Monday, November 12, 2012


Beer in hand, din of the bar resounding, I lamented. "I just don't understand WHY you would write about SHAPES when people in this country are dying of starvation and worse things are happening elsewhere."

My colleagues are probably consistently frustrated with my frustration, but they are generous in allowing me to express. (Maybe this is because I'm often the only woman in a group of composers, and they're either afraid or amused by my passion.) One of them replied thoughtfully, "I mean, if we all wrote about starvation, then we'd all be writing about the same thing."

This is true. And in the moment, I agreed with him, and agreed that this would be a negative trend in the composition world.

But after another night of new music with my peers, my colleagues, my superiors, after many beers and firey, inebriated discussions of "to be tonal or not to be tonal," and after a fitful sleep following these excitements, I woke up still thinking about this exchange and the many others I had last night. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing if we were all writing about the "same" thing, if the "same" meant "human." Something having to do with human suffering, human joy, human connection, hell, maybe not even human, but living. What if we all wrote things that forced us to be together in the moment that we were listening to them? What if we wrote music that was inexorably tied to the forces that create, perform, and hear it?

In almost every other genre, music has a function. 

Think about that.

What is the function of classical music, other than just to "be music"? Obviously it varies greatly from piece to piece. But the more new works I hear that are exceedingly self-referential, that exist solely to experiment with forces, that push limits simply to push limits, that are considered "good" compositions simply because they use devices to create sound, the more I believe that our classical music society has wandered away from music having a function. A social function. A true genuine purpose for existing. Does a novel exist simply to be a collection of words, or is it the story, the affect, that propels it into value? We have all written about this in some way on this blog - from the posts about music having a role in social justice, to education, to concert etiquette, to popularization - and the texts we've read have dealt with this too. But when it comes down to it, I think the answer is quite simple:

When music becomes divorced from its social function, it ceases to be music. Our classical world has drifted much too far from the social function, which is why it is endangered.

I wrote that in one of my earlier posts. I now stand firm with that opinion and would say it to the face of every living and dead composer without blinking if I had the chance. The Dinosaur Annex concert as the Boston New Music Initiative concert I went to last night (on which some of my own work was programmed), in addition to almost every concert - not even just concerts of new works, but of 19th century, 18th century works as well, although in a smaller percentage - often leave me thinking, "why is this happening?" I must say emphatically that this is not a judgement call on the composers or performers. Composers write what they believe to be musically true, and I appreciate that regardless of the outcome. But that doesn't mean I enjoy it or feel like I am gaining anything from hearing it. We wonder why those who haven't been "cultivated" into classical music turn away from it so rapidly - its because it is often meaningless. There are more rules than there are pleasantries, more shelves of superiority than there are arms of empathy to embrace us. I am one of the typical, conservatory and liberal arts college educated listeners - I am cultivated, I supposedly "understand" the function of difficult music - and I do. When I hear works that bother me, I, for the most part, can tell you what the composer was trying to do and whether or not they accomplished it. But despite my cultivation, I still find non-musical music boring and pointless, and I would often rather be doing something else. It is the "gem" of a composition that keeps me attending concerts - typically 2 or 3 exist in a concert program, and thats enough for me to remain a patron.

So. I am frustrated. I believe with every fiber of my being that if you write music, you should write it to move people, you should write it to express human emotions or thoughts or feelings or SOMETHING other than shapes and numbers and experiments and rows and devices, you should write it about something that would exist regardless of whether or not music existed to express it. You should embrace the simplicity of sound, but not just for the sake of embracing the simplicity of sound. If we all do this, then we are all doing something different, because the myriad of human experiences is enough to write 800 lifetimes of melodies. If you don't do that, I probably will not enjoy your music, and I probably will not tell others to listen to it. I won't say I hate it, or that you are a bad composer. I (and others who are not "cultivated", or, perhaps, in this case, "indoctrinated") just won't really bother to do much of anything one way or the other.

And then I think - well, perhaps the purpose of these concerts, that program difficult pieces, is simply to start conversations such as these, and I would be lying if I said that we (composers) don't all relish and savor every second of these debates. Four beers in, even better. We connect with each other, we engage, we yell, we question, we disagree, we unite. And so there's your human function. Separate from the music. Or is it?

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