Wednesday, April 22, 2009

BEDA Day 21: What Composers Talk About by Kyle Gann

Here is an interesting blog post by composer and prolific writer-in-various-capacities Kyle Gann. He provides an interesting essay on the dilemma of self-identifying and speaking about one's own work, vision, and life as a composer. Many of his questions really resonated with me.

Gann came to CUA for a composition master class and discussion as part of the Composition Division's Visiting Composers Series in late 2007. I'll admit that I hadn't heard of him before and didn't yet realize his importance as a composer and music critic. Because of this, I listened to him politely evangelize for microtonal tuning and the "Downtown scene" for nearly an hour, feeling alternatingly intrigued, skeptical, fascinated, and unsure. Would I have put more stock in what he said had I known that he was a widely-published and respected author and composer, and not just my advisor's artsy theatre colleague's slightly eccentic artsy new-music friend?

In some regards, this is similar to approaching any new composer's body of works. Because I was supposed to like William Bolcom's music before I heard it, I fell absolutely in love with his opera A View from the Bridge when I saw it in DC. Would I have felt the same if I had instead heard his Violin Concerto without the name attached?

Similarly in undergrad, I had absolutely no interest in the music of Arnold Schoenberg, let alone his more austere adherent Anton Webern, because of a smattering of offhand comments by professors and fellow clueless students that their music was "kind of hard to listen to." Now that I possess the tools to begin understanding their works, I regret allowing those inherited aesthetic barriers (which we all share to some degree) to become my first experience of certain composers' work, even before hearing the music itself.

I'm not yet ready to move on over to the microtonalist camp, possibly because I haven't experienced enough of the repertoire to get a handle on it or form an opinion about it. But I'm at least more open to the concept, having learned a little about Kyle Gann and passively followed his blog for over a year now. When I consider my own limitations in enjoying and appreciating contemporary music, despite my fairly catholic (lowercase) acceptance of various styles and artistic aims, it's no wonder that contemporary composers often feel the need to fight for loyalty or attention in the average concert-goer.

But I can't tell which way the New Music Public Opinion pendulum is swinging.

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