29 December 2008

Parenthesis to Passion

O you must wear your rue with
a difference.
— Ophelia, Hamlet : IV.v

For an unknown composer, opportunities for performances are few, and audiences small. In order for a composer to succeed, he must make a name (— indeed, that sounds a tautology: since any composer whose name is known to the public has succeeded —); and the catch-22 is, that to the composer with no name, none of the apparatus for creating a name is available. No major orchestra pays attention to him; for in the first place, their programming priorities are heavily weighted to the long-established literature; and in the second, if the orchestra programs a new work, the board of the orchestra is apt for business reasons to favor already-known living composers who are the current ‘hot properties’. The u. c. is no property at all, not even a frosty one. Even the ‘guerrilla musical’ tactic which in principle is open to the living composer, the surprisingly large number of chamber ensembles in the large cities which dedicate themselves to new music, is a dicey proposition. There is such a variety of new musics in the air at present, that (a) it would be a surprising thing for the music director(s) of such an ensemble to embrace everything (one prefers to excel at a few things, rather than to come across as a mediocrity at everything); (b) there is a tendency to become somewhat proprietary about the stuff one has come to favor, which is at best simply a gyroscopic property of the perfectly artistic aim to be good at what you do; and (c) the new music groups are themselves caught in the Need for Name Game, and they, too, are musicians probably cobbling together a bucket of revenue-streams.

[ On point (b) above, I have on more than one occasion been told (with regret) that my music isn’t like some other — and reasonably famous — living composer; and this is given as the core of the reason why, alas! space cannot be found for my music. To be sure, one does not want a conductor to present one’s work, unless the conductor does indeed ‘believe in’ it, because that goes a great way towards engaging the ensemble in the music. And yet, of course, this rationale rests on an uneasily inartistic foundation: we don’t want ten new composers who are cookie-cutter imitations of other composers we already know of. The great composers of our day will have their own voice, won’t they? ]

A composer’s name does not become a household word (even in those statistically few households in which composers’ names are actually spoken) in the US without large-scale premieres which are media events: a John Adams opera at the Met, an Elliott Carter orchestral piece at Carnegie Hall, a Tan Dun or Osvaldo Golijov commission played by the New York Philharmonic. It is no wonder that a musical friend wrote to me that he is near to losing patience with my stream of chamber and sacred choral pieces, that he is keen to hear a Henning symphony! But the fact is, I have largely written pieces for which there was some realistic prospect of performance (not that this has stopped me from composing hours of music yet awaiting play, of course). My friend is right, though: a half dozen unaccompanied clarinet pieces (for myself to play), a handful of impractically eccentric groupings (clarinet and viola, for crumb’s sake) — none of this is music which is going to grab anyone’s attention. It is the catalogue of a composer who will eventually die in obscurity.

It is a difficult and challenging environment; some years have passed and I have made no apparent headway, yet I will not yet call it an impossible environment. For a talented artist who has not managed to elbow his way to the table, it were hard to overstate the frustrations. But any natural reaction to the frustration, is not going to change the environment; it is a nursery for the virtue of Patience. Even more important than the patience, is the need to go on doing the best work of which one is capable.

And so I post here, not to curse the darkness, but to light a candle.

A 40-minute unaccompanied choral setting of the Passion narrative is no small undertaking. It is a great privilege (even if the performance falls some distance shy of ‘reasonable perfection’) to have a choir made available to carry out the experiment which is the premiere of such a piece (though, in brief, the composer has had such extended practical experience in composing unaccompanied choral music, that the risks of the experiment were minimal). On paper, the venue of the premiere is grand: Boston’s Episcopal Cathedral! Located, however, in a downtown Boston which is less residential than in the past, and dwarfed by the commercial buildings and concerns in the area, St Paul’s is a dwindling congregation; by headcount, the audience for the premiere was modest, though response to the piece was of the warmest.

And there the matter would have stood: a fair performance, to a handful of attentive people; and none the best recording to document even the fair performance. Hardly a soul in Boston, who was not immediately involved, knew anything of it; let alone beyond Boston.

That might have been the end of it, save for the Internet, which made it possible for the piece to find an audience much broader than that in physical attendance at the premiere. Their words will follow.

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