Gambling Tips for Smart Performers

January 3, 2011

By Kyle Gann

I want to draw attention to Allan Kozinn's thinkpiece about the vagaries of new-music performance in yesterday's Times (tried to post then, got caught in a holding pattern involving site changes), which is pitch-perfect in talking about why, how, and with what expectations performers should undertake the performance of newly composed music. I would add one thing. I would urge new-music performers to look for composers to commission outside the usual roster of composers on the regular chamber-music or orchestra circuit. Many of the best composers are better at composing than they are at networking, and are devoted enough to get their music out that they'll do it by themselves if that's what they're reduced to. That means they may work in some electronic or self-produced idiom which you mistakenly think is all they're interested in, or talented for. You may think they're not really chamber music composers, or couldn't write for piano trio, or something, and you might often be entirely wrong. For instance, no classical chamber group would commission Glenn Branca, right?, since he only writes for electric guitar ensembles - except that Glenn's string quartet is one of his best works, and one of the most beautiful essays in that genre of the last 25 years. (No recording of it exists that I know of, unfortunately, but I once heard it live and reviewed it.) And Carl Stone is an electronic composer, he wouldn't know how to write an acoustic piece - except that the piano pieces Sarah Cahill has commissioned from him are absolutely charming.

Kozinn is exactly right that a new piece needs to get played publicly and played well, and considered for awhile, before we can decide whether it's a keeper. Similarly, composers who show brilliant imagination in one medium need opportunities to branch out into others, and shouldn't be bypassed based on some superficial canard about "proven track record" in a given medium. You might occasionally draw a clunker, just as you can with any Pulitzer prize winner, and it's a risk you have to take. But a composer who's spent his life in solo performance or electronics because it was the only route available might turn out to have a couple of gorgeous string quartets inside him (Ingram Marshall is a classic example).

In an unrelated bit of news, I note that Postclassic remains number 6 on the ranking of classical music blogs. I've been passed up by Nico Muhly as the top single-composer blog. Frankly, I've done so much to reduce and alienate my readership that I'm astonished to still be in the running at all. I rather think of this blog as a book I wrote awhile back that I'm still adding the occasional footnote to - that, and also I've been incredibly overcommitted lately, and am turning down writing jobs left and right. But despite all my most cantankerous efforts, there I remain. Strange indeed.


Stefanie: Would you advocate for a go between for composers and performers? Many visual artists have someone that promotes their work for them. A friend, a manager etc. Would that be a good alternative for having the performers do more leg work? I thought Kuzinn's article was fantastic and you had an excellent response.
KG replies: Thanks. I'm really conflicted about the manager issue. As a critic I always hated dealing with managers, and always opted for dealing with the composer personally if possible. Yet I feel keenly how much a shy and misanthropic person like myself has missed by not having someone more personable out there doing advocacy for him. Are managers worth the trouble? Do they bring in more money than they cost? I don't have enough experience to answer, and perhaps some commenters can chime in. I suspect the answer is that a discreet, charming, non-pushy, non-greedy, attentive, artistically intelligent manager is probably a wonderful thing and any other kind is a nightmare.

Joseph Kubera: Kyle, I almost wrote something in response to your penultimate entry (on narratives) and this one prompts me even more strongly: I think narratives exist for performers too, just as composers may get pigeonholed due to the media or forces they often write for. I wonder if some composers never contact me because they have an idea of what I'm interested in based on what I've programmed. I can understand this assumption, and probably my preferences become stronger over time, but I sure don't know the full spectrum of what's out there, even within stylistic categories I know I'm attracted to. I love coming across intriguing music I've never known before; it's like being a kid again, opening a birthday present!
KG replies: Good point, and amen to your last sentences, of which more soon. I have to say, I've wondered if I would ever write a piano piece so relentless and exhausting that only you would take it on. Contrariwise, I've often thought there were some new-music pianists out there who won't consider my music because I'm "one of Sarah Cahill's composers." And I guess it didn't occur to me that I could contact pianists - I thought if they were interested they'd contact me, since my PDFs are all available.

Richard Friedman: Don't take those rankings too seriously. It's the quality of the people reading your blog, not the quantity, that matters. My ranking puts PostClassic and Jeremy Denk's Think Denk ( at the top. Unfortunately, Jeremy is so busy practicing and performing these days he only posts sporadically. And then On An Overgrown Path ( second. You're in good company. Just don't give up. We need you.
KG replies: No no, it's the *quality* of my readership that has me depressed... Sorry, you can't give me a good straight line like that, I have no power of resistance.

Justin H Brierley: I have to say that while I do also subscribe to Nico's blog, I actually read yours.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

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