New Music and the Performer Problem

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading a post from my friend and colleague, Nico Bejarano, on cultivating acceptance of new music in a professional world that can at times seem dead set on only playing the repertoire already elevated to the echelon of “the classics.” (A comment my mentor Jody Rockmaker once made on my counterpoint homework, here taken wildly out of context, comes to mind: “Get your ears out of the nineteenth century!”) I concur with many of Nico’s sentiments, and I encourage you to check out his post here. I also wanted to take a few moments to address many of those same ideas from the perspective of someone who’s spent a long time being a composer first and a performer second.

Nico talks at length in his article about how the availability and mass consumption of recorded music has diluted audiences’ tastes down to an aural experience that prizes the familiar over all else. It’s an apt correlation; however, I argue that the demographic most affected by this oversaturation of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler isn’t our concertgoing audience­—it’s the armies of performers rising through the ranks of schools and orchestras that treat new music as an afterthought. These folks are used to cross-referencing recordings of the symphonies they’re performing that semester. They endlessly study their favorite soloists’ versions of their solo rep. And they lose the ability (or maybe the imagination) to look at a piece of unfamiliar music and bring it to life in their mind.

Because, when you think about it, repertoire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relies on a mostly-finite set of compositional techniques and devices. Are there outliers who push the boundaries of style and innovation in every field? Absolutely. Are they played nearly as often as the composers who existed in that very safe, idiomatic sonic world? Not unless they pulled a Beethoven and reinvented the wheel. (Somehow, the guys who were writing less-than-tonal music way ahead of the game never get more than a passing mention in history class.) For brass players, it is very rare to hear a recital of works entirely from the twentieth century or later. You might hear some Hindemith or Arutunian or Halsey Stevens or Ewazen, but of these composers, only one is alive (and, arguably, only one—another one—holds a similar level of renown in the compositional canon at large).

During my studies at ASU, I was very lucky to develop a network of friends and peers who were happy to assist with premieres of my new work, but many of those connections had to be carefully cultivated due to a limited amount of interest in contemporary music from the rest of their studios. This differed from department to department—finding clarinets was never an issue, as Robert Spring and Joshua Gardner actively encourage their students to immerse themselves in new repertoire, but recruiting brass players proved difficult at times (even for me). As a result, it’s rare to find members of the ASU comp studio writing for brass unless someone in the studio plays well enough to perform it. And thus, the cycle perpetuates itself.

Really, though, the problem with mass access to countless recordings of the same pieces is twofold—not only will you be swamped with the same five symphonies from the same few dead guys, you’ll begin to develop a connection (probably a strong one) between the music you play and the music you are intimately familiar with. If you get to know a work that well, chances are you’re going to fall in love with it whether you like it or not. And that’s good! Until, that is, you look at Laki by Olga Neuwirth or Wild Winged-one by Liza Lim or musica invisible by Cecilia Arditto or overlays/smear by Catherine Lamb and reject them on sight because of the fivelets or sevenlets or singing through the horn or lack of barlines or just intonation that you can’t immediately translate from page to air. This poses a problem for performers looking to perform almost any piece using post-Cagean notation. (For those unfamiliar: John Cage, whose work you can read a little about here, was revolutionary in the composition community in part because he began writing scores in which the actions notated and performed by the musician do not appear as they’ll sound. The most overt application of this is in prepared piano pieces, in which certain strings are altered with clothespins and ping-pong balls and other fun things to alter their sound, but the concept has many applications for instruments and voices of all types.)

So if you’re a composer alive and working right now, and you want a performer at a school with a traditional orchestral background to play your work, you might have to convince them to fall in love with your piece armed with only a score and a horrendous MIDI mock-up Sibelius spat out at you this morning. Easy, right?

. . . right? . . .

