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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Concerning Music

It's been a relentless two weeks, and even though I spent a good twelve hours in a makeshift office at the university on this last day of Summer Piano Academy—and subsequently spent a good two hours recording piano pieces only to discover that the quality was terrible—I wanted to complete these thoughts concerning music that I've been collecting for the past several months.

Not too many years ago I had high hopes of being a musician and composer; now my role is largely to facilitate other people's musical endeavors. While my work at the VCM keeps me within the musical world, it also feeds my own regret and disappointment at how time seems to have drained itself away. (N.B. This is not a blog post about work; it just happens that my workplace features prominently.) Each year brings a new class of hopeful students who are living my dream—one that I briefly lived but woke myself from for a now forgotten reason. I still like to think of myself as a composer, though I've been stuck on the same piece after only a few bars for... well literally years.

What ultimately discouraged me from finishing my composition/theory ARCT? Well, it's not that I was entirely unsuccessful. My song cycle was performed at the VCM, for one thing. The last competition I entered, my Anglo-Saxon choral piece was a finalist and only didn't make the very final cut; more than anything else, I would have loved (and still would) to hear that piece performed. And that's the ultimate discouragement: my composition instructor told me in one of our last lessons that as a composer, I'd have to get used to hearing my music only in my head; that the pieces I wrote simply wouldn't be performed. Of course that isn't entirely true; in fact, both times I entered that competition, I have been eligible to apply for a recording grant. But, I'm perceptive enough to realize that it would be true for me, given my self-defeating personality. Anyway, that was the day I walked out of that endless fugue class and decided I was wasting my time, along with what little money I had.

I can't write a post about music without mentioning my biggest musical inspiration. One of the people I admire the most (in pretty much every way, and particularly musically) is Melissa Dunphy. (I highly recommend checking out her What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?—and I'm totally in love with Tesla's Pigeon; I wish I were still studying voice just for the chance to perform this song cycle! While I'm making asides, I also love this video.) Very often at the conservatory I feel that the musical environment that we perpetuate is increasingly irrelevant: stodgy rules about harmonic progressions; centuries-old pieces that now seem to have obligatory positions in every performer's repertoire. I just wish there was more excitement built around new music in my city; I think works like the Gonzales Cantata are fantastic for the place they have in the society we live in today.

At any rate, this is what I wanted to create in life: beautiful, transcendent choral music. I wanted that since the summer I sang in National Youth Choir, when for two weeks we were a single instrument and the small rehearsal hall would fill with tangible waves of sound. It's what I tried to achieve in the few choral pieces I completed and the Missa Brevis I left hanging after the Kyrie. And now I'm surrounded by musicians pursuing all their dreams and more. How could things turn out this way in a music conservatory?

Three times since Christmas, I've woken in the night, delirious with perpetual poor health, seized with some idea that impressed itself upon my fevered mind as being the most important thing in life. In morning light they always turn out to be dumb ideas, but there's one idea that I think someone should take on in this conservatory, even if I'm totally unqualified. So here was my fevered dream: wouldn't it be the best idea in the world, if I get myself into a conducting class at the consesrvatory (in my delirium, a semester was all I would need). Then I would get a group of some of these fantastic musicians I've come to know over time at work, and we would create a new music ensemble to perform the works of us student composers. For several nocturnal hours, this was the best idea in the world.

But it gnaws at me—why doesn't the conservatory do something like this? It doesn't have to be a large ensemble. It doesn't have to offer a wide range of instrumentation. People like me will take anything with eternal gratitude. My new-found passion for new music is so strong that I start to seethe a little when I have to sit through too much Bach, or arias from Italian operas (do they not go in the most predictable direction imaginable?). And the almost single-minded emphasis on Baroque music in the vocal department has me rethinking my decision to finish my ARCT in voice performance. I can't see the relevance anymore.

This excerpt from Anti Social Music's website really sums up my thoughts:
Frustrated?

We get it.

We started this whole thing because we were a handful of young composers sending scores into the black, thankless void of competitions, open calls, grant applications...the Kinko's fees add up and the postage is crushing, and for what? A one-line rejection, if that. So we got together and started performing and recording our own damn pieces.

My greatest wish in the world is to be able to hear my work performed. The greatest dissuasion from composing, for me, is the crushing defeat of watching yourself age and your compositional output cease, and all of it be swallowed up silently, the pieces you agonized over for months and years to slowly turn to dust.