Thoughts On Hearing 1000 Pieces of Modern Classical Music

Over the past couple of months, I have had the wonderful and possibly rare experience of hearing 1000 pieces of modern classical music.

Now, hearing is not 100% accurate. It wasn’t just a modern classical music station on Spotify playing in the background. My close experiences with these pieces derived from several different sources.

920+ came by way of Arizona Pro Arte’s Call for Scores project which included audio samples and submitted scores that were studied. I conducted 21 world premieres with the Tucson Symphony’s Young Composer Project, a unique and amazing experience. I gave regional and world premieres at Idyllwild Arts, including a great commissioned work The Way It Goes by Martin Bresnick. And as it usually happens for me now, I received about five dozen or so unsolicited compositional submissions that made their way into my email boxes. The submissions ranged from complete works to composers sending samples looking for commissions.

Throughout this process of listening, studying and conducting, I kept notes of my impressions. These notes were either spawned by seeing similarities across many works, or generated by a single piece.

 

Some of these notes are meant as humor, some are serious. Some are both. If you are unable to distinguish the difference, then you should not read any further.

Since art is subjective, it is important to understand that the following notes simultaneously mean everything and nothing.

 

Thoughts on hearing 1000 pieces of modern classical music.

A catchy title is fine, but catchy music is better.

If the number of words in the written instructions of how to perform your piece outnumber the number of notes, that might not be a good thing.

Stop writing for vibraphone. Right now. Seriously. Or at least stop writing the same as everyone else.

Many great composers will probably go unnoticed. This is a travesty.

Many not so great composers will probably go unnoticed. This is less of a travesty.

Some composers rely too heavily on effects in a composition which can make it lack substance.

Some of this music is the most vast, heart wrenching music I’ve heard, comparable to any prominent composer of the past. Some is amazingly uplifting. Some of it embraces you like an old friend. There is deep power in the modern experience for those that understand how to harness it.

When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive. When effects occur too frequently, they are no longer effective but become repetitive.

Repetitive isn’t the right word, uninteresting is.

If your music can be described as “bleedly-boop, plop-deep-derp, kersplat…..squeep” for 22 minutes, well… good for you. Good for the audience? Depends on the audience.

Just because you can do it on paper, doesn’t mean you should.

There are pieces that don’t go anywhere and they think they do.

Some composers don’t understand that some ideas which are “neat” in midi/computer generated sound playback can be impractical for performers and/or will not achieve the desired effect they heard during computer playback. It is essentially the same as a computer racing game. You can make your digital race car do 150 miles per hour, leap over a curb, smash into a tree and still keep driving. Your real life Honda Civic? Not so much. 

Silence is an important tool in composition and a difficult one to master. Some pieces need it and don’t get it. Some don’t need it and have too much.

If you leave an element of your music up to the player or conductor’s interpretation, you can not be disappointed when it is not exactly how you wanted it. Example: Italian tempo indications without metronome markings. We live in the future. I have a metronome in my cellphone. You probably do too. Bach would have thought you were a magician if you were able to show just one of those items to him! If you want it quarter = 117, then write quarter = 117 on your music.

Unique voices stand out, in both good ways and bad.

Some people like to beat dead horses but don’t know they are dead. Some ideas should not be held on to for too long.

If you submit a video link of a work for a competition on youtube, make sure it doesn’t have a mandatory 30 second advertisement that has to be watched before your music begins. If you make a judge sit through it, they are already not going to like your work. We get enough exposure advertisements in our lives already. Especially when while waiting for your piece during the ad, they notice your video has been up for 4 years and has 12 views. You’re not making any money and wasting an adjudicator’s time.

Sometimes people try to add too many “bells and whistles” to their composition. Figuratively and literally. This leaves the impression that the composer felt what was there was too plain. But the result is often they make it gaudy. There is inherent beauty in simplicity, and the knowledge that as a composer, you are also relying on and trusting the instrumentalist to breathe life into your works.

Toy piano is not a standard orchestral instrument.

Neither is accordion.

Neither is soprano, or even mezzo-soprano believe it or not.

Neither is Erhu.

Entertaining comments/notes in parts are fine. But I don’t know if a player who has spent years at conservatory really understands how to perform a passage “like they just ate a big ol’ ham sandwich.” I could be wrong about this and trombone players know exactly what you mean.

Comments are closed.