Composers performing, performers creating, and the virtues of mingling (Sabbatical Journal IV)

“I envy you,” a friend who recently moved out of Manhattan told me the other day, “getting to go to all these things.”  I’ll probably envy me, too, once I get back to Indiana this summer.  Meanwhile, some what I’ve been up to since my last post, and what it has me thinking about:

On Sunday 1/30, I played some Bach and improvisations for a work-in-progress showing of Robin Becker’s developing Into Sunlight project.  We performed, in a studio at the LaGuardia High School for Music, Art, and the Performing Arts, for the cast of a major Broadway show, along with some potential donors.  I’m new enough to New York that I’m still excited by proximity to celebrities; it was fun to look up at see faces I recognize from television.  Robin’s choreography is brilliant and moving.  I’ve seen it evolving since November, and it’s a privilege to be involved in the creative process.And it was fun to mingle a bit, especially with those who were enthusiastic about my playing.

Then a cab ride (I’m trying to avoid them, because they can eat up a lot of money fast) to another emerging East Village alternative venue, Drom. Like [le] poisson rouge, it’s a very appealing space, well designed, beautiful bar, great lighting, etc., described by co-founder Serdar Ilhan on its website as a “home for eclectic and underrepresented genres of music, a place where the destination [is] the journey itself.  That’s where the name Drom comes from; in the Romani (Gypsy) culture, a drom is both a journey and a road.”

What brought me, spending money willy-nilly on a cab, was the Composers Concordance 2nd Annual Composers Play Composers Marathon, which had already started when I finished up on the other side of town. Nineteen composers, nineteen performances, each with the composer performing, either solo or with a small ensemble.  (I got there late; the first of the three sets may have included an additional piece in honor of Milton Babbitt, who had just passed away). A wide array of musical styles–eclecticism at it’s best, I’d say.  I absolutely loved the celebration of composer/performers and performer/composers.

The thing that is so stupid about current classical music training, and one of the cancers that has eaten away of the vitality of classical music, is that we’ve made composers and performers into different species. It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.  Nevertheless, you aren’t a healthy, whole musician without creating and performing.  And serious art music in western culture might have stayed in a more audience-connected culture if new music hadn’t been artificially isolated in the academy. I can go on and on and on about this.

But this event was a dose of the antidote. And as with my LPR Metropolis Ensemble trip a couple of nights before, it was standing room only.  OK, for my 52-year-old feet’s sake, I’ve got to get to these places early so I can sit! (Which I will do tonight at LPR.) There were some great couches in the lobby, though, so I did get a bit of relief at times.

What’s great about these venues is the mingling along with the drinks and food.  I met and chatted with a number of the composers and additional performers.  Wonderful time.  The social aspect of the event made it much preferable to me than sitting in, say, a university recital hall for a similar new-music marathon with two intermissions.  That would take a big commitment, along with steely resolve.

On the other hand, a commenter on my previous post points out that club venues like this can be cliquish.  If alone, a traditional hall’s anonymity is more egalitarian. I met a friend at this event and ran into another, so perhaps my experience would have been different otherwise. It’s a good point; I’m not as enthusiastic about this evening’s solo LPR excursion as I would be if I were going with or meeting a friend.

Tuesday night I went to an actual old-school night club, Club Cache, in the basement of the Edison Hotel near Times Square, to hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a big band playing early jazz on period instruments (enthusiastic New York Times articles here and here).  This was no chance happening; introduced by mutual friends, I’ve gotten to know the extraordinary Andy Stein, who plays violin and saxophone in the group.  I walked in and thought, “I feel like I’m in a club from Boardwalk Empire.”  Surprise! Turns out that these guys recorded much of the music, and appear in (at least) the opening episode.  I loved their gig, and it struck me funny that the period-instrument movement, so important in classical music these days, reaches even into jazz.  Or, rather, has a parallel there in the person of Mr. Giordani, who Andy tells me is as passionate and knowledgeable about the instruments and performance practice of early jazz as any treatise-addicted early-music fanatic.

The music was great, and so was my surprisingly inexpensive ($12) seafood salad ($15 food and drink minimum).  I might have felt lonelier here had I just walked in by myself and not had Andy chatting with me on breaks. But–and this is what I think is brilliant and why I’m writing about it–Vince came over during a break when Andy was not keeping me company, introduced himself,thanked me for coming, asked what had brought me there, and chatted with me. As far as I could tell, he worked every table in the room.  As is the case with any good networker, he seemed genuinely delighted to meet me, and everyone else, and to enjoy hanging out.

And so, otherwise a stranger, I was mingled with. Not ignored. Since I was nuts about the music, I’m wanting to take friends there.  And I know that even if Andy isn’t there, Vince is sure to come by and chat.  Definitely an attracting factor, and definitely something all of us working with small venues would do well to model.




