composers should write more

This sounds like something my Korean mother would have said if she knew I wanted to be a composer. I can hear it now:

“Beethoven (or Mozart or Chopin or Rachmaninoff or Liszt) composed for eight hours a day! You barely write for an hour a day! How do you expect to be a composer if you don’t write?!”

Nope. I’m not going to guilt my fellow composers into writing more music; I’m going to guilt them into writing more words.

I was inspired to write this particular blog post when I read Daniel Felsenfeld’s piece “The Composer’s Other Voice” in the New York Times:

“It is not only that we composers lack a place at the cultural and political conversational table, but that most of those at said table hardly know we’re there. Composers...seem to have less of a public platform than ever before, even for addressing matters musical. This was not always true. Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, Ferruccio Busoni, Richard Wagner, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Milton Babbitt, to name only a few—each exercised a prose voice as well as a musical one. Wagner, through his music and prose, even effected acts of political upheaval, including the burning of an opera house (not recommended). Among contemporaries, composers like Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich and especially the prolific Ned Rorem, have distinguished themselves as thinkers and writers in the public sphere. But on the whole, the lack of the composer’s voice in our discourse is near deafening.”

Why aren’t we composers writing as much as we used to? And furthermore, why aren’t young composers encouraged to write prose on a regular basis? (Maybe I missed the memo...)

I have a greater respect for writing now that I’ve taken a research-writing class, which is supposed to prepare me to write a dissertation. Ironically, I don’t have to submit a substantial research document to obtain my third sheet of paper, but I have learned how to solidify my ideas and create clearer and cooler concepts. (By the way, if you are a performer taking this class with me, please don’t fume with envy. I still have to submit a dissertation, and at this rate, I believe writing a comic opera—or even a funny aria!—is twice as hard as writing a substantial research document.) I didn’t think a writing class would help me write music, but forcing myself to write an abstract helped me congeal my concept for the “Press Play Parade.”

During the twentieth century, there has been a gradual redistribution in creative musical power. The role of musical creator has slightly shifted away from the composer and toward the audience member, thus allowing non-composers to create musical works. John Cage, in his piece “4'33"” (1952) further established the trend of establishing the audience member as composer by allowing the audience to inadvertently create the musical composition. Since then, more artists and composers have allowed audience members to participate and create musical compositions. This thesis explores the four varying levels of audience participation found in twenty-first century musical compositions and sound installations: “passive listener,” “active listener,” “passive performer,” and “active performer.” These participatory musical roles further define the performance roles that Richard Schechner established in his collection of essays Performance Theory. By increasing audience participation in musical works, composers can intensify the audiences’ engagement in new works as well as awakening their creativity.

What was the best part of the assignment (besides knowing that I can flesh out my ideas on my own time)? I had a clear conception of my “Press Play Parade,” and therefore I could accurately present my proposal at the MATA presentation.

So, young composers, start writing! Become the thinkers and writers in the public sphere by jotting down your ideas in GoogleDocs or Start now, especially because your initial writings will suck, but they (and your compositional ideas) will get better over time. Before long, the odious (but important) chore of writing program notes won’t seem so bad! Do it now.

[Fundraising update: TODAY IS THE LAST DAY. We've raised $610 of of my $2000 goal, and considering I have less than twenty-four hours to reach my goal, I don't know if I can make it. Please prove me wrong and contribute because I don't want this to become another composer FAIL. For those who contributed, I cannot thank you enough.]

["They Came...From the Future" is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of "They Came...From the Future" must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.]

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