Monday, June 26, 2006

"Seek the wisdom of your elders, my son!"

Kyle Gann (and some readers of his blog) at PostClassic writes about old composers commenting on scores by young composers they have never met before:
"Ever since that day I have been dubious of hit-and-run assessments by Great Men, even when I myself am the great man. A composer recently asked to have a lesson with me, and I replied that, while I am always happy to look at someone's music, "a lesson" is something I feel capable of giving only the fourth or fifth time I see a student, after I've gotten an idea what they're trying to achieve in piece after piece, and have had a chance to observe what is holding them back or subverting their intentions. The inept feature that sticks out and ruins a young composer's otherwise suave piece might be the only original thing in it; it may be that they should keep the flaw and lose all the suavity they learned from other people's music, but it would take some depth of observation before I'd chance recommending that."
So, what do you all think our young colleagues at the forum are seeking, when they post links to their scores and ask for comments: Instant advice, or, advanced insights?

25 comments:

Surly Terrier said...

You know my opinion on this, Maria. They are seeking neither instant advice nor advanced insights. They are seeking immediate and unstinting praise. (See "Amazing Prescience of Ages Past" below.)

Surly Terrier said...

In looking over Mr. Gann's blog and its appended comments, however, I note one essential difference between the "students" of the anecdotes they present and the majority of the SM'ers...the "students" in Mr. Gann & Company's stories are actually STUDENTS. Many of the most persistent beggars on SibMus are not...or at least are not actual students of composition.

Michael Morse said...

Following Rod's thouyght, with which I (sadly) agree, I think we should concoct a form letter:
Dear X,
Thank you for sending me your score for comments and suggestions. I will be happy to provide these, provided you assent to the following condition: under no circumstances will I provide praise of any kind, only mentioning mistakes & suggestions for improvements. If this condition is acceptable to you, please notify me to that effect.
Yours Cordially,
etc

Michael Morse said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MaLj said...

I think the young (or older) who are just seeking praise and encouragment, but know who they are and what they want to do in music, are easier to deal with -- even if they lose their temper if the "praise" is negative! -- than the insecure students, amateurs (or professional musicians) who are looking for experts and authorities to tell them what they should do, to become good and admired composers... That's is where the real harm can be done (to both the advice-seeker and advice-provider) when the "lesson" is given at the first meeting or mail contact.

Michael Morse said...

Well said, Maria. The meanings of praise (and blame) are ambivalent, entirely context-dependent. "This is entirely wrong!" means one thing as a prelude to "to fix it, do this and this and this," but quite another to "in my opinion, because it remindsw me of my first wife!"

Of course there's never any way to prove someone's motive or motivation, but when praise is the point, the enterprise is corrupt, and the experience it offers sordid, no matter how pleasant.

MWM

MaLj said...

Well, but there IS a problem with people who need someone else to tell them who they are and what they should do, and this is not always a matter of if they are seeking praise or blame from the authority (expert/supervisor/teacher/parent, etc) they ask.

Surly Terrier said...

To return to my second comment, what makes so many of the beggars virtually intolerable, at least to me, is 1) their lack of curiosity, 2) their evident assumption that composition is simply a matter of buying the right software and putting down notes, 3) their inability or unwillingness to study, read, and assimilate the great body of work out there intended to teach the very things they claim to be trying to learn, and 4) a general inability to think, reason, and interpret. It is noble of Michael and others to be so willing to offer help and opinions, but until these "students" do some investigation of their own (i.e., until Mr. Tokke discovers that he doesn't already know everything there is to know about musical form and orchestration), I think the best thing is to say absolutely nothing. If you don't answer the door, the Fuller Brush Man eventually goes away.

Michael Morse said...

Alas, that has become my poplicy, too. Unless and until I see proof of bona fides that speaks to every one of the delusions Rod mentions, I won't play. To put the matter very starkly: if my modest capacities can help anyone involved in composing, I'm only too glad too proffer them. If we're not talking about composing, however..

MWM

Andrew Lowe-Watson said...

Let us model ourselves on Hans Sachs, and have the humility that only experience can bring, and the wisdom to recognise true talent when it appears; the glint of gold in the muddy pan, the one clover leaf with four petals, the bubbling spring in the desert. For be sure such exist. In our dyspeptic haste we can consign the treasure to the same garbage can as the trash.

Surly Terrier said...

No one is saying that we should stop listening. What we should stop doing is paying attention to those who are not serious about all of this, and simply claiming that one is serious does not count. Yes, there is the occasional piece of gold out there, but its presence is revealed as much by the "student's" actions as by the composition itself.

Michael Morse said...

