Music Composers Unite!
I'm in the smug position of having a long-term, adoring friend who likes concerts. He pays for most of them. I go to too many concerts. Morning rehearsals for the NY Phil, chamber recitals, piano, various stuff at Carnegie. Sometimes the opera.
I lived a life, when I was young, where almost all my musical information came from records, radio and my own attempt to learn piano lit. (and school music programs, later). So I well remember my first orchestra experience, 4th grade. And my first $5 tickets in college to hear the Jacksonville Symphony.
I've been in NYC for much of the time since 1985, and I am thoroughly spoiled, even as I live on $750 cash, per month. I came here for the music more than anything, so I naturally took to concert attendance.
And I've composed off/on since the late 70s. At 48, I think I have a fairly good idea of how things sound in various situations. I played in bands and orchestra, too, which helps understand the thing from the inside.
I often hear the Philharmonic play not so perfectly, since I go to so many rehearsals. Sometimes I don't like it, and other times I'm glad to hear passages repeated, various conductors' styles - a chance for a composer to hear a difficult area once again. (Dohnanyi stops too much: avoid his rehearsals!)
I had an experience which was odd: I took a CD from my friend's thousands of them collection. I chose a Prokofiev symphony, #5, because it was there. It turned out that the next day that I would hear it live (yesterday).
I was listening critically two days ago to a CD version, good quality. The symphony was muddy and not very easy to grasp. My jazzer friend and I discussed some of the harmonic choices, and I asked why it was so hard to listen to compared to jazz scores of the same period. We talked too much: too relaxed to study.
The next morning, I heard the Prokofiev live. I was still not terribly enthusiastic in my heart about the frist movement. The 2nd, the scherzo, was already known to me from years ago, as well as the day before - it is entirely unforgettable. The theme sounds like a TV jingle, but Profofiev makes a lot of it. And that interpolated violin response that is utterly romantic - some will know what I am talking about has been trapped in my head since.
I fortunately borrowed that CD, and this morning I listened to the whole symphony while I lounged in bed, which is sort-of work for me. I paid attention, and asked why he wrote this/that, and what/who might be his sources.
The symphony is great - not the kind of great Mahler's 5th might be assigned: Prokofiev is more lean and compact. But for cleverness, no one in the 20th matched him, when you consider the whole body of work he left us.
That symphony is full of harmonic ruses. But it retains bones of a classical symphony, a sense of 8 bar phrases and other nice things to hang on to, so one is really never terribly lost. And while he chooses to take his harmonies elsewhere, they are astonishingly "romantic" and "lush" in many places. He had a Soviet regime to impress, and he did his job and more.
What was obscured this morning on my CD player was remembered yesterday in the concert hall. And it got me to thinking: how many composers who write symphonic lit really go to a lot of concerts?
I hope many of you do, because these computer programs are not very close to what sounds in the real halls. The mistakes that Prokofiev made, and Bartok for that matter in orchestration were apparent yesterday, as well as the orchestra's balance issues. CDs and TV, radio would mic things just so, and rebalance to cover up for the facts of live performance (strings are sometimes lost when the textures get aggressive in the winds/brass/percussion) from where we sit.
In orchestrating myself, which is not something I do often, since it's an enormous effort for a moderate return, I can hear better what something might sound like in my head owing to this real experience. I check it against the notation program - it just can't tell me anything true about how instruments really mix in a hall. I have to rely on my gut, and what I know from years of listening as a concertgoer.
This ties into music as an art, itself. We write, and that is good. We hear things, never a bad idea. When we hear things live, it is as if the pitches thrown out by the individuals are seen flying across the halls I visit. In this sense, music comes to life, and may be capitalized Music, as if it were a god/goddess.
It is the difference between B & W and color television, for those who remember the changeover.
peace to all, as we work hard in the mid-winter.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Slyvester. I go to far too few concerts myself, but am usually inspired, or at least given a new perspective on music, each time I do. Might be good to go to more!
