Reflections on composers and composing

Composer/pianist Michael Brown’s upcoming recital on Saturday, March 28 has sold out. The next morning Michael will give a talk called “Michael Brown and the Art of Interpretation” (Sunday, March 29, 11:00 AM). There are still a few tickets available and it should be terrific. Look, I’m not just saying that – to catch a glimpse into the mind of a world-class pianist as remarkably articulate as Michael is a unique opportunity. Get your tickets soon, especially if you were unable to get one for the concert.

Being a musician can be a hard way to make a living but being a composer is really tough: after securing an elusive commission you can spend months writing for the premiere and then never get a second performance of your baby. Most people are not super interested in new music; it’s kind of like going out to eat - you want to order something you know, not a new dish.

Corn-fed Iowa Beef ....

…or kep-mok blood ticks?

Similarly, many concert-goers are skeptical about sitting still to listen to new music. Heck, I’ve had poor experiences myself but just as often been delightfully surprised. But it is different for me since I do this stuff for a living. I’d go insane if I had to play the same music over and over just as eating only Italian food for the rest of my life, as close as it is to my heart, might kill me.

“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city…”

In fact, I’ve played some dreadful new music but also had transcendent experiences. Over my career, I’ve commissioned and premiered somewhere between forty and fifty new works. I’ve even turned my own hand to composition. Twenty years ago I commissioned my first work through American Composers Forum, giving the composer explicit instructions and a whole road map of what to write. I soon realized this was ridiculous (and vaguely insulting) and decided to write the damn thing myself, wisely giving him free rein on a wholly different piece. Writing is fun but hard work and no one tells you when the piece is finished. As I’ve honed my own compositional skills, it has taught me to see music differently and with a composer’s eye.

There are two basic types of composers: the control freaks and those with a more laissez-faire approach. An example of a control freak is Anton Webern (1883 – 1945): look closely at the first note, an Eb, in the viola part (written in German as “Bratsche” below) from his “Six Bagatelles (Number 1), Opus 9” (1913).

Webern writes “mit dämpfer,” which means put a mute on before playing, then he notates “am steg,” which is an instruction to play on the viola’s bridge for a distinct spooky sound. The dynamic is “pp,” or pianissimo, so the note is to be played very quietly; the line ““ above the note implies it is to be played with a subtle consonant sound (a “D” or a “T”) at the beginning of the note as opposed to sneaking in inaudibly; the “V” above is an indication for an upbow, the direction he wants the player to move the bow; then under the note is “<>,” indicating a dynamic swell in the middle so the note starts soft, gets louder, but then gets quieter again, all within the context of pianissimo. The “3” in brackets refers to the rhythm – the note is the second part of a triplet. There is a universe of expression in one little note. Now have a listen:

Compare that to a page from Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2:

Aside from the basics of tempo and dynamics, Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) provides almost no instructions. Nonetheless, countless small decisions need to be made by the musicians to perform this work. Prokofiev trusted the musicians to work things out naturally, but it is also very different music from Webern’s, even if they were exact contemporaries.

Jumping back centuries, look at the first line of Bach’s manuscript for the Chaccone from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BMV 1004, for solo violin. Bach doesn’t even bother with dynamics. You got notes and rhythm and the rest is up to you.

This is why you can get two interpretations with drastically different characters. Listen to this performance of Josef Szgeti’s from 1946. (This is the recording I grew up on.)

Now listen to Sigiswald Kuijken from 2001.

They don’t even share the same pitch; the more recent recording by Kuijken is tuned down a half-step. Neither performance is “correct,” they are both beautiful. (But take note: just because there is no one “right” way to play a piece of music, there are most definitely wrong ways.)

This brings me back to Michael Brown. In the modern era, it is relatively rare for classical musicians to perform their own works. As a composer, Michael is thoughtful and playful, sensitive yet passionate. As a performer, he understands the piano intimately and is uniquely situated to interpret (or even change) the notes on the page. On Saturday, March 28 you will hear a composer and performer in his prime performing his own music, and on the 29th, he'll be sharing his take on this whole topic.

Buy Tickets for March 29thAs for me as a composer, I describe myself as a hack and my own music as schlock – but it is very effective schlock.


David Yang, Artistic Director

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