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"We Are All Mozart"

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the perception of the
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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   August 17, 2006   next

In the past weeks, there have been several interesting responses to these commentaries. In practical matters, Robert Gable writes to ask if this blog has an RSS feed. Now it does; the XML link is here RSS feed for this site or at the bottom left of the page. You can use RSS with a typical Feed Reader or on a customized Google home page to get notified of new postings as soon as they're made.

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Composer and thereminist Ann Cantelow writes regarding chess camp:

I don't play chess, but I have been a go player, though a poor one. I haven't been in any tournaments but did get some idea of my ranking (something like 15 kyu). In a period when I was unemployed I felt a pretty strong need to do something analytical like that, and I went to the go club every week and it was a big relief. After I went back to a programming job the go practice fell away again. I think we need exercise for our brain in the same way we need it for our body. Chess camp should be great to get youngsters hooked on usng their minds. How it relates to composing -- dunno! I wasn't composing at the time. I would speculate that creative endeavors are a third type of exercise we need, in addition to mind exercise and body exercise.

So how does a composer "practice"? What sort of exercise is done, musical and otherwise? As students, composers do daily exercises in harmony and counterpoint and orchestration -- few of which had a strong impact on this student because there was virtually no feedback. The student corps was very small, so re-orchestrating a Mozart string quartet for recorder, clarinet, trumpet, and tuba was less than gratifying and largely an exercise in completing the exercise. (The main complaint about mine? Not to use turquoise ink every again.)

Without evidence of others' practices, I'll present my own: I practice through keeping my senses attuned to the world around, letting sounds and sights and smells and tastes and textures simply enter the body's portal. So taken with sounds have I been that for years my hearing was plagued by a lack of figure-ground significance -- the most important socially significant noises (usually conversation) were subsumed in the wider acoustic panorama. There was no acoustic gatekeeper to give priority to words. A regional accent would be absorbed before the speaker's meaning. Other senses exhibited similar flattening of sensory surface, including vision and texture. At the same time, layers of sensory experiences became embedded -- sounds and smells from decades ago rush the memories back with them.

Practice ends up meaning not to build sound-structures from specific ideas driven by rules or traditions, but rather to extract interesting material from a wash of constant sound -- straining to hear the voices in the ocean, the singing in the brook. Indeed, with some little effort, an entire symphony orchestra might be heard playing in the roar of water over a damn -- not an imagined symphony, but the white noise reorganized and re-emphasized into statistically weighted components, as if some sort of temporal lobe epilepsy were pushing familiar tone poems out through the eardrums in a symphonic transcendence.

Combined with the tinnitus that began in my late twenties, this exuberant and unremitting soundscape offers too many choices, and is perhaps part of the internal pressure to compose -- to rid myself of that which is too much to hold. That doesn't mean composing is a fluid activity. In banal terms, it's like having too many cable channels to choose from, with the tiring prospect of using a program guide (a well-worn structure) or engaging in channel surfing (praying to the angel of hopefulness). The practice is making the choice, the exercise is accepting the choice and engaging it through to the end.

Composers also borrow ideas, or steal them outright -- the latter, if we are to believe Picasso (or whomever he stole that from, or stole it from him). The exercise is to discover the ideas, purloin them, and cloak the theft in one's own style or technique. To hear interesting ideas and set about replicating and improving them is a compositional exercise, as is the creation of sonic modules that fit an orchestration or match a time-frame ... which sounds suspiciously like a commission. Indeed, one can think of any commission as practice music or an exercise, as it leaps not full-grown from the brow of the composer, but is artificially inseminated in a test-tube filled with cash and chains, and must resemble the fiscal parents. A way of achieving that is to borrow or steal ideas so that the bitter responsibility of artistic serfdom is mitigated.

In none of the above has particular practice technique been mentioned, an omission which shall be left so.

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Composer and actor Robert Bonotto writes regarding being age 25 forever to remind me that "Laurence Olivier said that you don't feel, inside, the courage to play the Great Shakespeare roles, really, 'till you're past 40; and by then it's too late to play half of them." And he continues about my performance self-criticism:

You're not a trained actor-singer -- but neither was Rex Harrison when he did My Fair Lady, and the 'Original Cast Recording' he made was only four days or so after the show opened -- and the mental sound of his performance there totally outstrips a) the stereo remake he did with Julie Andrews, b) the movie cast album (with Harrison again), and c) the recent recording in which Jeremy Irons (a much, much, much better actor) does very well with Higgins -- in fact, comes closer to what Shaw intended.

Harrison, in effect, had the inner helium of self-assurance, yes, but he also had the invigorating experience of being the first to do this particular thing, and it's one reason why I tend to prefer doing new plays to, say, Shakespeare. Also, for the trained ear, you are the best exponent of what your mindset is half the time, even if the other half of the time you're running into guardrails and driving on the pavement (damned pedestrians). Note that I say -- the trained ear; in that, I mean other creatives: the actor knows what you're trying to do, because part of his job is to watch people performing in their own lives and where it is they habitually fall short in projecting their own self-image; the artist, because he's spent four years in art school drawing faces and knows what you're trying to express; the composer, because, he knows your inner shorthand as a matter of practice.

So, I would say, in short, that you may come up short in individual performance, but even so, you are not performing for "just an audience" -- many attending are part of the above creative set -- even if it was performing clarinet in high school, they have an inner awareness of extramusical perception in what's going on underneath your exterior 'lack of polish' -- which, having heard Spammung online, doesn't seem to be much lower in its abilities than Kurt Schwitters doing his Merz.

I'll take the Harrison-Schwitters compliment, though it hardly softens the dilemma of the composer-performer's self-critical stance. Indeed, I would like to hear stories of nonpop composer-performers whose acoustic realizations of their own work are actually considered definitive ... and they were even satisfied with them. Those that come to mind from the past are either classically weak and more imaginatively conducted by others -- Stravinsky, Bernstein, Copland, Boulez -- or too recent to have a feel for the depth of their work -- from Geers to Moon, Beglarian to McMillan, Dargel to Oliveros. But with an emphasis on electroacoustics and deejaying and solo work, it appears that the composer-performer is again on the rise. What will the future reveal? Reader anecdotes welcome.

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And finally, composer and lawyer Antonio Celaya writes regarding the composer's survival guide (also expanded in the competitions commentary):

Your advice to composers seems quite sound. You've got me going. I'm going to write some more songs for my wife and for myself rather than hope some string quartet will play a piece. I do disagree with one point. I've entered a few compettions, but have never won one. I would love to win one even if my piece vanished thereafter, bacause it would be a performance. The benefit I received from competitions was a deadline and piece for a definite ensemble. It's permision to write a choral piece. I wrote. Even if it didn't get played, for me that was a help. I have no expectation of ever winning one, but the deadlines help. Of course, I never enter the competitions for an ensemble of tuba, bagpipe and squeaky shoe, which must be completed in one week.

Antonio's point is very well taken. That approach didn't come into consideration because of my personality -- I'm reasonably well driven by requests from performers, and in earlier days youth was enough to drive music to conclusion with hope triumphant over external encouragement. Antonio's is a very positive point of view on competitions.

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My thanks to everyone who writes. This is not an interactive blog mostly for housekeeping reasons -- not only do I mark up the pages by hand, but I also want to avoid the need to clear out daily spam postings or requests by spam robots. Enough of that varkensvlees already crosses the filters to my in-box. I can always be reached this way, and I'll be sure to answer.

Playing on the kitchen floor in summer
Playing on the floor in summer, when the kitchen is warm, just before a family dinner last night.

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