The Larger Community

The Larger Community

In his NewMusicBox column last week, “Avenues of Discussion,” Rob Deemer eloquently espoused the benefits of the online community. He postulated that our use of social media and advocacy for our music on the internet might engender a greater awareness of experimental music in general. As part of his discussion, Rob quoted Daniel Felsenfeld in his opening remarks from the new series Daniel is curating for the New York Times website, “The Score.” Daniel wrote: “It is not only that we composers lack a place at the cultural and political conversational table, but that most of those at said table hardly know we’re there.” (Daniel also said a great deal more, and I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in experimental music read his original article.)

I certainly agree with Rob that our ability to build a (somewhat) unified experimental music presence online will help our voice to be heard. I would like to add a call for us to consider ourselves as part of the larger artistic community. Music is an incredibly specialized field that requires a daunting amount of specific knowledge. We can easily lose ourselves exploring the vast and deep ocean of musical knowledge—everything from Medieval mass settings to oboe fingerings to the latest music from Norway—and we must have some familiarity with all things musical in order to push against the boundaries of the possible in our own field. Along the way, we can forget that music is one of many artistic pursuits.

The Romantic composers were in intense dialogue with the great philosophers, writers, and artists of their day, and entered into this discussion from a position of strength through their ability to converse about these various disciplines in their own terms. When Schumann proposed his monument to Beethoven, his famous article touched upon the current movements in all the arts. When Nietzsche worked with Wagner, their discussions of philosophy were more influential than their composition lessons. This back and forth served to further the idea that the latest music should be a central concern for anyone interested in the arts.

If we want a place at the table, we must be prepared to converse with other artists on their own terms. How can we ask writers of our day to take our settings of Rumi or Sappho or the pre-Raphaelites seriously when we neglect the thousands of poets writing incredibly beautiful new works today? How can we ask poets to have any interest in our music when we know nothing about their field? How can we expect visual artists to come to our concerts when we neglect their gallery openings? How can we engage a philosopher in discussion on the state of the musical arts when we don’t know the works of the great thinkers of our era?

I would ask us to begin to earn back our place at the table through a serious engagement with the many fields of art beyond music. The next time we propose a setting of poetry from a previous century, I would ask that we explore the works of current writers. The Poetry Foundation would be an excellent place to start, and living poets are often excited about the possibility of working with composers (dead poets tend to be blasé about the experience). When we write pieces that respond to visual art works, we should ask ourselves why we constantly return to the same old paintings and should go to our local museums and galleries in search of something that speaks directly to our era. If we truly want to be part of the discussion of art today, we should be prepared to speak languages other than our own.

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8 thoughts on “The Larger Community

  1. jhelliott

    David, you raise some excellent points. But you suggest that there is a trend toward composers creating their own ghetto. Many composers I know are widely conversant with current poetry, drama, literature, and attend art openings/events, maintaining on ongoing dialogue with artists in other media, and generally consider their work as part of the larger currents in modern artistic life. Here in NYC there is a great deal of interaction, albeit it much of it casual, and less than there used to be, but this is a function of the overall changes in NYC rather than a reflection of a shift in composers’ attitudes: the high cost of living has created a loss of a geographic center (as in the old East Village of the 1980s, for one).

  2. Armando

    I’m not sure that it’s composers who are at fault here, David. I have yet to meet a single composer who has not been engaged in some way in another area of the arts, be it literature, film, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, television, performance art, you name it. I honestly don’t see this as an issue, except, perhaps, in certain circles (and, to be honest, these would not be circles I’d want to associate with, so they’re so beyond my radar that I’m reduced to theorizing as to their existence).
    Now, what’s wrong with setting Sappho and Rumi if that’s what inspires you? Or what about setting prose or journalism instead of poetry? Is it a generic distinction or a temporal that you wish to make?
    I realize I’m being a little trolly. I apologize. I do believe I know what you mean, but it’s a little unclear, to my mind, in your text. So I will end with an enthusiastic seconding of your exhortation towards the Poetry Foundation’s online portal. What a treasure trove that is!

  3. jhelliott

    It seems sad that a clear disagreement, or challenge to the premise of a column, should require an apology or be thought of as “trolling.”

  4. Alexandra Gardner

    What’s up with that?
    Hi David – I’m curious about the seeming generalization that composers are not connected to/have knowledge of other art forms….where is that coming from? In my experience, many composers are extremely well-versed in the contemporary visual arts, literature, dance, etc.

  5. Frank J. Oteri

    I used to attend gallery openings all the time. (Nowadays I prefer to catch exhibitions later in the run, when fewer folks are there, so I can actually SEE the art work.) But in my experience, back when I made it a point to go to even more art openings than contemporary music concerts (hard to believe, right?), I rarely noticed the same folks at both. While it is true that many contemporary music concerts take place in galleries, I’ve gotten looks of mild bewilderment when I’ve spent intermissions at such concerts wandering around the performance areas to actually look at the art work that was there. And sometimes when I’ve spoken about the art work to other concert attendees and even musicians/composers featured on such concerts, it was like I was speaking a completely different language.

    Over the years some artist friends of mine who I took to contemporary music concerts couldn’t believe that people sat still for hours at a time. (I kid you not.) Similarly, when I brought musicians and composers to art openings they would typically show up when the event was announced to begin and stay until the very end.

    Our etiquette is actually different in many ways, but it is more similar than different and we can learn a lot from each other. I love Mark Rothko’s paintings for the same reason that I love Morton Feldman’s music. And I did not understand Barnet Newman until I became immersed in the music of La Monte Young.

    On NewMusicBox back in 2004, we asked a group of visual artists to share their thoughts about music including the late Michael Goldberg—a tremendous undersung second generation abstract expressionist—and the painter Susan Schwalb, who is actually married to the composer Martin Boykan. Our worlds indeed are often extremely close.

  6. philmusic

    Living poets I have set:

    Bill Reichard Bill at HECUA

    Heid E.Erdrich
    Heid’s Page

    Not to mention myself Phil literary page
    As for the “deads” they include: Joyce, Hemingway,H.D., Ancient Greeks and Romans, Recipes, Langston Hughes, Gerald de Nerval etc.

    I get to attend many dance concerts poetry readings etc. Oh Foster Willey did some nice drawings of me performing. I suppose that it would be name dropping to mention that I had my brothers bachelor party at John Chamberlain’s NY loft. Go figure!

  7. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    In recent years I’ve stayed away from using contemporary work, whether samples, poetry, art, images, etc., and stuck with public domain material or with things I’ve created myself.

    The reason: Copyright entanglement. It is nearly impossible to get a universal license for performance much less publishing, and every little blivet is protected. Even text or images that I’ve used in the past when we were all young and carefree have now become entangled in lost connections and estates and divorces.

    It doesn’t mean that I (we) fail to be influenced by others’ work and be engaged in intense discussions. Yet I’ve learned the lessons of community and how it changes when money comes into play. There was a strong community of artists in many disciplines working together as part of Trans/Media in the 1970s. Some rich, provocative and forward-looking art was created. But some of it is now buried, unable to be performed or placed online.

    It’s so menial and depressing, so I choose public-domain material or make my own — for how can I allow myself to become immersed in and committed to a contemporary text or image that willl later be restricted by someone’s future lawyer?



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