Making musicians compose

I was going to return from vacation with a post about — what else — myself? (I’m a blogger, right?) But then I thought it’d be more fun to start with something about Joan Tower’s concert last Saturday night, at Merkin Hall in New York. She celebrated her 70th birthday, and some top musicians played her music. I love her stuff, and especially liked hearing pieces live that I only knew from recordings. Even though I’d studied some of the pieces, and wrote liner notes about them for Joan’s Naxos CD, I was struck by how physical they sounded live, even — or especially — the very quiet beginning of Joan’s piano trio Big Sky. Just some soft notes, very long, but they draw you into a space they create.

The real delight of the concert wasn’t music by Joan, though. She’s irrepressible — someone who always says what she thinks. So when she came onstage after intermission, she said (just about licking her lips with anticipation), “Now comes the interesting part of the concert!” This was the part when some of the musicians who’d played Joan’s music played pieces of their own — pieces she’d just about forced them to write, no matter how afraid they were. And the results were wonderful. Joan, I should add, thinks (and I agree) that every musician should compose, and that every composer should perform. (I’m working on my piano improvising, and — who knows? — might even return to singing! I’ve got someone ready to give me voice lessons…)

So now Lisa Kaplan, of eighth blackbird, had written a piece, and so had Joseph Kalichstein. And others, too.  Lisa may not believe it, but her piece was fabulous — witty, alive, propulsive, surprising. eighth blackbird should commission her! Kalichstein probably thinks that his piece was a throwaway, just some oddball takes on “Happy Birthday” fragments, in the styles of various great composers (with samples of those comopsers’ actual work stolen, magpie-like, and thrown into the mix). But he stitched it all together with delightful wit and finesse. Not easy to do!

Which isn’t to slight the pieces by pianists Blair McMillen and violist Paul Neubauer. All these musicians rose to the occasion, and showed — to Joan’s delight (mine, too) — that composing isn’t a special talent, given only to a few. Anyone can do it, and that’s a good thing. (And just hold on, any purists out there who think I’ve dumped standards out the window. I didn’t say that some people don’t do it better than others. But the ability to compose, simply to compose, at whatever level, putting one note after another, isn’t any God-given miracle. The people who become composers are the ones determined to do it, the ones who sit on our butts and finish our pieces. Which doesn’t mean we have any more talent for it than plenty of performing musicians who don’t compose. Or, for that matter, than non-musicians who’ve never even thought about it, as Jon Deak, the composer and NY Philharmonic bassist, proves with his astonishing composing workshops for adults and children. I’ve heard him evoke notable music from orchestra administrators, just for instance.)

A wonderful evening, Joan’s 70th. And she’s addicted to her iPhone! Who knew?

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  1. Jackson Braider says

    Greg — a lovely antidote to the “enough about me, what did you think of my work?” model. I’m sorry not have been there at Merkin. And Joan Tower shatters that awful truism of our age about how musicians play and composers compose.

    Are there other people, other domains in NYC where the composer/performer dichotomy is finally disintegrating? As a young enthusiast for Anthony Newman in the way back when, I found his approach to Bach wonderfully engaging, bringing what I had felt as music from the dusty vault to living life.

    Which leads to yet another discussion about when and where a work is lasergraphed into stone — I’m thinking particularly of the melody from the song “Remember” burned into the grave marker of Harry Nilsson out in California — or let free to live at the whim of the performer at the moment he or she takes the stage…

    Lovely thoughts, Jackson. I think the composer/performer dichotomy is breaking down on the younger end of the new music scene in NY, where you find many people who are composer/performers. They write music that they perform themselves. The American Composers Orchestra focused on these people over the past couple of years. And you’ll hear plenty of them at the annual Bang on a Can marathon.

  2. says

    That does sound like a great concert.

    People get a certain Idea about what they can and can’t do, which is often very far from the reality of things, and they will hold on to that no matter what. Its a pity, of course, because everybody loses out. It was a bit sad to read what you wrote about Lisa Kaplan not realizing how good her piece was.

  3. Sandow says

    Maybe the important thing is that Lisa wrote the piece. And rehearsed and performed it, with two of her eighth blackbird bandmates, Matt, the violinist, and Nick, the cellist.

    And maybe she was just surprised by how much I liked the piece. I get very enthusiastic sometimes.

  4. Lisa Kaplan says

    It’s been such a long time since I’ve composed and I was absolutely THRILLED that Greg was so excited about it! I was excited about it too. In fact, I had great fun writing my piece but it’s very easy to lose perspective when you’re so immersed in the process. It was a real delight for me to have people respond so positively. Perhaps I will work on a few other movements to go with it…

    Thanks for your encouragement Greg!

  5. richard says

    As a composer, I’d like to keep my playing if

    i had the time. It’s also a problem that I play an “unsexy” instument that’s the butt of jokes. Question: What is the definition of a gentleman? Answer: Someone who can play a trombone but doesn’t.