A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   June 8, 2008   next

Not long ago I was talking about geography, as well as before that (Transformation by the Commonplace, June 12, 2006, and A Nowhere Composer and The Geographical Cure, May 18 and 19 of this year). On NewMusicBox I mentioned this during the topic of "truth and beauty" and invited others to comment. Mark Winges was the only composer to respond. (Mark's work is remarkable and diverse, and I enjoy it enormously.) I thought his comments were very important, and he is allowing me to reprint them here.

It seems that the point -- how as a composer geography affects us -- is a little buried by the eighth paragraph, but nonetheless the surround makes a lot of sense. I'll come back at the end with a few comments of my own.

I think you hit on something significant. Or maybe it resonates for me strongly.

I do think there's a significant difference between urban & rural culture, and it's a big distinction. I'll just ramble on a bit, and if you can use any of these thoughts, be my guest. Or ask for more information / clarification if you desire.

The first thought that I had is that an urban area has access to performers in a way that rural area does not. I think it's sheer density, and it just builds on itself: the more people that do live in San Francisco, then the more people want to live in San Francisco. Because the more performers that live here, then the more opportunities to actually make a living as a free-lance performer, etc.

That access to performers thing resonates with me because despite all the wonderful communication and reproductive technology, it's still a live performance art. To phrase it another way, those producing the sonic content usually do so within close proximity to each other. Can you imagine a string quartet rehearsing a piece over the internet? When you extend that outward to the composer / performer interaction, I believe that there's a quantum difference between having the composer in the same room with performers (especially for premieres but also for rehearsals of anything) and trying to give some input via phone, email, letter, etc. I think the composer presence at a performance is much less important than presence during rehearsals. When there's an active local performance scene, then all that is right at your backdoor.

We always talk about meeting the audience, being in the community and so on. I won't deny that it has an importance of a sort, but that's nothing to the direct interaction with the performers when they are preparing a piece. It's so two-way: I've learned so much stuff when I'm really involved with the performers. Even if it's something simple like seeing a percussionist colleague at a regional symphony gig, telling them you saw them at the new music concert last week, and asking them how they managed three bows on the vibraphone - you get that kind of thing again because of the sheer density of performers and performances in an urban setting.

Now, I'm not saying that an urban environment has everything and a rural one has nothing. There's a good deal of wonderful music-making going on in rural areas - from the plain, heartfelt, honest type that may be less accomplished technically (and look what that sort of thing did for Ives) to the brilliant former urban pianist (or excellent composer) who just flourishes (and plays / composes better) in a rural environment because the city stress is gone.

But there is a "mass" of music making in the urban environment that not only provides different opportunities for the composer, but forces the composer to absorb things differently. Case in point: several of my performer colleagues who I would consider part of the "new music mafia" in the bay area also play or have played in early music ensembles. As a matter of just supporting them, I've heard Philharmonia Baroque or periodically catch the other period instrument performance. Another instance: some of the Volti singers had to scoot right out after the performance part of the end-of-season fundraiser, because they were singing in a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers.

Here's a really big deal to my way of thinking: different stuff into my ears, different stuff out on the page.

If someone gave me a CD or even DVD set of Messiaen's St. Francis, would I listen to it? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not the whole thing. But someone gave me a ticket to the SF Opera performance so of course I went out of my way to see it. Sat through the whole thing, even if I did sort of agree with one comment I heard: "after that tableaux where he's talking to the birds, I wanted to run home and kill my canary". That may be an extreme example - even though Atlanta is definitely urban, the opportunity to see the Messiaen would not exist there - but you get my point.

Also just in terms of opportunities, the urban area works different than rural. Making a cold call (or email) contact with a performer or group outside one's locale is harder than just showing up at a concert, going up to the violinist after the concert and asking them if you can send them some scores. Lots of violinists, lots of concerts in an urban area. Of course, the reverse is true: for the few (or one) pianist in the immediate rural area who gives one concert a year, there are a lot fewer composers trying to shove scores in their face - you may be more likely to get some good face time with said pianist over a beer.

Again, these are differences, with neither one being "better" in some absolutist sense.

