May. 31, 2022

Getting Started With Writing, Part XLIII

(con't from Part XLII)

This posting has to do with practical matters of sales and circulation which are brought to bear upon the contemporary composer writing art music for the Organ.

Looking at it strictly through the lens of the Organ, anyone composing music these days for the King of Instruments is writing for a medium whose core repertoire spans hundreds of years and is automatically entering into a dialogue withe the past and having enduring works for models.  This tends to lead us into giving some thought to what it might take for new writing to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and epochs -- something that might have a life beyone its original premiere and even possibly labored over, loved, interrogated, and admired by future generations.

The overwhelming majority of music being created for public consumption today is made with an entirely different goal in mind, namely, to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.  The desire to write a piece that would enter the Organ repertoire is particularly apposite, but, for any new work that has substantive ideas, a well developed sense of craft, and an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish including a little of the unexpected, history teaches that such characteristics, among others, are necessary for any new art music to one day enter the standard repertoire regardless of whether or not it happens to be fashionable for the current time or place or ever achieve acclaim during the composer's lifetime.

This has been the rock solid thinking of composers for many centuries, but, for better or worse, times have changed, tastes have changed, and, before "selling" their music to the audiences of today, contemporary composers are faced with "selling" it to today's organists who might want to play it.  And, for them, that's the Catch 22.  Most organists will only play what their audience is willing to hear, and most audiences are inclined to listen to what they already know.  This has led many contemporary composers to stop writing fugues and other polyphonic pieces because just about nobody in the listening public is interested in such style anymore, and very few people possess the skill level to play them -- plus those musicians-who-do generally prefer to play more well-known music.  When these same composers begin creating chorale preludes and meditations on well-known hymn tunes with clear melodies however, they very often find interest in their composing picking up; they feel compelled to write simpler music after that because they want other people to play it, and it seems clear that they won't play it unless it fits a certain format with this general make-up:  1) emotionally charged title, 2) under 5 minutes in duration, 3) homophonic, i.e. not more than a single recognizable melody sounding at the same time (could be in any part), 4) recognizable form, 5) harmonies with not too much chromatics, and 6) simple rhythms with recognizable patterns and time signatures.

All organ playing is balance, and the same is true of composing for this instrument in today's world; the balance comes in finding a way within these parameters to include some individuality and craftsmanship without overwhelming today's listeners with a preponderance of style to which they're indifferent, apathetic, or leaves them feeling unmoved [See blog, Balance In Organ Playing, Parts I-III].  Now, this is not the same as saying that contemporary composers should feel compelled to yield and undergo some sort of drastic metamorphosis contrary to their own innate inclinations for employing animated counterpoint as a basis for their writing ... or if, let's say, it's been their habit to insert spicey chromatic harmonies or perhaps a bit of the unexpected at times into their music; these kinds of creative practices among others are the same practices which have carried the art of composing forward and have encouraged its preservation from the very beginning.  At the same time contemporary composers should not feel surprised or discouraged when today's broader listening public -- one which feeds largely upon hard driving music, one that is ill-prepared to recognize greatness outside of its own bubble, one that will not last forever -- expresses zero interest in their work.  There are a lot worse things that can happen to someone than to be less trendy, if not a little old-fashioned, in their thinking [See blog, An Anointed Ministry, Part VI].  What has been inherited from prior generations of artistic genius has always seemed old-fashioned to the current one.  What's old-fashioned to modern ears is precisely because of its staying power, a long standing appeal which, as stated, spans cultures, places, and epochs and has little if anything to do with the latest craze that appears briefly for a time only to be replaced by the next fad, enthusiasm, or fever.  It has to do rather with the employment of superior materials, solid construction, skillful workmanship, and a quick imagination -- aspects of musical greatness which, even when largely overlooked by the uninitiated, are dateless, intemporal, and never go out of style.