Tuesday, November 1, 2011

There's No Busy Like School Busy

The Fall 2011 semester is in full swing and things are as busy as you would expect them to be in grad school.  I'm in two composition classes right now (one of them focuses exclusively on electronic music) as well as in a graduate-level course on modern music history and a music aesthetics class. All four keep on bringing up the same topics, the same names. Sometimes I feel like I'm a library where all this information keeps piling up and the poor internal secretary can't keep up with the filing. Days later a little snippet of knowledge will finally make sense in the bigger scheme of things. I've got a 12 inch stack of papers from this semester's readings, rough drafts and projects. It scares me every time I look at it.

I've always felt blessed in musical development. I feel like I've been led to know just the right things at just the right time as I've grown. More than ever I feel comfortable with the idea that being a composer is what I will spend the rest of my life doing.

So far this semester I've been working on three main composition projects. I'll also have three electronic music compositions by the end of the semester (the first one Assemblance,  is done, it uses LEGOs as its sound source. The second one will be done by next week, composed on a retro synthesizer.)

My main project this semester is taking forever to write, a twenty minute evolution of two contrasting ideas, for a small chamber ensemble. I'm taking M.C.Escher's Metamorphosis 2 as an inspiration.
I have finished a shorter piece called Cranching which I initially wrote for a visiting percussionist to play on hammered dulcimer, but after he kinda couldn't play it, I've revised it for Carillon (bell tower).

My professor Dr. Thornock will play it today on the BYU carillon, and I'm very excited.

I've also been collaborating with a dancer to write a very moody piece called Space2  for Marimba, Vibraphone, Xylophone, Bass Clarinet and Clarinet. It will be played in concert (if I can, you know, finish it and find and rehearse performers!) next Wednesday, November 9th, and also featured in dance recitals later this semester.

More pieces loom large on the horizon, including a very untraditional piece for jazz ensemble, a solo bassoon piece, and of course, my proposed Master's Thesis project - a concerto for harp. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Summertime

When the living is easy...

This summer has been pretty, um, involved for me and my little family so far. I work an average of 42 hours a week between three different jobs. We're expecting our second child any day now, Scarlett Estelle. My boy, Ender (short for Elias Anders) is three years old and very fun, he's into Legos, (the little ones!) We make airplanes and spaceships. All in all, when I'm home I prefer to be with my family, and have found little time for composing. The main project that I have due this summer is a dance collaboration project I'm working on with a dancer/choreographer from BYU. I have the music for it running around in my head, I've just got to write it down. Let me set a goal to do it by the end of July.

I'll also have a daughter by then too, so we'll see how it goes!

So far this summer we have managed to do some fun things, sleeping out in our yard in a tent, visiting my family for a reunion, having a number of fun little outings, such as to the pool or up the canyon to Bridal Veil Falls, or up the mountain to look out over the city. We've also been quite diligent in our workout, going to the gym at least four mornings a week.

The plan is to greatly simplify life by fall. I am leaving one job, so that outside of campus I will only work at a music store on Saturdays. Weekdays I'll be teaching two classes on campus (two sections of dictation classes) which provides the best money I can hope to make at any job right now. I'll also have 15 hours a week at the music lab, which I can weave around my school schedule. This should free up all my evenings and in general give me more time to compose. Plus, working at the lab is more a matter of maintenance and helping people in with questions, hopefully leaving me with some time for homework. Oh, and being, you know, a composer!

So for now the summer days are long and go by quickly, weeks swimming away not in leisure but nonetheless pleasantly, without the stresses and deadlines of school.

Have I ever mentioned that I am the organist for our LDS ward? I find it very satisfying and invigorating. I'm still not exactly sure what all the stops do, so sometimes its an adventure when I chose to pull some for the last verse of a hymn...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

New LDS Musicians Blog

So, a group of us young LDS musicians are starting a new blog for that topic at http://mormonmusic.wordpress.com/ 
I've already contributed the second article, which in case you don't care to follow that blog, I'll re-post here:

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Modern Boy in a Postmodern World

So what in the world kind of music do you compose when 'Modern' music refers to the early to mid twentieth century and 'Post-Modern' refers vaguely to everything since? Post-Postmodern?

This was the topic of a discussion I had recently with my peer at BYU, Joseph Sowa.

In our discussion, we worked up to a very broad and unforgiving definition of these terms for ourselves, and hypothesized about  what 'the next big thing' in music is/will be. (That is to say, 'contemporary classical music' - apparently the next big thing in popular music is 'electroclash bubble-goth' and that is a discussion for another day)
Modernism: music composed to be a self contained unit of itself, employing all the latest techniques. Its approach asks, 'How can I make this all make sense?'

Postmodernism: see the wiki. This is music composed with a sense of irony, using any available musical materials. It challenges traditional notions of music in every way it can think how. Its approach asks, "Anything goes, so what do I want?"

Joseph and I both agreed that our generation (roughly composers maturing from the 90s to the present, but also including a number of older composers whose styles are moving beyond

Modernism/Postmodernism) is distancing itself from trends associated with either school of thought. The general mood is one of synthesis: 'Anything goes, so what do I want, and how do I make it all make sense together?'

Joseph called composers of this new trend 'Synthesists'. A term I have previously heard (in a slightly different context) is "Maximalist" (Though that term already has some baggage) In either case, the idea is one of collecting techniques, ideas, materials, and aesthetics from a broad range of influences and bringing them together into a unified, expressive whole.
In other words, exactly what I've set out from the beginning to do as a composer. Its encouraging to see that I'm not alone. It is definitely okay that I'm not the first. Is it wrong to want to be one of the best?
I realize that this has the whole copyright thing going on, but I liked the image: is the urbanism of Postmodernism rising up to a new kind of Modernism, or is Modernism falling into a morphed breed of Postmodernism? I did track down the quote featured, it is from an interview with artist Milton Glaser.
Of course, I can't help but wonder - could there be yet another logical next step in music, a quantum leap of progress, a new viewpoint radically different from my modern/postmodern heritage? And if so, would I want to be part of it?

And the raised-on-science-fiction, matured-on-the-wave-of-the-Internet-era, technological-optimist in me wonders: does the future of new music lie in technology? (Two concepts to be explored in a later post: Music that is only possible thanks to 21st century technology and music that uses technology to challenge and change the very nature of music...)
The Modern 'Synthesist' has only very little to do with the now ancient concept of a 'synthesizer'. Probably.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Youthful Idealism

Some people seem to think that ideals are something to be grown out of in the face of the harsh realities of life. Forgive my youth of 26, but I do think I have grown exponentially in my understanding of the world since I was 18. It was then, 2003-2004, that I set off on this path to become a composer. At the time I kept an interesting journal consisting of almost daily epiphanies about music. Although in the intervening years I've come to better understand the world of music, it is clear to me now that some of the 'epiphanies' of those heady days were lasting nuggets of truth. So, an ongoing series of blog entries will focus on bite-sized pieces of young wisdom taken from these visionary files. (I've got to do something with this stack of papers!) As a starting point, I reprint here, with my own hand-typed permission, my 2006 post-mission reevaluation of these early compositional-philosophical musings. Personally, I hope to reconnect with my roots and bring my earliest recorded thoughts on composition to light for the first time.
A Youthful Visionary, circa 2004

From Sunday; August 27, 2006:
Over the last three [now eight] years my understanding of musical history and of the current state of the music world that surrounds me has taken a wild ride. I remember those early days, when I came to the general and not entirely true conclusion that classical music was 'good' and popular music, 'bad'. I remember studying searching, reading all I could about what happened to music in the 20th century, trying to figure out what was going on right now in the world of the modern composer. Again I came to the not-entirely-true conclusion that music as an Art (with a capital 'A') was dying or dead. It was not until I began to buy lots of recordings of the actual music in question while serving in St. Petersburg on my mission that I really came to understand. Who am I to be as a composer? What is my place amongst the composers of my time?

So, half-a-decade-ago self, how did you answer? Let me edit your five paragraphs down to one:

The young composer of today stands on the backs of giants, or he can if he will. More composers have gone before, than ever before. (The same is true, of course, for each generation) There is so much to draw on, so many sounds, so many ways of writing music, so many textures. So many doors have been hardly opened by the experimenters of the 20th century that the composer of today is faced with the unprecedentedly monumental task of exploring these avenues, taking it all in, making conscious musical decisions to incorporate and work on certain elements in his music. He forges ahead and looks back at the same time. The greatest opportunities ever are open for the composer. The difficulty is creating your own rules to make music in a world where anything goes. That is where the study and application of what has gone before comes in. Each composer finds his own sound in the world. Each leaves his own distinct mark in some way. The last 50 years have taken music to literally unheard of places, completely altering the musical landscape. I think that the mark of of the great composers of the present will be determined largely by how they assimilate and express and advance the ideas of the last century. So it will go until our grandchildren will do things that will stagger us.