Filed under alternative venues, Andy Stein, Composers Concordance, Drom, jazz, Le Poisson Rouge, performance practice, Robin Becker, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks

13 responses to “Composers performing, performers creating, and the virtues of mingling (Sabbatical Journal IV)

  1. S. W.

    If composing was an equivalent skill to performing, then there would be far more composers than we see today. Moreover, if world class performers were also world class composers — in equal number — then the world would be awash in new music with a clientele clamoring to hear it as they clamor to see world-class performers. Neither is true. The input and output channels for composition and performance seem to be quite distinct and different, distributed very, very unevenly amongst any given population and not clearly understood as different processes. This was true in Bach’s day and remains true today. Else, James Levine and Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo and Joshua Bell and Jessye Norman would all prove your thesis by their prodigious output of compositions. Additionally the recently deceased Milton Babbitt and his only world famous student Sondheim would both have shown their performing gifts in many, many concert appearances. I venture the opposite view, that most performers cannot and do not compose for a very basic reason, and that is that the two skills sets are not equivalent, nor equally distributed in a population, and your assumption that they should be is incorrect.

  2. There are an awful lot of composers around, but you don’t see most of them because it takes all kinds of extra-musical skills (marketing skills, in particular) to be “seen.” As a composer and a performing musician myself (I’m not a soloist-type, and you have probably never heard of me as a composer), I can tell you that the two skills feed into one another constantly, and in every way.

  3. Pingback: Classical Music Establishment to Young Performers’ Creative Selves: Drop Dead | Eric Edberg

  4. @ S.W.: Good points. But compositional skill doesn’t just happen on its own, and the classical-music education establishment (in general) doesn’t offer training or encouragement to those who don’t self-identify as composers, and perpetuates the idea that one is a composer OR a performer.

    While the development of a canon of standard repertoire enabled the 20th-century phenomenon of great performers who don’t compose, the great composers before the 20th century were mostly great performers. And there was a tremendous amount of good music written before the 20th century by performers who composed, and that music makes up the pedagogical literature of most instruments.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment, which prompted a response from me so long that I made a new post of it.

    @Elaine: Thanks for your comment and the link from your blog. Great points.

  5. I’d wanted to comment on this post a while back but had ben so busy this past week.

    This is more of an aside about your recent bloggings than anything else.–but it’s just really great to see you posting so much, and it’s really inspired me to start bloging more regularly (not that I have yet).

    Earlier last year I had picked up a copy of a collection of Liszt’s letters, “An Artist’s Journey: Lettres d’un bachelier es musique 1835-1841”, which has a number of letters written by the composer/performer to friends and colleagues as he was touring around and concertizing. It reminded of me of some of experiences touring around the country this past few years and some of the strange and odd performing circumstances and audiences I’ve encountered as a result.

    I had kept some notes while I was on the road, and after Joe passed away I aquired his viola and have since found his ‘tour diary’ as well but I just didn’t have the energy last year to start the blogging. But maybe I can find that energy this year–and again, it’s thanks to you for giving me the inspiration (with your Sabbatical Journal posts) to do something creative!

  6. S. W.

    “But compositional skill doesn’t just happen on its own, and the classical-music education establishment (in general) doesn’t offer training or encouragement to those who don’t self-identify as composers, and perpetuates the idea that one is a composer OR a performer.”

    Dear Mr. Edberg,

    First and on another topic, bravo for your Lalo sonata which I enjoyed greatly.

    Now, as to the “classical-music education establishment,” I think there is some room for discussion. When one considers the training which a Bach or Brahms or Ives received, precious little was likely from any establishment per se, but rather some seminal teachers and mentors. I think even today such teachers and mentors need not be rooted in the establishment. My personal history proves this, in part, for I have both post-graduate training and private training well outside the academic establishment. The later has been as formative and in some cases more formative than the former. But the greatest of my teachers and mentors later in my career were in fact other composers throughout history. For this I have grown skeptical that the establishment — your word — is actually fully invested in discovering the composer/performer. One composition professor actually said to me he was more interested in acquiring disciples than in motivating free spirits. My private musical education, in contradistinction, has been one of being pushed to expand, experiment and express in a way that the “establishment” was simply incapable of doing. Is it then possible that we have too large an establishment in our day? To me, this seems likely, though such a conclusion is also a direct threat to all those dutifully employed in that establishment.

    As to the Liszt letters and a number of other anthologies (Hugo Wolf’s letters come to mind directly), such composer-performers’ lives and lessons speak to us today, and we need little establishment to either assist or stand in their way. Your other commenter is to be applauded for mentioning them. You are completely correct in noting that there is no “one or the other” for such as Liszt and Wolf, for Beethoven and Britten, but there is certainly “one or the other” in most performing musicians, whose abilities/wish/drive to compose is absent. Should the skill of composition be more generously distributed across a population? I don’t think it has been or can be, but certainly the “establishment” of which you speak doesn’t seem anywhere near ready to try.

    Best wishes for a thoughtful blog. / SW

  7. Here are a few established living composer/performers worth noting:
    Seymour Barab, Michael Colgrass, Oliver Knussen, Eric Ewazen, Gabriela Lena Franck, Lera Auerbach, Stephen Hough, and Easley Blackwood.

    There are thousands more, but I just listed some of the more prominent ones.

  8. Here are a few established living composer/performers worth noting:
    Seymour Barab, Michael Colgrass, Oliver Knussen, Eric Ewazen, Gabriela Lena Frank, Lera Auerbach, Stephen Hough, and Easley Blackwood.

