Author: DanVisconti


This being my last week in the States, I’ve been busy enough visiting assorted family and friends that I likely won’t have a chance to see again until June. Suffice it to say that music hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of my attention. My own musical efforts have been limited to some half-assed screwing around on violin and guitar (two instruments that I don’t have access to in Berlin and usually don’t miss with the AA’s Bosendorfer in my living room).

After the typical near-obsessive urge to use these instruments to compose music begins to give way, I found myself just noodling around in a purely physical way, much as one might twiddle their thumbs to pass the time. Oddly, while notes and rhythms were surely produced, these were strangely ancillary to the physical experience of playing. Some impressions:

– Our normal process of learning seems to proceed by making the unfamiliar into something familiar and understood. But perhaps it is just as useful to occasionally take something familiar and find a way to make it unfamiliar all over again (cf. my previous post).

– Most of us learn music at the physical level before these physical gestures and habits are given any musical justification. At some early point, this physical input becomes tied to the musical output, and we tend to view both elements as inextricably linked. For most of us, the physical element in music is strictly a means to an end, and not something obvious to indulge in itself as distinct from music-making.

– The violin is a ridiculously high-precision instrument, and as such can’t be modified a great deal with any degree of success unless one jettisons the sound box entirely. Now consider the guitar: a much less sophisticated instrument in construction than the violin, but the looser acoustic requirements make possible a whole galaxy of designs that would be unthinkable on the violin. Like Coq au Vin or some similar delicacy, the modern violin is a fine-tuned affair. The guitar is more like a hamburger; a simple format with room for endless variation.

– At the eleventh hour, my skills at the violin now at their most meager, I quite unintentionally discover a knack for playing sub tones on the violin, an extended technique I had become convinced was a fiction. Now that I can barely play, why is it at this moment that I should finally be able to produce a nice solid sub tone? Might it even be because I have fallen out of touch with the instrument on a physical level?

– The bulleted list surely ought to be an acceptable format for delivering academic papers.

Tabula Rasa

I’ve always been amused by the idea of New Year’s resolutions—how through an event as impersonal and arbitrary as the changing of the calendar year, normal weak-willed humans can somehow find enough of an impetus to finally begin that exercise (or score study!) regimen that had earlier seemed out of reach. Why is it that humans (this one included) have such a hard time making significant behavioral changes without the psychic ass-kicking of a holiday or other significant life event?

When I first became aware of this particular New Year’s ritual, I tended to regard the whole thing as silly. After all, there’s another part to the ritual, when the gyms begin to empty out in February, and the whole process of putting things off until X magic date seemed like a big, culturally-subsidized rationalization.

With a few more years and many or my own New Year’s successes and failure under my belt, I can say that I now have a real appreciation for the psychological effect of a “clean start.” (Sympathy follows fairly quickly when you’ve been alive long enough to join the ranks of the culpable. At frighteningly late age I actually put off the date I planned to quit procrastinating, without perceiving the obvious irony until much later). Clean starts help us focus the boring, long-term discipline of maintaining any behavioral change into a single memorable moment, the memory itself often becoming an icon or totem to meditate on. A clean start made in public (as is often the case with New Year’s resolutions) is a great way to create accountability. And in creative work especially, clean starts help us to step back and attack problems in a fresh way.

While I have many times found this technique useful in my own composing work, lately I find myself wanting to take the idea even farther. But the one thing I can’t do (at least without some majorly invasive physical or chemical meddling) is to hear a piece of music I know very well for the first time. Just think what a gift it would be to just forget the B Minor Mass in its entirety. It would be a kind of manufactured innocence, I suppose—all those great moments awaiting to be discovered all over again, accompanied by that “first time” sense of suspense that can only come from unfamiliarity. There are many musical works that I’d love to hear for the first time again, for many different reasons. But since I am myself a composer, I suppose it’s natural that I should want to experience my own music for the first time, too.

I’m not sure how other composers feel about the role of premieres in this respect, but while they’re always exciting and deeply formative experiences they hardly constitute a genuine first hearing for me. Without even counting rehearsals, by the time I’ve finished a piece I’ve already heard the damn thing ad nauseum—as well as all the variants that didn’t make the cut. In fact, I’m usually so thoroughly bored by my newly completed pieces that I’m honestly thankful for the large gap between receipt of score and premiere that is the bane of most notated music. What I’d give not just for a clean start, but a clean slate—to hear the piece develop on its own, free of the messy and often frustrating process that gave it birth.

