A while ago I made a post about WQXR's Q2 Podcast called Meet the Composer, and now that I have listened to a few episodes beyond the interview with Caroline Shaw, I'm starting to have issues. I could stew about these issues, or I could write about them. I choose to write.
Nadia Sirota, the host of the show, is a far better violist than I am, and a far better radio host than I was during my time on the air (broadcasting 40 miles in all directions from a college station in a small town in downstate Illinois during the last century). I certainly appreciate what she is doing for the composers she works with in New York, and for new music in general, but I fear that the music she presents on this particular program (at least this year) sounds kind of the same to me. It seems that everything I have heard so far (with few exceptions) is minimalist in nature, and much of the string music seems to exploit the natural harmonic series.
I listened to a great deal of new music when I was a teenager in the 1970s. My first opera was Wozzeck. The first piece I sang in a professional chorus was Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum. I have a special fondness for the sound of 12-tone music because it reminds me of Tanglewood, where I spent summer after summer attending the Fromm Festival concerts. I wanted to be a composer during the 1970s, but I knew that writing in the 12-tone idiom was not any kind of true expression of who I happened to be. I had no interest in electronics, and never wanted to use rock music as the basis of the music I imagined writing (like my brother Marshall did). As much as I would like to have embraced it, I found minimalist music repetitive and boring. I wanted to write music that meant something to me, and I wanted to write music that would be as moving to me as the music that I loved from the whole of the history of notated music. I couldn't wait for minimalism to die out. By the time I turned 40 I had lots and lots of music to write, so I just started writing.
When I was in my 20s I thought I knew a lot about music. A lot of people thought I knew a lot about music. Through working at the radio station and reading scores and scores of books about music I learned more about music. I eventually learned that I knew very little, and that my narrow-minded views were ridiculous. Perhaps they still are.
I don't believe I really started to learn about music until I reached my 40s and started writing music seriously. Now that I am 55 I feel like a kid in a candy store, because with the hopes of a career behind me, I have the leisure to keep learning new things about music. My experience of music is far deeper than it was when I was in my 20s and 30s, and my understanding of how important it is to get from one note to the next in a meaningful way sometimes yields real results. Sometimes I get, whether writing or playing, from one note to the next in a way that I feel is a true expression of how the music should go.
I do hope that Nadia Sirota ventures out of the envelope she has drawn around her new radio program and finds composers of note (no pun intended) who write in ways that don't simply reflect her personal love of extended techniques, minimalism, the harmonic series, and their spectral sisters. There are a whole lot of people in her parents' generation (like me) and even in her grandparents' generation who are indeed interested in hearing interviews with living composers who write in other ways, even in traditional ways.