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.
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?