Tag: education

Seeking: Three Examples of 21st Century Music

You have to be careful what you wish for.

A year ago I wrote a column that touched on the idea of musicologists including contemporary music in their teachings. I recalled an exchange I had with a leading professional in the field whose textbook and anthology hardly reached into the 1990s. He admitted that most musicologists wouldn’t know where to start when discussing music of the 21st century and that composers themselves may be best suited to point others in the right direction if not to start the discussion. It was a good chat and he seemed excited by my own interviews of living composers and potential book project.

Well, he contacted me this week and has asked if I could help him add two or three works (scores and recordings) to his anthology that would be “representative of recent developments” and “work well in the classroom.” The second part shouldn’t be too difficult—finding works that are 5-7 minutes and whose scores will fit in an anthology won’t be impossible to find, and the issues surrounding the licensing of these works will hopefully be amenable to both sides. The first part, on the other hand…let’s just say my head hasn’t stopped thinking about this challenge since I first read his message.

Now luckily he hasn’t asked me to designate these works with any stylistic labels (yet), but even if I avoid Jan Stafford’s attempt at creating names for what’s been going on since the turn of the century, I’m still faced with the task of choosing three (there’s no way I’m keeping it to two) works that will adequately represent the many stylistic and conceptual developments that have occurred since 2000 (and preferably written by composers born after 1960, per his request). Any one of us could probably look through our CD collections or i-Somethings and pick out a few of our favorite pieces, but this assignment gives me the opportunity to think hard about what has gone on over the past 12 years or so and hopefully come up with a list of characteristics that are special to this time period.

The biggest challenge that I’ve run into so far is how hard it is to categorize composers today—the various schools of thought that delineated our community decades ago are still there, but they are much more subtle and malleable than before. Composers today can easily pick and choose their techniques and underlying concepts from anywhere on the globe and anytime in our recorded history. While that has opened up many avenues of artistic expression, it’s also pretty daunting if you’ve been asked to come up with some examples that will inevitably parse the past decade into three distinct and teachable concepts.

At this point I have no idea where the request will lead and what my final suggestions will be, so I will take the next few columns to look at these characteristics and see what I can come up with—as always, the comments section will be open for your own suggestions and corrections (I’m quite sure I’ll be stepping in it at least once during this series). While this is indeed a nerve-wracking undertaking, the fact that a crack in the musicological wall has opened up is an important reason enough to go through with it.

Linda Dusman: Leading a Creative Life

Ed. Note: When I sat down with composer Linda Dusman in her Baltimore living room late last month, the gender equality discussion that has transfixed NewMusicBox readers this week had obviously not yet begun. Frankly, as a reporter who has covered gender issues in contemporary music repeatedly, I now tend to avoid this line of questioning entirely when speaking with women about their music unless it relates directly to the work they’re engaged in. When it does come up, the topic is often quickly dismissed.

However, for Dusman, a professor and former department chair at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this perspective and—more than that—this advocacy work, is an integral piece of her life in music, and her comments are serendipitously resonant here on the site today.—MS

In a clever twist of titling, most of the music on Linda Dusman’s recent CD, I Need No Words, can be traced to various texts and quotes the composer drew upon when writing the seven pieces included on the disc. It’s a point of inspiration neatly traced to her love of reading. The title itself, in fact, is cribbed from Virginia Woolf’s landmark novel The Waves.

“It all comes from texts, but I don’t use texts, I don’t have people singing,” Dusman clarifies. “It’s more a sonic response to the texts.” It’s not unusual for her to make note of phrases she finds musical or for friends to send her texts they think she might find compelling. Then these fragments sit on her desk, sometimes for years, until she notices them at a particularly opportune moment. “If somebody asks me to write them a piece, very often I don’t start from the text, but then as I’ve started on the piece I’ll read something and suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s this piece. That makes perfect sense to me.’ So, it’s nothing very systematic, but it is very powerful, for me.”

Language is not the only well she draws from. Visual art and the natural world are also a constant source of sonic inspiration—from a shift in perspective she experiences while looking at a line drawing to the rhythm she hears as wind moves through the branches of the pine tree outside her office window.

“I always feel like whatever I’m working on is in response to where I am at the time,” Dusman explains, citing not only her concert music, but also her installation work and electroacoustic music. “I’m not trying to write music that’s an escape from anything. I’m really trying to write music that’s a reflection on the contemporary moment.”

