Tell Them I Died

Not only because of the infinity of time that follows their deaths but for reasons pertaining to their work, composers are much better off dead than alive. Or rather, even alive they should appear dead and not bother anyone too much once their narcissistic, totalitarian scores are laboriously digested by orchestras and soloists. Composers breathe down the neck of conductors and exert pressure on instrumentalists, but their most exquisite form of harassment is reflected in the artistic demands they express on paper. It seems excessive to add a living presence, seeking attention, when a composer’s speculations already occupy enough of the stage. Creations that transform the aesthetic and technical apparatus of music are certainly seen as disturbances from the point of view of artistic routines, where decades of repetition have turned past innovation into banal habits.

Composers may propose horizons that nobody knows yet. The difficult task of creating a sustainable implementation is taken on by the performers: finding the style, the pace, the timings in the new work; learning the gymnastics demanded by a new score without knowing if the effort will end up being rewarded by the gratification of pleasure or on-stage triumph or both. The learning curve of a community of performers can take a whole generation – long enough to ensure that the physical lives of most composers do not match their artistic lives, creating immense frustration. And even if the music is premiered quickly, creative fishing in the oceans of the unknown isolates composers in a different time. They live in parentheses.

A common misconception reinforces this tragedy: the idea that there is no oral tradition, that no space exists for extramusical verbal and cultural information in concert music. This couldn’t be more misguided. If the idea were true, we could learn to play without teachers, simply absorbing staves. For all who say there is nothing outside the musical score, even the greatest performers would sacrifice everything to have dinner with Stravinsky or a ten-minute chat with Mozart. The best part of musicology is precisely the act of putting flesh and clothing back onto the skeletons of history: Bach’s bottle of brandy, Brahms’s slippers, the florid language of Estévez. All this looks better from a distance, of course.

There are two kinds of performers: the carrion-eaters and the omnivores. (No value judgments). The first kind feeds exclusively on dead composers – a recent phenomenon, perhaps exacerbated by the indigestion caused by 20th-century atonality and the spread of conventional conservatories, where the funeral services of music are held. Performers of the second kind tolerate mothballs but prefer the smell of fresh paint, of turpentine, getting their hands on raw materials and inventing new temporalities with the composer, leaving their own mark on the gestation process. They accelerate the creative process by encouraging immediate contact with the stage, while the carrion-eaters wait for the beast to expire before attacking the feast.

To maximize their opportunities under these circumstances, composers have invented a fantastic phrase: “Tell them I died.”

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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