Now back to June 2011. Is assimilation of the past the only mark of future great composers? No. But there won't be great composers who don't to a large extent acknowledge their debt to the past. There are no great jazz musicians who have completely original styles who didn't pay their dues first learning to emulate other greats. (That may be the first direct reference on this blog to jazz, about time since my undergrad degree is in Jazz Studies) I would also note that I feel quite satisfied that I have done my best in the past five years to make sure that I am engaged in just the sort of compositional education that I feel is a necessary for a composer. When I talk with my peers at BYU, I often ask them what they are listening to lately. It is very telling when somebody tells me that they don't listen to much recent music. Bach and Brahms are great, their contributions to music should be learned by every composer, but you can't expect to be relevant, well-rounded, or fully developed as a composer unless you have a pretty good idea of the contemporary musical scene. How could you set out to be a non-movie composer and not know what kind of professional field you are entering? Its like trying to become a meteorologist but only reading books on meteorology from the 1800s, and having no idea what good, modern meteorology is all about. Of course there are music history classes, etc, but I believe that you've got to have a passion for this art if you want to succeed at it, and that means meeting everybody from John Cage to Osvaldo Golijov.
John Cage, 1912-1992
John Cage is a controversial and influential composer from the last half of the 20th Century.
I consider his main contribution to the art to be his questioning of the traditional role of the composer.
Osvaldo Golijov, b. 1960 
Grammy-winning Golijov represents a new direction of composers whose music is an accessible crossroads of styles and techniques.

I find my 2006 statements pretty much still in line with my present 2011 views and would only add the solid conclusion that I believe there is amazing new music in store as composers continue the great musical tradition of advancing the art. What do you feel are the main challenges for new composers/new music?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ravel on Inspiration vs. Work

Here is a can of worms I found while sorting through a massive stack of composition papers currently traveling in my backpack. Let's open it!
From a book called "A Ravel Reader" here is a letter he wrote to someone in response to their query about the nature of his musical inspiration.

"All that I am able to affirm is that in 1924, when I undertook the Sonata for violin and piano, which has just been completed, I had already determined its rather unusual form, the manner of writing for the instruments, and even the character of the themes for each of the three movements before "inspiration" had begun to prompt any one of these themes.
And I don't think I chose the easiest way."

In the footnotes to the quote, it adds "Ravel often quoted Baudelaire's aphorism: "Inspiration is decidedly the sister of daily work." In a rehearsal for the same Sonata, Ravel told the violinist, when asked about the role of inspiration in the work: "Inspiration - what do you mean? No - I don't see what you mean. The most difficult thing for a composer, you see, is choice - yes, choice."

So - is inspiration for musical works merely the by-product of hard work? Or are the composer's 'choices' the same thing as inspiration?

I often, if not every time, find myself with some form and layout of ideas, some 'character' of the piece determined even before I lay a single note to the page, or even have a single note in mind. It would seem that when composing this way a constant series of choices is made, with the aim of filling a particular mold of the composer's own design. At what point then is the composer inspired? I personally feel the most inspired at the start of the process, when making broad decisions about the work, and then once again when I have a draft of the piece written down, roughly corresponding to my initial conception, and I make more detailed choices that refine the work. It is often then that the I realize the true nature of the piece. Often I find the way things are working out at that point is beyond and better than my initial conception.

Is Ravel right? Is Wahlquist wrong? Is this too calculated a process for 'real' music to result? Can inspiration really be present when the composer doesn't even have any notes in mind?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Friend Dmitri

ON AUGUST 9TH, 1975, about 10 years before I was born, my friend Dmitri died, literally suffocated by lung cancer for which he had previously undergone treatment. A terrible and ironic way for him to go - imagine: a Soviet composer, suffocated!

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was the poster-child of all Soviet composers. He completed his conservatory training in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad with what would become his world-famous 1st symphony, written at age 19 in 1926, as the icy fingers of Soviet life were tightening their grip on all aspects of Russian culture. It isn't in the scope of this post to give his complete biography, the casual reader will find the Wiki article extremely interesting. Suffice it to say that he spent his entire life as a composer under the thumb of the Soviet regime. If you are looking for more information, Laurel Fay's Shostakovich: A Life is supposed to be the best current biography of the composer. Fascinating to me is that it is so hard to write an unbiased biography of this undisputed genius - there are at least two sides of the composer that the world has to come to terms with. For most of the period of Soviet tyranny, Shostakovich was often seen as a communist lackey. His name appeared on all sorts of weird Soviet articles and decrees, he could be seen at any number of official Soviet functions and offices. His 7th symphony, written about the siege of Leningrad, rallied audiences around the Allied (including Soviet) world and earned him a Time magazine cover.

It is tempting to brush off these pro-Soviet leanings (including a number of 'la-dee-da ra-ra motherland' trash compositions) as being the result of the persecution that the composer faced during the "cult of personality" which excused comrade Stalin and his cronies every indiscretion. Twice during Stalin's reign, Shostakovich was singled out for official persecution, during which times (periods starting in 1936 and 1948, respectively) hardly any of his works received public performance or official approval. However, the reality is, many of the composer's biggest compromises to the Soviet system (including officially joining the communist party) took place after Iosef Vissarionovich was long dead.

That said, there is another face of Shostakovich, one that has only really come to light since his death. In 1979 (5 years after he died) the controversial book Testimony appeared, purporting to be a confessional biography of the composer. While much of the actual content of that book has been seriously called into question, it has spawned a whole new era of Shostakovich research because it opens up the question: How did Shostakovich really feel about Stalin, the Soviet state, and composing under the scrutiny of Soviet handlers?

For years scholars have loved to dig into Shostakovich's works to find coded hate-mail to the Soviets, or to find meaning in the many strings of musical quotations and borrowings found in his music. Unfortunately, all they have to go on is A. the reports of family and friends (hardly an unbiased source) and B. the music itself.

I'm inclined to take another position altogether on Shostakovich's music. I come to this after having just read Wendy Lesser's excellent new book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets. The book takes an autobiographical approach to understanding Shostakovich's music, not so much by way of interpreting the music, but by creating a context for the works. Using the latest research and interviews with those who knew Shostakovich, Lesser doesn't interpret the string quartets as nutty cryptograms waiting for us to solve their mysteries, but as pure pieces of music, full of musical expression even without understanding some sort of musical-code. The biographical details in the book serve mostly to give us an idea of the sort of things that would have been on the composer's mind as he wrote each quartet, and the results were extremely edifying. If you didn't know it already, you may have been surprised to learn above that Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets. He also wrote 15 symphonies, and the two bodies of work have therefore been singled out as some of the composer's most important work. Maybe that is why he wrote 15 of each, more than most composers visit either genre. They have often been compared: The symphonies are the official Shostakovich and the quartets the private Shostakovich. The Symphonies are his messages to the world and the quartets his messages to his friends. The symphonies lie, the quartets tell the truth. The time period of the symphonies spans his entire creative life; he didn't start writing string quartets until after the first official attack of his music in 1936. Whatever the case, I think the real answer is much more complex, and when it comes down to the music itself, rather irrelevant.

My personal feelings for the music of Shostakovich come to me by way of two of my more direct musical ancestors, both Soviet composers who grew up under the shadow of Shostakovich: Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. Reading about them I have gotten a feel for what Shostakovich meant to generations of Soviet composers. Whether they hated or loved him later on, you can hear his overwhelming influence in their early works. He was both a rallying standard and a hated compromiser. Having lived in St. Petersburg and its environs for two years, I came to realize what surprises many in the west: Shostakovich, and classical music in general, were more important and familiar to the average Soviet than Copland ever was to your average Joe American. Many in St. Petersburg still weep to hear his 7th Symphony.

To me, Shostakovich is sort of like my musical uncle who had a really, really crazy life. I relate to him as someone from St. Petersburg, as a composer trying (but not always succeeding) to live up to his musical ideals, and as a man for whom personal relationships became a primary source of musical inspiration (now, that isn't to say I plan on having three wives and numerous affairs!) Above I called him my friend; I really do feel an affinity for Shostakovich. I have a strong intimation that we in fact were friends, in another time and place before our lives started less than the relatively puny span of a century apart.

