Having written many semesters’ worth of unwarrantedly difficult music, I’ve lived many times over the student composer’s plight when it comes to locking down players in the absence of a carrot or a stick. But this time—a matter of weeks away from my Ph.D. defense—something in me put its earnest little foot down: I am never doing this again.
Maybe some of you remember an article that appeared in Harp Column some nine years ago that addresses composers considering writing for the harp (I’m afraid the copy I received doesn’t include the author’s name). The article includes the following remarkable passage under the subtitle “Detuning the harp”:
Once upon a time, I played a piece for nine harps. Three were at normal tuning, three were tuned a third tone low, and three were tuned a third tone high. It was kind of an interesting sound, but I am not sure those harps ever recovered. If your art insists on unusual tunings, please keep the following in mind: After the harp is retuned, it will not hold for several days. If there is anything else on the program requiring harp, the pitch will not hold for that piece. If there is anything else on the same half of the program requiring harp, the harp will have to be retuned while the audience waits (it has happened to me). It causes all kinds of weird strains on the instrument to be at a different pitch. It ruins the strings. However, having said all of that, I am an artist at heart. Do what you have to do!
In an unrelated story, I recently found myself for the first time in some years walking down a music school hallway in the shadow of a looming performance, clutching a part and hoping to find someone to play it. Having written many semesters’ worth of unwarrantedly difficult music, I’ve lived many times over the student composer’s plight when it comes to locking down players in the absence of a carrot or a stick. But this time—a matter of weeks away from my Ph.D. defense—something in me put its earnest little foot down: I am never doing this again.
According to The Internet, you can drop over ten thousand dollars on a harp. Even a set of strings can run you fifty or more. Consider an economy that can accommodate both the harpist’s double admonition—”keep the following in mind,” but “do what you have to do”—and the misery of begging musicians with no investment in your music to play it with no hope of compensation. Consider an economy that can accommodate both the close, career-long relationships that blossom between ensembles and composers and the hundreds of hopeful submissions sent to the 2012 Parma Student Composers Competition.
The field of production has a lush end and a barren end. In the same way that I exhorted composers several weeks ago to be critical about concerts, I exhort you now to be critical (and I know that many of you already are) about the way what composers do is transformed into music. Don’t let someone let you destroy their harp. Don’t debase yourself just to get an ass in a black stage chair. “Do what you have to do,” but remember that you get to decide what you have to do.