I would be interested to see if this desire is specific to myself or widespread—secretly, I suspect, it may be universal among composers and other creative workers. And if my hunch is right, I’m hoping to find out if anyone has any particular work habits or tips to recapture that feeling of unfamiliarity…especially ones that don’t involve brain surgery!

Back in the USA

Dear Germany,

Flying out of Tegel this week, I had a chance to do some thinking. And not just because I got stuck in the dreaded middle seat between two immovable sleepers. The first term has just ended at the American Academy, and I’ve headed home to D.C. And while I’m absolutely overjoyed to be at home with my wife again, I felt something I wasn’t expecting, something, well—ok, I’ll just spill it:

Germany, I think I’m falling for you.

Sure, there were many things I liked about you when we first met. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you how great your musical culture is, or for that matter your penchant for baked goods and amusing verbal puns. I’ve grown accustomed to all your little quirks and blemishes too: how the sun sets before 4:00 p.m. in the winter, or how your strange delight in bureaucracy borders on an obsession. Sorry to mention that, but what did you think I was going say? That I think the way you chew gum while you talk is just so cute? Please. Germany, I’ve known you for several months now and we can afford to shed that air of polite cordiality.

On the other hand, we both know this can’t last. I’ve got a life back here in the states; hell, we both know that. We’ve got plenty of time together yet, but on June 3rd I’ll head back to the states for good. So for the time being I’d appreciate you closing the bathroom door.

The truth is our relationship has never been specifically about any aspect of your rich and varied culture, although I’ve enjoyed that, too. I know this might sound silly or even sentimental, but something about my time with you has helped me see America more clearly, and helped me begin to see myself and my native tongue with renewed curiosity. Just imagine the sound and cadence of American English itself: loose, essentially casual, even sloppy at times. But from this bumbling freedom great diversity also arises.

In 2009, I’ll return for another chance to peer into the cultural looking-glass. It’s a funny word, reflection. For me, what I thought was a window has ended up becoming a mirror.

Polymaths, Not Prodigies

The area around Unter den Linden by the Staatsoper is now in full-on “Christmas Walk” mode, replete with the requisite decorations, vendors, and ever-present Glühwein. With all the singing, dancing, and games, it’s something like the small-town fairs I know from the States. The children run around in groups, seemingly unattended and joyful.

In the building nearby, though, I enter to find a very different group of kids, neatly lined up with violins under arm, absolutely still and pensive. I feel a little bit awkward as I pass; after all, I’ve been asked to serve on the judge’s panel for this regional youth performance competition, and the knowledge that I’ll soon be required to numerically rank the musical accomplishments of these 6- to 10-year-old kids makes me feel like a big jerk.

After sitting through a few hours of violin rep, however, I find I’m no longer feeling so inhibited about my role as an adjudicator, in part because through their playing these young musicians reveal themselves not as children, but as little adults. Some even perform movements from major concertos with an adult-sized portion of musicianship and maturity.

Later that night, I recalled my own abortive experiences with the violin. I had studied violin at the age of five, much due to my family’s suggestion and encouragement. But after a few months I decided it wasn’t for me, and my parents fortunately obliged. As I began to get more involved in music as a teenager, my interest in the violin resurfaced, and I decided I was ready for a serious effort. Overall the experience of really learning an instrument for the first time was a powerful and positive one, yet I always remained acutely conscious of having come at it from an odd angle. In my lessons I was routinely reminded of being a late-bloomer, and of how much farther along I would be now if I had simply “stuck it out.”

As I grew older and began to think about going to school for music, several adults whose opinions I respected advised me with variations on this old chestnut: “If you can imagine yourself having a satisfying career doing anything else besides music, then you would really be better off just doing that.” For a teenager with a whole bunch of interests outside of music, this was certainly cause for alarm. Why was it bad to be a well-rounded person who left themselves more than one unique avenue to happiness and self-fulfillment? At the time, I spent a great deal of energy puzzling over these attitudes, and it actually brought me no small amount of concern.

Today, I can see that devoting myself obsessively to the violin at the expense of all other experiences might have made me a better violinist, but I’ve never been more grateful for having other skills and interests I might not have developed if I had. But more importantly, it’s exactly the skill sets I was once encouraged not to cultivate that have proven most important to being a musician. My interest in writing, graphic design, and computers proved absolutely essential to the craft of composing, and my interest in literature, pop culture, and philosophy ensured that I wouldn’t find myself at a loss for what to write about.