Not long after Shostakovich's music was officially banned from performance in 1948, (he was being too 'formalist' and bourgeois, whatever that means) there was a big music conference in America. How could the Soviet Union be represent by less than its best composer? Shostakovich called in sick. Soon after, he received a telephone call, "Please hold, Comrade Stalin is coming on the line." Stalin asked after his health and insisted that the best doctors see the composer, (his health plan had been downgraded along with the other persecutions) and asked if he would go to the USA for the 'Congress of Peace and Culture.' I love Shostakovich's response, both brave and political: "...Of course I will go, if it is really necessary, but I am in a fairly difficult position. Over there, almost all of my symphonies are played, whereas over here they are forbidden. How am I to behave in this situation?"

You can imagine the silence on the line before Stalin answered, "How do you mean forbidden? Forbidden by whom?" Who knows if he was really ignorant, or if he was playing a really sick game. Shostakovich told him it was the State Committee for Repertoire which had placed the restrictions, and Stalin assured him it was a mistake. Sure enough, the 'official' sanction lifted shortly afterwards, although in fact Shostakovich's music was not widely performed for several more years until the tyrant was dead. Shostakovich did go to the conference, and did toe the party line there (attacking in a speech the 'decadent' music of Stravinsky).

In any case, I feel like this recent read has filled out holes in my mental portrait of Shostakovich. A complex and contradictory portrait. Perhaps most intriguingly of all is the 'what-if:' what if Shostakovich had left the Soviet Union, and continued on composing without the oppression and opposition? Would he still be regarded as one of the greats of the 20th century, or would he be an obscure post-romantic composer swallowed in the shadow of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, two other immigrants to the States whose music pulled nearly all of Western music in its wake? In other words, was the Red Hell of Shostakovich's life the molding furnace that made him great?

As a young composer beginning my own compositional career nearly a century after Dmitri did, I ask myself: how can I, a composer with almost no constraints on what kind of music I can write, find a way to make my music matter as much to somebody as the music of Shostakovich did and does to countless millions around the world?  I understand that 'modern academic music' is probably necessarily doomed to relative obscurity, but this whole last year, as I've had it drilled into me at school that it doesn't matter if my music is 'popular' or not, I find myself wondering: why not? In 1941 the world rose up to embrace Shostakovich's 7th Symphony as the anthem against Fascism. I can't help but dream that music could reach out the same way today. Why shouldn't my music matter to people? Does it always have to be compromising my art to create something of  universal or at least wide appeal?
Add a lightning scar, (He once wrote a ballet called Bolt)
put him in front of an orchestra with a baton,
and he will face the dark forces that cannot be named
(lest the censors catch onto his subversive aims!)

Finally, I can't finish this post without putting in a plug for one of my favorite works of all time, Shostakovich's monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues. It is one of the few works for which I have a preferred recording: Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano. (Jazz pianist Kieth Jarrett has also recorded the set, which is interesting, but not my favorite) Each prelude is something wonderful, and each fugue a portal into the transcendent. While the set is inspired by and owes much to Bach's sets of preludes and fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier), it is completely a product of the twentieth century. It is perhaps the most abstract and free music Dmitri every wrote. Listen to it some Sunday when you can just sit and focus. Is this the voice of compromise, pandering to the public or to the demands of Socialist Realism? Maybe you will hear what I hear, the beautiful songs of my friend Dmitri. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Spectacular Questionnaire Part I - The Early Years

Covering composers from the dawn of time to the end of the Romantic Era.

Favorite composer who has been dead for more than two centuries?
J.S. Bach, 1685-1750

I haven't been huge into my genealogy work, but I do know that I am at least musically descended from papa Bach. Such grace, such order, such depth of thought and expression! I should do a whole article on why Bach is to Moses what I wish I was to Joseph Smith. Just kidding. Sort of. If you haven't gotten into Bach fugues, you are missing out on music approaching the celestial. Bach ranks in my top all time favorite composers, the only one in this post who does.

Favorite composer who has been dead for less than two centuries, but more than one?
F. Chopin, 1810-1849

Chopin is like Mozart, except ditching the poodle skirt for an emo hoodie. Still all about melody, balance and perfection, but with actual musical substance. Check out Chopin's Nocturnes or the tragic Piano Sonata No. 2 for some of the century's most prophetic music.

Composer from the1800s whose music could be favorite if it could just be shortened by like two thirds or so?
J. Brahms, 1833-1897

Brahms could be one of my favorite composers of all time, if his music weren't so long-winded. Still, he is one of the composers that first got me to really love 'classical' music. I just rarely have the patience to listen to his music. The late piano music Op. 116-119 is a good place to start.

Composers from the 1800s who you always get mixed up but that's okay because you couldn't care less about their music?
R. Schumann, 1810-1856 & F. Schubert 1797-1828.

Both early romantic era composers.

Favorite nationalist/late romantic composer? (late 1880s to the early decades of the 1900s)

I can't pick just one, I have a soft spot for these guys. Not quite modern, but pushing beyond romantic.

A. Scriabin, 1872-1915 (Russian) 
A pianist-composer like Chopin, but forging a totally original path in works like Poem of Ecstasy and the last five piano sonatas. True, he thought he was going to cause the end of the world through an apocalyptic piece of music, but then, every artist has thoughts like that now and again, so let's not be too harsh, right?

Karol Szymanowski (Shee-maun-OFF-ski), 1882-1937 (Polish)
Exquisitely beautiful music. Think Chopin through the lens of Scriabin. I come back over and over to the paradox of the sensuous spirituality of his Stabat Mater, one of those pieces that had changed music for me.

J. Sibelius, 1865-1957 (Finnish)
You can't deny the influence of Sibelius in opening all our eyes to a more organic development in music, although his music remains firmly rooted in a late romantic language. I've recently come to like the sixth symphony. Latter-day Saints will know him for his hymn "Finlandia" to which we sing "Be Still My Soul."

B. Smetana, 1824-1884 (Czech)
Although he lived and died earlier than these other guys, just take one listen to his first string quartet, or to the exquisite Die Moldau. Incidentally, like Beethoven he also went deaf, but nearly overnight. The above mentioned string quartet captures the agony of this.

E. Grieg, 1843-1907 (Norwegian)
Listening to his lyric pieces for piano is like holding a handful of diamonds.

S. Rachmaninoff, 1873-1943 (Russian)
I'll admit that I've shed tears while listening to the second piano concerto. I thought of it nearly every time of the dozens of times I walked into the Palace Square of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

R. Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958 (English)
A lot to be admired in his music. I like the Sinfonia Antarctica. He lived well into the modern era but remained pretty firmly rooted in the late-romantic tradition. Latter-day Saints will know him as the source for the hymns "For All the Saints" and "If You Could Hie To Kolob" (obviously that one had different words!)

Least favorite era of music?
The Classical. (~1750-1830, or in other words, between the death of Bach and the death of Beethoven)

I see the classical era as a step backwards from what Bach had achieved, and when Beethoven again advanced the art, it was in another direction entirely, but still shackled for a century by the harmonies, forms and ideas of Mozart and Haydn. I guess that makes the Romantic Era, particularly in its earlier phases, my second least favorite era. In any case, why do classical radio stations insist on playing a ton of obscure and minor composers from these eras to the neglect of many MAJOR composers of the last century? On a side note, the CONCEPTS of the classical era's perfections of form and the romantic era's focus on individual expression are core principles of my compositional aesthetic. But too often their music just doesn't do it for me!

Composer that puts you to sleep every time, without fail?
W.A. Mozart., 1756-1791

He could be the punch line to several other similar questions I have in mind, but I don't want to hate on him too much. What can I say? He was the perfection of his era. But I just don't care to listen to his music. Also, his genius is sort of overrated, in my opinion. For one, it has been partly mythologized. And when you hold up the vast quantity of his music as argument for greatness, remember that he was dealing with set forms and set harmonic practices. Where most composers are concerned with pushing boundaries and changing music as we know it, he was busy noodling around with the same materials as Haydn. Okay, I'll stop, I said I wouldn't hate. Plus, that laugh! (wait...I'm confusing film fiction with firm fact here...)


Favorite composer who got a specially designed opera house just for his music?
R. Wagner, 1813-1883

I don't really care for his operas in and of themselves, but I love what he did in opening all our ears to new harmonic frontiers. Check out the orchestral overtures to Tristan and Isolde or Parsifal. Too bad he wasn't a symphonist...

The funny thing about music that is more than 300 years old?

