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Some remarks: Straight Talk on New Notes by Judith Lang Zaimont

As presented at the Miami CMS conference, October 2003

Good Afternoon everyone.

We’re here today to establish the rationale for and to present formally two new CMS initiatives, one each for Performers and Composers, created to invigorate the experience of today’s music for both sets of ‘us’.

The initiatives have been brewing for more than a year. They give voice to both constituencies in the collaborative frame, appreciating both Composers and Performers as critical allies in presenting the music of our time in invested and artistically apt performance. While they can work in tandem, as we’ll see, each initiative has a distinct function. And they couldn’t really have come forward much before now, since they both depend in part on the Internet’s being used as a flexible, reliable tool.

This afternoon’s three-part session will first explore both Composers’ and Performers’ viewpoints on the collaborative process -- and this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘collaborative’ in the sense of same-time, same-space; then we go on to articulate the initiatives in detail, with time for Q & A. Finally -- in a mini recital of new works -- we’ll illustrate the high musical result when the process works -- when intuition, artistry, intent and interpretive ability agree closely.

Perhaps I’m the panel’s lead-off speaker because I’m an activist by nature. Or perhaps because my professional career includes an initial chapter as performer, coincident with my start as composer. In my teens I toured the country extensively as one-half of a duo-piano team with my sister; we performed on radio and television, and recorded -- including new pieces written specially for us. From my performer’s experience plus my life as a composer, I’ve gleaned an appreciation for the very distinct sets of artistic requirements Performers and Composers bring to the encounter with a new piece.

There’s been a lot of attention recently at national music meetings to the shrinking audience for concert/classical music; and we know this factor often compounds when the music programmed is the unfamiliar: ‘new’ music. John Salmon and I, though, believe that the place to make a difference within the process is not at the time of audience address, but at the first operative node in music-making -- the dedicated point of connection between performers and composers.

Like all the arts, Music needs champions. And Music’s champions have to be the people who bring the notes forward to the public. But, in a fair number of instances, when it’s ‘New Music’, instead of love and passion for the music, the performance exhibits awkwardness, uncertainty, and (dare we say) a rather duty-minded cast. Just two weeks ago, in a Sept. 20th NY Times review, Allan Kozinn wrote about this. He stated: “Performance quality has much to do with whether the poetry within a musical work is heard.” And continued that “the best, most sympathetic readings] convey not only the curiousness that propel[s] exploration but also the thrill of discovery.” Kozinn was reviewing an evening of music by Boulez, and took the time especially to characterize these performances as different from early readings of the same works, which he says “were earnest and sounded it.”

Over the past 3 decades and today especially, composers have actively placed the performer’s perspective into the forefront of their thinking. Brand-new music is being written and thought-through freshly from the performance perspective -- as a vehicle of display and expression. It’s not enough for a piece be a document of the composer’s creative vision: it must also, in some valid sense, feel “good / exciting” to play. This is healthy -- and is true both for completely notated music as well as partially improvised works.

Maybe we can trace this change in part to the return to the scene of the musician who is both composer-performer, blending together again two functions that became separated specialties perhaps 130 years back . (Excellent contemporary examples of composer-performer include Gunther Schuller, Joan Tower, Wynton Marsalis, and Fred Rzewski). Also, in some part the change is due to a strategic initiative determined about forty years ago that was meant to reintroduce, re-identify the Composer as a ‘neighbor’ in public life. (This re-integrating strategy was well- supported by grants and foundations, and resulted in programs such as the Ford Foundation’s Composers Commissioning Project in the nation’s public schools [through the ‘60s +], and the founding of the national organization Meet The Composer in the mid’70s. While the premises of both those programs differ from the way the licensing agencies ASCAP and BMI traditionally work, they coincide in large measure with more recent programs put forward by the American Music Center [in Manhattan] and American Composers Forum [in St. Paul].)

It’s a no-brainer that our two populations should be mutually supportive of one another, and on a constant basis. Why? Because the force of a performer’s commitment is profound. I’m convinced that if performers feel confident they’re presenting invested, well-understood, and artistically apt performances of new music, and -- most important -- are offering to audiences works of musical art in which they utterly believe, then the audience will respond. Enthusiasm is contagious. Listeners are readier to be interested and involved, to a notable degree, *just* because the performers are. Yo-Yo Ma’s success with the current Silk Road project is a wonderful illustration of this. So, again: The force of a performer’s commitment is profound.

I’m also convinced that every composer should be savored for the special, precious individual voice he or she creates. Some years ago, I introduced a group of terrific composers by describing them each as a “non-renewable natural resource” -- someone to be treasured and supported and, if at all possible, coddled outright! Why? Because composers worthy of the title speak with a distinct, un-replaceable voice. And it takes time and acquaintanceship for an interpreter to justly absorb each composer’s distinct idiom -- how we create and balance form, how we cast, colorize, registrate a statement, what groupings of pitch come together to make ‘consonance’ and ‘dissonance’ in our terms, and how these all these unite in idiosyncratic syntax.

