You’ve just been to a concert by a new-music ensemble. You really liked one of the pieces they played, and you’re excited to hear it again.
Good luck with that.
Will the ensemble repeat the program? Very unlikely — even if they’ve spent months preparing for it. Will they play that one piece again? Maybe, but they have to make room for new material, and lots of it. Is another group going to play it? Probably not soon.
Has the piece ever been recorded? There’s a good chance that what you saw was the premiere. Will a live recording be made available? It might, but be prepared to wait a few weeks for it to show up on the composer’s website, and don’t expect great sound quality when it does. How about a studio recording? Be prepared to wait a few years.
Obviously I’m painting in broad strokes here. But if you’re a fan of contemporary classical music, chances are you’ve come up against these obstacles plenty of times.
On Saturday night I saw Julia Holter perform at Schubas Tavern. Although Julia studied composition at CalArts and still has connections to the contemporary-classical world, most of the time she follows a different model: she puts out albums and tours with a band. That means that everyone there on Saturday had the opportunity to go home after the concert and immediately buy a beautifully produced studio recording of what they had just heard, or to hear a couple of the songs for free on YouTube. Even better, since the album came out a month ago, the they could come to the concert already knowing the material. When you do that, you hear the live performance not as a self-contained musical object, but as a response to and variation on the recording, and the relationship between the two adds meaning and richness to the concert experience.
The other benefit to the album-and-tour model: it was immediately obvious that Julia had performed these songs a bunch of times and felt totally at ease with them. She looked like she was having a great time on stage, and when I talked to her afterward, she was glowing.
Last Tuesday, I saw Fifth House Ensemble play at Constellation Chicago. My favorite part of the concert was flutist Melissa Snoza performing JacobTV’s Lipstick. It was my favorite not only because of the humor, poise and precision of Melissa’s performance, but also because I already knew the piece inside out. Not only have I listened to Alejandro Escuer’s recording a bunch of times, but I even wrote a paper about the piece a few years ago — so I knew what to expect, where the structural landmarks were, what role each gesture played within the whole. I was hanging out with an old friend rather than going on a first date.
JacobTV’s music is very clear and easy to follow, so I would have gotten plenty out of it even if I’d never heard it before. But think about the last time you saw a performance of a really arcane, ultra-complex piece that you were totally unfamiliar with. How much of it did you really grasp? How different would your experience have been if you’d been able to get to know the piece beforehand, at your own pace, in an undistracting environment of your choice?
Last June, Spektral Quartet ended their Summer Sampler Pack concert with the wild finale of Beethoven’s third Razumovsky quartet. They’d just taken shots of whisky, and they careened through the movement at a breakneck pace, making goofy faces whenever Beethoven pulled a new trick out of his sleeve. Like Julia Holter halfway through a tour, they played with the comfort, confidence and joy that comes of living with a piece for an extended period of time. It’s very hard to do that if you have to learn six new impossibly difficult pieces every month. (Spektral actually does play a lot of impossibly difficult new pieces, but unlike many ensembles, they tend to program them on multiple concerts.)
The Summer Sampler Pack concert also included the premiere of my mini-song-cycle Behind the Wallpaper. After the concert, four different people asked me if there was a recording. When I mentioned it to Spektral violinist Austin Wulliman, he said people ask them that all the time. (Their first album comes out next month.)
But the most eye-opening response to Behind the Wallpaper came later, when a friend of mine posted a link to the live recording on a poetry messageboard, thinking that people might be interested in the lyrics. Not only did the commenters find the music difficult to follow — and this is a piece that’s so simple and straightforward by new-music standards that I was afraid it would disappear among the dense, virtuosic pieces it shared a bill with — but one of them seemed to think that the lo-fi sound, which is totally typical for a DIY live recording (especially one done in a venue with a loud air conditioning system!), was part of the conception of the piece.
This is a reminder: most people grow up on studio recordings and rarely if ever listen to anything else. I myself find that live performance seem much less “real” than listening to a studio recording on a good pair of headphones. And when you’re used to having every sound vibrantly present, it takes work to hear the musicality of a lo-fi live recording. That’s especially true when the music is unusual or surprising (never mind experimental or avant-garde): without familiar musical tropes to guide you or the sonic clarity of a studio production, it takes not only work but experience and practice to process what you’re hearing. In other words, the fact that so many contemporary-classical pieces can only be heard in the form of live recordings has the potential to shut even curious and open-minded people out.
I’d love to see a world where more new-music groups functioned like bands — focusing less on trying to present as much new material as possible, and more on building a long-lasting repertoire of pieces that people remember and are excited to go see again. Austin tells me that it’s hard to get grants that way, but I wonder if CD/download sales and the potential for a larger, more committed audience could make up the difference.
In the meantime, I’ve put together studio recordings of a few of my own pieces, including Eliza Brown performing A Presentation to the Board and Lily Floeter and David Chavannes performing Willingly. (The latter showed up on a YouTube channel full of recent pieces synced with their scores, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they picked a piece with a great-sounding recording.) I’m also working on a studio version of The Travels of E.C. Dumonde (stay tuned), and I’ve decided that I’m going to release End, my opera about closing logos and the end of the world, in the form of a three-episode podcast.
Sometimes, though, it seems like what I really should do is put out some albums and start touring with a band.