Opus Triple-Digit

August 29, 2013

By Kyle Gann

I am not a particularly prolific composer, and have always been a little sensitive about it. The sensitivity started in college. In high school I spewed forth inept sonatas and chamber pieces by the ream with a frightening incapacity for self-criticism, and I swept into Oberlin with guns a-blazing. But my undergraduate composition teacher was intimidating and unsympathetic, and after a few months with him I found myself too petrified to compose anything. It took me many years to fully overcome the sense of insecurity that took root in me under his weekly lack of enthusiasm. It is common among a certain type of professor to say that, if a student can be dissuaded from becoming a composer, he should be; but if he can't be dissuaded and you try for years anyway, the damage can be considerable and long-lasting.

At any rate, later there were other excuses for my relative lack of productivity. I've had to work like a dog to make a living all my life. The early years of being a high-profile critic took up a lot of psychic energy; it wasn't like selling shoes while secretly working out musical plans in my head. And I got into the habit of writing books, which bring me more professional advantage than my music does these days, and writing them is so easy for me that I'm not likely to quit. I am selfish enough that I will deny the world the music I could be writing if I'm getting more jollies somewhere else.

But the real reason for the slow growth in my opus numbers, or probably more real than these other reasons anyway, is that I'm something of a conceptualist with a populist conscience. That is, to get inspired with a piece I need a concept, an idea, some friction of irreconcilables, that applies only to that piece. I do not have a habitual musical language that I can turn on and off like a spigot, or roll out by the yard, as so many composers do. So I get these inspirations like, hey, what if you had a rhythmic structure like this, but a harmonic rhythm that was totally independent of it, and you had to make it work and sound good anyway. Sounding good is the sticking point. I've had some compositional ideas I've carried around for decades, and I just can't make them work, so I start a lot more pieces than I finish. And I am not like some of my fellow experimentalists I could name, who will find the concept sufficient and roar ahead with the work whether the listener can afterward tell what what the hell the piece was about or not. I conceive each work in some kind of arcane musical algebra, but if the initial results don't sound wonderful and seductive, to me, I just won't go through with it. Sometimes I try the same idea over every few years, and in several cases I've eventually figured out how to bring a recalcitrant concept to heel, usually by making my grandiose, austere premises simpler and/or more flexible.

Somehow I got, rather early, the idea that as long as I wrote over a hundred pieces in my career, I would consider that a respectable output. For some reason I did not want to be one of those composers known for their miniscule worklists of only 20 or 35 works: Webern, Varese, Ruth Crawford, Ruggles, even Nancarrow (65, officially). For one thing, to make an impression with such a small catalogue requires not only a high consistency of quality but a trademark idiom, and I'm a little too variable in style and quality for that. And on the other hand, Beethoven only has 138 opus numbers, and though many of them are multiple works, anything over a hundred sounded vaguely in the ballpark. And some time in the past year, depending on what early works I feel like copping to in any current mood, I passed the one-hundred mark. With the two works I'm finishing up this week - a septet for the Ghost Ensemble called Sang Plato's Ghost, and a chamber suite called Catskill Set - my official list has 105 titles. I made it!

And neither would I have wanted to be one of those composers who bombards the world with his or her fecundity. Darius Milhaud is one of my favorite composers, but a large percentage of his music sounds phoned in, and past the sixty or so fabulous pieces you quickly run into works that make you wonder why he bothered. Alan Hovhaness, similarly. I'm trying to figure out how much of Kaikhosru Sorabji's music I really need to get familiar with. Composers like these need someone to write a book covering their complete output and letting all of us know what the gems are. It seems to me that extremely prolific composers create a perceptual barrier for themselves, because nobody after Schubert writes 500 masterpieces, and even a listening fan gets discouraged trying to profitably fill in the complete profile.

So "over a hundred" sounds good, and I can psychically relax a little. Breathes there the composer, today, who doesn't occasionally stop and reflect that there's already way too much good music in the world anyway, and that it seems either sadistic or masochistic to continue adding to it? I can keep composing when I'm really enjoying it, without the tad of psychic pressure in the back of my mind that I haven't yet written enough. My worklist looks sufficiently respectable; a dozen or so of the works exceed a half-hour. And with having passed ten years as a blogger today as well, and finished the five chapters of my Ives book (out of fifteen, six of them already done) that I was determined to write before the semester started, I think that's enough landmarks achieved for one summer.


perkustooth says: I think you're a pretty industrious guy. Dittersdorf really stacked the deck but...yawn.
KG replies: But his symphony with the frogs is great.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: You've mentioned your "Milhaud problem" before. Being on the big-numbers end of composing, I know the discouraging side of potential performers or listeners looking for something and giving up in the face of too much material. How does any artist say, though, "I refuse to create these new works because they're too many"? One solution is to destroy them. Certainly I've destroyed compositions, a lot of them, which continue to exist only by a name in my diary and a memory ghost. Maybe destruction is a better solution -- but certainly a waste of energy in the first place. Who can say.
In any case, welcome to the triple-digit realm.