    There are thousands more, but I just listed some of the more prominent ones.

  9. S. W.

    Thousands more composer/performers in a world of hundreds of thousands of performers still makes the distributional point that not all musicians evidence anywhere near equal input/output channels. Moreover not all composers are any more equivalent than are performers on a world-class measure, a subject so broad and fraught with peril as to invite anger from both sides of any discussion.

  10. Since we are both talking in hypothetical numbers here, neither of us can possibly be proven right or wrong (though I imagine that some of the people on my list are people you might not have taken into consideration when making your statement a few comments back). I can confidently state that not every performing musician has the desire to compose, just as I can confidently state that not every person who likes to read has the desire to write literature or poetry. I can also confidently state that it takes time and work to compose, and that composing takes time away from practicing. I can also confidently state that a large number of performing musicians and people who make programs for performing organizations view works by unknown living composers skeptically, and many musicians feel unequipped to evaluate the quality of new compositions. Many critics (at least the ones who write for the major papers) are equally unequipped to evaluate new compositions. Publishers, who used to provide a way to consider the relative quality of compositions, are now mainly interested in publishing music that will increase their business revenue, and our greater culture seems to value everything by the amount of money something (or someone) makes.

    There are several essential links missing in what used to be a functional chain.

  11. S. W.

    “There are several essential links missing in what used to be a functional chain.”

    Why would that be? And what was that functional chain, historically?

    My only theme was to suggest that composing was and remains far more rare in a population distribution of musical skills than is performing. The disparity between the numbers statistically is immense, and I suggest it is not due to a modern academic establishment, per se, but rather to the distinct differences between composers (most of whom perform in some way) and performers (most of whom never put notes on paper). Rather I think it is due to the fact that composing is not in equivalence with performing, but much like the other examples cited, such as poets and novelists versus the general literate population.

    The making of art — painting, plays, symphonies — is a long and arduous but very singular process without much financial reward for most, including the very famous artists of yesteryear. It is therefore most unusual in any population sample. The performing of art and the consumption thereof is much more prevalent, probably by several orders of magnitude. it would make a most interesting study for a grad student to measure the proclivites and apply standard analytical tools to bear this out.

  12. The old chain:

    1. A musician studies his or her instrument and piano, PLUS all of the theory and counterpoint necessary to write music.

    2. A musician begins a performing and/or teaching career, and needs material to perform as well as material for his or her students (de Beriot, Kreutzer, Rode, Wieniawsky, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Popper, Greutzmeyer . . .).

    2a. A musician gets really lucky, and after working as a performing musician–an accompanist, perhaps, develops a relationship with a publisher who, because of its merit, believes this person’s music will sell (Brahms, Dvorak, Beylayev, Mozart, Beethoven . . .).

    3. More smart publishers begin to publish more music (Schirmer, Peters, Southern Music Co., International, Schott, Barenreiter, for example), and composing musicians have places to send their compositions. This is very comparable to book publishing in the early part of the 20th century. The publishers used to be “gatekeepers” of sorts, and, like art collectors they often had a special ear for what was worthwhile. Having music published by a commercial entity was the only way a composer could get his or her music known, and publishers acted as publicists for their “product.” Some important publishers, like Seesaw, who published a huge amount of new music, even published photocopies of manuscripts. Published composers, and there were many, were able to make decent money from royalties, and run viable businesses.

    4. For various reasons publishers (death of the founder being one of them) went out of business, and their assets and inventories were bought by larger companies (International is owned by Disney, for example). Computer technology made it possible for anyone to write and distribute music, and publishers, who are now in competition with self publishers don’t do much to promote the work of the huge numbers of composers who contact them all the time (they still believe that being published by a publisher has more value than publishing music themselves). Most don’t accept any unsolicited compositions, and many only publish music for the educational markets.

    5. The outcome is that most people are not aware of how many composers there are among the various performing musicians that you see and hear because of a certain sense of defeat connected with not being able to follow the normal path that once was possible to marry the tasks of performing and composing.

    Again, as a composer (and I have a lot of music published, and even recorded, and you still probably haven’t heard any of it) I draw upon my playing skills constantly when I write. I even perform my own music once in a while, but I prefer it when other people perform it because of the possibilities for interpretation that a fresh mind brings.

  13. S. W.

    I think I like the “old chain,” and suggest the corporate buyouts of previous catalogues proves the big publishers today have little insight into the future, long term. No wonder a Bareneiter is labouring to produce “new” and “critical” editions of masterworks, because their new catalogues alone aren’t generating enough revenue. Nor does the public seem to have much consumer “stomach” for a lot of the new-and-approved classical things. The old chain’s first steps you mention sounds about right to me, basically being an apprenticeship of talented student to talented master. Perhaps Edberg’s “establishment” might actually be standing in the way of, or perhaps surprisingly be unnecessary to, such an apprentice-master pairing.
    But additionally perhaps the number of apprentice-master pairings are not as many as an egalitarian might hope to appear across the population of all musicians in toto. We might all be rather correct, coming in different directions at the topic.

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