Saturday, May 20, 2017

Period composer? Composer, period.

Recently an early-music expert friend wrote a comment that's made me think more than usual.  She described herself as a "period" composer, because her composing is linked to the music she plays and studies, and tends to be in closely related styles.

An argument immediately developed, debating the pros and cons (and validity or lack thereof) of writing in "historical" styles.  Some were quick to point out that music textbooks from earlier time periods still exist, and they provide coherent models for those in the mood to imitate them.  In fact, in so doing, a modern composer would be doing as some students no doubt did, and, in fact, as some music students today still do.

Others were equally quick to say there's simply no way to understand completely the experience of someone at another point in time.  You can certainly pattern your music after those who wrote at earlier times, but you will never be able to be one of those earlier musicians.  You will never completely understand the things that motivated their music, and will, at best, only be able to produce a pale imitation of their work.  Certainly a worthy exercise, but not to be taken seriously as an artistic endeavor.

I'll agree that few of the student attempts to produce, say, two-part inventions in a style similar to that of Bach, that I've heard, would be worth playing more than once; in fact, it's unusual to get through one without having to wince.  But most of those attempts are by people who aren't composition students, and who don't have the luxury of time.  They'll write perhaps one piece of that kind in their lives, heave a sigh of relief, and go on to something else.  The idea of writing fifty or so of them, that is, of taking time to develop some degree of mastery, is not one they'll have considered.  They'll never go back, months or years later, and rewrite, edit, expand, trim, and so on, because there's no external reward for doing so.

I have seen one collection of six (or so) inventions by a composer, whose name I've forgotten, who did apparently publish and release them as a collection.  I wasn't impressed by what I found on leafing through them, but again, I got the impression this was something of a sidelight; a composer who usually deals with other materials, in other styles, picked up this form and took it for a test drive.  It wouldn't be appropriate, then, to draw many conclusions about this artist's work as a whole from that particular sample.

All of this, though, is far wide of the point.  A composer, keyboardist, and scholar I respect, says she writes in historical styles by preference.  What do I make of this?

Any composer, in any time period, is writing mainly for their own time and place, regardless of how they may feel about it.  While time may "catch up" with a composer, and things in their work that seemed radical, unusual, or new when they were written may become accepted, revered, and (alas) even commonplace, when those pieces were written the composer couldn't have known how things would turn out.  That composer was taking a risk.  The only reason we don't realize the size of the risk is we usually don't hear about the ones who fail, the ones whose innovations don't become the common practice of succeeding generations.

There's no payoff, today, in imitating the earlier model; we know how things turned out, or at least, we know how they've turned out so far.

The point of writing music in a historical style is different.  The goal is to learn from a predecessor you respect and whose work you love, and to express yourself in a style that feels natural to you.  What someone else thinks about it is a secondary consideration, at best.

So even if you are writing a two-part invention in 2017, intended to be played on a French double harpsichord, you are writing for a twenty-first-century audience.  Nobody seriously questions this.  A composer who does such a thing is not trying to be an eighteenth-century composer, though they might be using techniques similar to those used by one or more of them.  Composers are entitled to use whatever creative tools please them, within certain obvious limits.  They don't have to ask permission to use this or that form or style.

Want to write a sonata in the style of Mozart or Haydn?  Good luck, but go right ahead.  After all, not being Mozart is no crime, and if writing in a similar style allows you to write music you like, get busy!  Sixteenth-century vocal polyphony your thing?  Go for it!  The least you will get is education, and the more seriously you take your work, the more it will reward you.

And if you prefer more up-to-date styles, techniques, methods, and so on, by all means go for the cutting edge!  The world of music really is big enough for all of us.

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Recently a poet friend was explaining to me some of her experiences in the literary world.  She told me she doesn't enter competitions.  It's too much of a gamble; the committee who will judge the submissions is usually unfamiliar, and there's no way to know what kinds of work they prefer.  If they happen to like styles of work different from hers, it's a waste of time to send her work to them, and their collective opinion won't be important to her artistically.

This conversation has made me think about my own position.  I've entered some competitions, but not a lot, and usually not with good results.  Recently, I tend to avoid them; I'm too old for many, and I don't have repertoire appropriate for the rest.

For instance, say that you belong to a chamber ensemble consisting of left handed sewer flute (tip of the hat to Peter Schickele), tenor crumhorn, and guqin.  You would like to expand the repertoire for your group.  So you announce a composition contest.  No cash prize, but you'll include the winning work(s) in a recording you'll be releasing, and take the appropriate steps to make sure that, if it goes platinum, the composer will be appropriately paid.  You'll be drawing the repertoire for your upcoming concert tour mainly from the contest entries, so even for those who don't "win", there's the chance of some exposure.  For the ensemble, it makes perfect sense.  You get a number of pieces to play; you'll choose the best ones, and fulfill your obligation by recording them.  The composers, at least the ones whose work you choose, get a resume line, a recording, performances, and some publicity.

From a composer's point of view, however, there are some issues.  For one thing, the left handed sewer flute is not a standard orchestral instrument.  You won't find information about it in your orchestration textbook.  Hopefully the player will have foreseen this, and provided some information on the instrument and its capabilities, perhaps even a recording or video demonstrating them, and maybe some hints on the preferred notation for any extended techniques.  If not, you'll just have to guess what might work. 

Let's say you've decided to enter this competition, and you want to create your best possible work.  But a substantial chamber work (ten to fifteen minutes) takes you a year to write.  The announcement for the contest came out six months before the deadline.  You can create in this situation, but you're going to be under some pressure.  You'll carefully follow the submission guidelines, including the unwritten ones (no 8.5" x 11" paper!).  You'll package the score and parts, and send them off with plenty of time to reach the organizers by the deadline.  Then what?

Suppose they don't pick your piece.  You'll receive a notification, or at least find a post on the group's web site/social media page/news feed telling you the names of the winners.  You'll look at the list, not find your name, and conclude, better luck next time.

But will there be a next time?  How many ensembles of left handed sewer flute, tenor crumhorn, and guqin do you know?  You can, of course, rewrite the piece for a more standard instrumentation, but even then, it might be awhile before you happen on a group that would play it.  You can hope the original ensemble will perform the piece at some later time; after all, part of the reason for having the competition in the first place was to encourage the creation of new works.  But the next year, they have another competition, and the year after that, the ensemble disbands.

Congratulations.  You've just wasted six months of composing time.

This is not to discourage either holding competitions, or entering them; the foregoing is just an explanation of the reasons why, for me, the calculations don't work at this point.

To me, better than entering any competition is providing a piece to a friend who has asked for it, and the best prize is when they actually play it.  Whatever the instrument they play, whatever the instruments in the ensemble, the important thing is the joy of writing for someone I know.