Today was our last day of ICMC 2011. It was also the day my work Metallurgy was played in the listening room.
I have gotten to know Dan Weymouth this week, a composition professor at CUNY Stony Brook. He is very friendly and loves good food (as do I). Today, he stopped and told me that he had listened to my piece, and had a few comments on it. On our way to getting a beer, he informed me that the piece was very good, and that he liked most of the sounds, as well as the clear formal structure. He took some issue to some repetitive things, and thought a few of the sounds were wrong for the work, but otherwise very good. While I am uncertain as to whether I want to revisit the piece, I tremendously appreciate his insights, and was touched that he spent the time to both listen to the work and give me feedback.
Tonight after the final concert, I had another impromptu lesson with John Graham, a retired professor of viola from Eastman. He was at ICMC to play a piece by Kevin Ernste, a composition professor at Cornell, and director of the the EA department there. I have gotten to know Kevin throughout the week, and he is a tremendously friendly person, and a great composer.
Anyway, Professor Graham spoke for me for awhile about some of the concerts he had heard here, and what the problems were that he heard. To him, many of the works were problematic because the gestures and phrases had no ending. He was not talking about cadence in the traditional sense, but felt that every gesture seemed to move out of silence, progress, then die back to silence. He said that he had observed the same problem in performance over the years. Performers tended to initiate a gesture, play through it, then fade it away the same way. He said that endings were problematic in that people tended to play them the same throughout music, and not vary them according to musical structure.
As I thought about it, I told him that to a composer, silence is the constant, the stasis point from which all things come and go. We bring gestures out of the stasis, then fade them back into it. His response was that by doing so, we weren’t treating the silence with enough respect, but undermining it.
Jean-Marie Londeix, in his well-known book Hello! Mr. Sax, catalogs gestural attacks for the saxophone, but also catalogs the releases. I have always noticed that, but assumed it was for specific effects, not every note within a work. This is probably only a part of what I think Professor Graham was talking about, however.
My only response was that composers are lazy. Composing is hard, and that worrying about the beginnings of sounds is difficult enough as it is. This laziness is especially apparent in the EA field, where we slap reverb onto every sound, letting it end on its own. We essentially take the process out of our own hands.
Ultimately, details such as this are what separates a “good” work from a “great” work. The thought makes me apprehensive, but curious. I could probably spend a long time pursuing what we talked about, or even letting it sink in to figure out what he truly means.
These types of experiences are only a few of the important things I have learned this week. It has been a tremendous festival in a beautiful little town, and I have loved every minute of it. Now I just need to figure out how to get to Slovenia next year for ICMC 2012.