Monday, August 15, 2005

"Is John Adams still alive?"

Dude - was the last time I really updated this blog May 17th? Jesus man - what's up with you?!

Well, the summer has been a sort of fruitful one - I guess I could have been a little less of a slacker, but that wouldn't have been true to form now would it? Personal stuff aside (hey - this is supposed to be a music blog - still not sure if I still want to post all of my stupid personal BS online - I mean who cares?), I have thought a lot about music this summer.

One of the biggest things I've been thinking about is the fact that, as much as I really want to bring people's interest and passion back to concert music, I think it's even more important (or, more pressing) that we (composers) win back our performers first.

I recently met quite a few performers here at IU, most of them being pianists, and I made it a point to ask every single one of them the same, simple question. "Have you ever played any new music?"

Most just said no, but occasionally, one would say, "Yeah, I LOVE new music!". "Great!" I'd say, "What have you played?". "Well, I played Bernstein, and Bartok, and Copland!".

*bangs head against wall*

Is something that's 50 years old new? Is something that was written by someone who DIED 30-60 years ago of OLD AGE new?!? "How does this make sense to people?", I ask.

I asked one guy if he even knew of any living composers - now keep in mind this is a classical pianist - this is supposed to be someone that would actually play a composers music - his answer: "Is John Adams still alive?"

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about this very issue with my good friend and newstyle colleague, Mutsuhito Ogino. Mu had recently returned from Paris, France where he studied at the summer program at L'Ecole Normale. During the festival, his Clarinet Suite was performed, but according to him, not extremely well. He was dumbfounded as to why the pianist had such trouble with the piece, as technically it's not difficult, and she had also performed such technically and musically demanding work as Dutilleux.

I think there are many reasons that living composers have to suffer often not-so-great premiers and performances. One reason is that the piece doesn't exist in the real world yet, only in the mind of the composer. There is nothing for the performer to refer to, except the score - no one in the history of humanity has played or interpreted this piece - in a sense it doesn't even really exist yet. An analogy can be drawn to our observation of a person. We can say that a piece like Beethoven's 5th Symphony is like an old man. We can look at him, smell him, talk to him, examine his long life in detail, get to know his personality - he exists in the world and has existed for a long time - it's not hard to see him and get to know him. On the other hand, Mu's piece is like an unborn fetus. What is this person like? What do they smell like? How do they interact with others? Etc etc - it is impossible to tell because the person exists only in the womb of its mother. The only real way to observe the person in this state is through an ultrasound picture, which is merely a fuzzy, abstract representation on the actual person, which needs to be explained to the parents (or anyone else) by the doctor - the ultrasound being analogous to a musical score.

A piece of music is no different. I have found repeatedly over the years that people are much more likely to want to perform a piece of music that has already been recorded well. This is simply because it already exists in the world - it can be understood simply by observing it. You don't have to be a doctor and actually give birth to the thing, which can be a long and sometimes painful ordeal.

One misconception that I think many performers have (and unfortunately their teachers as well) is that they fully expect a brand new piece to be as instantly understandable as a Beethoven Sonata. If they don't "get it" right away, then it's no good, or sub-standard, or something's wrong with it. What they don't realize is that when Beethoven wrote his sonatas, no one understood them at first, and that's well documented (just read Slominsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective" sometime).

I've been saying for a while now that I want to "win back" our performers - that I think it's important, but what am I really doing about it? I think I'm going to email every instrumental studio/professor and ask them if I can speak in that studios weekly master class about this issue. Today's performers do not take new music seriously, and don't even consider it important to play. This is SCARY. We need to change this. I'm currently formulating how I'm going to approach talking about this issue without making it an attack on the performers, or thier teachers. More on this later - and more updates - I promise!


Philip Howard said...

Now that is a VERY good question! Remove the word "still" and it is even better!!

(I think)

Anthony Joseph Lanman said...

Hey man - always nice to meet a fellow musician!

So, what exactly are you saying? You're a pianist (I looked at your web site) - what do you think of all this?