Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Salon answers

On the Pulse blog, Joe Phillips has put up some substantive debate for composers, performers, and the like. I'm going to repost excerpts here for some context, but for the full talking points, check the link.
I. ...work/composition is not complete until it has been observed or heard [and subsequently] evaluated by an audience. ... a good work of art is one that (as you experience it) “makes you want to jump up and get out of there” and go and create something yourself. How do you view this statement (especially in relationship toward how your own compositions are received by the public)?
The best concerts I've seen usually make me want to hit the practice room, seriously write my butt off, or investigate their artistic tradition. Sometimes it has less to do with wanting to copy the musicians/composers in question and more about being inspired and rejuvenated. There must be an analog to this sentiment among non-musicians/non-artists, but I can't figure out what it would be - maybe "I wish I could do that," or regretting having quit piano lessons in early adolescence.

I agree that composition - and any performing art - is incomplete unless it has been disseminated in some way, which is why I always felt that my high school Shakespeare readings should have been determined by what was being staged that year and not by a predetermined curriculum. The audience doesn't necessarily hold the final judgement on a work, but the act of having a piece performed, even if it's just for a jury of my peers, adds a dimension to it. Composition can be such a hermetic practice that the ability to have my colleagues critique it in a reading session takes me out of my own headspace and allows me to re-evaluate my work in a more objective setting.

II. ...with the rise of modernism (in art) in the early 20th century, there came a disconnect with audiences—an “antagonism” between the artistic creator and the consumer of the art. ... “This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by (Charlie) Parker, (Erza) Pound, or (Pablo) Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor to endure.”

Do you agree or disagree with Bayles’ and/or Larkin’s statements/premises? How do you as a composer/performer, balance artistic and commercial viability in your own work? In the presentation (i.e. performances) of your works? What other composers/performers do you feel balance artistic and commercial viability well? Is this even necessary?

I have little patience for pedantic or academic work. If I have to read the program notes for a piece to make any sort of sense, the composer should merely become a poet or author. Spare me the tedium. And as many jazz musicians have spouted over the years, the stage is not the practice room. Tell a story, etc. To effect the jumping-up-and-getting-out reaction that Laurie Anderson mentions above, the piece/improvisation/art has to stem from an honest and sincere place.

I firmly believe that it's obvious whether a musician is honest or whether they're bullshitting. Conviction is an easy thing to hear. If I tried to play a Djavan tune verbatim, it would come off quite crass, honestly, both to me and to the audience. But any cover I play, I endeavour to approach it from a place of true admiration and appreciation, and to make it my own in some meaningful way. There's a lot of songs I love and love to play in private, but that I would rarely, if ever, program on one of my own gigs, because I don't feel I have anything of myself with which to imbue it.

That said, there's more factors at play in the 20th century reception of art aside from the rise of modernism. The rise of alternative forms of entertainment, such as radio, cinema and television, created this idea of competition for attention. Half the threads on NewMusicBox and the like seem to be about how to get listeners out to concerts, and to entice them away from their Wiis (Wiiae?) and TiVos and various other entertainment devices. Additionally, the iPod and internet is the pinnacle of music dissemination, with the ability to get nearly any music at any time and listen to it anywhere. Four hundred years ago, music could only travel by way of printed scores and performance. Home entertainment was in the form of children learning instruments, home concerts and salons.

I've said it before: it's amazing what mere exposure will do to generate an audience. I don't want to get on the political soapbox about mainstream media insulting the intelligence of its viewers and listeners, but I think we really do underestimate what people will gravitate toward if they're even given the opportunity to hear it.

As a composer and/or performer how do you generate audiences for your performances? How does audience reaction to a piece affect your future writing? your programming? Do you think about the audience when writing?

I don't think about the audience when I'm writing. Composition is a very selfish task: I'm writing for me. I write what I want to hear, sometimes even as a form of personal catharsis. When I wrote "Driscollage" as a tribute to Chris Driscoll, I did it as a coping method. I couldn't get the melody out of my head after I heard the news. The potential reception of it never entered my mind. I do, however, think about the audience in terms of programming, but again, it's based on how I, as a listener, would want to hear a set of music. As for generating audiences, I haven't ever modified my music to gain more listeners, and I hope I never have to. If my music has changed, it's been for personal reasons and growth, not to kowtow to commerciality.

Can you recommend any composer, group, or recording that balances the artistic with the popular (or at least commercial successful)?

Radiohead. Paul Simon. Ethel. Maria Schneider. Tom Waits. The current crop of [shudder] crossover projects (Kronos playing Sigur Ros, Alarm Will Sound playing Aphex Twin, So Percussion double bills with Matmos) seem to be coming from a genuine appreciation for the music as opposed to a record producer's grand marketing idea.

I'd like to bring up David Lewis' review of Golijov's Ainadamar on AllMusic. He writes:

In Ainadamar, Golijov plays it safe, ... almost sounding like a zarzuela or, at worst, like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita with better music. ... The serious subject of Ainadamar does not defeat the fact that its music sounds commercial, as well crafted as it is. ... [T]he lack of risk-taking in Ainadamar is tantamount to Golijov moving into another camp of composers -- some might say on his way up in the world, but others may decide that it's "out."
If all operas were as direct and accessible as Ainadamar, one wouldn't need to pull teeth to get audience members. Lewis seems to consider "melodic" as a synonym for "commercial," and I can't fathom why any composer or musician should become an apologist for melody. And what of the idea of balancing the weighty subject with lighter music? Not all opera has to be buried under Wagnerian gravitas. The biggest detriment facing "classical" and "jazz" music is that its purists risk putting it not merely in a museum, but in a bubble. The best art is not insular, but connected to the entirety of its traditions and social contexts - both of its time and timeless.

1 comment:

peter said...

Hi- Having seen Ainadamar here at the Santa Fe Opera a couple of seasons ago, I'd have to agree that Golijov's music was surprisingly bland. I don't think melody has to be defended in any way, but I do think that programmatic, emotionally shallow, predictable, lazy and transparent music is simply bad. I was surprised because I had heard a bit of Golijov that I thought had balls and "told a story." The score for Ainadamar is rather pale and at times laughably "evocative."

Thanks for your responses to that "quiz" though, very thought provoking.

P breslin