Commissioning, Part 1

A few weeks ago I spent some time in State College, PA reliving my old college days. I was having coffee with a friend and discussing new music, eclectic duo instrumentation, and all the other things. On my drive back to Harrisburg I began to think about the process of commissioning music, why we do it, and, probably more importantly, why so many people DON’T do it!

This blog was partially inspired by that conversation/meditation, but I haven’t been able to shake the question of why so many performers DON’T commission. That question has been bothering me since I read Scott Kluksdahl’s answers to some questions I posed to him. In that micro-interview I asked him about his love for new music. Here is some of what he said:

I grew up in Hugo Rinaldi's Marin Youth Orchestra in California.  He taught me that contemporary music was very important, indeed that it was our birthright  - this was in the '70's, and Shostakovich, Copland, Diamond, Hanson were still quite 'new' - and appropriate vehicles for kids in their wonder years to be expressive.

On his first collaboration with a composer:

I remember thinking that 'these notes belong to me' and that I was free to be expressive and to make my most ardent 'case' for her lovely sonata.

About the relationship between composer and performer:

Every performer should have at least one composer as teacher/mentor - much as the singer has with her trusted coach.

So if contemporary music is our birthright and we performers should be seeking out collaborations with both established and emerging composers, then why don’t more performers take advantage of opportunities to do all these things? Why are we so stuck in the mud, yearning for yester-century?

I read an article a while back by an author whose name escapes me. (EDIT: Here's the article, "A Pitch for New Music" by composer David Lang. Thanks to the kind Twitterer who sent me the link!) In that article, the author compared classical musicians/audience members to baseball players/fans. I think the comparison was apt, though - if I remember correctly - many were quite upset by the article. His point - though perhaps “her?” I apologize for my lack of memory - was that baseball fans are forward looking. Baseball players don’t reenact past games, attempting to replicate games of bygone eras. Instead they look at the past with reverence, enshrining their greats in a Hall of Fame. But they're really in the now. Looking at stats of the past only as a benchmark for the present and future. Records, after all, are made to be broken.

This, obviously, is very different from the modern classical music world. We folk love nothing more than to hear a concert of the greats, Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms. We’d hardly get off the couch if that concert included Berio, Birtwistle, or Bresnick -- and those guys are pretty famous! What if the name was Balter, Bradshaw, DiOrio, Muhly, O’Regan, or Salkind-Pearl? How many of those last names can you place with first names? No matter, too many of the classical elite don’t know and don’t care. And that is a travesty.

I don’t have the solution for this problem. All I can think to do is encourage musicians to commission new music from contemporary composers to present to audiences who will LOVE what they are hearing. I promise, they’ll love it. They always do! They just never knew they’d love it until you show it them! That leads me to my next question...

Why don’t we commission and why are so many performers hesitant to play new music? For this, I have a hypothesis. Hear me out:

1. Performers are terrified
2. Composers are scary
3. None of us really has the slightest idea what we're doing

Let’s touch on the first two topics here. Number three will come next week, after I have some time to decompress, write a little post about practicing long tones, and put up another interview, this time with cellist Jennifer Bewerse! (watch this space, no pressure, Jen!)

Number 1 - Performers are terrified

I think much of the hesitance that performers have when commissioning or programing new music comes from the natural fear that we (performers) have of branching out of the “norms.” We’re so terrified of doing something unorthodox that we don’t try anything new, nothing at all! Continue to hear me out:

As a string player, I’ve been taught from the beginning that “this” is how you do “it,” and your finger goes “there,” and you “must” play “this” “that” way. When I became proficient enough on my instrument, I began to receive harder music from my teachers. Along with that music came a copy of their part. “Here are my bowings and fingerings,” they might announce. The expectation, as far as I could tell, was that I would copy each of these things and do them exactly as told. Throughout my education, I noticed that this process never really stopped, and it was true no matter the instrument or teacher.