Steve Hicken says: Congratulations, Kyle! As a slow-working composer myself, I know where you're coming from.

kea says: @DBK: well, if one is impelled to write great amounts by inner necessity, not everything that results has to be made public. i've written lots of music--hundreds of manuscript pages, thousands of sibelius files (the vast majority of which represent sketches, or pieces i started and then lost interest in after a few minutes/hours/days, but including some completed pieces as well)--and could probably put together a catalogue of 10 or 20 works if i were less self-critical. the truth is however that none of this music is good enough for me to feel comfortable putting it out in the world with my name on it (indeed i have at times despaired of ever coming to write an "opus 1" and considered giving up composition altogether)
i wouldn't destroy anything if i were you, just "withdraw" pieces you don't like anymore and hide the manuscripts in various libraries around the world. after you die, it will be an entertaining game for musicologists as they go library scavenging and get into lengthy academic arguments about whether this is an -authentic- bathory-kitsz or a misattribution
@KG: as for sorabji, i would suggest "as little as possible"....
KG replies: No no, Sorabji fascinates me and is the only non-American composer I've considered doing research on (except maybe Milhaud). And Dennis has written an intimidating ton of great music, I'm not sure what I'd do in his case.

kea says: in that case, maybe you should be the one telling -me- how much of sorabji i should get acquainted with! >.> i'm afraid i've never warmed to what i've heard of his music, but the concepts of a lot of his pieces are very attractive, and if you do ever get the time/interest to research him i'd be quite interested in reading the results--too many of the writers about sorabji seem to have a tendency (perhaps in parallel with the music itself) to be extremely wordy and dense and suffuse their subject with a rather mystical aura.
as for prolific living composers in general, perhaps the practice of releasing "the best of..." CDs and score anthologies should be revived (if it ever died). i grew up playing pieces from albums of "easy arrangements" of schumann and bach and mozart and etc which in turn made them among the first composers whose music i sought out in recordings and concerts.
KG replies: So far my favorite is the Fourth Sonata, especially the slow middle movement, which is exquisite. I love the big slow movement of Opus Clavicembalisticum too; the fugal movements are pretty dry, though they gain interest if one analyzes them. Many of the 100 Transcendental Studies are lovely, though they vary a lot in that respect and I wouldn't be able to say which numbers off the top of my head. He has, indeed, not always been well served by his insufficiently discriminating advocates.

Doug Skinner says: Good news -- especially since the last time I saw you you said you had no music in the works. Personally, I find it better to write too much than too little; you can always salvage bits from the ones you scrap.
KG replies: The ensemble piece was for a (non-paying) request from a former student who started an ensemble. The song cycle was because I met a poet whose poems I liked.

Paul H. Muller says: I expect that the demand for new music has an effect on the rate of a composer's output. If you are writing in an environment like ours today - where concert performances are difficult to come by - then a deliberate pace makes sense. But if you are JS Bach or a Haydn and you need to have 20 minutes of music by next Sunday, then it's pedal to the metal. One of the intriguing aspects of the delivery of electronic music via the Internet is that the limiting factor - performance - is removed and this could have a decisive effect on the way music is written and consumed.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: Paul, as some folks may remember, 'pedal to the metal' was precisely the point of the "We Are All Mozart" project in 2007 -- to secure 100 commissions in a year and fulfill them all. To be 'in service' to wildly different compositional demands was an incredible experience, and gave me a greater understanding of how to work well under pressure without capitulating to facile composition. (Of course, the likelihood of performance increased my enthusiasm.) More importantly, I learned how much it's possible to grow and change within the microscopic timelines of music that both fulfills the commissioners' expectations and that has to be delivered one every three days for twelve solid months. At the beginning of the year it felt exciting. By mid-year it was frightening. And when the project was over, it had been exhausting.
I was also happy to have opened up the discussion of musical 'productivity' that had been tiptoed around for quite a while. My extensive 2006 survey of composers entitled "Composers & Productivity: The Embodiment of Discomfort" was published in NewMusicBox -- alas, it generates a 404 error now; I have placed it here: http://maltedmedia.com/people/bathory/waam-survey-results.html
The huge numbers don't matter (except in my case to get in the way of people being able to make it through the mass of material, a serious issue that could be a book in itself). I think of composer John McGuire, who takes a year or more to create single composition, each one a marvel of beauty and intricate internal design (and a composer rarely heard in the U.S., though he lives in New York).
The personal pace of composition is one of the marvels of our artform.

