Monday, June 08, 2009

Compare and Contrast 16

  • Missy Mazzoli, quoted in the Times: “So many composers would write for orchestra at the drop of a hat,” Ms. Mazzoli said. (She has a commission from the ISCM for the League of Composers' new orchestra.)
  • Kyle Gann, writing at PostClassic: "I'm not one of the composers who's allowed to write for orchestra much, so I don't teach orchestration." He elaborates on what he means by that, but I gotta say, I hear real differences among "I'm not allowed," "I don't get the commissions others do," and "I'm not going to write for orchestra on spec because I think it'll never be performed." There's also the little matter of his claim that a composer needs to be on the orchestral commission track by grad school. It'd be interesting to track the last decade's worth of new-music commissions in US orchestras and see who is getting commissioned. Also up for discussion, at least in my book: were both Elliott Carter and John Adams on that track in grad school?


Michael Walsh said...

Hard not to think Gann has a case of suboptimally ripe grapes...

If there are that many hatless composers, maybe I should crank up my Vienna Symphonic Libraries tool and offer some virtual orchestra recordings.

Michael Walsh said...

(Silly to say that, most of those guys probably already have comparable software.)

I'd like to think there's an audience out there for more new works, too. We don't really have the equivalent of the coffeehouse or the open mic night for our genre.

If there were such a thing as a podcast of garage-band orchestral works (pick-up groups or synthesized), I'd definitely listen in.

Lisa Hirsch said...

If you haven't, the whole posting and comment thread at PostClassic is worth a look.

Mike, I think that there are some new-music-coffeehouse projects in NYC, where there's a teeming new music life. For orchestral works, I don't know. I mean, I'd find it fun to read through new stuff, but an awful lot of new music is too hard for me to sight-read.

Henry Holland said...

Loved the comment on Kyle Gann's blog about the music of Salonen, Lindberg and Saariaho. I love the music of all three composers and all three totally reject the minimalist ethos. Not a coincidence there, I guess. :-)

One of the things that bugs me the most about the minimalist movement is that their basic premise is to reject the European orchestral model from Bach to Birtwistle in favor of a more gamelan-esque, percussion + winds approach, but....they often complain that they can't get orchestral commissions.

It's a chicken/egg thing, it seems, and I've never understood why stuff like Reich's Drumming is considered in even the remotely same genre as, say, Tchaikovsky but it is.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Classical music is a big tent!

Kyle Gann is still fighting the style wars; pretty much never misses an opportunity to tout the superiority of downtown versus "academic" uptown composers. Shrug - chacun a son gout, but I like both.

sarah said...

Hi Lisa- Missy and Kyle are at very different points of their careers, so it may make more sense for Missy and other young composers to take whatever opportunity they can to write for orchestra (although I know Missy is getting great commissions these days), while Kyle is reluctant to write on spec when he just shouldn't be required to do that at this stage. And Henry, you should listen to the samples of Kyle's piece The Planets on his blog before making judgements about "minimalist" composers. You will find his harmonic language and orchestral palette right up there with Salonen and Lindberg, and to me, Kyle's music is a hell of a lot more fun to listen to.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I plan to check out The Planets.

What I'm taking issue here is with Kyle's "allowed" wording. I guess I would take issue with "required" as well. Most composers do not get orchestral commissions, it is true, and it's worth looking at the range of reasons why, which include orchestra-world politics, what's musically fashionable, who is in the right place at the right time, the friends one has, one's abilities at self-promotion, how good one's agent is, one's current fame (or being considered "rising"), a composer's career trajectory, what orchestras one wants to write for (the NYPO vs. the Oregon East Symphony, for example, or a college orchestra), which individuals and institutions have money for commissions and who they choose to commission. I myself would love to hear more orchestral music by a wider range of composers.

A composer with a teaching job is in a position to write whatever music s/he would like to without a commission, with the caveat that, of course, there's no guarantee of a performance. Some composers will write for orchestra because they want to, others won't.

It's a little hard to tell from Kyle's blog how much he wants to write orchestral music. On one hand, he seems bitter not to have the commissions ("not allowed"). On the other, he takes justifiable pride in his role in downtown music and the lengths such composers have gone to in order to support and play he each's music. On the third, there was a discussion on Sequenza21 last year about conductor Ken Woods' advice to composers on notation and working with orchestras, during which Kyle said he'd never compose for one of Woods' orchestras.

Joe Barron said...

Gann is a bright guy, but he says a lot of questionable things. And he is, let's face it, a grump.

Elliott Carter has had a lot to say about the relationship of orchestras and composers, very little of it good --- and he would certainly be regarded as a successful composer, at least in terms of the number of commissions he has received. There is the story of the time smuggled parts of his Holiday Overture out of the BSOs music library, photostat them and smuggle them back in because the piece had been promised a performance it never received. Then there is the more familiar story about the time he walked out on the NYPO's commission for the Allegro scorrevole because Masur had imposed conditions he found unacceptable. Carter was so tired of the rigmarole that Levine and Knussen actually had to talk him into writing some of his later pieces.

In any event, he wasn't on any grad school track. He didn't begin composing for orchestra until hs late twenties, long after he received his MA from Harvard. It was a long time ago, certainly,but I doubt a younger composer like Jennifer Higdon, who receives a lot of orchestral commissions, was ever on any grad school track, either.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Carter's comments sound in line with some of what Kyle says - and they're coming from a man who is getting commissions at age 100.

sarah said...

Hi Lisa- I think Kyle was being facetious when he said he wasn't "allowed" to write for orchestra. You're absolutely right about the variables of orchestral commissions-- that all makes a lot of sense. I vehemently disagree with you though when you say "A composer with a teaching job is in a position to write whatever music s/he would like to without a commission." Are you kidding? On a teacher's salary? And a full teaching schedule? Elliott Carter, on the other hand, has always had an independent income, so he has never had to work, teach, or do anything except compose.