To get personal - there is no way I would have my almost 20 year residency with Volti (formerly the San Francisco Chamber Singers) in a rural area. The group could not exist. There would not be a critical mass of singers who could make up a chamber choir that specializes in new music outside of a city. It's definitely provided me an opportunity to hone my craft in terms of writing for choir. Leaving aside the sheer existence of some dozen plus pieces I've written for them.

There's a parallel for me when wearing my organ-playing hat. I'm about to start an interim organist gig at a place that has quite fine acoustics - about 3 - 4 seconds, not too much, but definitely spacious - I can feel what the proper tempo is for a lot of Messiaen. I've also played a few times in Grace Cathedral (about 7 - 9 seconds), and that really feels spacious. Those spaces don't exist in a rural area. On the other hand, a multi-media site-specific installation involving the unique acoustics of an old growth forest isn't available in an urban area. No denying the magic of the latter. Again, a difference, and that difference shapes what we write.

But ultimately, lifestyle choices like this are so personal. I honestly enjoy the rhythms of a city. I respond to the country, of course, and don't consider myself "at two with nature" (Woody Allen), but the city feels good to me. I like the difference between 6 am on Thursday and 6 am on Sunday, and I don't think there would be such a difference in a rural area. I may change my mind sometime (lots of people do), but it's felt right to me for a lot of years.

Unfortunately, I can't get outside myself enough to quantify very well how much or what musical choices get made because I'm living in a city versus what choices I would make no matter where I live. It's an interesting topic - and even though it's hard to pin down, my instinct tells me that the choice of locale is a big factor in composition choices.

As I said at the beginning, it seems to me the point is buried a little, so I'll reiterate: "different stuff into my ears, different stuff out on the page."

Where I find Mark's approach does not precisely match mine is with respect to what comes in and where one finds that input. Certainly the opportunity to cross paths with performers is worthwhile, and there is the unlikelihood of a string quartet rehearsing online (at least today). But my own development was from a distance. I did not go to concerts often (even if I presented a lot of them), and both my initial and subsequent contacts with most music was via recording and in later years online. Unlike Mark, I would be much more likely to listen to Messiaen's St. Francis on CD or DVD than go to a concert, free tickets notwithstanding. It's just too much of a big dollop of commitment. I have been reprimanded before about this (by, among others, composer Matt Fields) for having a kind of anti-social stance in what they feel to be a deeply social medium of music. But I just squirm at concerts. One piece is enough, then let me out; unless I really really really have to stay for politeness reasons, I'm gone. (This reaction, of course, is neither urban nor rural. But it applies if one is expected to be present at myriad concerts, and ply one's visibility. The infrequency of concerts in the countryside removes that pressure.)

My involvement with rehearsals has been mixed. Where my notation is specific enough, it doesn't need me around. Where it isn't, that's deliberate and I shouldn't even be around. There have been occasions when something is simply wrong or the conductor has highly limited rehearsal time and has not picked up important moments in the score, or when there's an impending disaster (such as this one with New Granite) that calls for my presence. But I believe performers have a much better handle on performing than I do, and if they bring something unexpected or unintended to the performance, so much the better. Their interpretive role should not be limited by (or intimidated by) the composer's presence. Believe me, I have seen those composers who eat up rehearsal time on subtleties that would be better sculpted by the instrumentalists or singers.

Maybe I just don't like music enough. That occurs to me because of Daniel Wolf, whose blog I mentioned recently and who eloquently responded shortly thereafter. I feel a bit Cheney-esque in my reaction, thinking: "So?" And I certainly stand by my comment that music is easy, because it is supremely arbitrary. As with the Henck analysis of Klavierstuck X, any aspect can find its justification. I follow a formel; I depart from the formel. I follow the physics of sound; I reject the physics of sound. I follow history or expectation or theory or practice; I reject history or expectation or theory or practice. I incorporate my culture; I incorporate other cultures. It may or may not take detailed training to make music; it may or may not take education or information to grasp music; it may or may not be anything one chooses to call it. Daniel calls it plural, which to me is synonymous with easy because of its deeply arbitrary nature. No suspension bridge will collapse nor reuben sandwich be destroyed because of having taken the wrong path. And there is no more succinct example than the Musikalisches Würfelspiel attributed to Mozart, a little game of dice that builds a minuet, a piece which some years ago Michael Arnowitt performed with me as a funway-inspired dice thrower. It has rules, but the rules could also be altered arbitrarily. There were canon games before that. Oh, yes, it's "hard" in the sense that it is tricky to accomplish some tasks, like creating a good crossword puzzle, and certain combinations have sensory triggers, but when the grand summary is done, one discovers how the music could have gone in any number of directions (composed variations are enough evidence of that) without ever having followed the wrong path. A half-dozen composers finished Mozart's Requiem, all of them different. Another half-dozen finished the orchestration of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. Were any really wrong? Wuorinen made modern orchestrations from the Glogauer Liederbuch. Hard or easy? How can you tell? Cage later takes dice much further, and here in postmodern times, there is no longer a difficulty -- unless it is simply self-inflicted compositional pain -- to music. Technically, yes, it's a lot of stuff to learn, but heck, I don't even need the performers anymore, do I?

