While the Music Lasts

While the Music Lasts

…you are the music
While the music lasts.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

As composers and performers, our work is to make the music—to be the music while the music lasts.

Rightfully, we’re usually concerned with what’s happening in our music right now: How are things going with that new piece we’re working on? Where and when will the next performance be? How will it be received? Will we get a good recording of it?

But what happens to the music after you’re gone? Will the music last? And if so, how?

Although most of us hope that the music we make will speak to audiences in the future, none of us can say how time and culture will sort things out. The best we can do is to leave our music in good condition, in places where people can readily find it.

Some of my own music poses practical challenges of length, ensemble size, and unique tunings and performance practices. So performances of some of my best works have been relatively infrequent, and recordings have been a very important way for me to reach listeners and to document the music. In addition to several commercial recordings, I maintain a collection of performance recordings, which I hope will be useful to performers and others in the future who want to know how the composer thought this music should sound.

In addition to recordings, I keep performance notes for future performers about how to approach the music, aesthetically and practically. Most importantly, I try to develop long-term relationships with performers who understand and believe in the music—musicians who can teach others to play it when I’m not around.

In my studio, I also keep an archive of sketches, notes, and fragments. By now, this collection dates back thirty years. Not only does it trace the evolution of my music. It’s a vital creative resource for me. Last year, beginning work on a new commission, I reached into the filing cabinet and found a sketch from 1974. Twenty-six years later, I wrote the piece.

Although my archive is relatively well organized, if my studio were to catch fire a very important part of my life’s work could go up in flames. From time to time, I’ve thought about trying to place my papers and recordings in a library or archive where they would be more secure and accessible. So far I’ve not pursued this. But I do have a will, which names a musical executor and allocates a portion of whatever estate I may have at my death to support the preservation and dissemination of my work.

While I’m still alive and kicking, I’ll continue to do whatever I can to get the music into the ears and hands of as many interested people and organizations as I can. I donate and sell recordings and performance materials to libraries, radio stations, ensembles, individual performers and scholars.

In my early twenties, I began placing my works in the collection of the American Music Center. This past month, the AMC 20th Century Collection moved to the New York Public Library, where it will be housed in perpetuity and —(through the continuing work of the Center’s staff)—available for circulation.

In the coming year, the American Music Center will launch NewMusicJukeBox, an online distribution network for performance materials, recordings and information about American music and musicians. As president of the AMC, it’s my belief and commitment that JukeBox will be a vital force for American music in the 21st century.

What are your thoughts about the future of your music? What steps have you taken to make sure that the music lasts? And what can the AMC do to help?

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.