Friday, February 23, 2007

One shot

I was thinking about Finnissy, and Feldman, as I often do, and particularly having just written a piece honouring the latter, and having met the former at the same time as I first heard Feldman in Huddersfield in 1996 (a story I'll post here at some point, as it's quite entertaining), and from there about all the new music workshops and the like I've been to or been involved with over the years, and it worries me the attitude young composers are encouraged to have. I remember reading an interview with Feldman once where he said something to the effect that the normal thing for a composer to do is give up composing, it's actually abnormal to continue beyond your university/college years. And there's also the fact that, as 90% of anything in the world isn't very good, chances are if you're a composer you're not very good. And yet composers are encouraged to think of themselves as being on a par with all the undisputed greats, to write for posterity, music which needs many listens to be understood, when the fact is, your piece will almost certainly be heard only once. I've been lucky, I've had one piece played twice. Toby and I have a vague dream that we might repeat next week's concert in Paris, so maybe I'll be really lucky and have a second second performance. And it occurs to me that so much that's wrong with so-called contemporary classical music stems from this. We need to abandon our delusions of greatness, and remember that anything we write will almost certainly have one chance and one chance only to make an impact.

Mostly I think I'm OK, I have some degree of talent. But there's always the voice inside me nagging away: Am I really any good? Am I wasting my time? Why should anyone care? Am I really any good?


Day in bed said...

Self-doubt is something that artists often face. Not just because we are sensitive and demanding of ourselves but because people's views of our work are so subjective. Sometimes people think we're great, sometimes rubbish, so it's hard for us to think with confidence, Yes, I am good! Yes, I can do this! Don't lose heart. You're not alone.

Chandler Branch said...

Thanks for the honesty of your post. I wonder to what extent the mindset that most of us young composers have as a whole on the art of music composition is formed by our “late” vantage point on music history. As composers we are just so constantly aware of the legacy of greatness that accompanies those few composers whose music has survived and is still performed. The achievement of writing music for posterity is so pressing that we can begin to see in it the only valid test for the worth of our music. I think it’s worth remembering that your music might be good, might even be great, and yet may never be heard more than once or twice. Does that make you any less of an artist? To put it in perspective, think about how much of music history took place in epochs when the music being performed in most concert halls, living rooms, royal courts, etc., was written by living composers. Surely posterity has been “unfair” to some of these creative souls, whose music was truly great but was likewise given only one shot, and then forgotten or lost. For me, there is some comfort and satisfaction in loving the very craft of composition and looking to it to find some outlet for expressing something that you simply must express, even if just to get it off your chest, something worth hearing and considering, be it a thousand times or even only once.

Still, to be truthful, I haven’t given up on the hope that if I was ever able to compose a piece which attained some level of greatness, it would survive, would take on a life of its own, however humble.

"If there is in my music anything of lasting value
it will live; if not, it will perish. That is my belief,
for I am convinced that truth will prevail ultimately."

- Edvard Grieg

Chandler Branch, Exe. Dir.
Soli Deo Gloria

petemaskreplica said...

I think the very concept of greatness is suspect - remember that the idea of the "Great Composer" is really a product of the 19th century (and I've seen it suggested that the Era of the Great Composer is a specific period beginning roughly with Beethoven and ending with the death of Stravinsky).

I think two advantages a composer in Mozart's day had were that the idea that 200 year old music might be in general circulation and held up as a benchmark for the contemporary composer was non-existent, and also that there was a consensus about how music was made, that enables one to compare two composers with a certain standard and come to a reasonably objective conclusion as to their relative merits. (Generally if you listen to Mozart's forgotten contemporaries, it's pretty obvious that they're forgotten because they're demonstrably not nearly as good.) There hasn't been any such shared language for at least 50 years now - how can you really make any meaningful comparison between, say, Stockhausen and Reich? Any value judgement is so subjective as to be effectively meaningless.

There was a tiny number of people present at my new piece's premiere last night, but they all seemed to appreciate it, and that's what matters. Really, the only sensible thing to do is not worry about our place in posterity, because it's not actually any of our business ;)