Yes, Rod. Though I can't be sure there aren't some talented but shy & self-doubting young composers lurking on the site, the really talented ones I know--Curtis Schweitzer and and Jacob Rosenberg come to mind, not to mention young Marissa Andronicos--have been unfailingly polite and, if anything, over-deferential rather than under-humble.
The issue here is personal conduct rather than musical talent. Perhaps the (thetorical) question is germane: would anyone with a genuine passion for developing the compositional skills be more interested uin praise than criticism?

MWM

Surly Terrier said...

Actually, Michael, I was referring more to "professional" (or perhaps in this case, "studential," to coin a word) conduct than personal. If anyone, young, old, or in-between, does not even attempt to do his or her homework, study the works of those gone before, read available references, work with musicians when possible, learn as much about clear notation as he or she can (note that I do not make reference to the "rules" of notation or composition, since I do not believe such things exist) then I think I am better off not saying a word. How likely is it that we may find one of ALW's gold nuggets when someone simply comes along, sits down at the computer, and announces that he's a composer? I'm sure all this sounds hard-nosed, but these are just my opinions, after all.

MaLj said...

Someone, whose music and composing philosophy I am not especially familiar with, asked me today if I could help with comments about a work in progress...

I hope I will not say too much, and only useful things, after I have listened.

Surly Terrier said...

Run away, Maria! Run away!

MaLj said...

Thanks for the advice, Rod. It turned out that my expertise (irony!) wasn't that necessary after all -- the meeting was cancelled before I had a chance to start running away from it.

Surly Terrier said...

Interestingly, we have a wealth of difficult situations at SibMus just now. First, there is the young man who continually asks for comments on his "symphonies," but who clearly has not grasped or even investigated the elements of instrumental ranges, orchestration, notation, melodic construction, formal building blocks, etc., etc. Then, we have the self-proclaimed "artists" or "real composers" who create clean scores and get the notes in the right places, but are so overwhelmed by their own self-importance that all is bombast, self-indulgence, and inartistic shouting. Yet, we have become (or perhaps only I have become) so cowed by the insistence on "being nice" that I can't think of a thing to say that won't be found wanting. To the first and his kind, how do you say, "This is all wrong...no one can begin to play this...you have to learn more of the fundamental concepts and techniques...have you actually studied music at all?" without sounding harsh? To the second group, how does one say, "This is so much hot air...hone your craft on small things and develop the larger ideas later...keep your mouth shut and don't presume to teach others until you are much farther along" without all hell breaking loose? Consequently, I say nothing. The "young people" who seem to know what they are doing and produce things of real quality are not the ones who beg for praise (aka "instant advice and advanced insights"). It's a losing proposition all around, I'm afraid.

MaLj said...

A real dilemma for an eager and helpful musical boy scout...

Well, best to say nothing to the young and healthy, and concentrate on helping the old ladies get their bags of notes over the road.

Andrew Lowe-Watson said...

Why spend any time analysing the contents of the garbage heap when there are flowers growing all around whose scent is obscured as long as we have our heads in the trash can?
The important thing in musical criticism should be (but seldom is) the discovery and discussion of the living, not the exhumation of the stillborn.

Surly Terrier said...

I think that's what I've been saying, isn't it, ALW?

Andrew Lowe-Watson said...

Yes it is, surly terrier. The only difference is that you wear your cynicsm on your sleeve whereas I keep it under lock and key. Half full or half half empty , it's the same glass of Guinesss.

Surly Terrier said...

No, no...I'd have to disagree there. Acknowledging that there actually is garbage means that your cynicism (i.e., realism) is just as visible as mine. Redecorating the blog every few months or so doesn't mean that the previous statements were never made. And refraining from saying anything about the garbage doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, or that it doesn't stink. Since, however, we can't clear it away or stop people from making it, we have a dilemma, don't we? What to do?

Andrew Lowe-Watson said...

Bury it. Give it back to Nature. Food for worms. Let them turn it into flowers.

There is a wonderful short story by Walter de la Mare called, I think , The Midden, which describes this miraculous process of alchemy. The same applies to junk music. A hundred inferior classicists provided the compost from which sprung Mozart and Haydn.

MaLj said...

Michael posted his comment as an email instead, so I forward it without his permission:

"Sure.. except that the only way our culture knows how to practice this is with some hyperbolic 'best is the enemy of the good' nonsense that ends up burying truly superb music and musicians. I once heard a grad school prof of mine actually pose the asinine question "I wonder if CPE Bach was aware that he was just a transition figure?" I asked him of he was aware of that status himself..

MWM"

Andrew Lowe-Watson said...

Walter de la Mare: The Wharf .