The Unanswerable Question

The Unanswerable Question

Back in high school, shortly after I first started composing, I sent my music—music which was, as I’ve mentioned, abominable—to several luminaries of the western Maryland music scene, such as it is, for comments. I was eager to hear a professional’s opinion of my clumsy, unschooled attempts. Rather than laud my (clearly un-laudable) efforts as I’d hoped, one pianist responded with a question: Why would you want to write music when there’s already so much great music out there?

I don’t know whether he meant this question rhetorically or not, but it has thousands of answers: Because I have to. Because I want to and can’t explain why. Because I’m not satisfied with the old music. Because I love the old music but don’t find it sufficient to make my 21st-century life more comprehensible.

However, it’s a question that has indeed been weighing on my mind as I reach the final pages of a piece for string quartet that I’ve been working on since the early fall. The string quartet is an assemblage of instruments with an indelible history; I find myself thinking less about “two violins, a viola, and a cello” than about the ensemble of Op. 131, K. 465, the Lyric Suite, the “Intimate Letters” quartet, Reigen seliger Geister, etc. In this context, the matter of why I write music in the face of so much insurmountable historical precedent is very much at the fore: Why would a quartet learn and present my piece when they could be learning and presenting the Grosse Fuge?

Hopefully it’ll be because they see something in it that can’t be found in the masterpieces of the past. (Maybe they’ll sense a whiff of “unicorny,” to steal a term from Randy, a quality on which Beethoven’s best music seldom traded. I might even hope for “unicornirony.”) Maybe it’ll be because they appreciate the stunt-like thrill of taking on a 40-minute quarter-tone nightmare. But maybe they won’t. Will I be able to blame them for playing one of those great quartets of the past instead of mine?

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8 thoughts on “The Unanswerable Question

  1. Tom Myron

    Keep Going
    You’re thinking to hard. There isn’t that much great music out there. And there’s always room at the top.

    Congratulations on your quartet. I’d like to hear it.

  2. jchang4

    Why would you want to write music when there’s already so much great music out there?

    Is it just me, or does that not strike others as the dumbest question ever? You could easily ask that pianist: Why would you want to play (old) classical music, when it’s already been played so well so many times before? Why would anyone ever again play the Bach cello suites when clearly no one will ever be able to top Yo-Yo Ma at it (I’m being sarcastic here)? I mean, it’s just silly. Traditions die when people stop carrying them on. If “classical” composers stopped composing, classical music really would be dead.

  3. pgblu

    I’m with the changmeister on this one: if you don’t write your string quartet, someone else might, and then they’ll get all the credit.

    I look forward to the 40-minute, quarter-tone nightmare. I rarely ever remember my dreams, so that will be a nice substitute.

  4. keen

    Sometimes the past greats can weigh us down, and it’s rarely a good thing. Once and a while a piece of music will strike me as so hideously amazing that it won’t leave my mind for days on end. Usually it’s pretty destructive, and Beethoven’s quartets have often returned as suspects among the others you mentioned. It is a noble cause to try to “build on” what the masters have done, but at some point you just have to throw it all out. Just think of the sounds and how *you* think they should go! Ever hear John Zorn’s Cat O’ Nine Tails?


  5. EmilyG

    I like to write music. I would not call my music good music. But the reason I write music is to try to express something that hasn’t already been expressed in the music I’ve heard.

  6. jbunch

    I’m kind of fixated on the op. 132 right now (particularly the Heiligedankesang [sp?] ) I heard Pacifica play it here at the Krannert Center, and it kind of made me want to jump off a bridge into a river of cotton candy [trans: I LOVED IT SO MUCH IT HURT].

    Actually almost everything on my current rotation is old old music. The music I write couldn’t be farther in terms of the artifice of surface sounds and materials, but I’m learning some great things from it (like the value of simple utterances and the virtue of trusting performers to explore ideas expressively).

    And I write music because I love playing with sounds, and I love the ways that writing music has changed the way I think about my life and the world, etc. Plus I love musicians with every fiber of my being – working with other people to create art is one of the most fulfilling experiences I could imagine.

  7. Colin Holter

    One thing I really miss about living in Champaign-Urbana is hearing the Pacifica Quartet play Beethoven. Their Op. 130 was one of the all-time best concert experiences of my life, and I bet their Heilige Dankgesang is incredible too.


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