with one another and it easily fit in with K&D’s specs. Curiously, the two pieces, the newly fashioned movement from the solo piece originally conceived in 1986, and the piece for K&D sound almost nothing like each other, and both sound unlike most of the music I’m writing right now, so go figure…

    I think the lesson here is that whatever is on your mind at a given moment is likely to manifest itself in whatever you happen to be doing, regardless of the external prompt that generates it. So, perhaps the way your idea gets morphed by the outside prodding is where serendipity comes into play.


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