Musings and Yammerings: Composers: What we do IS important

Apr. 14 2015

One of my former composition teachers used to use the expression “New Music, what nobody wants and nobody needs”.  Given today’s current trend in performing recycled music, orchestras supposedly dying according to several searchable articles on the internet, and because Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart seemingly leave leave little room for the (Fill in the blank with recent up and comers of the world), it is easy to  get sucked in to this belief. The irony is, we composers are the very ones agonizing over every note despite this perceived world view that many of us paradoxically share. But, it’s just that. A perception.

Human nature predisposes us to seek out patterns and leads us to be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar; in this case, a new piece. The more unorthodox the piece, the more most of humanity seems to be repelled. This is likely why Bach Brahms, Mozart (and a few other well known dead white guys) tend to be programmed more commonly than, say female identifying composers and composers of color.  And, yet, there will always be that small fraction of the populace that will be intrigued by the deviation from the norm. Let’s take a look at Fluxus performances in New York City in the 1960’s for example. The experience of music through unorthodox performance and lack thereof or (performance through unorthodox music) was arguably odd by most people’s standards, yet it enticed a large enough number for a niche audience and, through continued experimentation, inspiration of others to try the medium/art form, and performances, it was lifted to a level of relevance that lives on today. It’s influence can be experienced at modern contemporary music festivals and read about in music history textbooks. But, there is still this resistance that I have encountered in class discussion where my peers will reject this as being music. I am almost certain that when this argument is brought up, whether it be fluxus or rap and hip hop or today’s pop music, the opinion will always exist that it is either “bad” or not real music” simply because it does not fit the established pattern that people are used to listening to. Yet, the  evolution of the art of music persists.

Then there’s a “race” in entrepreneurship to not only create a product (your music), but figure out how to convince your buyers (in this case conductors or the public) to consume your music, and only the best at the latter half, tend to survive. It is difficult to survive, because even pure grit and determination will not guarantee success, whatever your personal definition of success may be.

Those of us who are lagging behind in the perceived marathon will likely get discouraged. “Why does nobody want my music. Why Bother?-All of the great music was already written” are just two of the defeating thoughts in many of my fellow composers minds. However, without practicing the craft, evolution and progress is not possible. Sooner or later, everything becomes old hat and people stop listening.

Most of this is relegated to a museum or academic library to be buried for years until some random person exhumes it for their Music history report, only to be buried again. Speaking of which, if you went to university for music, think of all of the early church music you listened to that-lets face it , sounded basically the same. The church designated strict rules that, for centuries, prevented composers from deviating from the accepted practice.Finally, when reform began and progress was made,  so too was the change reflected in the music. The general purpose of augmenting the service was maintained, but the interest and variability of pieces increased over time. The church still kept the old but over time embraced the “new” (for the time). This is why we can go from John Taverner to John Tavener in one church service and enjoy both of their pieces while possibly receiving a similar message when comparing two separate pieces from two separate composers from two separate time periods.

Imagine if we all stopped creating, what monotony that would create for the world, or even just for your own daily life. After all, one doesn’t choose this path because they find writing music blase. Quite the contrary if you ask me or just about any other composer.

Going back to that original statement, perhaps my old professor was a little right. But then, perhaps he was also a little wrong.  If your music manages to touch just one person, even if it’s yourself, to me, it is worth creating.

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