It’s also a perspective that follows her beyond her compositions. “My goal has been to lead a creative life,” Dusman says. Even though the nuts and bolts work of being “a mom, a department chair, a professor, even a composer” can wear a person down, she suggest that “really, if you approach everything as a creative project, it gives you juice.”

At the mention of her work in academia balanced against her family life, the conversation turns to reflect on both her own experiences as a woman writing music, as well as her observations as an educator. Her anecdotes range from learning to compose in small increments after having a baby to presenting a paper to the IAWM Congress on her study of the experiences of women composers in graduate school.

“It’s really discouraging for me that there aren’t more young women going into composing. It’s still this incredible minority,” Dusman highlights. Citing research on racism that points to “micro-aggressions that create an environment of micro-inequalities,” she says she finds that female composition students can find themselves confronting a similar situation in academic institutions. Still, Dusman reflects, “the other thing I found just talking to my women students: it’s hard to bring it up, because they don’t want to deal with it either; they don’t want it to be true.”

Even though it’s now 2012, Dusman says the issues still haven’t gone away. “When I was in my 20s, I thought it would be fixed by now!” she admits. As her own contribution to the improving the situation, she started I Resound Press.

“Women’s lives can be very complicated,” Dusman says, noting the work/family juggling act many women must execute daily. “So I just got this idea that there should be a way to digitally have access to this music; it should be easier to send things out, it should be easier for women to do that.” Many of the composers on her roster are older, so the press serves as both a way to provide digital distribution for hard-to-come-by handwritten materials and as an ad hoc archival service. “It shouldn’t just be about me. Having access to the resources that I have at the university, I feel like I should be able to find a way to support other women composers who are maybe not as fortunate to have a faculty position.”

And while the project ended up being considerably more work than she anticipated, now that it’s up and running, it’s getting notice, and that’s making it worth the investment. “I’m getting more orders for music, and it’s exciting to be able to help other people out, frankly,” Dusman concedes.

Still, when it comes to fair and equal treatment for women who want to compose, “we’re really not there yet.”

Graduate School: A Backward Glance

As I write this post, it’s been almost exactly six years since my first contribution to NewMusicBox’s ongoing conversation went live: My assignment, if you’ll remember, was to offer a grad student’s perspective on contemporary music. Very soon, however, I won’t be a grad student anymore, and I won’t be able to comment meaningfully on a landscape of opportunities, anxieties, and epiphanies that must be quite different even now than it was six years ago. My last post on NewMusicBox will appear on April 25, the day I defend my doctoral dissertation.

In the handful of posts remaining to me, I’d like to examine some of the issues that my rounds in the ring as a NewMusicBoxer have clarified for me. For starters, let’s talk about the condition that got me into this gig in the first place. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on graduate school, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you now:

Do not go to graduate school.

That’s putting it a bit bluntly. I’ll try again:

Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Let’s say you’re a composer finishing up your four (to six) years of undergrad, possibly with the extra burden of student debt. You’re looking for a way to refine your craft and get ahead in the field of new music. Your professors, with the absolute noblest of intentions, might advise you to consider a master’s degree. You apply to a few programs, and they get back to you with offers of fellowships and assistantships that seem no less remunerative and stable than the entry-level jobs you might be filling your days with as a recent college graduate. Why not accept one of these offers? Let me hit you with a few reasons.

First, the opportunity cost is very high. By the time you leave grad school—particularly if you continue through a doctorate—you won’t be competitive for the very entry-level jobs outside of music that you could have gotten into when you were leaving undergrad. There’ll be a whole raft of people who spent their twenties acquiring work experience (and, in all likelihood, getting paid more than you) who will elbow you aside if you decide to jump ship once your advanced degrees are complete.

Second, even if you do everything right, what happens when the time comes to look for a job in music? The “default” path seems to have been to find a university teaching position, but you don’t need me to tell you that’s easier said than done. Furthermore, regardless of your professional qualifications, not everybody is inclined to be a teacher—the prospect of spending years explaining key signatures to freshpeople may terrify you. (But what about jobs in arts administration, you ask? They have dedicated degrees in that now; I imagine you need one to snag one of those gigs. Tough noogies.)

Finally, the deprofessionalization of cultural production is now sufficiently advanced that we’ll all be out of our jobs in 25 years, probably. If you have the discipline to train in music, you could probably hack it in the more lucrative STEM fields as well; that’s what I recommend. You’ll be able to do more concrete good for family and country. Music is a much better hobby than a job, and we all know plenty of amateur musicians who derive (and even provide) as much satisfaction from music as pros.