Lyle Sanford says: "It is common among a certain type of professor to say that, if a student can be dissuaded from becoming a composer, he should be; but if he can't be dissuaded and you try for years anyway, the damage can be considerable and long-lasting."
I know that a lot of music educators seem to like it when players not suiting their needs end up quitting the band, as it makes their life as conductor easier - that it can do long term damage to the individual's musical aspirations seems not to occur/matter to them. Surprised to hear the same thing about composition teachers, though from all you've said over the years, I guess I shouldn't be.
You've talked before about not wanting to have a particular style, but this explanation really rounds that out and makes more sense (especially for a Scorpio?). Being a Taurus I'm more comfortable sticking with what I think I know.
I know woodwind quintets aren't your favorite ensemble - but if you're familiar with Milhaud's La Cheminée du roi René - is that one you wonder why he bothered?
KG replies: I don't know that one. Is it good? The Jolivet and Nielsen quintets are great pieces, you just have to know how to write for it, I guess.
It's not that I never wanted to have a particular style, quite the contrary. It's that I've always been more fascinated by the potential demands of any particular piece than by figuring out what personal expression would shout "KG!"

Lyle Sanford says: For me (and there's no accounting for taste!) that Milhaud piece is something of a first cousin to the Satie pieces I like - they have that, "a poem should not mean but be", feel of just being beautiful little pieces.
As for compositional style - I'm just barely into double digits 😉 - but the friends I write for say I have one - but it's only because I keep playing around with the same kinds of meters and modes that interest me - while writing something I think will hold a listeners attention. Also, on first hearing something I've written played by others - there's the weird sensation of my unconscious manifesting in the sensible world. So between those two elements, my "style" comes into being of itself - not through my trying to have one that says who I am - if I went that route, my guess is there'd be total writer's block.
KG replies: Well, when I play a new piece for my wife she sometimes says "Sounds very Gannian," and I'm relieved.

David Carter says: "I'm trying to figure out how much of Kaikhosru Sorabji's music I really need to get familiar with. Composers like these need someone to write a book covering their complete output and letting all of us know what the gems are."
Been done and published at last - http://www.mus.ulaval.ca/roberge/srs/07-prese.htm
KG leaps off his chair: Saints preserve us!

