30 December 2009

(the address is 3506 Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis)

25 December 2009

Concise or Crippled?

Readers of this blog might be surprised to learn that there were few times in either high school or college when I struggled to get a paper under the maximum word or page requirement. More often than not, the opposite was true, and more often than not, I simply could not bring myself to take what I felt was a strong paper and muck it up by B.S-ing my way into a few hundred more words or a couple more pages. I came to take pleasure in daring a teacher to give me a bad grade for a well-written paper that was a page too short, but that's not to say that I ever purposely wrote less than I could have just to find out. At the time, it seemed to me that conciseness was my greatest strength as a writer, and since no teacher of mine ever docked my grade solely because I didn't write enough, I gradually paid less and less attention to what the required length of a paper was, or if there was one at all. This, I think, is the only way to write, at least if you care even a little bit about the product.

It's only as a blogger that I've become the most unlikely of chatterboxes. In my defense, I'd say first and foremost that this is more a consequence of the format and context than of any change in my writing style. A blog post is commonly thought to reach epic, unmanageable proportions before it has become half the length of the average chapter in most any dead-tree scholarly work, a double-standard which everyone acknowledges yet no one seems to be interested in eradicating. In addition, I'm writing here about things I care about, not about the topic du jour in some ancient history class that I'm only taking because I have to. While I have, of course, stood up for breadth in education in this space before, I do have to say that forcing students to write about things they don't care about is the main reason that length requirements are thought to be necessary in the first place, and insofar as writing itself is a discipline which ought to receive substantial emphasis, it certainly would make things easier on everyone concerned if students were given greater leeway in choosing their topics.

I raise these points not to get further mired in the metablogging and navel-gazing that I sometimes lapse into here, but to use them as a jumping off point for discussing the issue of conciseness as it relates to music composition. Much as I've turned in many papers that were a page or so too short, I've also begun quite a few musical compositions with grand expectations only to suddenly realize shortly thereafter that I'm done, often while the piece is still quite short, in terms of real time at least. I've been pondering this quite a bit lately, and it raises the possibility of two interesting discussions, one musico-technical in nature, and the other social.

First things first. By the logic of mainstream academic composition pedagogy, this habit, handicap, conundrum, or whatever it is marks me rather clearly and decisively as someone who just hasn't studied hard enough or studied the right stuff. A composer is worth his salt only if he develops his ideas to their logical conclusion; we won't say exactly what that conclusion is, but since we had better look busy when it comes time for the administration to divide up the money between the composers, the cancer researchers, and the theoretical physicists, let's just say it had better look time-consuming. I'm being just a bit facetious, and about something I'm not exactly an expert on, but this dynamic most certainly exists and is more than negligible, if only a little bit more.

I don't doubt that the ability to maintain coherence across the span of an hour or more is an unusual skill which few composers possess, nor that such work should earn the composer significant status, nor that no one came out of the womb writing music that way, but rather learned to do so by a combination of intense study and trial and error. I also don't deny that I like me an hour-long coherent piece of music from time to time, and hope to write one myself some day. Having said all that, I'm not one bit ashamed of the two minute pieces I've written simply because they are only two minutes long. I believe that while there's no substitute for works like Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony or Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," conciseness can be (though context is indeed everything) a virtue in music much as it is in words.

Because of the odd combination of temperament and circumstance that has kept me from having individual composition lessons with a credentialed academic, I've never gotten a second opinion (actually, I guess it would be a first opinion...) as to whether I'm concise or crippled. What I do have are the opinions of people I work with, which, to state the obvious, are not always candid since most of these people are, to some extent, friends as well as colleagues, but nonetheless undoubtedly have a grain of truth to them. This leads to the second, social aspect of the discussion. Bridging styles artistically means, for better or worse, that you must also bridge them socially, and I'm beginning to feel that this has become an increasingly maddening sideshow to the "real" work of writing music, booking shows, and giving performances. Of all the facets of this dance I do, the length issue is probably one of the more trivial, but it does come up quite often and has now officially joined the growing list of incompatibilities among the various scenes I claim to inhabit.

Most frustrating of all is that, as with blogging, I have by and large ceased to be known as the concise one and instead become known as the verbose one without changing anything about my work except for who's stuck playing it (or, more accurately, going from no one playing it to a few people putting up with it; I suppose a successful career as a composer, then, is when many people have to put up with it?). It seems that on top of all the stylistic and contextual/presentational issues that no two musical cliques can seem to agree upon, there's the issue of attention span, and as with all other such issues, I seem to represent both extremes at once depending on who you talk to.

I attended a concert of John Harbison's music last weekend; the composer was in attendance and stuck around afterwards for a post-concert Q and A session of the type that is all the rage these days. When asked to name the greatest challenge facing young composers today, he cited the need to digest and synthesize the diversity of musical styles that they espouse, a diversity which he implied (and I think he's probably right) either didn't exist or wasn't taken seriously when he was their age. It's hard enough to fathom accomplishing this in the purely artistic sense without layering on top of that the social minefield that must be navigated concurrently. It's something of a paradox that this social minefield exists not because most musicians aren't up to the artistic challenge, but rather because they're simply not interested in taking it in the first place. They each have their "thing" and that's what they do, end of story. Who am I to take issue with that? We all have to do what we love. If you love doing a few different things, though, you're posed with another conundrum: hold out for the chance to work with other like-minded generalists (if there even are any that match your interests that specifically), or work concurrently with different groups of specialists that probably hate each other, and, perhaps, end up hating you as well by virtue of your association with the rival clique.

If nothing else, I would say that I seldom find myself complaining that a piece of music is too short, but that I also reserve a special place in my own personal pantheon for pieces of music which achieve profundity in all the requisite ways and just happen to do so on an epic temporal scale. By virtue of my taste in music, the music I write probably should be moving toward this larger scale, but seeing that this only presents even greater potential to polarize friends, colleagues and listeners alike, I suppose it's not all bad that it hasn't happened yet.

21 December 2009

Generation Gap, and a Credo

There are plenty of things I'll never understand about events that took place before I was born, but I'm having an exceptionally hard time wrapping my head around the way composers who are roughly my parents' age talk about the musical epoch in which they came up, the era where dodecaphonism ruled the day, and where failure to sound "modern" enough would get you burned at the stake. Could it really have been that bad?

I ask this not out of spite but rather curiosity. I could do without dodecaphonism myself, and have no interest in defending it (though atonality broadly construed is another matter). I simply don't understand why it was so hard to grow some balls and do what you wanted to. The arts in general being as marginalized as they are today, it's certainly hard for someone my age to sympathize much with artists who fear marginalization so acutely. If you don't like being tackled, you don't play football. You could become a kicker as a compromise, but it's not your god-given right to make the team. Plus, you might get tackled anyway.

Of course, you can always argue that art isn't a choice, but rather something that chooses you. I hear that on some level, but I'd have to say that's a pretty darn entitled artist who would dare to go that particular route in the course of such a debate. The line between a self-aware purposefulness and a naive sense of entitlement can be hard to see sometimes, and because I wasn't around, I can't know just how truly oppressive things were circa the mid-twentieth century. Since I have been around, though, I've certainly heard a lot of bitching about it. Suffice it to say that my interest is piqued.

Long story short, if you want people to like you, don't become an artist. Just don't. If you do, you will first become bitter and frustrated at how hard it is to find two people who agree on anything, and second, you will end up abandoning your life's work trying to get them to agree on you. It's not popular taste or institutional myopia that's stifling, but rather the artist's desire to appease it at all costs. To do so merely validates its perceived authority, which is otherwise built on quicksand, but which in this way becomes self-fulfilling and is therefore perpetuated.