I just delivered a piece written for the 2012 Vision of Sound program. It’s written for violin and piano, and is a fairly sparse work. Choreographer Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell has been listening to it, and is incredibly enthusiastic. I can’t wait to see how she brings it to life with dance.
But this piece got me to thinking about how contemporary classical music is (sometimes) evaluated.
I hear a lot of works that are incredibly complex, that nearly overwhelm both performer and listener with the technical gymnastics the composer requires. I know of at least one performer who has sworn never to take on another piece that a particular young composer* writes, because those pieces are literally impossible to play. Some composers seem to pull the extended technique book for an instrument off of their shelf, open it up, and say, “Oooh, I have to do this! And this looks neat! And wow! I’ve gotta try that!” The piece becomes a jumbled mess of random techniques, rather than a cohesive work.
Most of the time, I see this in less experienced composers (usually still in school, or just out of it). But there are a few established composers who have yet to escape this trap.
I think, too, the value of a work is sometimes inflated if it seems exceptionally difficult to perform. The harder it is to play, the better it must be. Especially if it has been commissioned. The arts are struggling enough – we don’t dare waste our monies on something that sounds too simple, right?
Well, I’m not so sure about that. I love the things that extended techniques can bring to a piece. (Just check out Michael Lowenstern.) Some of my own works (Porch Music and Caged for example) are rife with extended techniques and non-standard notation. But in these instances, the techniques serve the music.
That is because, in my (not so humble) opinion, what is first and most important is the music. When I compose, I try to communicate with the performer and the listener. And like an author who can choose just the right turn of phrase to touch the heart and mind of the reader, finding just the right musical line and sonic framework can move an audience.
Sometimes you need extended techniques to do just that. Other times, the simplest line is more effective. Listen to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im spiegel. Can you be more simple – or more moving – than that?
I’ve been frustrated on occasion when, at a concert, so-called “experts” practically wet themselves over the cacophonous work that sounds incomprehensible, while brushing aside the lyrical work that was, in their minds, too simple. Oftentimes, however, the audience members leave the performance talking about how deeply the “simple” piece touched them.
In my mind, all things serve the music. If a simple, single line with a gentle arpeggio underneath communicates what the composer intended, then that is a successful work. If extended techniques and electronics are needed, then use them well. But remember, the music cannot – must not – become subordinate to the technique.
All things serve the music.
* I don’t want to name names here.