mclaren says: It took me many years to fully overcome the sense of insecurity that took root in me under his weekly lack of enthusiasm. It is common among a certain type of professor to say that, if a student can be dissuaded from becoming a composer, he should be; but if he can't be dissuaded and you try for years anyway, the damage can be considerable and long-lasting.
A perfect example of the kind of sadistic brutalization of students that the Germanomanic U.S. system of higher arts education seems designed to inflict. Your reminiscence summarizes why I would've gotten flushed out of any American music department like waste within the first semester. After the teacher finished lecturing me on why my music was pure shite, I'd start explaining to hi/r why the teacher was too arrogant and too ignorant and too incompetent to stand in front of the class, and then I'd go to work on the clay-footed idols the teachers worshiped -- do-nothing know-nothing no-talents like the Parisian Kook (infamous for using the tactics of Maoist thought reform in contemporary music, with gems like "[A]ny musician who has not experienced - I do not say understood, but truly experienced - the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.") and the Geriatric Kook (who pulled down his pants and squatted and let detritus like the Double Concerto plop onto the Manhattan pavement) and the Darmstadt Kook (author of the spectacularly incoherent paean to onscurantism and pseudoscience, "How time passes...").
About ten minutes thereafter, campus security would come running to the classroom toot sweet. A whole platoon of riot-armored Lt. James Pike wannabes would drag me out of there using tasers and grappling hooks.
Antimusicians rule the American contemporary music higher educational apparatus. Just as when a particle of antimatter encounters a particle of matter, when an antimusician meets a real composer, there's a large amount of heat, and both vanish in a big explosion.
As the world socialist website (WARNING! COMMIES! Scandalized readers can conveniently dismiss this entire comment by sneering that I've quoted a -- gasp! -- socialist) noted of the Geriatric Kook's sonic excretions:
In the midst of the admiring tributes, however, it must also be noted that Carter's work is neither widely known nor often performed. A search of the database of the New York Philharmonic, Carter's hometown orchestra, turns up about 25 of his works performed in the past 50 years. Most of them were played only once. His major orchestral works, composed in the decades between 1950 and 1980, have not been performed by the Philharmonic in more than 30 years.
A reasonably well-informed member of the musical audience has probably never heard--or even heard of--Carter's Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord, from 1959-1961, for instance, or his Piano Concerto from 1964 or the Concerto for Orchestra from 1969. His numerous chamber works, including the five string quartets composed between 1951 and 1995, are occasionally played, and have been recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet and some younger ensembles. However, none of Carter's music has won a wide audience in the six decades since he became one of the most well-known exponents of what is loosely referred to as musical "modernism."
Of course, to challenge the audience and not find immediate success is by no means unheard of. Recognition of some of the works of Beethoven, Schubert and other masters came after their lifetimes. This general problem, of a "lag" between a wide audience and composer, does not seem to apply in Carter's case or help explain why his major works have found little or no audience after 60 years and show no signs of doing so in the future.
As the obituary in the New York Times acknowledged in somewhat understated language, "Some listeners found [Carter's] music cerebral, elitist and devoid of emotion. Even some who respected Mr. Carter's erudition and the detail inherent in his compositional method were unmoved by his music."
Bill Wesley summed it up aptly to me once: "Ugliness and the incoherence to the listener of the final musical composition should not, in and of themselves, constitute reasons for praise in contemporary music. There comes a point where sheer lack of musical talent should not by itself justify a prestigious contemporary music prize."
Antimusicians who infest the music departments of American universities believe the opposite -- in Alex Ross' words: "[T]he very act of preserving tonality in the modern era, Adorno proposed, betrayed symptoms of the Fascist personality." But antimusicianship isn't about politics or art or even about criticism of up-and-coming composers -- it's really just a doomsday cult with a particularly nihilistic medieval outlook. The world is damned and we live in hell, nothing matters, we might as well flagellate ourselves for the sin of being alive while waiting for the armageddon just around the corner. As composers, we should spend our time writing background music for the [fill in the blank with preferred horror of the decade: Nazi death camps of the 1940s, global thermonuclear war of the 1950s, Vietnam napalm firebombing of brown babes of the 1960s, global oil crisis of the 1970s, thermonuclear war with Russia part deux under Ronnie "Bedtime for Bonzo" Reagan in the 1980s, global warming in the 1990s, global financial collapse in the 2000s, und so weiter]. Only the most hideous acoustic convulsions prove appropriate for the unspeakable monstrousness of the debased times that fill us with existential despair and impotence. Tinfoil placed behind the strings of violins and 'celli to create horrible scraping screeching sounds in string quartets exemplifies human cruelty in the desolate moonscape of a meaningless world. Placing a microphone against your throat while swallowing carrot juice to generate crackling grating scratching sounds amplified at high volume expresses with exquisite horror the meaningless of daily life. Dense clusters of acoustically rough notes a semitone apart interspersed with loud blasts from horns and herky-jerky spasmodic spatters of notes in extreme registers from piccolos and double basses embody the gaping abysms of despair that wrack us when we contemplate the unutterable emptiness of a hellishly indifference cosmos. And so on.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have a life, and prefer not to drown in infantile self-pity and nihilism.
At a certain point, you get tired of the musical cult members parading around holding up signs "THE END OF TONALITY IS COMING." Like the Heavens Gate cult, these characters tend to self-destruct, but enough of 'em found niches in musical academia to make life impossible for composers who actually enjoy making beautiful music. Maybe it's the same deal as with the seemingly endless parade of Washington pundits who chime in with effusive praise for the next pointless endless unwinnable counterproductive foreign war -- this time Syria, last time Iraq part deux, before that Afghanistan, before that...the list goes on. And on. And on. Maybe America is a place where the only activities that get praised involve destruction. After all, we murdered and tortured and raped our way across the continent, calling the genocide of the American Indians by the glittering cognomen "Manifest Destiny" instead of something honest like "The American Final Solution to the `native indian problem,'" and now the Americanos are looking around for new horizons to despoil, new victims to brutalize, new realms of acoustic vandalism to extend our forays into sonic ugliness and nihilism. As the Geriatic Kook wrote back in the 1950s: "Before the end of the Second World War, it became clear to me, partly as a result of rereading Freud and others and thinking about psychoanalysis, that we were living in a world where this physical and intellectual violence would always be a problem." So we might as well embrace the horror, make it part of us, learn to love acoustic shrecklicheit.
Some of us regard that as the desperate rationalization of the abused child who grows up to become an abuser. Some of us believe that beauty in music matters, excellence counts for something, and life has meaning. And some of us believe life is too short to spend it listening to some acoustical doomsday cultist in a university classroom explaining at length why prettiness is evil in contemporary music and "charm" and "grace" are the mark of the devil, and why a perceptible rhythmic pulse and functional harmonic progressions and discernible melodies and a comprehensible overall musical organization in the finished composition represent the sign of a compositional apostate incubated in the recesses of foulness.