Joe Barron said...

"Elliott Carter, on the other hand, has always had an independent income, so he has never had to work, teach, or do anything except compose."

Not really true. Carter taught until well into his sixties. The list of his affiliations is long (raising questions about whether he was able to hold a job), and he ended his career at Juilliard. I have often taken issue with the idea that his inheritance allowed him to compose the kind of music he writes. I have a feeling he would have done it anyway. There is also the question of exactly when he came into his inheritance. Elliott Sr. died in 1955, when Elliott Jr. was already well into middle age, and the composer's mother lived into the 1970s, I believe, though I'd have to check that. A study of Carter's finances would clear up a few myths, I think.

sarah said...

I didn't say Elliott Carter never taught, just that he didn't have to for financial reasons. In this joint interview with Phil Lesh, I asked Elliott Carter about why he taught classics and philosophy rather than music:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sarah, I've never met Kyle and wasn't sure of the tone of his comment on "allowed" to compose orchestral music., which could range from the light/humorous/facetious to hearty irony all the way to embittered/sour grapes. You know him, so your interpretation is likely correct.

I take your point about time and teaching, but note that Mahler produced a mighty body of work during his summers off. FWIW, I would have read your comment on Carter as Joe did because it looks as if you're contrasting Carter's situation with that of someone who taught music. Joe got there first or I would have posted "but Carter did teach for much of his life."

Joe Barron said...

"I didn't say Elliott Carter never taught, just that he didn't have to for financial reasons."

Then you've lost me. If he didn't have to teach but did anyway, what difference do his finances make to his orchestral output? Carter has written all of his major orchestral works on commission. (He once said that his fee from the Louisville Orchestra for his Variations amounted to twenty-five cents and hour.) Gann said he won't write orchestral music on spec: he has that in common with Carter, at least.

Great interview, by the way. Thanks for the link. I met Phil Lesh at Tanglewood last year during the Carter festival. We had a pleasant chat.

sarah said...

Apologies for being unclear, Lisa and Joe. I think when it comes to teaching, as with any other job, there's a difference between being obliged to do it because of financial pressure, and choosing to do it because you want to. It wasn't meant to be a comment on Carter's creative output, which is astonishing by any measure.

Henry Holland said...

Classical music is a big tent!

But a tent has limits, a boundary. My true musical love is the prog rock bands of the early 70's: ELP, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, pre-top 40 Yes and Genesis etc. They borrowed stuff from classical music, mostly to do with form so they could break away from 3-minute pop song constraints. I can't tell you how many times I've had to write "No, I love King Crimson to bits, but Fracture is NOT the equal of the Bartok string quartets in terms of compositional complexity and depth, it simply isn't, they're different genres with different aims altogether".

It's the same with classic minimalism: I simply can't see how In C (I love jamming along to the classic CBS performance with my bass guitar) and La Monte Young's "three notes for an hour" pieces and Philip Glass' organ arpeggios for 10 minutes are even in the same musical galaxy, let alone same musical star cluster or nebula or.... as La Mer. I know we're supposed to not erect barriers between musical styles any more (stoned hippie voice: "It's all just music, maaaaan") but....

And Henry, you should listen to the samples of Kyle's piece The Planets on his blog before making judgements about "minimalist" composers.

I don't need to listen to Gann's piece "before making judgements about 'minimalist' composers", I'm familiar with the literature, you can't avoid it in California even if you try, like I do.

But I took your advice and listened to 5 of the 10 Planets pieces.

You will find his harmonic language and orchestral palette right up there with Salonen and Lindberg

Ah, it's the same "No, Fracture is not in the same league as the Bartok string quartets" thing again. The harmonic language right up there with Salonen's piano concerto or Insomnia or Wing on Wing? Lindberg's Concerto for Orchestra, piano concerto or Aura? The orchestral palette up there with any of those pieces or Saariaho's Orion or the glorious L'amour de Loin? That's really special pleading, I'm sorry.

What I hear in those pieces is a sedate run through of the Boulanger school of dry counterpoint, mixed with poor percussion writing and a nod to 40's big band sonorities. The Kenton band, maybe?

In fact, I kept thinking "This would be great as the score to a really sad film-noir, where The Two Lovers Are Doomed Because Society Won't Let Them Love!!!!".

Reading this thread reminded me of a couple posts at Pliable's On An Overgrown Path.

This one is funny and I loved Drew80's comment: "In his defense, I recall Kyle Gann making one intelligent point on his blog: he remarked that many young American composers are primarily orchestrators, and not genuine composers". (see: Nico Muhly, cute as he is).

Not strictly Gann related, but this post has some good stuff in it, especially #4 in Johnsonsrambler's list of things.

Woops, tonights Phish show is up, time to go download it.....

Anonymous said...

Orchestral commissions may be the big cheese financially, but as Carter's comments referred to above suggest, they're not otherwise always the most rewarding.

John Adams said, in connection with the premiere of his recent string quartet, that he enjoyed the flexibility, interactivity, and above all the more ample rehearsal time per length of the work, than one gets for symphony or opera.

Henry Holland said...

Yes, I'd imagine that a big orchestral commission comes with a lot of strings attached (no pun intended) and a lot of cooks in the kitchen, as it were.

To clarify something I wrote above, I'm fully aware that "minimalism" is like every other established genre, full of different subgenres, it's just I don't think that thought is necessary to append to every criticism of minimalism. There's even some people that claim that Boulez' wonderful Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderno is a minimalist piece.