Friday, July 9, 2010

Empowering Players

Just this afternoon got word from Jonathan that the St Clements Wind Ensemble has, after two (more than just reading through) rehearsals, decided to go forward with performing Timepiece at the Fringe festival in Edinburgh in August.  I. Am. Over. The. Moon.

Part of it has to do with why I write music. I think the error of the 20th century modernists was assuming radical change was needed to refresh the repertoire. There's all kinds of stuff yet to be written in what I'm going to start calling "common touch" harmonies and rhythms that the modernists flew right past in their quest to be ever so much cooler than the plebes. I use rhythms that are more complex than simple 3 or 4 to the measure, but which still have a recognizable bounce and shape. My harmonies are all tonal, but "modal" gets used as a descriptor, and I do love Gesualdo. 

Also, I'm not sure I completely buy into the whole cartharsis thing. There are times it can work wonderfully, but there are other times that's not what I'm looking for. I do not need music to feel the negative emotions like anxiety, depression and anger. I most of the time want music to reinforce positive emotions in fresh ways. My sense of audiences who've heard my music is that I'm at least partly successful.

But this I why I'm so happy. Below, Jonathan comments:

When rehearsing a new piece, particularly a newly-composed piece where you haven't had any opportunity to listen to recordings, the music emerges only gradually. Initially, you are just concentrating on counting and getting the right notes in the right places. Only after that do you have time to give attention to balance, phrasing and eventually structure and overall interpretation.

And the interesting thing about this process in chamber music is that it is a collaborative process. All the participants have something to contribute to the interpretation, we are not just ciphers working according to the controlling mind and interpretation of the conductor.

That my music can be used for this level of music making - and that it engages the players enough to want to continue working to see what they can make of it - is a whole new level of validation, both in terms of my notions of where music can go and of my notion that small ensembles are part of the answer to lot of Greg Sandow's questions. All the small ensembles (regular and irregular) keeping the culture of homemade music making alive need fresh material, and the latest twitch out of the twelve tone enclave ensconced in the academy isn't very helpful.

And maybe it's because we just went through the Fourth, but this really struck a chord with me:

. . . we are not just ciphers working according to the controlling mind and interpretation of the conductor.

This made me realize I'm more of the democratic/republican way of thinking than the authoritarian/totalitarian when it comes to music making. I've always had trouble with authority figures for whom I could deduce no really good reason for their having authority other than the quirks of samsara. To my mind, it would be a sign of a more vibrant music making culture if what Jonathan is talking about here were simply assumed, and it was the surrender of liberty involved playing for an autocrat that needed explaining.

photo - yard violets, which our Vermont readership (who asked me to write a wind quintet in the first place) insists are flowers and not weeds.


  1. The quote "There is lots of good music still to be written in C major", has been attributed to many modern composers, but I believe the original version came from Arnold Schoenberg, even though he had invented the 12-tone system.

    On this business of authoritarianism vs collaboration in music, I think the assumption is towards authoritarianism for some good and necessary reasons.

    Larger groups (more than about 10 players), need a conductor, because they can't all see each other, and collaborative ways of working get unwieldy with large numbers of players.

    Also, seating arrangements may be such that not everybody can see each other. For instance, tomorrow night I'm playing the Richard Strauss Suite for 13 winds. The venue is so small and narrow that we are arranged in three rows. We have to have a conductor for that.

    And people's first experience of group music making is usually in school orchestra or band. When young, they don't yet have the skills and experience to collaborate, and so they have to be told what to do. Good conductors of school and youth groups will smuggle some of the "why's" of music making and interpretation into what they tell the kids to do, so equipping them for a more collaborative approach in future.

  2. Jonathan - Good points all, and I agree with you, it's just a question of balance. I don't think small ensembles can replace larger ones, I just think there aren't enough of them, so a lot of music makers never get around to the collaborative approach, which deprives them of experiencing some of the most rewarding aspects of music making. I see what I'm trying to do as offering alternatives to the autocratic approach, not eliminate it. There's nothing quite like an effective conductor getting a group to play beyond it's seeming skill level.