kea says: i find your passion admirable, but (and this has something to do with kg's most recent post q.v.) don't you feel it's a little misplaced? this may have been a radical aesthetic position requiring a fierce stand against conformity, say, 40 years ago. but now, essentially, you've already won. as far as i'm aware, american academies are presently dominated by "midtown" neo-romantic composers of broadly accessible, tonal music, with some "downtowners" and not very many "uptowners" left (and the most prominent of them, brian ferneyhough at stanford, is of course a british import). on the concert stage american music is overwhelmingly dominated by adams, reich, glass and other composers writing in styles influenced by them. more to the point, a composition teacher who tries to discourage students from composing would nowadays be seen as a bad teacher. that sort of philosophy is well on the way out as far as i know. i don't see any need to continue to rail against those few who may still compose, perform and enjoy listening to the kind of music you dismiss as "nihilistic noise"; it seems to me that this kind of energy and passion might be better directed towards other things, e.g. advocacy against cuts in arts funding & for the preservation and expansion of various musical institutions, etc.

Don O. says: it seems to me that this kind of energy and passion might be better directed towards other things
Why should others abandon their passions for other things that you want them to advocate instead. Wouldn't it be better for you to advocate for things you wish to advocate for and let others advocate for what they wish? Just as you blithely dismiss his points, I'll blithely dismiss yours. Rather than increases or stasis in public arts funding, and public institutions in general, I say let's get rid of all them. They are corrupt and stupid and only lead to no-talent ass clowns such as Elliot Carter being able to make a living at something other than plumbing or work at McDonalds which would have made more sense for them.

perkustooth says: Sometimes it seems to be hard to not adopt the attitude described in his infamous essay, "Who Cares if You Listen?". I seem to recall that position having been echoed in an offensively titled essay, "We Spit on the Dead" by serialist extraordinaire Charles Wourinen. And it wasn't the Grateful Dead to whom he referred.

perkustooth says: Oops, I meant to cite Milton Babbit for the "Who cares..." article.

Gavin Borchert says: Gerhard Samuel once told me a great anecdote about Milhaud, from the years when he was in Oakland and Milhaud was at Mills. He went to visit Milhaud for lunch one day, who was at his desk working on a score, writing it out as speedily and fluently as anyone else would jot down a shopping list. Milhaud greeted him, set down his pen mid-bar, and the two ate and chatted for a couple hours. Afterward Milhaud bade Gerhard farewell, went back to his desk, took up his pen, and without a second's hesitation picked up writing exactly where he left off, at the same pace.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: This anecdote doesn't feel remarkable to me at all. Don't composers generally pick up immediately where they left off after an interruption, whether from a few minutes to a few days? That's what I do. Why would someone forget what they were doing, especially with something as deeply interconnected as a composition?
KG replies: Well you're kind of special, Dennis. I can pause to light a cigar and forget where I was. Maybe some of us get more intensely involved in the process than others?

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: I've never watched anyone else compose. Somehow I assumed there was a kind of enveloping cloud for everyone; it could be momentarily parted by an interruption, but closed right back in afterward. My wife has pointed out that my whole personality changes when I'm working on a project. (And not in a good way.)
So now I'm really curious. Can you describe your process a little bit -- not the technical bits, but the kind of physical-mental engagement?
KG replies: Well lately my process is awfully improvisatory. I sketch out an idea, add to it and see what happens, make some smaller sketches around the basic material, add some more, listen to it, revise, and I often don't know where I'm going till it emerges. Sometimes I have to take a week away from a piece, look at it again and realize what's wrong, and if I get an inspiration I'll suddenly see where it's going. I really like the 11-minute ensemble piece I just wrote that way. Some days I have to quit after twenty minutes because it's just not coming, other days I end up absorbed for several hours. But a decent commission or two, or a group of musicians waiting to hear from me, does wonders to focus my mind, and I haven't had that much lately.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: Thanks for that. Since I no longer sketch 'externally' except occasionally as a memory jog, pieces get written down in big uninterrupted chunks for me. I guess the process is similar, but the medium is different. Thanks again.

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