I know it sounds like I’m arguing myself out of a job here, but as an instructor, I feel a duty not to mislead the students who have entrusted themselves to me and whose long-term livelihoods are the stakes of this discussion. However, let me attach a more hopeful postscript: Music schools around the country seem to be getting a little hipper to the notion that turning out highly specialized graduates doesn’t serve them well. If more grad programs in music adopt a philosophy that accommodates nontraditional means of making music and prepares its students for nontraditional careers, giving them a broad set of competences and tactics to eke out a place for themselves in this bewildering cultural marketplace, maybe grad school won’t be such a risky proposition: I hope that turns out to be the case, and I hope I can help in some modest way to bring these urgently needed changes about. After all these years of graduate school, it’s the least I can do.

Sincerely, John Cage

If there’s one event that can unite the American new music community, such as it is, in shared admiration, it must be this year’s Cage centennial. I spoke with my continuing-ed class yesterday about Cage, in particular his under-discussed prewar music, and it was difficult for me to convey the magnitude of Cage’s contribution to music and musical thought. One student asked, as listeners freshly exposed to Cage often do, whether Cage really expected us to take his propositions seriously; before I could answer, another student piped up that he had spent some time over the past week Googling Cage’s name in search of video and audio content. Making my heart glad, the second student avowed that, having listened to Cage talk about music, after hearing his voice, he was sure the composer wasn’t winding us up: You have only to listen to him discuss his work to know he had to be sincere.

That same student brought with him to class a concert program from 1967: As it turned out, he had witnessed a concert featuring pieces by Cage, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, and Lowell Cross at Hope College in Michigan more than forty years ago! The final piece was the famous 0’00”, which Cage performed by reading a book and smoking a cigarette under (as specified) heavy amplification. What a remarkable coincidence.

I’m not yet sure what Cage performances await me this year—many, I hope. However many it ends up being, I look forward to that very rare feeling that they bring: A special peanut butter cup of familiarity, comfort with the literature I owe to my UMBC education, and the unfamiliarities, the epiphanies, Cage’s music can bring about. There’s never been a better time to hear (or play!) some Cage; I hope America’s musical institutions, old and new, seize the opportunity to give the man’s work its due.

Competitions Are For Horses

horse raceEvery lesson with Shulamit Ran at the University of Chicago would begin with her sitting at the desk reading through my new score, internally listening to my music as I anxiously would look around the room. Invariably, my eyes would land on the handwritten sign behind her desk on which was written “’Competitions are for horses, not for artists’—Bela Bartók.” I would be simultaneously heartened and saddened every time I saw this wisdom, which also reminded me of Charles Ives’s famous statement, greatly strengthened by the fact that he uttered these words to the Pulitzer Prize committee in refusing their award, that “prizes are for little boys.”

I’m thinking about composition competitions at the moment for two reasons. First, Paul Mathews’s beautifully written article for NewMusicBox, “The Cycle of Get.” Second, one of my students last week asked me for my help in learning more about appropriate competitions.

My immediate instinct when responding to the student was to repeat the mantra that I learned from one of my previous teachers, which he reiterated at nearly every lesson: “Competitions tell us more about the judges than about the pieces entered.” While I personally have found this statement to be both true and hopeful—for me it implies the necessity of applying for as many things as many times as possible in order to find the right jury for my works—I thought that by itself it might serve to limit the student. Instead, I found myself dispensing more practical advice that perhaps might be useful for the gentle readers of this column.

1.) Yes, composition competitions are very important. You should enter as many as possible. If you keep winning them, you should aim for higher-level awards. Enter ones that you believe you cannot possibly win (as well as ones that you believe you should win)—it’s the only way to ensure that you will find your proper level. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer, there are always more prestigious awards for which you can try. If you’ve won either the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, then you certainly don’t need my advice (but thank you for reading).

2.) Join one of the many organizations like American Composers Forum that publishes listings of available competitions. Read the listings carefully and make certain that your piece is a good match for the written rules. If they ask for specific instrumentation, only submit if your work exactly fits their criteria. Follow their guidelines in terms of length. Your bold art will find a more willing audience if it’s sent to the correct location.

3.) If you are a student who can afford to travel to them, you should apply for summer festivals that offer music composition as a field of study. They can be very expensive but also very useful. Spend some time to find festivals with faculty who you believe best match your aesthetic predilections.

