Several composers have written eloquently on this site about how the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have affected their work. They’ve advised that ultimately, no matter how paralyzed they feel, it is time to create, even if their job as composers has now changed. Margaret Atwood wrote a great article about what art can, should, or will be made under the current administration. And she makes a good point when she says that the president won’t even notice, rating his interest in the arts somewhere between zero and negative 10 (on a scale from 1 to 100).
To me, the result of the election was an “unpresidented” [sic] embarrassment on a global level, and continues to be as we all witness the daily barrage of tantrums and tweets. But I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer. I felt compelled to do something, and regrettably I had not yet read this great article about what many other performers were up to, or discovered projects such as the Activist Songbook or this hilarious piece.
So, late at night on August 9, 2017 (I’m pretty sure it was after reading about North Korea and how “Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarms in Asia”), I turned to the one thing I know I can always count on: sarcasm. I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of commissioning a piece called Suite #45, or potentially writing it myself. I listed a humorous set of possible characteristics (which I’ve also listed here):
- movements limited to 140 notes, 140 measures, 140 phrases, or other permutations of the Twitter character limit
- erratic shifts of: character, dynamic, articulation, tempo
- improvisatory sections that do not relate in any way to the thematic material of the piece, or commonly accepted musical practices. In ANY way.
- playful/childish outbursts, in the form of “heckler chords” or “bad hombre-like non-chord tones” with shocking key area explorations highly encouraged!
- “tonality-change” denier (i.e. Anti-Modulation) sympathies
- structural musical elements in no way qualified to be a part of supporting the administration of the composition
- short, repeated motifs that are expressed vehemently (but not developed), then forgotten by the average listener at crucial later moments when they could change the appreciation/understanding of the piece
- a blatantly critical and unwavering sense of self-importance, in the face of wide-spread critical disdain, and limited audience base.
It was a moment of comic relief, shared with my friends. It made me feel better, at least temporarily, and then I went to bed.
But something quite unexpected happened. The next morning, there were a lot of notifications on my phone. People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it. Having devoted a significant amount of my own professional career over the past decade to contemporary piano music, both in recital programming and through commissioning projects like American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano, it seemed like a natural fit. After some thought, I set up an open “Call for Scores” and changed the name to #45miniatures, combining the hashtag styling of Trump’s favorite social media pastime and a word with obvious double entendre implications.
This call was done entirely on Facebook, and 24 composers (including a violist and a pianist!) responded expressing interest. No one cared about a commissioning fee, though I set up a GoFundMe campaign anyway to try and generate some funds to be distributed equally among the composers. As scores started coming in I was – as I always am – amazed by the creativity and craft of the participating composers.
One piece for speaking pianist takes text from the campaign, punctuating each section with “SAD!” Another combines clusters with an increasingly louder, faster chant of “LOCK HER UP!” and incorporates a Dies Irae recitative. There is a toccata that systematically removes all pitches until only Ds are left.
A palindromic chaconne leads to a “wall” in the middle before reversing itself all the way back to the first note. Text from tweets and speeches feature prominently in many, and musical quotations abound (from “If I Only Had a Brain” to our National Anthem). Some are very serious; some are definitely not. These are just a few; you can read about of the pieces I have received to date here.
However, a few things didn’t sit right. First, I began feeling uncomfortable thinking of the project as “mine” in any sort of singular way. Performers often hold tight to the right for a premiere or first recording, and in many cases this makes sense. But #45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends. The mere presence of a body of work in response to this presidency is, in itself, powerful.
Second, why should I limit this to composers who happened to have seen the call on my Facebook wall? Many of these people are my friends, but we all know how much is missed on that platform, as Facebook’s algorithms decide what you should see on any given day based on your interactions (or non-interactions) with your friends. Surely there are others who are looking for an outlet like this?
The conclusion I came to was that this really needs to be a collective, open-source project, so I created this #45miniatures website to connect us all. You can read about the project there, and view perusal scores. (Funny story, the sub-heading on the homepage was suggested by the Wix auto template design robots in nanoseconds after seeing my title. I’ve ordered hats, but they are currently held up at customs, due to the trade war.)
Here’s the important part:
Pianists: Want to get involved? Great! You are welcome here. You can peruse any score that I’ve received. See something you like and want to program? Contact the composer and get a score. I don’t have to premiere anything. This music should be programmed and played all over the country and globe. The News/Media section of the website will be a great place to share info about performances and audio/video links.
Composers: Do you have an idea and want to write something after reading this article? Great! Please get in touch. I took everyone who responded to the initial call for scores, and I genuinely welcome as diverse an array of composers as I can possibly have. This is a work in progress, but I would love to eventually see a published book of all the miniatures that come in.
I believe history will be the ultimate judge of this president, but art must be a part of the contemporary response.