So Much Music, So Little Time

So Much Music, So Little Time

A couple of weeks ago I started the chattering for the year by throwing out a zillion questions about the process of composing amid the hard realities of chronological time. After some back and forth in the reader responses debating whether Franz Josef Haydn’s immense output of symphonies was worthwhile, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz astutely reminded us of an excellent article he had written for us in 2006 which summarized the results of his survey about composer productivity.

The question of how much a composer should be writing continued to gnaw at me this past weekend as I attempted to work on a new piece and actually completed something, although admittedly it lasts merely half a minute. I also tried to catch up with unlistened to recordings. Among the recordings that made it from my Zeno’s paradox listening pile to my rack system were the most recent Sonic Youth studio album, Rather Ripped, which is their 15th, and two discs on Naxos American Classics. The first featured the world premiere recording of Alan Hovhaness’s 1979 Guitar Concerto, opus 325, which was quite a pleasant surprise. The other was a disc devoted to the sacred choral music of Carson Cooman, who is only 25 years old and has already completed over 750 works. (He uses opus numbers, too!) Cooman’s music demonstrated a clear compositional voice and made for a wonderful hour of listening.

None of this music suffers artistically from being the product of very prolific creators. But perhaps where it might suffer is in its potential reception among listeners. I’m a huge Sonic Youth fan and only yesterday listened to this record which came out nearly two years ago; it sits among 24 LPs of Sonic Youth on my shelves vying for attention among thousands of other choices. Music takes time to be experienced and appreciated, and creating a ton of music creates a time burden for even the most devoted listeners. People seem less inclined to listen to composers’ 100th piano concertos than their first or second ones.

There’s also a pernicious belief among some avatars of the new that if you are constantly cranking out material you’re not spending enough time questioning your compositional language. But might the real reason some of us complain about someone else’s vast output be ultimately because we don’t have the time to digest it? Another listening highlight of the weekend was a disc featuring six of Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantatas sung by countertenor David Daniels. But the disc’s booklet notes begged the question: Will anyone ever record all of Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantatas—there are 600—let alone be able to find the time to listen to them?

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4 thoughts on “So Much Music, So Little Time

  1. Daniel Wolf

    A musical community’s understanding of its repertoire, and its relationship to that repertoire, are dynamic phenomena. In contemporary classical music communities, the 19th-century masterpiece ethic and the era of recorded music continue to contribute to a placement of emphasis on the repeated playing and audition of a limited number of works with new and rediscovered works tangential to and only rarely joining the canon. But earlier musical communities were more invested in a regular consumption of new repertoire, not the singular, masterful example of a cantata or quartet or symphonie, but rather multiple instances of each, appropriate to the immediate circumstances, engaged with the detailed investigation of the most subtle varations in forms, figures, and affects which were in play across the repertoire.

    While there is a common prejudice in contemporary music circles against composers who prolifically produce repertoire in a more baroque or classical fashion — the Hovhanesses or Segerstams — the extent to which this an unreflected perpetuation of an romantic masterpiece ideal ought to be considered, and the benefits of the more productive approach might well be further investigated, in particular a relaxed sense of the importance of the individual work at hand, with priority given by default to the next new work rather than recycling the last successful one..

    I would suggest that the healthiest enviroment for contemporary music would be one in which both approaches are encouraged; the scarcely objectionable prerequisite for that is simply more performances of more music!

  2. William Osborne

    While there is a common prejudice in contemporary music circles against composers who prolifically produce repertoire in a more baroque or classical fashion…

    Is that really true? I have noticed that the most successful contemporary composers maintain their careers by keeping up a steady stream of works. The premieres keep them in the public eye. A continual flow of works of moderate quality seems to work better for building and maintaining careers, rather than higher quality work presented with much longer time intervals between them. The music world tends to forget composers if they write too slowly, even if the works are good. Do composers have to keep up a regular flow to work “the machine?”

    William Osborne

  3. Dean Rosenthal

    Not so much a comment as a complaint: Frank reminds me that I am far, far behind where I need to be when it comes to catching up on my listening list. And catching up.


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