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March 29, 2015


Will Robin

Thanks so much for this, Steve – for your kind words, but most of all for your active ears, brain, and social media use during the proceedings. I made a short-list of people for Alex Ambrose to reach out to, and you were at the top if it because I knew you would have a lot to say. And thank you for nit-picking; splitting hairs is important. I had honestly expected and hoped for more critical backlash to the music I had chosen, a few Facebook posts of “I can’t believe he didn’t include ___!” I’m proud of what we did on this but it’s not at all comprehensive, and I would love to read a full-blown attack addressing what I missed, or even criticizing the wrongness of the presence – it could open up a very interesting conversation.

I have many thoughts, and some are quite scrambled, but here’s an attempt at a few of them.

My initial Twitter question/Storify didn't make explicit that I was interested in music for full orchestra, but it's what was in mind. Great 21st century works for chamber orchestra, new-music ensemble, and even string orchestra are obvious to me, and I was curious not about what I knew, but what I didn’t. I wouldn’t have guessed that Norman’s Play was so incredible, and I might have overlooked it had a couple friends not strongly urged me to listen. What else might I have missed?

So one of the first decisions I made when figuring out the scope of Symphomania was to limit it to full orchestra. I wasn't quite sure what that would mean, but I kind of figured it out on the process. So when Alex reached out to you requesting full orchestral works, it was following a stipulation that I made, a deliberate constraint on the act of curation.

Why? For starters, I wanted to make this explicitly about the orchestra, that giant conglomeration of musicians with all of its historical, institutional, financial, and artistic baggage. We all know that Klangforum Wien and Alarm Will Sound occupy the center of the new music universe. There is also perhaps a certain amount of flexibility between, say, the Ensemble Modern, Signal, A Far Cry and Contemporaneous. These are large ensembles that are not quite symphony orchestras, with differences of repertory, instrumentation, and how they identify themselves. But the orchestra is inherently something else, defined not just by its size but also by its mission, a centering around the preservation of the past and, if we’re lucky, an occasional foray into the new (of course BMOP here is an obvious exception, so perhaps this wasn’t the most well-thought-out idea). To focus exclusively on the new would mean presenting a mostly invisible side of the orchestra, a contradiction I found intriguing to explore.

And focusing on the orchestra forces an edge of unfamiliarity into the proceedings. You mentioned that great chamber orchestra and new-music ensemble pieces jumped right out at you; pondering music for full orchestra offers an opportunity to sink into a repertoire that's unfamiliar, a chance to dredge up a commission heard once but then forgotten, a recording that was overlooked when it was issued.

And honestly if it means getting Steve Smith to brainstorm—or a bunch of other smart people to brainstorm—then it's probably a good thing. We always have great music on the tips of our tongues to suggest, but we might also all end up suggesting In Vain. In Vain is great; it deserves its spot in an emergent 21st-century canon (canons are dumb, yes). For this marathon, the only clear choice was Become Ocean: it was recent, by a famous composer, and a Pulitzer winner. After that, to a certain extent, the other 23 hours were not at all obvious.

This restriction meant leaving out many works that I love, including Hearne's Law of Mosaics, Snider's Penelope, Andres's Home Stretch, and many others I can't think of right now; but it also meant that I would have to actively seek out pieces I didn't know. I made giant lists of potential composers, looked into who had works I may not have known, scanned the BMOP catalog, poked through Donaueschingen festival box sets (thank you, Naxos Music Library!).

Over the years I have heard and read plenty of statements that the future of contemporary music lies not with the symphony or opera but with the chamber orchestra, new-music ensemble, etc, etc. That’s totally understandable—composers can’t simply wait for a phone call for a commission from an organization that they will probably never hear from in their entire lives—and we can probably trace that rhetoric back to Pierrot Lunaire if not further. Certainly these ensembles, and their artistic and financial dedication to new music, place them at the crux of creating valuable new work. But to put together 24 hours of new music for orchestra—to shout quite loudly that not only do at least 60 pieces of great music for full orchestra exist, but that they are only the tip of the iceberg—is a deliberate attempt to not divest, to not cede the ground exclusively to that smaller ensemble world in the 21st century. It’

As large orchestras, as you mentioned, move towards commissioning for smaller forces (and I think of a project like the Phil’s Biennial or Contact series, which fortunately spreads the love with many commissions but which also means fewer ones for full orchestra), they are joining a trend already in existence, and one I think we should fight. Only the largest orchestras have the money and resources to give a composer a chance to work with Beethoven’s toolbox, and even if the constraints and weaknesses are obvious – the lack of adequate rehearsal time, the mess of bureaucracy, the occasional reluctance of performers – I’m not ready to give up on them. If anything, I’d like to see that trend reversed. I had a conversation a while back on Twitter with Judd Greenstein and some others, as I wondered if it might not be better for the Met to commission several black box works rather than throw all their resources at a single Two Boys. Judd disagreed, and I realized later that I disagreed with myself too; you only get a handful of chances to write a large-scale opera in all its glory, and if the big companies give up on that then there are hardly any opportunities left. And we should also have a conversation about finances: big orchestral and opera commissions can provide a hefty source of income for a composer to do her work.