Anne, good points all. But lets remember that the job of the music director is to fill the seats with paying customers and then deliver, musically, what they came to hear. That's why we are subject to the same 40-50 compostions over and over again and also why I don't presonally attend many concerts.
If I want to hear Mozart #39 for the billionth time, better to put on a clean CD and enjoy it without the obligatory wheezing and coughing that seems to accompany most live events.
That said, yes there is something engaging, almost titillating about a live performance especaily if the players are actually interested in what they are doing at the moment. I love the thrill of an ensemble just barely under control and I'm perfectly fine with a few wrong notes if the performance overall make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but please no more phoned-in performces where being note perfect is given preference over rasing the audience's collective blood pressure.
Music is that makes life bearable, but that doesn't mean it's an anesthetic.
Thanks for your reply, and your attention paid to your task! Yes, being a sponge is about 90% of what a composer might go to a concert for. To learn what works - what no longer works - to see how people react to pitches in concert. I'm sorry your orchestra experience was so antique. Almost every average concert I go to has one work written in the past 100 years, at least. And many of them have a "premiere" (which makes an audience suspicious). However, most people enjoy hearing something new: and most concertgoers that I see go because they really love music (even if their absolute knowledge is limited).
About the programming problem, write/email the music director in question and tell her or him that you don't often go for want of newer/fresher sounds. Most orchestras want to program a wide variety of works, including things written in the past 10 years. Frederick below explains the common problem/fear that directors/programmers face: filling seats. Halls are generally too large, and it is not understood how expensive it is to make"serious" music. Funny, we understand how expensive the NFL is to put on a Super Bowl - and there is no problem funding that.
Thanks for your thoughtful post. - sylvester
Anne Goodwin said:
Well, I attended a concert of the style I compose this past weekend. And frankly I attended it because of your thread that you have posted here. I didn't actually feel like going and my husband was offering me a nice supper with good wine if I stayed home. But there you were, nagging my conscience! ;)
So, I attended the concert and I took notes because I wanted to get back to you about this topic. Not necessarily coherent, the following is what I had/have to say about not just the specific concert I attended but about my concert-attending experiences in general:
(1) There is too much reliance on the FC's (famous composers - i.e. the big names). In the concert I attended this weekend, three composers were presented (all within the 1619 to 1750 years) but only two of the names, Bach and Mozart, were advertised -- that is, in the general publicity sent out ahead of the concert and in the concert headline of the program booklet.
(2) There is too little imagination regarding repertoire. In my opinion, there needs to be more effort made by music directors and conductors to 'dig' for the gold nuggets that lie hidden in the vast amount of music literature that I know exists. Too often when we go to concerts, we are dished out the same old 'tunes' -- not that there's anything wrong with those tunes -- but it shows sometimes how lazy people can be. So, there is really, a lack of knowledge of the REPERTOIRE and a reluctance to try to learn and perform seldom-heard pieces.
(3) Next, while it is fine -- and makes sense -- to feature composers all of the same era/time frame, why, why, WHY are newer composers and their works consistently ignored in classical, conservative circles/musical societies? When I saw the program that I was going to be listening to with respect to the concert I went to this past weekend, it crossed my mind that perhaps we need to begin staging "Occupy Movements" in our classical music concert halls!
(4) 'Classical' seems to equate with 'serious' in terms of the mood of the music. Since I definitely have a 'serious' side to my personality, this didn't used to be something that I even noticed. However, I do now notice it. So, while the music is beautiful, in a way I can understand why some people are 'turned off' by it. Life is serious enough without being dragged down by music that is serious and worse, heavy.
(5) Maybe it's just me but I seem to find the experience of attending concerts -- specifically classical music concerts -- to be lonely at its worse and solitary at its best. I do not run into people who I know as a rule and so I find this to be disappointing.
(6) Now, for a more positive comment. In terms of what the listening experience leaves upon me as a composer and as a 'spiritual' experience, then it is absolutely invaluable. It is through both performing and listening that one learns about why 'serious', 'classical' music is so wonderfully enriching and what are the intricacies in the compositions that make it so. Through exposure to this type of music, we learn not only of a particular composer's abilities and even his methods but also something of history and of our own place in the world.
