The town where I live is not huge. It qualifies as a city only in the rhetoric of our elected officials. Even so, we have a thriving Art Association. Local painters, photographers, and jewelry makers have banded together for many years to put on shows and workshops.
It’s a curious fact that we have no equivalent for composers of music.
A web search reveals a few organizations for composers in San Francisco and the Inner East Bay. But as I get older, I’m far less inclined to want to hop in the car, drive for an hour, hunt for a parking place, and walk back to my car after dark in a strange neighborhood. Sorry, sports fans, but that’s how it is. If it’s within 20 minutes of my house, I’m happy. Anything further afield is a chore. If I never have to drive to San Francisco again as long as I live, I’ll be very happy.
So why isn’t there a group of active composers here in town?
I put it down mainly to the difference in media. This plays out at both the beginning and the end of the artistic process.
Painting — or at least, representational painting, and trust me, that’s most of what you’ll see at a show of the Livermore Art Association — is an art form in which your eye can be trusted to tell you, quite intuitively, whether you’re doing a decent job. If you try to paint a cat and it comes out looking like a mud puddle, no technical knowledge will be required for you to understand that you’ve failed. Your eye will give you all the feedback you need. Your ego may then elbow its way onstage and tell you that no, it really does look quite nice, but at a base level, you’ll have reliable information that will help you hone your skills.
Composing, on the other hand, is quite abstract. If your score is a fearful muddle, you may never know it. Perhaps because it’s considered an arcane art form requiring special knowledge, composing is not usually taught in local public schools. Painting quite commonly is, I believe, or was until George Bush sent our national economy into a tailspin by marching off to invade the entire Muslim world. But I digress.
Having finished a painting, a painter can show it to the public by the simple act of hanging it on a wall. The wall may be a booth at a street fair, and a bit of effort may be required to set up the booth. But the whole exhibition can be put up in an hour or so, and the space at the street fair rented for a very modest fee.
The opportunities for local composers to show their work to the public are far more circumscribed. Nearly nonexistent, in fact. Many communities, including our own, have local symphony orchestras. The local orchestra is likely to be well organized, to perform regularly, and to have a roster of talented musicians who participate eagerly. And what do they play at their concerts? They play Brahms. They play Beethoven. They play Mahler and Mozart and Bach and Sibelius and Saint-Saens. Dead Europeans, almost exclusively. Once in a while you’ll hear a piece by Aaron Copland, a dead American who was educated in Europe.
In the past ten years, playing in five different community orchestras in the Bay Area, a total of at least 25 concerts, I have played two pieces by living composers. One of the composers flew in from out of town for the concert. The other composer lives here in town, but his piece, though not difficult, wasn’t rehearsed enough, and the performance sounded very bad.
I’m more than a little inclined to tell the two orchestras I’m playing with currently that I will only continue to show up if they schedule a piece by a living local composer at every concert. The practical result of such an ultimatum would be, of course, that I wouldn’t be playing in any orchestras at all.
I’m not sure that’s such a bad outcome. I love playing Brahms and Beethoven, of course. But playing in an orchestra is a musical activity in which my only role is to be one of the sheep. Possibly it’s time for me to take the view that life is too short to waste even another minute in an activity where I have no creative input. But that’s just my personal struggle. There are larger issues here.
The predictable result of the lack of performing opportunities is that talented local musicians are less inclined to compose anything at all. One of the orchestras in which I play has engaged to play the Nutcracker with the San Jose Ballet this Christmas. Tchaikovsky is another dead European. Madly talented, to be sure, but also dead. Surely they could find a Christmas-inspired score by a living local composer! Well, perhaps not. Why would anybody write one, when they knew perfectly well the ballet company will be playing the Nutcracker yet again this Christmas?
On the other hand … I’ve just been listening to the 2011 winners of the competition organized by the League of Composers. The winning pieces are entirely devoid of (a) melodic coherence, (b) harmonic structure, and (c) rhythmic organization. How anyone could ever think these pieces worth a second listen is entirely beyond me. How anyone would have had either the temerity or the tenacity to compose them is just as baffling. If this is the best that the current generation of composers can come up with, damn! Let’s stick with Tchaikovsky!