they’re just not into your music…

As with every other new music composer out there, I’d really love for more of my music to be performed and heard, apart from the computer-generated files on my music site. Sure, MIDI is a wonderful thing, sampling technology has gotten better, and within reason the audio files I or others have created serve their purpose. But as much as many of us have gotten acclimated to producing our own recordings through modern technologies, I think it’s a strange person who wouldn’t want live musicians to perform his or her music (apart from works that are expressly created for electronics, player pianos, and other technologies).

That’s one of the fundamental problems with music in general; unlike poetry or art, composers are very much dependent on performers to get their music heard. We’ve managed to use technology to bypass performers; sure. But ideally, all of our music would be performed at least once, and preferably recorded, by living, breathing musicians.

It’s partly a function of supply and demand-too many composers, too few musicians. Actually, that’s an oversimplification; there are plenty of performers out there. But many don’t have much interest in new music, and even when they do, the logistics and economics of moving forward and getting new works performed is often too daunting a task. When new music is performed, in most cases we’re talking about short works, and ones that are hopefully not too difficult or challenging to play.

Now, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a few pieces performed and/or recorded by musicians who have taken a real interest in my music. But these are the exceptions. In most cases, I get either polite silence from performers, or else I get any of a number of responses, all of which indicate that a performance is out of the question. Usually, the reasons I get for not performing my music include one or more of the following:

  • It’s too long
  • It’s not long enough
  • It’s too difficult
  • It’s not notated as simply as it could be
  • I’m sorry, I really am, but I don’t have the stamina to play it
  • You can’t do repetitive notes on this instrument.
  • We can’t perform it now, but will certainly consider it for the future (translation: “You’ll never hear from us again.”)
  • It’s too “out there” for my taste
  • This is music? Really?

Here’s the dilemma; no matter how much music I write, someone wants a piece for a scoring that won’t work with the piece in question. Now, I’ve written music for piano. Music for violin. Music for violin and piano. String quartets. Mixed chamber ensembles. Open instrumentation (so in theory, pretty much anything goes in terms of the instrumentation). Electronic organ. Brass. Winds. Percussion. Chorus. Pretty much everything. I mean, I’ve even written a work for electronic organ and bongo drums–you never know when someone’s going to ask for that combination.

Or they want something short. Really short. Now, there’s nothing wrong with music that is under ten minutes, and truth be told, I’ve written a few pieces that fall into that range. But Webern aside, it’s really hard to say much that is meaningful in a very short timeframe. Most modern music is around 20 minutes; part of that involves the fact that for years, that was more or less the capacity of one side of an LP (in some cases, this was stretched to 30 minutes or longer using modern technology, but 20 minutes or so was usually the limit). But interestingly, 20 minutes is approximately the average length of the adult attention span. That’s why most educational programs are created in chunks of 20 minutes, and I suspect that also has some relevance to why so many works are in the range of 20 minutes.

My first postminimalist work, written in 1981, was just over two hours in duration. I didn’t know that for sure until two years ago when I developed a MIDI-based recording of it and could hear the entire thing in one sitting (I had never had the time to play it through from beginning to end on the piano). No one has ever performed it, and probably no one ever will for some time. Another work, brass piece for arielle victoria, I think is a pretty damned good piece of music. The last section was arranged for string quartet and recorded as mf. But I have no expectation that the piece will be performed by any brass ensemble. It’s long. And very difficult, in that one really has to be capable of circular breathing not to simply asphyxiate while holding some of the long tones. I knew all of that when I wrote it; contrary to what some wind and brass players think, I really am aware of pulmonary function and the need to breathe. Believe me, it would be really self-serving of me to write music that was unquestionably familiar and relatively simple for wind and brass players to perform. To this day, I have a phobia about writing for those instruments, having been scolded by flautists for having written a piece like for roger copland. Honestly, I really wasn’t trying to piss anybody off, but every time I show that work to a flute player, I get a reaction akin to “You must be friggin crazy to think any flautist will or could play this crap.”

But here’s the reality: even when I’ve written music that, to me, seems pretty straightforward and even easy to play, in most cases it doesn’t get performed. I’m not a performer. I played violin for many years, but no longer can really play it, and apart from one formal piano lesson, I had to figure out how to get around on the piano. So if one of my works is easy enough for me to play it, surely a decent, professionally trained musician can play it. But they don’t. And won’t. What could be easier than a relatively moderate stream of eighth notes without any rhythmic complexity or counterpoint? Yet several such works remain unperformed. In the case of this piece intentionally left blank, which is for open instrumentation (but written on two staves, which contains chords that would have to be divided among various instruments), the composer/performer Paul Bailey took it upon himself to block out parts and perform this work publicly. Most people would not have gone to that trouble, but Paul liked the piece for some reason and felt compelled to take the time to make it work for a group of instrumentalists. However, a subsequent arrangement of the work for a small, conventional ensemble remains unperformed a few years after it was scored. I wrote a piece for an old friend, composing it for an instrument that is certainly in need of additional modern works. That also hasn’t been performed.

At the same time, it’s not all dismal. Not at all, in fact. I have at least one, and possible two, commercial recordings in the works, and there is a strong possibility that one of the three dedicatees of last year’s quartet for piano will be premiering it perhaps as early as this year. And Todd Reynolds has assured me that he will hopefully get to record four strings for todd reynolds in the future. In many cases, it isn’t that a performer doesn’t care to play my music, but the logistics and economics are just too daunting. So I don’t mean to sound bitter and angry. I am grateful for anytime that someone listens to my crap, let alone performs it. I went more than 20 years between having one piece performed publicly and the next instance, so the fact that since late 2006, seven of my works have either been performed publicly or recorded, is really amazing to me. But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to getting frustrated at times by how tough it is to get any sort of traction with one’s music. Hell, I can’t even get accepted as a mere link on the postminimalism page on Wikipedia because, as with the composer Galen H. Brown, neither of us was considered “prominent or famous” enough for the Wikipedia editors, even though anyone with any familiarity with the new music scene knows our music has been termed “postminimalist” whether we like that term or not.

Writing music is hard work. I actually think it’s harder than many surgical procedures, because at least with surgery you have some basic principles to guide you, even in a difficult situation. With composition, there are no rules or processes to bail me out. Either the notes are there or they aren’t. And I have no a priori sense of whether something I write is “good” or not. All I can say is whether or not I like it, and sometimes I have to grow into a piece, since the initial stuff I write down often makes me question if I have any music left to write. True confession: the reason I kept on writing for many years when it was clear that no one was going to play my music was because after writing one piece, I worried that I had no more ideas for any further pieces. So with each new work, it was as if I was meeting a challenge. Just one more piece to convince me that I still had some ideas left. I still worry that I’ve run out of ideas, however.