4.) Competitions are a very good reason to have the most beautiful scores possible. They generally receive at least 10 and as many as 100 or more applicants for every prize awarded. Therefore, they look for excuses to dismiss scores. Sometimes they will use improper notation as a reason to stop looking at someone’s music.

5.) Remember that every winning piece will be excellent in some way, but many excellent pieces will lose. The judges for each prize generally change from year to year, as do the entered works, so keep trying for the prizes that are important to you. Winning a competition means that your good work luckily met with a panel that could recognize its innate worth. Losing a competition means that your good work met a panel that didn’t recognize its inherent beauty. Neither success nor failure in competitions should change your perception of the value of your own music. Treat both success and failure lightly.

6.) Yes, entering competitions is important and winning them can be a boost to your career. However, your real job is to become as good of an artist as you possibly can become. You will never be able to control the results of competitions (there is a lot of luck involved in your piece finding the proper panel), but you can always control how much you grow as a composer from one piece to the next. Some of the best composers working today had little success as students and only found their true compositional voice at a later age. Competitions should never be your goal. Your goals should always be about artistry.

The Producer

I remember distinctly the day—a Thursday in early May of 2005—I walked out of the last class I would ever take as a student. The German translation course that had been foisted upon me by the powers-that-were at The University of Texas at Austin had not been my favorite (far from it), but there was an electricity present as I packed up my things and left the nondescript classroom, one step closer to completing a journey that had started so many years before. We all cross that threshold at one point or another in our lives, when we are quite sure that we are done “learning” and look forward to when we can start “doing.” Of course, we could not be further from the truth; not only are we always learning—or, at least, presented with opportunities to learn—but every once in a while we find ourselves seated at the feet of a true master, from whom one cannot help but want to glean as much as possible from such a short, yet valuable, “class.”

This week I found myself seated next to one of those masters, and you better believe I was indeed schooled by her. Last year I was commissioned by Chicago’s Gaudete Brass to write a brass quintet for their concert at Symphony Space in January. To make a long story short, the work was finished before Christmas and premiered in mid-January. After the concert, the group informed me that Cedille Records had chosen to record their next CD and my work had been selected to be a part of the project. Fast-forward to this past Wednesday, where I ended up (somewhat groggily, I might add) at the recording session in Goshen, Indiana. The group seemed upbeat and excited about the whole session, since they had already put one piece to bed and had three more days of recording in front of them. When it became time to get started, I was directed to a chair in between the engineer and the producer. I had never worked with a professional classical producer before, so I was intrigued as to what the day had in store.

What I have yet to mention is that the producer for the session—hired by Cedille Records—was Judith Sherman, who had just received a Grammy Award (her third) for Classical Producer of the Year a few days before. Having looked at the list of the incredible recordings she had overseen just in 2011, I tried my best to act like this was no big thing…which lasted all of about two minutes. Luckily, my penchant for shifting into interview mode and asking questions was quashed by the clock and by her no-nonsense demeanor; we needed to record this piece of mine efficiently and effectively.

What followed was a five-hour post-graduate seminar on squeezing the absolute best out of a chamber ensemble, with topics ranging from basic session etiquette, random extraneous noise detection and removal, artist and composer negotiations, and the strategies and tactics of recording a newly composed work when working with an ensemble where the depletion of chops is a never-ending concern. She never had to remind anyone who was in charge; her confidence and leadership was so pervasive that one could not help but follow her instructions to the letter. And those instructions—she continually jotted notes down in her score or on her notebook and while I attempted to hear the work from an audience’s point of view, her ability to catch the most subtle rhythmic or articulation discrepancies and the need for better intonation on two 16th notes in the middle of an interior passage between the horn and 2nd trumpet was beyond impressive.

What this experience showed me was the value of trusting someone else’s ears, especially during something so important as a recording session. To have someone put your music through their filters, understand what it should sound like, and guide the ensemble to that sonic and artistic goal is both a luxury (especially with someone at the top of their game like Judith) and a necessity; we each only have two ears, and as a composer it’s extremely difficult to run a session all by oneself with the various distractions that come with having written the piece that’s getting recorded. As she did with the quintet, Sherman instilled a confidence in me that allowed me to not only improve the composition in several places, but feel that the work was good enough to deserve such attention from her. Having been schooled by the master, I can only imagine how this day in class will affect my own teaching in the future.

