Waiting for the Echo

I’m going to talk about myself as a composer for a moment, so if my own music isn’t what you read Postclassic to learn about – if you agree with the blogger who recently complained that my blog is too introspective – this is one to skip.

I’ve written about 60 musical works, or a little more, depending on which pieces I’m in a mood to acknowledge on a given day. Nominally, 20 of those pieces, one third, are now available on commercial CDs, ten of them on this most recent disc. It’s ironic how much getting a CD out feels like having just scaled a mountain – considering that the bulk of the work was done years ago, and I’ve hardly done anything to bring this one about in recent weeks, it just arrived in the mail. Unrecorded pieces feel like children still living at home. I’m directly responsible for whatever exposure they get, I tell them when to get up and when to go to bed, I exercise control over how they’re presented to other people. Now that they’re on CD, they’re like children who have left home and are living somewhere else. In a way they are no longer my pieces, they have to make their own way in the world based on what merits they possess. And the world will soon judge them, which I guess accounts for the mountain-scaling feeling – the echo of my achievement is about to come back to me, and I will be forced to accept, with humility, whether the world thinks it was a large achievement or a small one.

Very different from giving a concert, especially one in New York. New-music concerts, at least the Downtown, non-orchestral variety, are given largely for one’s friends, and it is primarily one’s friends who walk up afterward and say something. What they say, of course, is mostly flattering, or at least only unintentionally discouraging. Rare is the Downtown concert reviewed by more than one critic, and a single critic is an unreliable barometer. A CD on a well-distributed label, though, will be written about by people in Lafayette, Arkansas and Spokane, Washington, people who have never met me and never expect to. I’ve always said that a review is like a snapshot – you can always claim that it caught you from an unflattering angle, but only in rare cases of patent incompetence can you claim that it contained no grain of truth. In the welter of reviews that arrive I will have to look at the average between the best and worst as some kind of objective index of what resonance the music has found publicly. At age 49, I have been thickly involved in this process for 23 years, but I have not been much on the receiving end. The majority of the reviews I’ve had in my life have all come from one CD – my recent Long Night on Cold Blue. They have far outnumbered all the concert reviews I’ve ever had, and the existence of the internet has vastly increased their number. I can’t say that any particular review of Long Night has nailed the piece, with its strengths and weaknesses and achievements, the way I hear it and them. But I can say that, on balance, the proportion of positive and negative comments has pretty precisely matched what I hear as the proportion of strengths and weaknesses in the piece.

But I wrote Long Night when I was 24, 25 years old. The present disc, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, is far more representative and intensely personal. Representative, because I wrote these pieces between ages 42 and 48, and no excuse is permissible. Personal, because I produced every note of these Disklavier pieces myself, and don’t even have a performing intermediary to share the blame with. That’s not to say the “performances” are perfect: the Disklavier is a less tractable machine than you’d expect. You move the damn thing into a recording space, it gets jostled, the acoustics have changed, and all the subtle balances you labored to achieve are now a little different, and there are thousands of notes, and you do your best to reshape the nuances, but the recording engineer is waiting, the recording space time is limited, and at some point you have to say, “Oh well, close enough.” But I chose the medium, and the medium is no excuse. It is commonplace to assume, presumably rightly, that the dozens of little imperfections I notice will not garner much attention from those who know the music less intimately.

Being such a personal collection, the reaction will feel like a referendum on my personality itself. My sense of humor is much in evidence, also my morose streak, and my innate melodic tendencies, some of them arguably sentimental, are everywhere. I fret that the stylistic variety will prove confusing – inside, I feel like I keep writing the same piece over and over, but they come out almost as though composed by different people. The disc begins in chaotic hilarity and dies away in pensive mourning, which is much more me than the other way around would have been. And there are places (most recently the last minute or two of Tango da Chiesa) that make me shout, “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly the effect I’ve been aiming at my entire life!” The possibility is always there, as it is for every composer, that, as Charles Ives worried, “my ears are on wrong.” But to learn that once and for all will be infinitely preferable to sitting and wondering. Best of all, I feel like I suddenly have loads of psychic space available for new composing – because that’s ten fewer pieces I have to carry around with me anymore.