I’m all for having music and music education being a part of children’s lives, and, lest anyone infer otherwise, I also feel that serious study and intensive training regimens can be very positive. But the mythos and cult of the prodigy should have no place in this framework. It’s a worldview that leaves no room for so many of us—the adult learner, the amateur, the educated concertgoer or layperson—and instead invites the worst abuses, especially on the gifted child. With options like Orff and Dalcroze classes, there is an abundance of very healthy activities available for children as young as eighteen months.

In the meantime, six years old still seems a bit young to be onstage competing for a cash prize, too young to divert the developing mind from the great diversity of life’s experiences to such a singular goal. Perhaps it is the polymath, not the prodigy who we should hold up as an ideal: that individual whose knowledge and experiences are not restricted to one area of expertise. Sure, few of us are da Vincis, but few of us are Itzhak Perlmans either! Thankfully, it’s not necessary to possess superhuman (or even above-average) abilities in order to enjoy music. I no longer retain any facility on the violin, but when I go home next week you can be sure I’ll commandeer my wife’s old violin at least once and bust out the opening of some old warhorse with more than a few (unintentional) quarter-tone inflections.

Different Worlds

Meet Dan Visconti


Ed. Note: Composer Dan Visconti will be in residence at Berlin’s Hans Arnold Center as recipient of the American Academy in Berlin Prize for the 2008-09 season. Similar to the Rome prize, the residence includes meals and a stipend, but this is the first year that a composer has been invited to the Berlin Academy for the entire academic year. Visconti’s compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, and he has received awards from ASCAP, BMI, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Society of Composers, as well as the Bearns Prize from Columbia University. An archive of Visconti’s online journal of his experience working with Kronos is hosted on the website of Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. He has graciously offered to keep a journal for NewMusicBox of his activities in Berlin.—FJO

I knew I couldn’t possibly be in the States when I opened up the Berlin Phil’s subscription guide for the first time—and without having to read much of it, either. As I flipped through the rather hefty volume, it dawned on me that what I had initially taken for the entire season’s listings was actually just the orchestra’s listings for September. And this from a city that sustains no less than seven major orchestras and three opera houses!

Now, with a few months at the Academy under my belt, I’m thoroughly enjoying music of all kinds at venues large and small. In the meantime I’ve also settled into a more or less steady work routine during the day, with the Academy’s typically comprehensive dinners providing the opportunity for relaxation and socializing in the evening.

At one of these dinners, I had the good fortune of being seated next to a very accomplished German composer, and the conversation turned to a recent performance of the Berg violin concerto. My colleague confessed to me that he had never been able to enjoy the work, making sure to add that he found the work “lazy in its references to the past.” When pressed he clarified that the piece “lacked a strong theoretical consistency.”

Perhaps more than any other incident so far, this exchange really hit home how strong some of the fundamental differences between American and European composers remain today. To begin with, I found it interesting that my colleague’s reaction to the Berg concerto was so conditional—he didn’t like it, but he came equipped with a handy explanation that made it completely clear what he did endorse: “strong theoretical consistency”. My likes and dislikes are usually much more visceral, and very rarely expressed against some kind of abstract yardstick—whatever I think of the Berg concerto, I would be reluctant to attribute its effect on something as specific as theoretical consistency; instead I would probably cite many features of the composition which interact to create the ultimate impression, theory having an important (if perhaps indirect) effect on these features.

Of course this is the typical “American perspective”, I am told, from that wishy-washy world where everyone sits around smoking hash and letting waves of sentimental pabulum fill their uncritical ears. Of course it’s no use that this version of America simply doesn’t exist and never has. And as a successful composer with an international reputation, my distinguished dinner-guest couldn’t possibly believe that there was one “American perspective,” much less a perspective that includes, say, Reich, Lanksy, and Crumb but willfully ignores American composers writing in the past and today who work a more complex idiom.

Still, there may some truth to these caricatures—of the American composer as kind of a tree-hugging uber-Ives with a live-and-let-live attitude, and of the European who views musical composition as an obstacle on the way to doing more theory. But to what extent?

I’d love to hear everyone else’s take: Do American and European composers really inhabit such different worlds?