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Does New Music Have to Be Difficult? And other thoughts.

June 15, 2015


  • I have never been a fan of complexity for its own sake, and every so often I’m reminded why. Sometimes it’s because I hear something so interesting and simple, and I find myself enjoying it thoroughly. Other times I hear something new that is so complicated, so obscure in intent, that it drives me barmy. Last evening I heard two works new to me, Tribute for Orchestra by James Grant and Suite from ‘Corbeau’ by Michael Gagliardo. I was impressed by both, for similar reasons. For one thing, each had interesting things to say, what those things were had been rooted in emotions and/or story telling, and the writing in terms of pure composition and orchestration was in each case clear. Even when things did become complex one could follow it or at least let it wash over and evoke a response. Of course being too simple can be a defect as well. Case in point was another work I heard yesterday, The Red Detachment of Women co-written by Wu Zuqiang and Du Ming Xin. Very simple and lovely tunes, dressed up in pretty orchestral colors and, unfortunately, ultimately forgettable. It would make a good score for a travelogue on PBS. About 1:00 AM. On a Sunday. I should note that I enjoy — really! — the music of Milton Babbitt, and of course my mentor, George Perle. But neither was ever into being convoluted or unnecessarily complex in their music. Sometimes their works swing (after a fashion).
  • Who is the first (only?) composer you think of when you think of ragtime? If you said “Scott Joplin” I would have to agree. But ragtime was more than “just” SJ, and at least several other composers should be mentioned in the same metaphorical breath as the acknowledged ragtime master. I’m thinking mainly of Joseph Lamb, whose Patricia Rag I just finished arranging for orchestra. At first it seems simpler than Joplin’s work — a little repetitive, with harmonies that don’t seem more than basic. Then you get to know it and discover all sorts of things, like the frequent use of dissonances on the downbeat (usually accented chromatic passing tones, for you theory geeks) or harmonic resolutions in one hand but delayed resolutions in the other. Fascinating.
  • I was a newbie composer; then an emerging composer. In about a decade you could rightfully refer to me as a venerable composer. But right now I am not well known among my musician peers, let alone the general public, but I get more commissions and performances than ever. (To paraphrase Groucho Marx, now I get turned down by a better class of people.) So am I an “emerged” composer? I think I’ll just leave it at “working composer.”
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