For my dissertation research, I’ve been reading a lot about Meet the Composer, an organization whose importance in crafting the American repertoire as we know it today can’t be understated. Beginning in 1982, Meet the Composer directed massive amounts of corporate funding towards pair composers with orchestras in residency programs across the country. We have its founder, John Duffy, to thank for sponsoring Adams’s Harmonielehre, Tower’s Silver Ladders, Druckman’s Horizons festival at the Philharmonic that brought the orchestra to the center of the conversation around contemporary music in the U.S.

It seems like we might be harkening back to this era again, as we see New York and Los Angeles continue their residency/adviser programs, with other orchestras like Nashville joining them. (That the composers-in-residence, like Adams and Kernis, are the same ones as thirty years ago is, well, troubling.) Because of a program like this, the orchestra had a central role in the life of American composers. MTC continues today in the form of NewMusicUSA, and fortunately we also have programs like the ACO’s EarShot guiding the orchestra and composers towards each other. All it takes sometimes is a huge amount of money and a huge amount of attention to make something feel authentically part of modern life. So Symphomania might be another very, very small step of advocacy in that direction.

(Steve's readers, please feel free to contact me directly with any questions, suggestions, etc -- email is william l robin @ gmail, and twitter is @seatedovation)

Michael Lewanski

I hope no one minds me commenting on a post that is a few days old -- it is such a fascinating topic, and one of particular interest to me!

What I found revelatory and unexpectedly heartening, and why I was so enthusiastic about Symphomania, is, indeed, just what Will says, the discovery that “60 pieces of great music for full orchestra [from the 21st century] exist, [and] that they are only the tip of the iceberg.”

The reason I found it so heartening is also some of the stuff already pointed out: new orchestra music is expensive to make happen (compositionally, personnel-wise, printed music-wise, rehearsal-time-wise), sometimes (sadly) performed with inconsistent amounts of preparation and enthusiasm, and often received by audiences skeptically. So, that the genre could survive all of these things working against it and still make some really awesome pieces seems like a triumph to me.

I'm most interested, though, in the nascent possibility that orchestra music may develop a renewed aesthetic function as slowly, creepingly, new music becomes more tolerated/accepted/enjoyed/expected(!!)/listened-to by a concert-going audience. Which is to say, it's easy for us to forget sitting in a 21st century concert hall that, say, Beethoven's orchestral music in its original context had not only a particular set of artistic agendas but also served as a sort of public statement in a way that it seems contemporaneous audiences consumed ravenously. (I always think of how NUTS that 4-hour concert on Dev. 22, 1808 in an unheated Theater an der Wien must have been.) ...that his audiences interpreted it strongly and in multitudinous ways – in terms of politics, philosophy, affect, etc. – and these interpretations were life-influencing, and fundamental to what it meant to be human in 19th century Vienna. That living composers could harness the possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra in ways that are not merely to function as a sort of commodified 8-minute overture before we get to the Tchaik violin concerto, but to restore a truly artistic function, to “mov[e] the discourse forward in some fundamental way, [break] new ground, demonstrate something that we hadn't heard before” as Steve says, is a hopeful sign indeed.

I see in there the possibility that the myriad of stunning new pieces might have a hand in taking the institution of the symphony orchestra in America in newer, cooler directions. The more, better, well-performed, engaging new pieces happen on stages, the more American orchestras can slowly break out of their reified practices and the more they can be interpreters of our culture.

To give an example: when my students in the orchestras of the DePaul University School of Music gave the US premiere of Mathias Spahlinger's “doppelt bejaht [doubly affirmed] – 24 etudes for orchestra without conductor” (so I sat in the audience, lolz) – a set of pieces that are half-structured and half-improvised, with branches between them that are the same – just last month, watching them play I realized that I was seeing something new... an orchestra (not some other kind of musical ensemble) co-composing on stage, making decisions as a political body, and as a result thematizing the society in which we live. Rather than engaging in the “omg is classical music dying or irrelevant” meta-conversation (and having that conversation circumscribe the musical materials), the piece was simply a work of art about our place and time. That this would happen at the same time that something like Symphomania was in the works does not seem coincidental to me.

All of which is simply to say something hopeful: I imagine the the possibility of, not simply an increased financial/institutional/market viability of the symphony orchestra in the future (honestly, I'm not competent to comment on this), but a true artistic renewal of it as a vehicle for interpretation of culture; in short, a possible place of as-yet-unimagined artistic production. Symphomania was a very welcome, eye-opening signpost pointing the way!

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