Mellon Funds 3-Year, $450K eighth blackbird Residency at Curtis


Photo by Luke Ratray

On the heels of their Grammy win, word comes that eighth blackbird will take up a 3-year residency at the Curtis Institute of Music, funded by a $450,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. According to the press release, the residency is “designed to prepare students to enter today’s challenging classical music world” and “will support the school’s aim to shape artistic leaders who find creative new ways to engage audiences while maintaining the highest artistic standards.” The sextet will visit for four weeks each year beginning in October 2012.

“A multi-year residency at the Curtis Institute of Music is both a great honor and a huge responsibility,” said eighth blackbird’s Tim Munro. “We aim to fill Curtis’s hallowed halls with eighth blackbird’s unique blend of musical curiosity, intelligence, flexibility, theatricality, entrepreneurial spirit, and humor. With any luck we will start and stoke a few artistic fires along the way.”

The ensemble’s residency activities include:

• collaboration and side-by-side performances with the Curtis 20/21 ensemble
• chamber music coachings
• readings of works by composition students
• seminars with student conductors
• leadership discussions
• world premieres of new works by annual composer-in-residence
• involvement in artistic planning of the annual All-School Project
• work with the community engagement program

(—condensed from the press release)

Inmates Running the Asylum

Entrepreneurship and a basic understanding of the intersection between art and life are becoming increasingly important in many music curricula around the country, but especially in composition programs. Between self-publishing, creating performance opportunities through the initiation of new ensembles and concert series, managing commissions, and balancing the various challenges that accompany the life of the freelancing artist, composers find themselves in need of a wide swath of experiences outside of the classroom. Slowly over time, programs have been experimenting with ways to incorporate these additional concepts into an already-packed list of requirements. As I am currently smack-dab in the middle of one of those experiments, I thought it might be helpful for me to describe, for your consideration, what one option might be: the student-run-and-organized new music society.

NOW Ensemble with Corey Dargel and Nathan Koci.

NOW Ensemble with Corey Dargel and Nathan Koci. Photo by Lori Deemer.

One thing I discovered when I began teaching here at the State University of New York at Fredonia was a long history of active student organizations; for many years, for example, the only jazz ensemble on campus was non-curricular and student-led, yet it had gained a national reputation back in the 1970s as one of the best of its kind. The reason why so many student groups have flourished is because of the university’s Student Association, which has independence and support from the institution’s administration, as well as a history of overseeing a large amount of money that is collected through student fees every semester. This type of organizational structure is not uncommon; most schools have some type of student government with various amounts of responsibility over the funding of student organizations, though usually these groups tend to be social, academic, political, or athletic in nature.

Michael Lowenstern in recital.

Michael Lowenstern in recital. Photo by Lori Deemer.

Back in the mid-1970s, my predecessor, Dr. Donald Bohlen, and his students had the idea of creating a student group to help put on student composer concerts. Over time, their group decided to invite a guest composer or performer every year to speak or to perform for the student body. Twelve years ago, the group, under the name Ethos New Music Society, had grown in size and budget to the point where they organized their first “NuSound” Festival over several days to great success. When I started teaching here, they had already amassed an impressive list of guest composers, performers, and ensembles that they had brought to campus, so I attempted to continue these traditions while expanding and diversifying where I could as the organization’s faculty advisor. We now currently sponsor roughly 12-15 events a year, including four student concerts, guest performer and ensemble concerts, as well as composer residencies, both in our NewSound Festival in February and throughout the year with our Overnight Composer Series (“emerging” composers are brought in from around the country for an evening of lectures and flown back the next morning).

Now many schools have some version of either student-organized composition concerts or faculty-organized new music festivals—these aren’t new. What is unique about Ethos is the extent to which the students have oversight of the Festival, Overnight Composer Series, and other events that are normally positions reserved for faculty. Built around an executive board of 8-10 elected students, the group helps to decide who’s coming, negotiate contracts, reserve venues, flights, and housing, create itineraries, manage technology (which can get complicated with some of our guests), write press releases and oversee social media publicity, keep the website updated, and many other “real-world” aspects of being a professional in music today. The experiences these students gain is extremely valuable and while many of our alums have gone on to continue their studies in composition, several others have moved on into arts administration because of their time in the group.

As I write this column, students are preparing for two trips to the Buffalo airport later today to pick up composer/violinist Cornelius Dufallo and composer Paola Prestini for their three-day residency here, which will include a concert, lectures, and a pre-concert talk. We’ve already had one concert last weekend with the Chiaroscuro Trio and have four more in the next two weeks, including a visit by Gabriela Lena Frank and the Chiara String Quartet as well as several contemporary concerts featuring our string faculty. Through all of it, the students will get to meet and work with professional composers and performers in a way that is more up close and personal than I’d ever seen before I came here and they will hopefully come away from the Festival with a much more nuanced idea of what it really means to be a professional composer and musician today.

