Old Opinion, but relevant ideas

I hate saying this opinion written by Glenn Branca for the New York Times is old, since it was published in April 2007, but in internet/blog terms, that's ancient history. However, discovering it for the first time today, I felt compelled to answer her 25 questions.

If you're reading this post, tag, you're it and I'll expect either your own 25 answers or a response to mine forthcoming.

1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?

No, not against only the very best works. However, there is something to suggest a basis for criteria be setup using pieces of the past to determine quality in the future. For myself, my Symphony No 1 is not Beethoven, although I personally consider it in the realm of the first from either Ives or Shostakovich in terms of quality writing. Neither of their first symphonies are considered their best and I hope my first is not by best. Their first symphonies show talent and I believe that's what mine does, hope for the future.

2. Can there be truly objective criteria for judging a work of art?

No, judging by its very nature is not objective, but subjective.

3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?

A good understanding of the artistic process is necessary here. Just because an artist had a good idea and was able to execute it well, doesn't mean the next idea will spark the same "flow" of creative juices. Try as they might, the artist is at the mercy of the Muse and while a loving god, she is fickle, not prone to giving her gifts lightly or frequently to the same person. Any artist who can "create" quality works time and time again is (IMHO) not so much creating art, but having discovered some process with which they can "churn" out artwork. Thomas Kinkade is raved about, and he definitely has a style of painting. However, to call all of his paintings great art is deminishing the real works of thousands of other artists who struggle to "create" something new.

4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?

If what you mean is Broadway or the WestEnd, they are businesses, not artists. They are there to make money and conservative approaches to art are what investors want. That isn't to say that occasionally an artist will get funding and make a fortune. But people with lots of money wanting to make more rarely want to try something new, when there is something tried waiting to be done.

5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?

There needs to be a mixture of these decisions. Some music can be both, yet sometimes it's worth not thinking about the audience when composing music - in the quest for finding a new sound, something that hasn't been done before. If it's not been done, there is no way to know if the audience will take to it, so it has to be composed without their consideration. And yet, I feel ultimately the audience is who the music is for. A style of music that isn't appreaciated is not worth doing again (and again, and again) trying to force the audience to accept it. That form of music composition is just arrogant.

6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?

I would have said 1... Certainly some of my music is written with only one person in mind. If anyone else ever hears it, so much the better. However, if you can suggest a way to get 1M people listening to my music, I'm all ears.

7. Is the symphony orchestra still relevant or is it just a museum?

We have not even begun to tap all the tonal qualities of the symphony orchestra. And why can't the orchestra grow and change? Any reason there can't be a orchestra with banjos and harmonicas (my wife's idea)? We've added all sorts of other instruments over the years (to include electric guitars).

8. Is micro-tonality a viable compositional tool or a burned out modernist concept?

It really depends on what the piece is. I've heard some music where micro-tonality was used for a large ensemble and I don't really find the nuances (or the skill of the players, and these were professionals) to the point it is possible to hear what's going on when 12 string players are all attempting to find a quarter tone. It's hard enough getting 12 string players to play in tune if they're all in unison. That said, there are some really beautiful pieces that use micro-tones - and I certainly don't think we've explored the depth of possibility yet. Perhaps, with electronics we can overcome the need for live musicians and the limitations of our humanity - and then we can really hear some amazing works come from this tool.

9. In an orchestra of 80 to 100 musicians does the use of improvisation make any sense?

No, not in my opinion. The reason improvisation works with a small ensemble is that most of the ensemble is limited to a very narrow scope of options. By limiting their scope, the "lead musician" can then fill in lots of extra parts and still have it all fit together. If you get 80 musicians improvising, and all 80 decide at the same moment to play a note outside the norm (which what improvising is all about), suddenly the piece is headed in an entirely different direction. Keep improvising to small groups. Make classical musicians in large groups explore it (in smaller groups), but don't try and get 80-100 people all doing it succesfully.

10. What is the dichotomy between dissonance and tonality and where should the line be drawn?

I don't know. I haven't found the line yet. I still compose primarily tonaly, but really enjoy the sound of dissonance and some of my music gets pretty far afield before coming back... so, I don't know.

11. Can the music that sooths the savage beast be savage?

Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is a lovely piece that is very savage and yet, I don't know anyone who listens to it without feeling some sense of release.

12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?

Unless a composer is writing pastiche of some other time, I don't think a composer can write anything but of their own time. Perhaps their time is not the same as yours, but they are writing music based on their experiences to date. We are venturing into Kant or Hume territory here.