At one point my dad thought that the only music I liked was over 300 years old. Ironically, I can hardly name a handful of composers or pieces from that era that I like at all. Overall, I don't mind this 'ancient' music. There is a charm and beauty to its overall clarity and simplicity of thought. Studying 16th century counterpoint last semester really just made me realize that these guys were concerned as anyone with pushing beyond what had come before. Parallel fifths = evil? Only because it was the distinct sound of what was then considered the passé music of previous generations. Much like classical/romantic era cadence formulas are taboo today.

Favorite reference to music in an ancient text?

From the dedication of Solomon's Temple: 2nd Chronicles 5:11-14 "And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place...Also the Levites which were the singers...being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets...It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God." Ah, the power of music! Also, the entire Revelation of St. John is full of lots of apocalyptic music. Right up my alley!

Favorite anecdote about a composer from the pre-modern era?

F. Mendelssohn's 'rediscovery' of Bach. For almost a century after his death, Bach was relatively unknown, only remembered as a legendary organist and as father of his composer sons (none of whom hold a candle to the old man). Then one day the composer Mendelssohn found a dusty manuscript of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Once it was performed, it was as though the world suddenly realized what they had been missing, and Bach was ranked with Beethoven as one of the greatest composers ever. Are there other composers out there whose music could change the world? Maybe one of them is blogging right now?

So what about L. Beethoven?

See my previous post all about that dude.

Favorite composer from the pre-modern era whose name is a headache to transliterate?
P. Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893

There is a letter in Russian that makes the hard CH sound all by itself. Why we take three, I don't know. CH would work fine. Чайковский. Its even worse with Shostakovich. In Russian it looks like Шостакович. Notice that the SH is also one letter, as well as the CH. In English the word Church could be four letters! Please sign my petition to add these valuable letters to our language. I could do a whole post on the pathetic transliterations of Slavic composers' surnames. Rachmaninoff? Рахманинов! Notice that it ends in a V sound (the Cyrillic B, yes it is pronounced nearly like an F, but still..) Again, we take the CH sound to mean a hard H? What? It might better be: Rahkmaninov. Already, I'll stop. About Tchaikovsky? Once you get through the cheese of his era, he is another example of a Mozartesque composer that actually has some guts to his music. I have a particular soft spot for his piano concertos.

To be continued with composers from a more modern time, closer to my heart and aesthetic...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fascinatin' Readin'

This last school year I didn't do much recreational reading - not that I don't love to! But to me reading a novel is like watching a 4-6 hour movie. I pause for dinner, but I've got to finish it in pretty much the same sitting. I don't know how many times I've started a book at bedtime and finished just before its time to get up. This last school year was no exception. When Qait finally convinced me to read the Hunger Games series right after Christmas, each book took me just a day to read. It was wise to chose not to read a lot of recreational stuff during the school year. Instead, I had loads of books and scores out from the library. I listened to dozens and dozens of pieces this school year with the score (The big discovery was Earle Brown, the big rediscovery was Messiaen). I would have a number of music-related books that, when I wanted to read, I would grab and pick up somewhere interesting, not feeling obligated to read the whole thing. (Highlights include Persichetti's fascinating harmony textbook, or Henry Cowell's still-interesting-eighty-years-later New Musical Resources)

My main go-to book this last semester was only tangentially related to music: Douglas Hofstadter's mind-bending Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I'm now several hundred pages in, but I don't think I can tell you succinctly what the book is exactly about - it may be the 'biggest' book I've ever read, in terms of scope of ideas. I can say that I'm loving it and it makes me feel smarter to read it. I think that its about the nature and complexity of intelligence. On the way it's talked about everything from Bach's Musical Offering to Escher's paintings to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. (I haven't gotten to the part that explains exactly what that is...) In between chapters are a series of humorous dialogues between characters known as the Tortoise and Achilles. Each dialogue illustrates some of the logical and paradoxical points that Hofstadter is making in the surrounding chapters. A lot of it has to do with mankind's ability to recognize fiction, or things that are unsaid in a given context. For example, we may be able to see the first few minutes of a movie, and nobody will have to tell us that its set in German-occupied France during World War II and that the main characters are a nurse and a peasant boy. We'll be able to infer all of that. Further more, we are also able to comprehend the sudden random time travel to the year 2099 without blowing a circuit. A computer might have a pretty difficult time telling you these things that are inferred, and would not be able to comprehend the fiction of the time travel. Like Escher's art, seeming impossibilities are reconciled by the fact that we are outside the world being portrayed. The impossible can exist as long as there is another sphere in which that impossibility is not impossible. (Two hands drawing each other? Not impossible because its contained in the world of a drawing.) Anyways, its a super geeky book and I've loved it. The dialogues are so hilarious that I shared them with Qait. "Unaccompanied Sonata for Achilles" "Crab Canon" "Ant Fugue" all taking names punning on Bach pieces. We even came up with an artsy/experimental composition where we put both our phones on speakerphone while on a call and right next to each other. It creates a number of interesting feedback loops that we played with while reading the dialogues. (She was the Tortoise, I was Achilles.) So although I can't really explain the book, it has made me feel really smart to read it. Maybe someday I'll do a performance art piece which involves the staging of The Dialogues of the Tortoise and Achilles.

Now that school's out for the summer, I've picked up a book that I've wanted to read all semester - Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who ever wanted a more satisfying answer than high school's two paragraph explanation about what was really going on in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus and company brought disease, death, plunder and Christianity to these "scattered barbarians." Notable eye-openers:
  • North and South America were actually quite highly populated (over 100 million, or more than the Europe of Columbus!) by a number of well organized and established peoples, notably the Inka (the 'true' spelling) which ruled the largest empire in the world in 1491. (Larger even than Ming Dynasty China)
  • The Mexica (the chief tribe of the Triple Alliance commonly known as Aztecs) were as deep into philosophy and art as the ancient Greek, a fact widely erased and obscured by their 'conversion' to Christianity.
  • The coast of New England was populated by hundreds of thousands, prior to the spread of diseases from Europe.
  • Corn is a mysterious miracle from Mesoamerica. The truth is that before the Spanish introduced it from the "New World," no one had ever seen corn. Maize is an amazing anomaly amongst all the crops of the whole world - nutritious, cost effective, and totally domesticated (it requires human supervision to cultivate it) Corn is now one of the world's most widely grown crops. Its introduction to Europe/Asia/Africa is part of the population boom post-Columbus. The shocker: corn was somehow (still unknown) artificially created by ancient Mesoamericans. No natural species of grain is anything like it - ancient genetic manipulation of species! In combination with a healthy diet of beans, meat, and fruit, most native Americans were healthier and taller than your average European of the day. (They also bathed more! (as in, ever!) T
  • The introduction of cotton into Europe revolutionized clothing because it was cheaper and more comfortable than wool or leathers.
  • European-introduced diseases killed unimaginably more people than previously supposed. Smallpox, bubonic plague and food-transmitted Hepatitis A hit the various populations of the Americas in waves like the wrath of God. Not only had the isolated immune systems of the natives never been exposed to these diseases, they were actually less capable genetically of fighting them off. (As in, almost all Native Americans come from the same genetic stock.) The last decades have seen most scholars significantly increase their estimates of how many people lived here before Columbus and how many died after. With death rates in communities as high as 95%, a tribe in Massachusetts went from 20,000 members to less than 1,000, giving the pilgrims not only the Indian's recently abandoned food supply but also their land. The Inka hadn't even seen Europeans yet, but smallpox reached them first. Killing the Emperor (totally throwing off his groove) it plunged the Inka into a massive civil war even as the population was decimated by the illness. The conquistador Pizarro landed just in time to benefit as the whole thing crumbled at the touch of his small force of less than two hundred men. Cortez found the same thing with the Aztec, whose empire seemed to turn to dust even as he attacked. The total population of North and South America went from as many as 112 million to less than 10 million. Another way of saying it: more people lived here than in Europe when Columbus came, and many areas that were explored and seemed to be 'untouched' had only been recently depopulated!
  • The rapid depopulation also had huge ecological implications: the vast swaths of the continent which had previously been cultivated turned into the wild woods the pioneers/pilgrims/colonists would later encounter, assuming it had been there all along. Bison/buffalo populations soared to millions, their human predators greatly reduced.
  • The Amazon rain-forest is somebody's garden gone wild. Far from being an untouched pristine wild-land, the Amazon had been the home to hundreds of thousands. It's just been hard to find remains because fertile paradise they cultivated has eaten up most artifacts. Remains of cultivated soil show that the natives had created uncounted thousands of acres of charcoal rich super soil. Scientists are currently trying to unlock its secret not only to save the Amazon's ecosystem, but also to improve soil poor places like Africa.
It seems like every paragraph I read my whole understanding about the Americas is expanded and changed. Did you know that around the time Sumer (Babylon) was creating the world's first 'civilization,' two independent civilizations were springing up in the Americas (the ancestors of the Inka and the ones we call "Olmec") Don't even get me started on how many things sound like Book of Mormon correlations. Not that anything is an exact match, but so many things just sound sooo similar, how could Joseph Smith have known that our understanding of ancient Americans would pan out anything like it is? He didn't. He just translated! It is totally possible that the Jaredites, Lamanites and Nephites all fit right into this whole picture right among some of these other historically proven cultures. Tales of people from the sea, whole cultures disappearing into the night, cataclysmic wars, gross idolatry, etc... And in spite of all these 'revelations' about the Americas, the main point that the book drives home to me is that we don't really know much at all about these peoples. A lost history of a significant part of the world!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This Just In: Old Quotes, New Depth

