Composer Composting

Yesterday, I had a great time listening to and playing at a festival commemorating the cello teacher Lev Aronson. Here is a picture of me being awesome:

Yeah, look at that hottie. I'd totally jump his bones. Wait. No. Ew.

The event, as far as I could tell, was hugely successful. Despite the country music you hear at their page, the All Good Cafe was absolutely packed with customers. So everybody knows, yesterday's performance was part of a larger festival given in honor of Lev Aronson, a week long cello fest which will be recurring every year. I think that's pretty amazing, really.

All of the cellists were amazing. It was great hearing so many talented players all in one spot. There was, however, something which niggled at my brain while I was listening. It wasn't until I played near the end that I figured out what was bothering me: I was the only one who played any new music. Granted, it was mine, but still. We heard Vivaldi, Handel, Popper, Lee, Cassadó... But nothing from the 21st century.

So! I will rant a bit about that! What's going on, here? It's a problem I know I've touched on, before. The reasons why new classical music doesn't get performed regularly are multifaceted and complicated. I'll talk today about my experience in college, and maybe some people out there will recognize that experience and set about changing it in what ways they can.

The Great Gulf

In music school, there were two groups of people. Performers. And composers. Performers didn't compose. Composers didn't perform. There were also subtle undertones of "Four legs good, two legs bad" syndrome. People on both sides had a slight tendency to look down their noses across the aisle. It's like... When you're at a wedding. And the wife's side of the family doesn't entirely approve of the husband, and the husband's side of the family really isn't all to sure about it either, but it's a wedding so they're forced to more or less put up with each other... It was like that. And I know, from playing in the orchestra, that when student orchestration readings came up, there was often a slight tension in the air, as if some number of the musicians felt rather put upon.

I can only speculate as to how things got this way. Surely the fact that the two sides have become so distinct from each other is part of the problem. Composers, of course, play an instrument. But in my time, I never really saw too many composers compose for themselves, or groups they had created. And performers almost 100% never wrote any music. Most of that has to do with perceived ability, I imagine. Our current school system goes to great lengths to try and stamp out creativity where it can, and it leaves a lot of wounded souls in its wake. "I can't compose" is a phrase I heard not entirely infrequently.

Part of me is tempted to say "You mean, 'you won't compose.'" But... That is somewhat inaccurate and certainly callous. Mental blocks, as I wrote about yesterday, can be incredibly powerful, and it is foolish to imagine that something that is "all in your head" shouldn't have an impact in the physical world. Placebos, for example. Well, it's even more pronounced when it comes to creative endeavors. So there's that.

But there's also something else. There's very little music theory in high school programs, and none in middle school. Insofar as some amount of music theory is helpful for composing, it's perhaps also true the "I can't compose" line comes as much from ignorance as it does from self esteem. So there's that as well.

Building Jeff Bridges

The simplest way to start is to simply connect. Shake hands, make friends, grab a beer. Think back in the past how many pieces were written with specific performers in mind. Benjamin Britten for Peter Pears. Mozart for Anton Stadler. Haydn for Esterhazy. Brahms and Joachim. Etc. Etc. Etc. The list goes on and on. Collaborate. All the great composers of the past did, so should you.

Also, composers: Write for yourself. There is no easier way to get immediate feedback about what works and what doesn't than if you write something you can play, and go out and play it. The best part about it is, you don't have to pay for rehearsals. And performers: well... Try and break out of your shells a little bit. Write a short song. Or something in simple binary. Or a fugue or something. Whatever you want. It doesn't matter if you never perform it. Just getting into the composing mind set will help you understand music in ways you never get when you are just studying it for performance, or for theory. It's amazing how it clarifies things.

Recommendations of the Day

Today, I want to highlight a couple of the collaborations I noted above. In particular, Brahms' Violin Concerto and Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. Brahms wrote the violin concerto for Joseph Joachim, a great violinist from the 19th century, and the Serenade was written for Peter Pears, an absolutely phenomenal tenor. Both are somewhat long. If you're strapped for time, the Dirge from the Serenade will knock you flat, and the last movement of the Violin Concerto will pick you up again.

Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op.31

Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto, op. 77