Must We Supersize Our Music?

Must We Supersize Our Music?

Reading through two recent articles in NewMusicBox about the economics of music rentals and ensuring that new work enters the repertoire gave me pause. While the writing of both articles was excellent, as was the analysis therein, the articles seemed to me to imply that new symphonic works mattered more than any other branch of new music.

Do some of us approach new music through the lens of symphonic music, as if it were the only game in town? If so, do we then artificially make it into the gold standard, the quality and importance of which other genres must live up to? Furthermore, what ramifications does this have for composers who do not write for the orchestra? And what effect does this have on the education, presentation, and performing of all new music, both for young players and professionals?

In talking to a number of composers and publishers, it does seem that we unwittingly create a bias towards orchestral music. In the publishing world, this happens through the cold reality of economics. As one of the articles pointed out, publishing a new work is an enormous investment, both in financial and in human resource terms. Come the end of the day, many companies feel they must favor large scale works as it is only large organizations that can afford to pay the prices necessary in order for publishers to recoup their expenses. The ramifications of this are unsettling. I know several composers who have been told by publishers to come back when they have some orchestral music under their belt, even when the people at the publishing house love their music. Similarly, I know of published composers who feel their publishers discourage them from taking commissions for chamber music. They feel pushed towards other projects that are of less creative interest to them, simply because those are the ones large enough in scope to make the publishing of the music a profitable venture.

But it is not only publishers who help create these scenarios. Foundations and other organizations can often unknowingly give their donors and the public the perception that only composers of big orchestral pieces are the composers to know, thus perpetuating the myth that the symphony is the holy grail. It also extends to the classroom: most composition programs still emphasize writing for orchestra in a young composer’s training, making symphonic readings, competitions, and the likes the standard-bearer against which to rate a student’s talent and technical abilities.

Now, do not get me wrong. I love orchestral music. In fact, I am writing a large symphonic work right now for a wonderful orchestra where I will be in residence. However, even though I have conducted and played in orchestras for some time, in my composing career, my attention has been primarily on chamber music. I now pause to wonder if this orchestral commission is a mixed blessing. It heartens me to know that a new audience and new players will get to experience my music. But it saddens me to think that simply by writing for an orchestra some may qualify my work to be of higher merit than before. Bigger does not necessarily mean better.


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