Now that its summer, I've been taking the time to get organized. Part of that means sorting out years of papers that have been slowly accumulating. Today I threw away about half a ream of photocopied music that is A)Not legally mine and B)Irrelevant, since it was for classes or accompaniment work I did back at BYU-Idaho. I also found a great sheet of hand typed quotes from various composers and artists, dating from 2004 before my mission. Unfortunately, I don't have the sources of the quotes, which goes against my normal modus operandi when citing somebody. Also, I considered putting them up one by one and commenting on them, but this paper is deteriorating fast (ripped in half!) so here they are in all of their sourceless, one-after-the-other glory. I find it fascinating that while I understand the context and depth of these quotes better now in 2011, they still mean the same to me as they did that first heady year when I knew that I was going to become a composer.

"The current state of music presents a variety of solutions in search of a problem, the problem being to find somebody left to listen." - Ned Rorem

"I believe composers must forge forms out of the many influences that play upon them and never close their ears to any part of the world of sound." - Henry Cowell

"The language of the poet is our common language. Everybody understands or feels it...In the case of the musician, all he needs to do is refine his own language." - Silvestre Revueltus

"I would say that a composer writes music to express and communicate and put down in permanent form certain thoughts, emotions and states of being...The resultant work of art should speak to men and women of the artist's own time with a directness and immediacy of communicative power that no previous art expression can give." - Aaron Copland

"Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composes in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas - whether one is a good composer or not - one must be convinced of the infallibility of one's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own imagination." - Arnold Schoenberg

"I know that so long as I can sum up my experience in words, I can certainly not create music about it. My need to express myself in music symphonically begins precisely where dark feelings hold sway, at the gate that leads into the "other world," the world in which things no longer are divided by time and space." - Gustav Mahler

"How can one express the indefinable sensations that one experiences while writing an instrumental composition that has no definite subject? It is a purely lyrical process. It is a musical confession of the soul, which unburdens itself through sounds just as a lyric poet expresses himself through poetry...As the poet Heine said, "Where words leave off, music begins." - Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

"Composing gives me great pleasure...there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound." - Clara Schumann

"It is in music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the poetic sentiment, it struggles - the creation of supernal beauty." - Edgar Allen Poe
The 19 year old Michael Wahlquist would be pretty happy 
with how the 25 year old Michael Wahlquist is doing.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

If no news is bad news, is some bad news good news?

Here's a little blurb I've been meaning to post from BYU's newspaper, about Fall 2010's student composer concert. You may have to enlarge your screen to see it...
Also, this semester they did an article for BYU's School of Music site, which prominently features quotes and a picture of yours truly! Check it out here! (sorry it seems the link is down)
Too bad they labeled the picture as Michael Christensen...
And maybe they didn't quite get it when they asked what I'm going to do after graduation, because it says that I'm not sure exactly what I'll be doing after my degree.
Well, I'll be composing!
And getting my doctorate!
And then getting a teaching gig at a university or college!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bolero at Ballet West

Just as I've recently come to appreciate sculpture, in the last year or so I've also come to really love the art of dance, particularly ballet. There is something so divine and beautiful about having such mastery over the body and its motion. As Martha Graham says in the excellent clip A Dancer's World, a dancer strives to achieve "divine normal...what the human body is capable of doing." As a composer, there is also a lot of appeal in the fact that dance relies so much on music for its existence. So while I can't really dance, I can compose music that is interpreted not only by musicians but by dancers also. (Is there some megalomania thing with composers? Um....no......)

As part of our anniversary getaway, Qait and I spent a couple days in Salt Lake City. Besides a stay at the vintage Peery Hotel, a stomach ache inducing amount of great food, and a generally romantic time, we also went to the April 14th performance by Ballet West. Three pieces were on the program. It was all world-class, but Nicolo Fonte's choreography to Ravel's Bolero was the most stunning ballet I've ever seen. (Runner up would be last fall's performance with live choir of Orff's Carmina Burana)
The curtain came up to reveal a number of thin, tall sheets of corrugated metal suspended from above. A loud, industrial noise filled the hall, like the sound of a large factory air duct. A solitary dancer (Christiana Bennett, the iconic red-headed principal dancer of Ballet West) took the stage, not with the tentative steps of a beginning, but rather in the ecstatic throes of a climax. Each minute she danced alone, the noise volume dropped imperceptibly. Finally, she was joined by a male dancer, both dancing as though the music were the high point of Swan Lake. It was as though we had been thrown into the middle of something mysterious and passionate. When the sound finally died down and the familiar strains of Ravel's Bolero took over, it was the feeling that a whole epic story had already been told, and what was to follow was beyond a story, beyond a happy or tragic ending - in a word: transcendent.

Dancers gradually filled the stage, limb by limb peeking out from behind the metal sheets where they had hidden all along. As the music grew with its inescapable inevitability (I think that with Bolero Ravel had set himself the challenge: How many times can I repeat the same exact melody and still maintain momentum?) the sheets of metal began to lift up out of sight, one by one. Mesmerizing virtuosity of swirling dance filled the remaining space, until the whole stage seemed to be on fire with human forms. (It helped that the costumes were red, almost a sort of stylized soviet factory uniform.) Finally, a blood-red curtain began to pour from above into the middle of the stage. As the music reached the dissonant penultimate chord, (the one deviation from the main melody,) the female soloist leapt backwards with abandon into the curtain, only to be caught by unseen arms behind the curtain, while all the other dancers clicked into their final gestures with the last chord of the music.





Christiana Bennett makes the final leap at the end of Bolero

Curtains down, and then up for a standing ovation.
Overall, a breathtaking and symbolic performance that opened my mind to a whole new world of expression in dance - beyond pantomime, beyond tutus. Leaping into the beyond: transcendent.

Basically, my mind has been made up and in the near future I plan on doing some collaborative dance works. Who knows, maybe a year or two or five down the road and Ballet West will feature something by me in their Innovations program? Or maybe Nicolo Fonte will choreography some of my music?


Above: a preview clip for the season, including some of the bolero choreography.
Here is a clip of another ballet company's performance of the same choreography.
Here is a clip of Ballet West in rehearsal for Bolero.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Introducing: The Spectacular Composer Influences Questionnaire

For any living composer, the question of 'influences' is just as important as it is to any musical artist. Other music-makers have helped to form our conception of what music can and should be. This is not only an inevitable result of musically growing up, but also a healthy process that every good musician experiences. I've said before,
"If you want to write good music,
you've got to listen to better music.
If you want to write great music,
you've got to listen to the best music.
If you want to write the greatest music,
you've got to listen to God."
Ah, the polemical statements of youth! I still agree with myself, however. This pursuit for the best and divine in music has informed my whole musical outlook since I first knew that I would be a composer. It has also led me to specialize my knowledge in a rather esoteric and obscure genre of music. It's hard to define - 'modern classical music' or 'contemporary art music' or 'non-vernacular music' or even 'avant garde/experimental music' - in any case, this is the music that the composers of today are writing, though ideas of genre and category are increasingly fuzzy.

What it comes down to is that there are relatively few people in the whole world, most college trained musicians included, with whom I could hold a completely knowledgeable conversation about all of the composers who influence me. Even with my very smart professors, there are still discrepancies: They've barely heard of some of the composers who are my greatest influences, (Norgard, Gubaidulina, Schnittke) while I know very little about some of composers they idolize (Partch, Birtwistle). In all of this I don't mean to neglect the large and ongoing impact of jazz and popular music in my development.

