Monday, April 11, 2011

Musical Safety

Thinking of me only as a pianist and not realizing that I am a composer, another musician told me of his first experience with a professional orchestra.  He was filling in for a member of the orchestra who was away, and he was very anxious about doing well.  A wave of relief came over him when he learned that they were performing a piece by Tan Dun rather than a well-known piece from Mozart or Beethoven.  Why?  Because, according to him, "it didn't matter what I played."  He perceived a certain vulnerability with the standard, familiar works from what is known as the Common Practice Period (roughly from 1600-1900), but there was room to hide in the unfamiliarity of a contemporary piece. 

European music from that three-hundred-year span has become predictable to our ears, we can tell when it sounds "right" and when something sounds a bit off because we have heard enough of it to form clear expectations.  Even when that music takes a surprising turn, it stays within expected parameters.  There is some comfort in that from the perspective of a listener.  Some musicians apparently find it a bit nerve wracking, though. 
Any mistake is much more exposed in music that has such familiar characteristics.  A more contemporary piece that doesn't follow the same expectations can seem safer because most audience members won't detect any missed notes or rhythms.  So a musician's pride is a bit more protected behind unfamiliar music.  Or even music that an audience expects to be dissonant or difficult to appreciate.

As a composer, of course this is all a bit frustrating.  I don't write music with a 17th- or 18th-century mindset, and at the same time, I don't intentionally create music that is challenging to understand.  I want an audience to be able to find value in every moment of a piece, even if different moments evoke different emotions or ideas.  Fortunately, most of the musicians that have programmed my compositions have accurately represented my intentions for the music.  I am grateful for that.  But in that recent conversation I couldn't help but wonder how much public opinion of "modern" art music is influenced by how musicians treat it.

One need not be an advocate of the avant-garde in order to appreciate music, however.  Technology has made it possible for us to have access to an immense diversity of styles, whenever we care to listen.  For many people, there is no need to attend a live musical performance because an mp3 will suffice.  In fact, musicians are gradually becoming obsolete as technology improves as well.  A composer could conceivably record an entire symphony with virtual instruments and never interact with another living musician.  Hatsune Miku, a popular Japanese singer, is actually a hologram whose voice is created by a computer program called Vocaloid, developed by Yamaha.

So where does this leave me as a composer living in a time when some musicians consider new music to demand less accuracy than more familiar works, when audiences are able to get their fill of music without ever attending a live performance (or listening to anything composed past 1920 if they choose), and when computers are beginning to replace flesh and blood musicians?  I start from the purpose(s) behind what I do in the first place:

1. I create because I am creative, and
2. I compose music to share that creativity with other people.

At the end of the day, I hope to have a positive impact on other people, and music is one powerful way I can do that.  Everything beyond that is just details.  There are certainly some things that a computer can do more efficiently than a person.  Embracing that fact offers me a wealth of possibilities.  I believe that live performances can still have great value as well, so I want to distinguish between pieces that lend themselves to meaningful audience experiences and pieces that can be highly satisfying as a downloaded recording.  In other words, I have a purpose for doing what I do generally, and I have a purpose for each individual project.  Beyond that, it comes down to a matter of trust for the musicians and listeners that take over where my part in the process ends.

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