The performer constantly looks to make connections -- of some type -- from known, playable repertoire to the terra incognita of a new piece. While composers put a great deal of information into the score -- hoping it will be a revelatory, clear document -- there is ample room for mis-reading, mis-understanding of concept in the translation process that takes place when performers decode the score, turning marks back into living music. When a piece has been thus ‘mis-translated’ by the performer, composers face a painful dilemma: Where should I pledge allegiance -- to my music? Or to the one who plays it? What do we do under these circumstances -- smile and nod? Get up and perform the piece ourselves?! -- The audience doesn’t know how the piece should go. Worse, neither do the critics. And every composer is vulnerable in this regard.

Style, idiom, manner of discourse go a long way in art! (Jehovah / Popeye) Style and idiom do go a long way. And Performers choose their repertoire with great care. It’s fundamental that the intrinsic nature of the artist and of the music somehow mesh, somehow match and resonate together! Though Musicology importantly assists us to identify and savor both an individual composer’s idiom and the larger stylistic traditions that prevail in specific eras, these insights by and large are not well available in sorting out the composers active within the past 60 years.

In older music we relish and magnify the distinctions between composers -- because we understand them! Such distinctions operate both in terms of the idiom in which the music is written AND the performance traditions associated with presenting this music completely.

Let’s consider for a moment how these accepted orderings work in contexts for performance of standard repertoire: Example: Take Scarlatti and Haydn -- Keyboardists would never use the same touch in performing the music of these two -- or, in another grouping, for Rachmaninoff, Satie, Poulenc, Prokofiev -- although the lifetimes of the composers in each of these groupings overlap (!). Another example: The distinctions between Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin are immense -- both being ‘musically nervous’, albeit in different ways -- yet we don’t confuse them. Or, in another instance -- conductors preparing works by Saint-Saens and Wagner would make scrupulous distinction between appropriate and discrete performance traditions for each. Similarly, singers take great pains to change the attitude of vocal production in delivering music of Puccini, Schoenberg and Stravinsky -- yet the lifetimes of the composers in all these groups also overlap.

As I said, we relish and magnify the differences of musical personality *between * these composers. And we are encouraged to do so for two clear reasons.

#1: we understand them.

In school, we are scrupulously taught these composers as distinct entities, never to be confused.

We comprehend their individual musics as a totality, a fait accompli. Their music has been researched and studied analytically, with the entire output viewed as an artistic whole, as well as being a body of music emblematic of the composer’s place, time, and stylistic period.

Equally important, #2, there is a well-established, living performance tradition that supports musical individualities, keeping them alive in the moment of performance.

(A Recent masterclass by Martin Katz at the Manhattan School of Music brought this forward beautifully: In discussing high-Romantic art song, he gave a side disquisition on how to perform what look on the page like equal 8th-notes in the art songs of Berg and Strauss. He distinguished between rubato and word sensitivity in inflecting these rhythms in actual performance, and took care to distinguish those ‘liberties’ from the painstaking rhythmic carving characteristic of Wolf’s ‘capture’ of word rhythm. It was an amazing display of subtle stylistic distinctions in art-song *performance* traditions. Katz made sure to underline in his comments that these are elements the composers never would have put on the page, because they were so intrinsically understood by the artists of the composers’ own age. An important part of what studio teachers do is imparting these unwritten legacies faithfully.)

Now, though, when it comes down to our own time, pretty much all music is lumped together -- lamely -- as “new” or “contemporary ‘music. In fact, the passiveness of that designation serves passively to encourage a faceless, all-purpose performance style. Do we really know how to play -- idiomatically -- music by John Williams, as distinct from John Adams, and/or as distinct from John Tavener? Ellen Zwilich as distinct from Joan Tower? Do you play Shulamit Ran like Milton Babbitt, or like Bernard Rands? Do we know?

Newer music is not all one, big, common idiom. It’s a host of individual statements, separated geographically, linguistically, philosophically and syntactically. In order to deliver a specific piece effectively the performer has to get to know, to relish, loving, to believe in and understand that composer’s individual ‘dialect’.

The voices of Performers and Composers need to be heard equally here.

While no composer should have to suffer through a fundamentally mis-translated performance, no performers should be required to play a piece they are fundamentally out-of-tune with in terms of personality. Composers rightly stipulate that it’s not enough to play the notes, rhythms and dynamics accurately -- you have to play the inner music also, and deliver all in that composer’s specific, intended manner. But yet, Artists must and should choose their repertoire.

How can we actively respect both these viewpoints?

The two new initiatives were formulated to do just that, premised as they are on each perspective being able to operate honestly.

The CMS Players Roster is centered in the performer’s point of view. It establishes a volunteer roster of performance members who relish newer music. And it encourages individual taste and stylistic affiliation to be operative without apology (or explanation).

The “My Idiom” Composer Registry gives composers a place to de-mystify their art, enabling them to define their music as an artistic entity, distinct from other music of their own time. It is a web-based, illustrated statement meant for visits from performers and conductors, critics, scholars and all others who would like to understand how best to approach and render this particular body of music.

Details of both initiatives will be made clear in part two of this afternoon’s session. But now let’s turn to our panel of performers and composers for their ‘tales from the field’ describing an activated composer-performer alliance, working to advantage newer music in every kind of performance context.

- Judith Lang Zaimont


© Copyright 2003, Judith Lang Zaimont


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