Thoughts About Composition

Posted By on November 9, 2010

The other day, a very small comment made by a friend of mine at work sprouted a seed of thought which, over the next five days, grew into quite a bitter plant. The OPL has been recording the works of the French composer Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941.) His pieces have been largely ignored over the past century and I believe they are very much worth hearing. When I said as much to my friend, who generally has very fine taste, she replied, “You must be kidding! You like this stuff?” Or something to that effect. Now some of these works are for large orchestra and are of substantial length. And although not being terribly rhythmic, they are complex enough in harmony, melody and form. And I was thinking about how much time, energy and effort I know went into writing music like this. Sometimes trying to access that creative spirit, attempting to ride the wave of inspiration, is a frustrating and quite emotional experience. It is a state which all artists go through when creating something out of nothing. When the composer has finally finished the work, gone through it over and over again, written out a legible score and set of parts, and then cautiously presents it to a musical director, his entire endeavor is liable to end up in the “You like this stuff bin.”

I am thinking also if the premier of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. You can read about it on Wikipedia. Eye witnesses report that at the conclusion of the performance, after the orchestra members and most of the audience had already left, Bruckner could be seen waddling around the stage, quietly collecting the parts to this unwanted masterpiece, which was only performed twice in his lifetime.

And then I began to think about the many composers of our time, who churn out uninspired, unenlightened, ugly sounding, dismal works and then lobby like hell to get them performed. And the many music directors who are somehow duped into programming these unfortunate pieces, “music” which will never last the test of time, completely fail to lift mankind to a higher plain- one of the purposes of art in the development of civilization- and are really disliked by both audience and orchestral members alike. And for some reason, they succeed as composers.

I have to wonder, how dare they! The call to be a composer is a serious business indeed. The bar has been set extremely high. Think about Schönberg’s “Paellas and Melisande”, or Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, Brahms Fourth Symphony, Bach Magnificat, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The list goes on and on. It is a costly affair to financially support performances of new works, and I believe the money in this area of the fine arts is somewhat limited. Composers today are, more than ever, under enormous pressure to produce works of the quality of those I just mentioned. If you don’t present a piece on par with, say, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses, your work will probably end up in the “You like this stuff bin.” I state as an example, the Piano Sonata Nr. 1 by Alban Berg. It is his opus 1! His first piece.

One of my pet peeves is when musicians and listeners alike (mostly the former, by the way) accuse composers of being plagiarists, or “borrowers” of other composers’ ideas. It’s interesting to me that it seems to only take three or four notes in a similar pattern, or sometimes only one similar harmonic change for a piece to be termed “plagiarized” or borrowed. Yet all artists, from sculptors to poets to writers and composers, painters and dancers have always built on the groundwork and concepts of other fellow artists who have gone before them. Everybody gives a respectful wink and a smile when they hear the works of Vivaldi blatantly quoted in the works of Bach. Listen to the Berg Piano Sonata, for example, and you will hear what I mean. I myself, have properly exhausted my own musical language. I have been attempting, with some success, to evolve to the next etape. I find it to be doable, albeit time consuming both emotionally and intellectually. An artistic development such as this demands deep, inner contemplation and serious probing of the very depths of one’s creativity. One simply cannot give in to the tendency to allow “intellectualism” to take over, thereby putting out the flame of true artistic creation. The very stream of genius which brought forth the masterpieces of ages.

I also thought about the endless time involved in proof reading pieces for publication. The huge financial as well as energetic effort it takes to get your works recorded and “out there.” And when I considered all of these factors, I felt overwhelmed. I felt smothered. Completely and utterly smothered. How can I write music of the proper and mandatory standard if I am up against all of these odds? Well, I can’t. It really is enough to make me desirous of stopping altogether.

This year I had decided that I was going to spend more time on the promotion of my orchestral works, being “Karankawa”, The Grail Symphony, and the concertos. I also really need to promote some of my major works for larger chamber ensemble, for example “Rhapsody” for nonet, “Postcards from Lucca” for concert band, and “Bronze Triptych” for 12 horns, just to name a few. Many of these are by far my best work. Yet they are really never played. And it occurred to me that I don’t have the right type of personality to push my music hard enough to get music directors interested in even listening to it.

Yet having written all of this, I will continue to compose. There is a voice inside me that is insisting that I continue to write music. It is what I was really meant to do. So I will at some point this year, start my next project. I would like to compose a chamber symphony, a four- movement work for about sixteen instruments. I have been studying Schönberg’s First Chamber Symphony (opus 9). And you know, I will most probably end up financing the recording of it myself, and there is a very good chance that it, like the rest of my orchestral opus, will only make it into the repertoire after I am dead. It sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it?

But I have partial encouragement by the numerous performances of my Quartet Nr. 2, easily one of the easiest things I have ever written. I think it took me all of a Saturday and Sunday to pen that one. Oh well.

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