I'd like to do a little questionnaire, in the spirit of the great email personal surveys of days gone by, only with the aim of disclosing my musical influences and revisiting the history of these influences on my music. Hopefully any reader will become more interested in this great music that means so much to me, and at least gain a better understanding of where I come from musically. I intend to break this up into several different entries.

Let me know if you have any questions along the way or if there is any music in particular that you'd like me to focus on in more depth in later entries.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Do you like John Williams?

John Williams may be the only living composer who is a 'household' name in America.
Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. etc. etc.
More people could hum you a John Williams theme on demand than a theme of Beethoven or Mozart.
Therefore, John Williams = amazing?

Let me preface the following comments by saying:
I don't hate John Williams. I've got a soft spot for "Across the Stars" from Star Wars Episode II, and a sense of nostalgia for the way most of the Star Wars soundtrack used to make me feel. The theme from Schindler's List had a big effect on me when I was first discovering 'classical' music. I appreciate that the first (and only, so far) song my son can play on the piano is the "Shark Song" (Jaws.) (Then again, a low, alternating half step isn't exactly copyright, is it?) I appreciate the fact that movies need music and that soundtracks expose people (like myself) to the world of 'contemporary' composition.

Now let me say:
I don't want to be John Williams. I don't make music for a living, nor do I really want to. I'm okay teaching music for a living, and making music because it is the music I want to make. If the day comes that the music I want to make happens to be earning me a living, great! But if I wanted to make a living off of composing music, that would mean trying to be a movie composer. And I don't want to be 'part of that world.'

One of my students who is going into movie composition asked me the other day if I like John Williams. I told him what I've told you, and went on to say that I feel like movie composers end up too often making mood music on demand.

Cue Action!
Cue Trip to Exotic Place!
Cue Love Scene!
Cue Mysterious!
Cue Light-Hearted!
Cue Oscar Winning Moment!
Cue Tragic!
Cue Its Okay but Still Serious!
Cue Triumphant Ending/Contemplative Ending!
ETC.

As a composer I feel the need to make music of my own design. That design never includes consideration of 'Mood' as its primary, or even secondary objective. I strive for original designs and original material to fill those designs. That isn't to say I can't see a time when I would do the music for a movie, or a play, or some other dramatic structure tied to a story. But I want to do it on my own terms, and not because its part of my contract to Universal Pictures to produce a score and NOW! and no, that is too complex of music for what we are going for here, don't you get it, where's my espresso?

It is a bit of a generalization, but still fair in my opinion, to say that film composers are craftsmen, molding fairly standard musical materials into recognizable and familiar shapes and forms. Sure, they often have original ideas! Sure, they are often very good at what they do! Sure, they make music that many people can relate to and like. Groundbreaking? Rarely. Decent and of good report and praiseworthy, sure!

But they are not advancing the state of music as an art. For the most part, movie music plays infinite variations on given themes, inevitably sounding somewhat like the last
Cue Scary Heartbeats!
Cue Chase Scene!

I want to be a composer who is searching for the depths of what music can really do. When I think about the materials of music, I feel like a scientist delving into the smallest knowable particles of matter, contemplating the vastness of the web of the universe, then considering how I might put it all together in my own way. I make music to make something that nobody has ever made before, to express things nobody has ever expressed, to form sound as nobody has ever formed it.
Cue Epic!
Cue Mysterious Wonder!
That just doesn't work for me.

I'm not saying that I intend to be a radical experimenter as a composer, but I do intend to be part of the musical Avant Garde - pushing the limits of my art, without forgetting that I still want to make music that speaks deeply to the soul. In fact, the way music communicates heart & mind to heart & mind is a key concept to my compositional pursuits.
Sure, I like Williams or Horner or Zimmer or Elfman - in the context of the movies. But I don't want to be them, and I don't seek out their music outside of the movies. If I want great themes I know a ton of other composers I could listen to whose music is supremely lyrical and has much more substance than
Cue Closing Credits!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will or can there ever be another Beethoven?

I feel bad that I have been so inactive in the blogosphere/bloggernacle for so long. Being at grad school has been very busy. I've had many ideas for posts, however, and intend in the coming months to make up the backlog. Who knows...maybe somebody besides my wife will read this! Maybe, someday 100 years from now, a musicologist from Idaho will research me as part of their book "3 composers from Idaho and their music" (a century from now, titles will not be capitalized?) and they will read this post and think, "Ironic!" and "What's a bloggernacle?"

I remember reading a quote from Brahms in the controversial book 'talks with great composers' which purports to contain exact transcriptions of conversations held with 'great' composers in the late 1800s and early 1900s including Puccini, Brahms, and others. The book wasn't published until the 1940s, and many are still skeptical of its authenticity. The author's supposed reason for publishing a half a century after the interviews is that Brahms only agreed to talk to the author as a 'great' composer if the book was published fifty years after his death, and only if in that time Brahms' music had indeed proven to be truly 'great.' (perhaps Brahms was thinking of Bach's relative obscurity until the St. Matthew Passion was rediscovered in the early 1800s) (Besides a lack of situational details involving the various conversations, many people find the book suspicious in that every composer consistently pointed towards a higher (mostly Christian) power as their source of inspiration - I don't find anything wrong with that fact in itself, but I too am a bit skeptical that they all would have put it just as clearly as the author has them saying it!) I bring up this alleged comment from Brahms because it brings to the fore an issue that has haunted composers ever since one very great composer went very tragically deaf...
Ludwig van Beethoven. (1770-1827) The name is practically synonymous with "wild-haired slightly-crazy musical genius" ...or... "great composer." (Check out the wiki on him, the progression of portraits is pretty cool.) Many people don't realize that quite a few of the composers we now consider 'great' where not thought of as such in their lifetimes. Bach was primarily known as an organist (recording technology came several centuries too late to preserve that facet of his musical activity, and blogs yet a century later, thus denying us his thoughts on the subject!) Bartok was known as an ethnomusicologist. (He took advantage of new recording technology to make recordings of rapidly disappearing Eastern European folk music, ironically disappearing because of the widespread distribution of other music from around the world.) Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev, (all coincidently Russian, a nationality curiously well represented in the pantheon of 'great' composers) were known to the public as pianists as much as they were as composers. And in all eras before our modern one of rapid mass distribution, most composers were only known rather locally. Usually only in retrospect and reevaluation do composers come to be seen as the key figures of their generation, while other composers fall (often undeserving! (and often deservedly!)) into complete obscurity.

Bachk to Beethoven. It seems Ludwig was one of the first composers (along with Wolfgang) to begin to enjoy a truly widespread reputation in his lifetime. In fact, Beethoven could have been pretty sure that with the death of Mozart he was indisputably the greatest composer alive. Each new symphony was an event that was celebrated not only with gala concerts, but also with piano transcriptions. What's that? You see, while an orchestra may play the symphony in concert once a year, there was more market and exposure in chamber music. Putting it together, you have [great music + chamber arrangement = more music sales + more exposure for your music = more money + fame] The equivalent today would be getting your music on iTunes compared to having the sheet music sold at music stores. Yes, the later will bring in some money, but more people will download the track than will ever play it on the piano. In Ludwig's day, (still no recordings yet!) people would play chamber music much more often than they could attend a performance of an orchestra.

A popular chamber genre was the string quartet (cello, viola, and two violins) of which Beethoven left us with no less than 16 examples! In another move by him and his publisher, (the day's equivalent of a record label) he rewrote the final movement of his 13th string quartet, because it was thought the movement he had written would be too long. The rejected last movement was published on its own as 'Grosse Fuge' (Grand Fugue) and was probably one of the most complex pieces of music composed to date. It wasn't well received, being called 'repellent' and 'incomprehensible, like Chinese.' (Its reputation, however, has steadily improved since then, see the wiki on the Große Fuge) In fact, all of the late quartets have a reputation for being masterful but quite imposing and esoteric works.

We come now to the tragedy. What? THE TRAGEDY! HUH? I SAID THE TRAGEDY! OF BEETHOVEN! Yes - Beethoven was transformed into a dog that traveled to the future and was featured playing piano, wreaking playful mischief and saving the day in a moderately successful but terribly acted series of children's movies. But long before that transcendent adventure, he also went deaf. This fact, as you can imagine, had a huge effect on his music. (What a pathetic understatement!) What do you do when your career and livelihood, your very purpose of being, the thing that makes you great, depends on making sounds that you cannot hear? Fortunately, Beethoven had several things going in his favor. One, he probably could hear the music, in his head. It's a skill that most musicians learn to some extent. Two, he didn't lose his hearing overnight (Though that has happened, check out Bedrich Smetana's First String Quartet which portrays his own overnight loss of hearing.) Third, Beethoven was dealing with what is sometimes called the 'common practice' of music, that is to say, everything they teach you in the first three semesters of college music theory. This was a generally accepted system of music making (often mislabeled as the 'rules' of music, as though they were the ten commandments) which had reached its apex in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven's own early works. Having gone deaf, Beethoven could still rely on this system of music to work in the expected ways, even though he couldn't hear the music played. So although he apocryphally could not hear when the orchestra had ceased playing (and had to be turned around to see the applause) he could still write music fully functionally.