(7) To follow up on the previous point and of some of what you wrote, it is through experience in performance and by listening at concerts that our compositional skills are enhanced. If one has experience with instruments, experience reading and playing serious music, experience and training as a conductor (I have training but not experience on the latter), then it is through the INTEGRATION of these work experiences and musical skills that provides a budding composer with the skills needed for his or her 'trade' so to speak. Attending concerts and to get the full value for your money means being a SPONGE -- you soak up everything the musical experience is offering and providing to you.
(8) It is a live concerts, even small ones, where sometimes recordings are made. I have bought recordings sold to me that were made with virtual instruments. I would advise people not to do that. There is definitely a big difference between listening to a recording of real instruments and of live voices compared to listening to virtual instruments and voices. Have you ever had an éclair bought from a nice bakery made with faux whipping cream? And then have you ever had an éclair home-made with real whipping cream? One sticks in your mouth and makes you choke; the other sends you into fits of ecstasy.
In conclusion, I go -- and have gone -- to live concerts quite frequently. At times it gets to be a luxury I really can't afford, particularly when added to the cost of the ticket is the cost of gas to drive into it and the cost of parking (and occasionally a parking ticket). Going to concerts used to be very special for me. Now, while I still enjoy them, I've been to so many and so I have become more 'picky' about what I expect for the money I am about to dish out. Often I go to concerts solely for the purpose of supporting another artist in the community. Usually these artists are well-known conductors or performers in the city with whom I may have a vague association. Now that I have composed -- and dare I say, now that I am a composer -- I definitely have a different set of criteria by which I choose to attend a concert and of the criteria by which I listen to the music that is performed. I am tired of Mozart and Bach. I want to listen to Godden, Emerig and Vasquez!
The last concert I went to was Feb. 1st. I heard Susan Graham, a mezzo with a strong pianist, Malcolm Martineau.
Here is what they decided to to in Carnegie Hall, a big place that needs sure bets. The draw, of course was the singer, but the audience was expecting something different.
We had a program that was united in theme: a sort of suffering woman theme. No, not all sunshine: but Ms. Graham is not a novice.
We heard an obscure Purcell, an equally obscure Berlioz song, and then a full set of similar texts (Goethe "Mignon" theme - I was not convinced this theme was a great idea for 2012): similar text settings by Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Duparc (that was excellent), Wolf.
Intermission. I was not thrilled. She was perfect, but I was not connecting to the fusty old European texts.
Then came a work by a living composer, Joseph Horovitz (b.1926). Lady Macbeth (in English) - almost compressed into about 20 minutes. My friend said it was probably made of all the lines she said in the play (a joke, and yet not so much). It came off well. People did not wince at dissonance.
After that came Poulenc, who died in 1963. She specializes in this area. So it was great.
Then, Susan was a smart little cookie. She left some of the program un-announced. The rest was almost all in English, and she made sure that we could understand the words. Since she is a Met star, she can act. We had Cole Porter and a composer sitting in the audience, who wrote a romp about mezzos and pants roles.
We sometimes go to concerts for both edification and pure entertainment. And the composer is wise to learn that both of these things are possible to place within one single composition.
I attend many many concerts. Almost to many at times, both on and off my universities campus. I have season tickets to the local symphony orchestra so I never miss a concert. If Im not going to the concert, Im usually in it in some way. I also attend many composer conferences and new music concerts so I hear a WIDE variety of music. In fact I just got back from seeing the Vienna Boys Choir in which they did very traditional music and modern music, and even avant garde music.
I understand the complaint that Anne had about the rep that most orchestras play and the super serious attitude they have there, but that really just takes going to many many concerts to see what they really do, including their pops concert. The average concert is going to be a concert of the typical set (mozart, beethoven, act) but once in a while during a season they will play a modern piece. Most orchestras have a composer in residence that is required to have at least one piece for that orchestra. I know that is the case for the orchestra near me. They will be premiering a new work this coming April. It just takes going to MANY concerts to really hear the what is really being played out there.