And that’s only if your score has a MIDI mock-up. If you’re writing a text score or a graphic score, your performer has to fall in love with your work based only on the content in front of them and their own level of confidence in their ability to produce anything remotely musical (however they define that) based on what you’ve put in front of them. In my experience, performance majors are way more insecure about having to generate part of a piece’s content than they should be. I suspect this spurs in part from a desire to do exactly what the composer wants, and when the composer goes, “ehh, just consider these things and make some noise,” they don’t always have a plan of action. There’s also this idea of technical perfection in traditional classical music that isn’t always possible in new music, but that’s probably worth a whole other blog post (stay tuned). By the same token, most performance majors I’ve seen try this sort of thing have shown the respect and consideration necessary for wonderful performances of new music—so it’s not even always that they don’t want to do it. Sometimes they’re just scared to try.

On the other hand, if you’re a composer alive working right now, and you hand a performer a part that looks a lot like what they’re used to playing in orchestra, you might discover that some of them conflate “familiar” with “easy.” I’ve had more than a couple rehearsals in which a musician or two has abruptly discovered they’d need to spend some quality time practicing what I’d put in front of them. While this is navigable in most situations, it can be stressful when a premiere or performance is quickly approaching.

So what does all of this mean? First of all, it means performance students at schools that prioritize the orchestral track are at a huge disadvantage. If you’re going to orchestra school and your studio either has a weak relationship with the comp program or there isn’t a comp program, you have to find new music on your own. And the new music rabbit hole is very real and very deep, but stumbling into it generally happens by accident. Lord knows most teachers at orchestral schools won’t help you too much—though they may not discourage you (and they’ll probably think it’s good for you to play what you’re interested in), they probably won’t be able to critique your stylistic choices and interpretation of timbral instructions as efficiently as they can help you with your Haydn. If you’re in a really sucky situation, your teacher may not want you to play new music at all. This exists more explicitly in voice (read: opera and artsong) programs, but a subtle bias still pervades many other studios as well. Sometimes this is because the professor has a particular gripe with new music (or, perhaps, one specific style that they’ve generalized to include all modern composing save the most by-the-book), but sometimes it’s just because they don’t expect students to be interested in it either. Most of the performers I know who have trained entirely under this kind of instructor will spend eons poring over which interpretation of a German translation is most relevant to their performance, but they’ve probably almost never had to put out a call for help on Facebook because no translation website understands what a particular direction even begins to mean. (Spoiler alert: when no one’s written a dissertation about the piece, it takes awhile to find the right answer.)

Where does this put us in the long run? Where do we go from here? Well, if you’re a composer, my best advice is to start talking about your work to your friends, peers, and potential performers. Talk about it a lot. If you can pique their interest in your creative output before you ever show them a score, you’re already doing well. I’d also highly recommend talking about the composers and pieces that inspire you, whether that’s as a composer or a performer or a musician in general. Be sure to leave time for the Debussy and the Beethoven you like, too. They’re remembered for a reason.

If you’re on the performance side of the house, talk to the composers in your life. What captures their fascination and invites them to fall in love? What pieces for your instrument do they wish got performed more often? What do they love to do with their creativity? What musical skills are they encouraged to develop that are ignored in your studio? Who (ensembles, soloists, and composers) do they recommend you listen to? Do this multiple times, not just once; just like your performing will evolve, composers’ styles and preferences can and will change drastically every year. By getting to know the composers around you, you’ll be more aware of the skill sets and styles involved in new music performance, and you’ll be better prepared when a score comes your way. ♦

If you’re reading this and you’d like to be more into new music than you already are, here’s a bunch of folks I’d recommend checking out. Most are still alive and creating today, but I’ve also included some (marked with an asterisk) who did most of their work in the twentieth century:

Katherine Young, Michelle Lou, RAGE Thormbones, Cameron Robello, Liza Lim, Peter Ablinger (jazz folks: check out Parker Notch), John Cage*, ELISION Ensemble, Catherine Lamb, Michael Pisaro, Charles Ives*, Fluxus*, Luciano Berio*, Karlheinz (and Markus) Stockhausen*, loadbang, HEX Ensemble, WasteLAnd concert series, Chosen Vale Seminar, The Industry, Seeadot Publishing

Thanks for being here! If you’d like more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.