 Alexandra Gardner, Molly Sheridan, and Brian Sacawa.

Alexandra Gardner, Molly Sheridan, and Brian Sacawa. Photo by Lori Deemer.

I relate this to you in order to suggest that this situation is replicable at other institutions; by encouraging student involvement and building up a budget through the pre-existing student government on campus (which, by the way, is not affected by the whims of state government or departmental funding needs), I’m quite sure that a similar organization could be started at many universities. By placing more responsibility on the students themselves, especially in regard to time management, publicity, technology, and even budget planning, they will inevitably mature into well-rounded artists who understand the many pitfalls and challenges of surviving as a composer or performer in today’s society.

Old Friends

I was pleasantly surprised to open up NewMusicBox a couple of days ago and see James Falzone staring back at me—his face marking a great feature article about him written by Devin Hurd. The surprise was not only because it was a much-deserved spotlight on one of the special musical talents from Chicago, but also because I’ve known James since we were both undergrads at Northern Illinois University playing in the sax section of the Jazz Lab Band. He was a monster clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer from very early on, and I don’t think anyone back then would be surprised at how successful his career has become.

This has got me thinking about one of the well-worn mantras that I find myself continually repeating to my own students—you can’t have enough friends, especially while you’re a student composer. Speaking from experience, looking only towards the future and forgetting to take advantage of the opportunities that surround you in the present is an easy trap to fall into at any point in your life, but most of all during your student years. When you get to know someone over pizza and beers, as well as in late-night study sessions, it’s hard to imagine them—much less yourself—being a successful professional colleague with whom you can collaborate. Too often we focus so much on where we’re going that we forget that we’re already somewhere and miss opportunities that are literally sitting right next to us.

From the composer’s standpoint, it’s obvious that the performers around you (at any point during your career) are your best bet to write for, but the same sentiment is true for performers, who are often so focused on learning repertoire that they forget about the composers down the hall and the opportunity to have new music written for them early in their careers. Many of the professional composers I’ve talked to see this concept as a basic fact of musical nature—you may get a chance to work with other professionals down the road, but the colleagues who surround you early on will be the springboard for those future collaborations.

My own career as a composer would not be where it is if not for several friends who liked my music and took the chance to commission me to write for them. One commission by a trombonist friend of mine from undergrad days, Tom Stark, set in motion a series of works that have really expanded my career in the brass field, and just this evening I’ll be treated to the world premiere of a new work written for the violist Aurélien Pétillot and contralto Elizabeth Pétillot, for whom I have written numerous compositions and who have remained staunch advocates for my music. These relationships are so valuable, so necessary for any of us to not only gain recognition within the music community but to continue to work and thrive as creative artists that we neglect them at our peril.

Do you have any stories of collaborations with school friends that ultimately turned out to be much more down the road?

Getting to Know You

Remember that continuing-ed enrichment class I said I’d be teaching this winter? We’ve had two meetings so far, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s been an absolute joy. My class is engaged, open-minded, and ravenous for new music. We’re having a ball. People seem genuinely curious to hear my opinions about the production and consumption of contemporary music, which as far as I’m concerned is tantamount to administering endorphins intravenously.

Last week, one of my students recounted her experience at a recent performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; apparently the crowd didn’t receive that notorious turning point as warmly as they might’ve. In response, I shared my story of Matthias Pintscher at Temple Israel, which has taken on a sort of Aesopic significance for me: You can get away with all manner of weird sounds if you talk about love in a charming Mitteleuropäische accent and wear a properly tailored suit. To put it more generally, the sound of a piece of music as such is much less accountable for its first impression than the ideological space in which the audience is prepared to accommodate it. If you provide a listener with a way to think about a piece of new music (a task that dwells partially but by no means completely in “the music itself”) that’s consonant with his or her sociocosmology, you’re in.

At the tail end of class, another one of my students raised his hand to ask whether we (in the broad sense) can learn to like music we’re unfamiliar with. It was my distinct honor to tell him that all we do is learn to like music, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. As a matter of fact, that’s why we were all gathered in that particular room at that particular time. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, just above the pleasure of getting to reassure someone of that fact.