Big Questions

Big Questions

Question Mark Graffiti by Bilal Kamoon

Often during our conversations with composers for NewMusicBox profiles, there are moments of insight and inspiration—more than once I have thought, “I so wish I had taken some lessons with this person when I was a student!” In some cases we have interviewed people with whom I have worked in the past at festivals and during residencies, and even then they can still surprise me with information or ideas we never touched upon during our previous time together. I love that!

One of the things I appreciate is when a composer is really tuned in to the big questions in life and has somehow integrated their answers into their work. For instance, Chou Wen-chung really honed in on those sorts of issues with a focused clarity that I found totally refreshing: “Who am I?” “Is this music something that I should do, given what I know about myself?” “How does my life experience define my music?” Similarly, this is what John Harbison was getting at when he spoke about the need for composers to get out into the world, take walks in the woods, and bring to light “what goes into their music besides what they know about music.” The composers whose music I value the most all have a solid handle on who they are and what they are doing. These same people also make brilliant teachers and mentors, because they have established that personal foundation and can guide students in creative directions to find their own solutions.

Questions like these are so important for composers to think about, because the way in which composers have been influenced by their background, various life events, and personality tend to show up in one form or another in their music. Chou Wen-chung spoke about playing a harmonium for the first time as a child, and how much he loved the volume swells that could be created with the pedals. He credits his extensive use of crescendo and diminuendo to that experience, which on the outside might seem like a fairly mundane thing, but he says, “I probably have used more crescendo-diminuendo than Debussy ever did. That’s purely because I got the pleasure of hearing the sound get louder and softer. I cannot resist the temptation, even right now when I’m almost 90!”

Obviously figuring this information out can be a big challenge for younger composers, who are still discovering who they are, both personally and musically, and of course the answers to the questions change over time. But periodically taking time to think about things and to find answers is a process that I believe is important to the quality of the music; it’s getting past technique and actually putting something of one’s self into a composition.

That said, it can be really challenging for any busy musician to tune into such universal issues. How can anyone think about that stuff when there are so many other smaller-yet-very-important things to consider—you know, counterpoint, orchestration, form, structure, oh yes and having things performed—in the creation of music? I was really intrigued by Isaac Schankler’s post about the two sides of Lou Harrison, and specifically the idea that the current atmosphere of extreme and ambitious careerism could be killing all kinds of creative acts before they ever hit daylight. I’m sure it is, more than anyone probably wants to admit.

So, who are you? What’s your story? (No, not your PR/marketing story, your real life story.) In what way do the bits of that story turn up in your music? How would someone describe you if they had never met you, and only heard your music? If you don’t have the answers just yet, then how will you figure them out?

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.

3 thoughts on “Big Questions

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Is wonderful how the events of life can influence the way someone writes music. A composer friend of mine says that there isn’t such a thing as “absolute music”, there is always something behind.

  2. Brighton

    Nice post. My long life in music has taught me that music is much bigger and more important than me. The idea of developing a brand and marketing art seems absurd and a little blasphemous. If people are attracted to my music, that’s great, but the choices I made did not come from me being clever or trying to portray my life as important and beautiful. My compositions come from subordinating my ego to a higher perfection that I can hear and recreate and others cannot. Sharing it is an obligation.

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Thanks for your comment Brighton. You have made the point I was getting at, that knowing one’s self makes it possible to let go and let the music be what it is. Bits of ourselves automatically wind up in there without us needing to control the process.


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