This spoonfeeding has handicapped students. This doesn't stop with physical considerations! When a teacher says, "Here are my bowings," what that teacher means is, "Here's what I think is musically important." That's shocking! When students should be developing their own critical thinking skills and figuring out how to play their instruments and make musical decisions, they are looking to their teachers. (Not that I think that’s a bad thing, but let’s put limits on it, eh? Spread your wings and fly, little violinist!) 

What happens when little Vinnie Violist asks his friend Chris Composer to write a piece for Vinnie to premiere on his sophomore recital? Inevitably, Vinnie will take Chris’s new work to his viola teacher who will have only cursory fingerings or bowings to offer (since said teacher is also seeing this piece for the first time), leaving poor Vinnie to fend for himself. Since this is the first time Vinnie hasn't had a teacher to tell him what to do, he is lost. Maybe (though hopefully not) the teacher refuses to hear Chris’s piece in Vinnie's lessons, instead choosing to focus on the big (read: old) parts of Chris’s recital program. That’d be sad. The unfortunately normal scenario: Vinnie's teacher hears the piece once or twice, makes some comments, and moves on.

The experience - for Vinnie, Chris, the teacher, and probably the audience, too - isn’t so great. Vinnie has a terrible time practicing because he’s been thrown into the pool without a life jacket or swimming lessons. Chris is upset because his new work for viola wasn’t played very well. Vinnie's teacher thinks, "Gosh, that's just some more bad new music. That stuff is always junk." And the audience doesn’t enjoy the piece...for obvious reasons. It’s really a travesty all around. And experiences like this make us (performers) hesitant to go back out there and try it again. We’re just terrified.

Now, I should qualify this by saying that not all students, teachers and composers have experiences like this. I’ve had a few teachers who either allowed or insisted that I come up with all of these bowings and fingerings by myself. These teachers were always open to the musical interpretations of their students. Strangely - or not - their students never sounded the same. I credit them with helping me to find my own sound, my ability to learn music intelligently, and my interest in commissioning new music. More students should have the educational experiences I was afforded. 

But what about composers?

Number 2 - Composers are scary

No they aren’t. That’s just silliness. Composers are wonderful. I know so many awesome composers who are brilliant minds, joyful people, and fantastic friends. I have never learned so much about music than when I discuss the topic with a composer. And shouldn’t it be that way? Shouldn’t those who are creating the art that performers have the opportunity to interpret be the most smartest, coolest kids on the block? I’ve heard it said that Major League Baseball umpires are the biggest baseball fans (to tie it back in with my baseball analogy, up above). It stands to reason then that composers are the biggest MUSIC fans, right?!

Ok, that said, composers are scary. Well, sort of. Have you ever talked to a composer about his/her own music? Omygoodnesswatchout. Their eyes get all funny, and they start to shake a little. They spout existentialisms that nobody in the world understands, except them, of course. For this reason, I think composers have to accept some of the blame for why the classical music ignorati don’t like new music. Composers haven’t done a great job of making it terribly accessible to any of us, much less audience members who are conditioned to dislike it.

Another friend, when asked, “why don’t people like the new musics?” said to me, “Trends in music have always been pretty ‘mainstream.’ Like in the classical and romantic eras, most of the things were written in a familiar idiom. The 20th century saw a huge change in an effort to be avant garde and push the envelop, so there were like 500 different trends in art music. Nothing was consistent. Nobody knew what to expect.”

And for that matter, nobody really knew what they were hearing either, and I think - on the whole - many composers were really bad at talking about their music. Just as performers need to connect with an audience, so must the composer. Don’t call them stupid because they didn’t like or understand your music. Explain to them what you meant, and give them something to grab on to. Don’t just start using adjectives that nobody knows the definitions to.

And for the love of Mike, stop writing music about your philosophical reaction to the birth of Prince Silverspoon, the Royal Baby.

Click back next week for the exciting conclusion: a blog about how none of us really has any idea what we’re doing.

As always, I'd love to hear what you think about this, so head on over to the FACEBOOKS or TWITTERS and let me know!