13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?

because we're not done. There is so much more to say, and life, society, music is constantly evolving, which means we need new music to keep pace with the rest of our world. IMHO I don't feel modern orchestras perform enough new works, propelling the artform forward - that spoken as a composer who would like to have my works performed.

14. If Bach were alive today would he be writing in the baroque style?

No, he would be writing jazz, possibly big band jazz, a style that saw it's hay-day some years ago (Bach was accused of being behind the times during his lifetime) - but it certainly wouldn't be baroque.

15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”

Not all modern composers reject the past - and in all actuality, that sentiment is pretty well past as well. Glass and Adams are not of the Cage/Babbitt mold, certainly.

16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?

Well, since I just finished writing a symphony last year, I can't really say yes to this can I? Actually, like the novel, it is still evolving, but unlike literature, society seems to think music needs to completely re-invent itself every so often. New novels are written and no one thinks they need to completely forget the English language to be good, so why is there some desire to throw out all the quality music of years past just to create something new?

17. Can harmony be non-linear?

Yes, Debussy did it all the time and yet, once you've heard his music you can't imagine it any other way.

18. Was Cage’s “4:33” a good piece of music?

Yes, conceptually. Silence is also music, so in this case "4:33" works. But you can't write another piece like it, or it's just pastiche.

19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?

Don't they? With the internet, comments are nearly universally available. I don't know how well critics accept these comments (or if they even read them), but then again, I don't know how well some artists accept comments by critics either... criticism is hard to take.

20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?

Music is not always political, but it can be and occasionally should be. Whether you agree with Valery Gergiev's concert in South Ossetia just after the Russian "invasion" is irrelevant to the statement Gergiev was trying to make and make it through music. Politics are not new to music and music should not try and avoid them. Music doesn't always have to be political, but occasionally it is a good thing.

21. Can the orchestra be replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-sampling programs and recording techniques, at least as far as recordings are concerned?

It is being replaced. Most of the music you hear in film is done with a mixture of a small group of musicians and computer programmed music. There are still nuances a live musician can do that computers don't seem yet to accurately emulate, but computers (and their programmers) are getting better. Add to that, many nuances computers can do with sound that before electronics were just not possible and I think we'll find there will be a greater marriage of the two in years to come, not a replacing of either.

22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive?
And does it matter?

Well, a visual artist can sell that work for mucho money and yet a digital picture can be found within hours on the internet. If a composer is putting his/her work on the internet for nothing, perhaps it is to gain exposure (at least, that's what I'm trying to do). Eventually, the goal is to have someone want to purchase a "new" piece of music and pay a lot of money for it. Now, once the music is written and performed, other's may download it off YouTube, but that doesn't change the original purchase (or purpose). Can we survive? We are, perhaps working in other jobs while we compose, but that is still survival. Does it matter? Well, yes, I would love to get paid for writing a new piece of music, but I'm not going to begrudge another artist their due for getting paid for their work.

23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?

Not all music is programmatic, i.e., music that tries to reflect anything other than music. Beethoven wrote a great deal of this kind of music. We call his "Moonlight Sonata" that because of music critic Ludwig Rellstab, not because Beethoven called it that (or even thought it was his influence in writing the piece).
That said, IF a composer is going to try and reflect something in their music, they ought to be true to their inner-self. Write the music you enjoy. If you do that right, other's will enjoy it too.

24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?

Who says they're not? Music has been exploring the use of technology, along with the concept of sound for over 100 years (if not long before). There's a school in Paris devoted to just this with Luc Ferrari and the originators of musique concrète. We just don't hear a lot about it in mainstream music. However, most of the effects used in a Britney Spears album can be directly traced back to the discoveries of these pioneers in sound. If you really listen to a lot of Urban music, what the artists are doing with the manipulation of sound is truely amazing - and compositional technique of the first magnatude.

25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?

Wow, where's the urban, pop, grunge, electro-accoustic... There is a lot of music out there. I don't think we're seen a "new" form pop up in a few years (really since Minimalism) - but we are just beginning to see a lot of urban artists exploring the classical world. With their knowledge of effect and sound manipulation, add some classical training and I think we'll see a new explosion of something yet discovered. I won't be one of these new composers, as Urban was not my upbringing. But, mark my words (or maybe Bernsteins), something's coming, something good.

Your Turn...


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