If you think about it, shouldn't Beethoven's music have stayed just about as complex after losing his hearing as before? Perhaps even gone down in quality and complexity? After all, how could you progress and experiment with new ways of making music without hearing it? In fact, Beethoven's late works (such as the above mentioned string quartets or his famous Ninth Symphony) are some of his most complex, innovative and universally acclaimed works. Some of this innovation required more faculty of imagination than of hearing, as in his expansions and variations of traditional musical forms such as the sonata. But much of his late music takes common musical practice and stretches the boundaries of 'the rules' beyond anything his predecessors had tried.

Finally we come to the origin of this post. Today in composition seminar, one of my composition professors proposed the hypothetical question, "Can there ever be another Beethoven?" He went on to attribute Beethoven's greatness to the fact that Ludwig represented both the pinnacle and transcendence of the common musical practice of the time. That has set me thinking: Lacking a 'common practice' in our day, having already spent a century breaking every musical rule we know how (and making some decent music the process!) and inventing countless new systems of making music, how could another Beethoven-like figure ever arise? Or in other words, how could or even should a 21st century composer consolidate so many different and divergent musical worlds? And having done that impossible task, how could he conceivably transcend all of these worlds and make a music yet further beyond? Could a living or future composer ever even be in such a state where he could be universally acknowledged as 'the greatest composer who ever lived (so far)?'

My simple answer is yes. I do believe that there will yet be greater composers than Ludwig. In fact, I think that there already have been a number of composers far more skilled, genius and innovative than Beethoven. Truth be told, I personally have no particular love for much of Beethoven's music! But I don't deny his greatness. Rather, my issue is with the very question of 'greatness.'

Issue #1: Confusing innovation with greatness. Today's innovation is tomorrow's old school. Innovation for the sake of innovation (as far as music goes) is not what defines greatness in anybody's case, Beethoven included. As my wife hilariously put it, "Why does everyone think the way to 'fame' is breaking rules? They should think outside the box!" (I think the box in question is the one that says, "break rules!" not the one that says, "rules!") So, thinking outside the box: Perhaps something is missing in attributing Beethoven's greatness to the fact that he pushed against the music norms of his time. Most decent composers do, to some extent. It is the mediocre ones content to rehash old formulas, glad to have a reliable system of manufacturing music that doesn't depend so much on creativity and originality as on passable craftsmanship. Many film composers of today fall into this category. May they meet the fate of Beethoven's countless obscure contemporaries! I would posit that Beethoven's greatness lies rather more in his appeal. He appeals to musicians, who love to tackle the challenge of his music. He appeals to musicologists and composers, who love to unlock the genius of his musical structures. He appeals to concert audiences who would practically storm the gates if there weren't a Beethoven symphony or two (or at least a concerto!) on the schedule this season at the orchestra. He appeals to parents who beam proudly as their child hacks out the familiar notes of the melody to Fur Elise. He appealed to my younger self who would play the first movement of the so-called Moonlight Sonata anytime I felt melancholy. I would experience a musically induced catharsis that I have since come to experience from a much wider (and mostly more contemporary) range of music, including the music I now make myself.

There you have it: Appeal. Beethoven made music that was directly moving but also internally complex, all using the musical materials of his day. Now, is there any reason why there couldn't still be a composer who could make music of broad and direct appeal, but also music fitting the complexity of the age of super computers, music that draws on all the best innovations of the twentieth century to form an inexhaustible pallet of musical technique? Couldn't such a composer thereby transcend any music being written today? (In fact, if you read the little info portal under my portrait which has been up since this blog's creation, you will find that I harbor a not-so-secret goal to strive to make such music myself!)

Issue #2: Confusing innovation (and complexity!) with greatness. Beethoven can probably be blamed with setting off a sort of diagnosable 'composer complex' that has afflicted composers ever since. Namely, the idea that in order to be a great composer, you have to be some sort of meta-genius. You've got to advance the musical language of the day, show an inexhaustible turn of creativity and originality in musical materials and structures, and only look back to the past by way of saying, "I can outdo you!" This complex drives composers into a certain peculiar world-view in which it becomes easy to forget that the reason that the average person likes Beethoven isn't necessarily any of these things. Now, I don't mean to get down on my direct musical fathers, the Lutoslawski-s, Messiaen-s, Rautavaara-s, Takemitsu-s, Norgard-s or Schnittke-s of the last fifty years. For the most part it takes a pretty liberal concert audience to swallow their music, and probably best taken with a spoonful of Beethoven. Nor do I mean to belittle my direct musical grandfathers, the Copland-s, Stravinsky-s, Webern-s or Shostakovitch-s whose music has gained a little more acceptance (After all, they did start writing almost a century ago, for the most part!) but is nonetheless still as cutting edge as most concert goers ever care to stomach. I do believe that all of these composers made music of real appeal and undeniably ingenious design. There have been a number of composers over the last century who were brilliant 'innovators' with the materials of music. In fact, any more, a composer is less part of a definable style of composition (such as 'Baroque' 'Romantic' or 'Impressionistic') and is required to be more unique (again stemming from the Beethoven complex). Now, let's use the word complex in a different way: in terms of density and sophistication of musical structures and materials.
The very nature of this sort of world-view of music, that everything should be moving forward all the time beyond, beyond, beyond! begins to create a rift of appeal. For example, while the complex music of composers heavily involved in various manifestations of serial procedures (read: atonal music) may appeal to somebody, it is hard to think to whom, outside of other composers and those few dedicated to studying and performing such music. Milton Babbitt, one such composer who recently passed away, provocatively approached this subject in his essay, "who cares if you listen?" in which he likens advanced modern music to other disciplines such as physics. The average person, he says, would get little out of studying the doctoral or professional publications of modern physicists. Likewise, Babbitt suggests, a serial composer's musical pursuits are more involved in the advancement of the state of the art of music as a whole, and as such aren't even intended for the general public.

"WAIT! WHAT?" cries a deep down part of most people who have ever listened to music and really loved it. How can you say that there would be a valid music that nobody likes! What's the point? Well, the point is appeal. There are people out there who 'get a kick' out of Babbitt. Good thing for recording technology: now they have access not only to his obscure music but also to what may be the only performances there will ever be of some of it! There are even more people out there who enjoy the music of Boulez, or Ferneyhough, two living composers whose music is exceedingly complex (almost, you might say, excessively!) Now, I don't wish to draw a line in the sand about the validity of complex, innovative music. I merely wish to point out that by solely pursuing the end of 'latest, greatest' 'most innovative' and 'most complex', composers have naturally isolated many people, even many of those who love and go so far as to financially support the institutions of music, as well as many of those who have dedicated their lives to bringing to life the music of composers - classical musicians. Quite often, these musicians are content to play the music of the 'masters' because they followed 'the rules' and made music that is more immediately comprehensible (and is more likely to fill a concert hall!) It comes back to appeal. If we were to be honest with ourselves, even the 'great' composers of history - even Beethoven! - never really had truly universal adoration. If you think about it today, how many people could name more than a couple of pieces by Beethoven? How many have heard all nine of his symphonies or all 16 of his string quartets? (I don't think I even have!) Or even every movement of the Moonlight Sonata or Fifth Symphony? In reality, Beethoven's greatness has been distilled to our times in the form of "Beethoven's Greatest Hits." The average Johann on the street in his day would have had as little clue about Beethoven as the average Joe today. The truth is, Beethoven may be universally acclaimed as one of the greatest of composers, but to most people, what does that mean? That once a year they get "Ode to Joy" stuck in their heads for an hour after it was played in a TV commercial? This leads us to:

Issue #3: Confusing greatness. Perhaps the true underlying issue is that 'greatness', like 'appeal' is an extraordinarily relative term, especially with billions alive today, each with some kind of opinion about music. One side of the misunderstanding of the term is exactly what Brahms supposedly put his finger on: that greatness, as a concept applied to composers, only really works when you're dead. I mean, how can you really know how significant a person is to artistic history when they are standing in front of you with their old, bald head and rumpled jacket? It is much better to be gloriously dead for centuries, your music reaching out to millions, your deafness not a handicap but just another marvelous fact of your fabled life! Or, to take a more modern example: early in the twentieth century if you would have taken a poll of concert goers to see whose music they thought would define the twentieth century and still be around a hundred years from then, they would have been just as likely to guess correctly, IE: Stravinsky, Strauss, Ravel, Sibelius; as to be wrong: Myaskovsky, Kreisler, Ornstein or Antheil. (See the wiki for Myaskovsky, a Russian-Soviet composer who deserves to rank up there at least with Sibelius as a great post-romantic symphonist!) So it is that perhaps today we stand as much chance of predicting greatness as not.
Our culture doesn't help, either. This would be the other side of misunderstanding greatness. Our media driven music industry has one main focus: make money by getting artists famous. This automatically rules out modern 'classical' music, as it isn't lucrative. This financial end is accomplished in two main ways: One, manufacture the image of a star and then they will be seen as one (An already classic and imitated example: Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, cf: David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) irregardless of their musical prowess, or second, 'discover' talent and show the public how the new star has risen from their very own ranks (Such as Susan Boyle, who, though not a terrible singer, is not better than your average college educated vocal major.) So it is that in this musical [business] culture, being 'great' either means: somebody says they are great/wait, no they're not/yes they are/why is everybody talking about them/who cares? Everybody's talking about them! (a concept embodied and lived by Lady Gaga as revealed in the very title of her album Fame Monster) OR being great means: you rose about the crowd! Way to go!
I've already hinted at the ironic thing about this second cultural view of greatness. Greatness must necessarily be perceived in contrast to things which are not great. But the mistake is to say, "They have risen above mediocre! I see GENIUS! Aren't they amazing?" For example, last year there was a viral YouTube video of a young boy playing piano and singing a cover of Lady Gaga's Paparazzi. To say that it is amazing and wonderful to see this performance by a boy so young is an example of defining greatness as merely rising above the average: 'most kids his age can't do that, so therefore this boy is amazing.' If the same YouTube viewers would look a little harder, they could easily find any number of amazing performances of some of the world's greatest music by some of the world's greatest performers. But those videos, of course, never go viral. That's the irony - most people can respect genius, if they happen upon it. But they really don't care if they have too much to do with it. They want 'rise-above-ness', which is more immediately comprehensible and to which they can more easily relate. Who wants to watch a video of a performer play some stuffy, long, boring piece (no matter how sensitively or virtuosically ) when you could spend a few minutes watching a kid's truncated piano version of a song you know from the radio. 'Hey! That's the song from the radio, he's pretty good, isn't he, and so young too!' Somehow this gets back to Babbitt: everybody knows who Einstein is, but few really know anything about him except that he was a genius and had wild hair and stuck out his tongue in a picture which makes him, like, totally cool, I mean, like for a genius, you know?

The further irony is that there are possibly many composers breathing air right this second who are every bit as proficient and creative with the materials of music as Beethoven ever was. And it is not too early to say that in the last century there have been composers who were just as 'great' as if not greater than the old boy.

So in summation we have:
Everybody: "Beethoven is great!"
Philosophical Skeptics (who don't doubt Beethoven's greatness but must ask): "Says who?"
Everybody (exasperated): "Says everyone!"
History (embodied as a woman standing on a mountain of mankind's achievements): "Says the fact he's dead and has been for a long time!"
Musicologists and Composers: "Let his music speak for itself! See how he pushed against the norms of his time and wrote music of such depth of structure and creativity, thereby both culminating the Classical period of music and ushering in the Romantic Era!"
Mr. Joe Blackwell (who with his wife has held season tickets to the Utah Symphony for 40 years): "Well, I don't know about all that, but I do like a good rendition of a Beethoven Symphony. Powerful stuff!"
Mrs. Mary Blackwell: "Yes! Makes me cry every time I hear that Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony!"
A Chorus of Loyal Concert Goers: "Amen! For verily none of this modern music holdeth a candle to a single note of the Master! Amen!"
A Rare Relatively Musically Liberal Musician: "Well, hold on folks, you're forgetting that Brahms lived to the 1890s, Rachmaninoff to the 1940s, and Vaughn Williams to the 1950s! Aren't they also among your favorites? And their lifetimes nearly overlap yours!"
Chorus of LCGs with the Blackwells as soloists: "Oh! Yes! But of course their music is only successful insomuch as they did follow in the footsteps of the Master!"
RRML Musician joined by a Rare Relatively Liberal Music Lover (who owns quite a large collection of recordings): "Also, do not forget the music of the movies! Is it not moving? Is it not often dissonant and modern?"
Chorus and Blackwells: "Yes! But behold how in context the ear forgives these indiscretions!"
'Contemporary'/'Modern'/'Serious'/'Non-Vernacular'/'Art Music' Composers: "Indiscretions? Those movie composers are just hacks! They're pathetic, pale imitators! They wouldn't know what to do with modern musical techniques to save their lives!"
Musicologists, Blackwells, Chorus of LCGs, RRML Musician & Music Lover, with History Embodied as prominent soloist: "Who in the world are you?"
C/M/S/NV/AM Composers: "We carry the torch of Beethoven! We continue in his path of innovation and complexity! You might even find among our ranks a modern Beethoven! It doesn't matter that you haven't heard our music - just because you don't get it doesn't mean it isn't great! We are changing the art of music as you know it!"
A Great Multitude of the Billions of other People Comprising Everyone Except for Those Who Have Already Spoken Above (entering & filling the stage and aisles...and world): "Like a modern Beethoven, huh? Wild stuff! Say - have you seen the one where Greyson Chance sings Paparazzi? You'd like it since you're musical and stuff - he's good, for such a young age!"
Timothy Blackwell, grandson of the Blackwells (entering stage right and sitting at the piano, making several false starts on Fur Elise.): Look what I can do!
The Blackwells (with tears): "Oh, we love this one!"
Everyone: "Yes, isn't Beethoven great?"
Philosophical Skeptics (sotto voce as the crowd exits in every direction): "What is greatness?"

My dear Skeptics, its all relevant, and it all has to do with appeal.

Spokesman for Philosophical Skeptics: "But surely you just heard the cry as the world in unison declared Beethoven's greatness? Couldn't it be argued that he therefore has universal appeal?"

Are you actually arguing that point or are you just saying that so that you can later poke a philosophical puncture in that position?

S for P Skeptics: "Well called, and nice alliteration. Let us do take it for the sake of argument that Beethoven does have universal appeal. Let us then ask the question:"
All Philosophical Skeptics: "Will or can there ever be another Beethoven?"

I must hold out that appeal is relevant, meaning things to different people. I will concede 'universal' appeal if we mean that everyone can find at least something great in Beethoven's music. So, if by 'another Beethoven' you mean a genius composer who suffered tragically but nonetheless managed to create art of lasting and universal (for the sake of argument) appeal - yes, there could be another. Except, maybe he could do without the suffering part...

In fact, dear Skeptics, and dear everyone, consider this: That Beethoven was indeed a meta-genius (beyond genius), and that any composer wanting to surpass him would have to be a meta-meta-genius. (Poor composers with their Beethoven complexes!)

I support this position in my final argument:
Not only was Beethoven a certifiable genius, but he also exhibited something beyond genius which has transformed him from mere crazed genius to a figure of epochal relevance. Style? Good PR? Iconic hair? Perhaps the answer lies here: The youngest children and most musically illiterate people would recognize and respond to the music of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, even not knowing the title. "Bum bum bum BUM!" A musician could go on at length about how that single musical idea ties the piece together. A musicologist could go on for the length of a book about the cyclical nature of the symphony. Shostakovich, a century and a half later, would quote that musical motif in the cadenza of the Passacaglia of his Violin Concerto No. 1. Countless composers have taken inspiration in the passion of the music, the layering of the musical lines, the thematically compact musical structure. To each of these people, Beethoven's Fifth means something different, and most (if not all, you Skeptics!) would still readily admit that it is truly great music.

So can there be another Beethoven? Another composer who makes music which appeals to and is acclaimed by literally (nearly) absolutely (almost) everyone? From the most hard-core serial composer to the kid on iTunes searching for his identity through music? From conservative concert goers to fans of punk music? From Africa to Alaska? From children to adults? Music of satisfying and ingenious complexity, innovative with and yet cumulative of musical materials, but still music with direct emotional appeal?
Tall order!

Timothy Blackwell (quoting scripture in a sing song voice in a rhythm of Bum bum bum BUM): "With God all THINGS are pos-si-BULL!"

From the mouth of babes.