Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Say What You Have to Say - guest post by composer Amy Kirsten

Say What You Have to Say
- an essay celebrating last night's composers Kyle, Francisco, Gabriella, David, David, Ben, and Kerrith. Although what I have to say here has little to do with the concert, I'd like to express my gratitude for their clear musical ideas which included much personality, unexpected turns, sadness, and charisma. I warmly applaud them for saying what they have to say so much better than this essay will. Thank-you to the performers who gave last night their all. Bravissimo Every body!!

I've heard it said that it's really hard to be a composer - especially at the start. The 'beginner's mind' is prone to crippling self-doubt and torturous self-criticism, which, if not tamed (or fed a proper diet of small rodents) can turn into a little, but powerful, warty monster who rants negatively at parties and is just generally envious of successful colleagues. So in order to not become that thing, we try mightily to appreciate the efforts of other composers and, even if we don't respond particularly well to a new piece (even after a fair amount of repeated listening and score study), always have the option of remembering that composing, like being human, is sometimes difficult - and we are all trying our best.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

One of the responsibilities of a composer is to figure out how to communicate musical ideas on paper. If you think about it, the whole notion of this is quite asinine as there are so many subtleties that are impossible to write down - you can't capture musical grace, intensity, humor, or sensitivity and stick them behind the bars, sticks, and dots that we write with. It doesn't work. So we have to try our best to write it, and hope that when we talk about it we'll be able to find just the right words to augment and convey the meaning - but not too many words (because that can be just as ineffective as not talking at all). Composers have to learn how to simultaneously tame monsters and communicate with symbols that mean very little actually.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

One of the most satisfying things about being a composer is letting go. This is really not something that is taught in school (maybe it should be). After taming the monster, and communicating with strange and meaningless symbols, we have to let go of the manuscript and trust. Admittedly, this is not the default response when hearing the first rehearsal of a piece. Quite the contrary. More often, a first rehearsal will confirm that you are indeed a total failure, without imagination, unable to notate rhythms properly, and with only schlocky, hum-drum ideas. When you hear your music slowed down, in the wood shed, and under a microscope - well, its tough to come back from that. Even with the most experienced players in your corner, a first rehearsal might throw your entire belief system into a downward spiral, where, at the bottom of the deep ravine is the warty monster wearing a radical smile and sporting a t-shirt that reads "I knew you'd be back." But with any luck, you've got the Trust Gene. This is important. The Trust Gene sends a signal to your brain which tells you that the musicians who are currently playing your piece are fluent in Weird Meaningless Symbol and will actually make music out of it. With any luck they will even have fun solving the puzzles you've put in front of them. If your new piece is a princess, they will rescue it from the burning tower while simultaneously balancing the precious vase of enthusiasm on their heads - and they will accomplish all of this before noon.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

In the last few years, I've noticed that one of the most pervasive talking points in new music is pessimism. In the past I've heard composers and teachers say incredibly caustic things like: there is no point in doing what we do…or that no one cares what we do…or that there is no money for us to do what we do…or that all of this effort, all of this passion and beauty and free will is meaningless because it doesn't reach people. I'm not quite sure what accounts for these feelings, or the need to express them aloud to the impressionable and optimistic, but I can guess that perhaps somewhere along the way joy went out the window. I know you agree that there is nothing in this world that touches joy - and that if it's gone, there is only one way to get it back.

But let's look at our world for a moment. Here we are. We have endless possibilities before us. There are composition opportunities everywhere. The land is practically teeming with musicians who truly delight in making new music. We can communicate using whatever language we choose. Perhaps most striking of all is how supportive we are of each other and this place and time is a great example of that. I think I have a pretty good sense of general atmosphere here at Music11 - and it's not one of pessimism. We are interested in each other's lives, in each other's music, and are open to comments and suggestions; the festival embodies a truly generous spirit. (So much so that I don't think we really need a competition in order to activate it.) This kind of spirit is not indicative of the end of anything as has been suggested by misguided teachers of the past. It suggests an abundance that is accessible - now.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

All I really want to say is that last night's concert made me realize how accomplished we are. We are learning how to tame monsters, we're speaking weird languages effectively, and trusting that the princess (and the vase) will make it to safety before noon (and they did!). But perhaps most importantly, we are staring defiantly into the eyes of anyone who claims they know that our future is dim. If last night's concert is any indication - we have a lot to say…and we're good at it.

And that is a beautiful thing.

- Amy Kirsten, composer


dougpew said...

Beautifully expressed, I wish I could have witnessed the concert!!

Maria said...

I love this post Amy. "If your piece is a princess" - great stuff. Maria x

Maria said...

Great post Amy.