Where was I? Ah, geography. Yes, my patience for music is low because here in the rural world, nature abides -- a truth that it takes many years to assimilate. What comes in may be through the ears, as Mark suggests, but it is also smell and color and contour (all of them with urban counterparts) and -- here it is very significant to my point -- long cycles of events. The city is a place without seasons, where nature is tamed (except in disaster), where cycles are manufactured and short: the auto engine rpm, the bus schedule, the subway rhythm, the workaday events, the minute and the hour and the day. Lights come on to eradicate darkness, darkness may rule inside to eradicate light. It is Tralfamadore in full artifice.

One may attempt to have a similar experience in the countryside, but inevitably the seasons come under the door. And beyond that, we come into them, for there is no protective shroud when the home is but a thin shell. Resistance is futile.

The futility of resistance to these long cycles and natural shrouds inevitably informs the music -- I believe as deeply as living in the presence of a swarm of performers or performing spaces ... though Mark is wrong about such forces not existing outside the cities. They do. Their gathering is simply less convenient, a lack of convenience breeding a high level of dedication. For example, I sang in a performance of Bartók's Elmúlt időkből, rarely heard even in the city. Choirs and instrumental soloists are rampant in Vermont -- musicians who commission new works -- though new music chamber ensembles and orchestras less so. As for spaces, the acoustics of Old West Church in Maple Corner may not have a nine-second reverberation, but they are enviable -- and quiet, because Old West has no electricity. And should a large space with pipe organ be needed, there are great stone churches in the concentrations of population that we call cities and that would appear little more than sprouts of population to the large city dweller. These are the experiences that do not have a mass effect, which accounts for their invisibility to the cities that generate their own climates.

I am loving (to use the present progressive so popular these days) this conversation. Now if I only had evidence, clear musical examples, to support this thesis.

Something I Want to Think About

There's a interesting concept that used to be called the in-joke: Fanservice. Darcy James Argue has given us a wonderful redefinition of this concept, and it has created a well-deserved buzz in the new music world (such as Tim Rutherford-Johnson's blog).

Three Minor Gripes

  1. Vermont has joined the ranks of places whose organizations charge composers to pay other composers. Yup, the Burlington Chamber Orchestra composer competition demands an entry fee. Oh, yes, we have a wonderful competition! You pay us so we can have a prize to give to other composers! Clever little scheme. Kalvos & Damian gave out its 2004 Golden Bruce Award for exactly this kind of distasteful behavior.

  2. Qatar is not pronounced "cutter", unless you're British. A few years ago, an Arabic broadcaster instructed CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer that the proper pronunciation of Qatar was not k'TAR. For English speakers, she said, it was best approximated by saying "cutter" -- as with scissors, she explained. She also spoke with an international English accent: CUT-arh, with a distinct "t" sound. But the CNN crew took to using the American pronunciation of "cudder". Like a cow. Shudder, cudder.

  3. News folk: Please stop answering "absolutely". "Absolutely" is not "yes". Say "yes".

* * *

First rose of 2008
The first rose of 2008 opens. A pink one opened an hour later. The fleabane has appeared, two California poppies opened, and a variety of other blooms have appeared at last. The peonies are in bud, as are the largest poppies. It was also 85 degrees today, way above normal, and the thundershowers passed us by.

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site