Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.5.07

Compose for Your Friends
Musical artists have always worked together

I am adamantly aggravated by the EW article “From the Page to the Stage” (Bach Festival guide, 6/21). Where I applaud Kyr’s modest attempt to include contemporary music as part of the Bach Festival, I am frustrated at the ongoing misrepresentation and mysticism surrounding the lives and work habits of composers, a misrepresentation perpetuated by this article.

It is not correct to imply that composers and performers have historically been strangers, and that composers only recently have begun performing their own works. Writer Brett Campbell touches on this in his article but de-emphasizes it to the detriment of clarity. Composers and performers have always consorted together and composers have always performed their own work — Liszt was a well known piano virtuoso in his time, for example — but what about Morton Feldman, Julius Eastman, Steve Reich, Bunita Marcus, Yuji Takahashi and Karlheinz Stockhausen and Phil Glass (does anyone remember Glass’ solo piano performances at the Hult back in 1991?).

Going back further, John Cage composed 4’33” for his friend David Tudor to perform, Messiaen composed (and purportedly performed) Quartet for the End of Time in a concentration camp during WW II, and Mel Powell, that master of the jazz keyboard, went on to become a guru of serial music and performed much of his own work throughout his life. Morton Subotnick is currently touring the country performing his own electronic works — a practice he has maintained since his early rise in experimental electronics in the ’60s.

The opening lines of Campbell’s article state the composer is “hoping someday someone will play what she writes.” In fact, most classical music we know today, and just about anything contemporary one might hear for the first time, has been composed in response to a request, or commission, for some specific purpose and/or a scheduled performance. That is to say, being a composer is a job like any other, and any self-respecting composer doesn’t compose for the hell of it but because s/he has been asked and, in some form, paid.

Furthermore, particularly in the world of contemporary music where virtuosity is in high demand, compositions are created with close attention to the particular abilities of specific performers. Guidon Kraemer and Luigi Nono worked together extensively, for example, on several of Nono’s works. To let you in on a secret, budding composers throughout time have all been offered the same sage and sound advice by their mentors: “Compose for your friends.” They say this because it’s a sure-fire way to get a good performance of a new work.

I don’t mean to slight Kyr’s local achievement, but let’s keep it in perspective — the idea of bringing composers and performers together to examine new musical works in a festival/workshop environment is not new: Morton Feldman started the June In Buffalo Festival in 1975 (and it was not the first of its kind), bringing composers and performers from around the world to perform new works — in Buffalo, N.Y., of all places; In the ’80s, Morton Subotnick followed suit on the West Coast at CalArts, hosting a contemporary music festival that brought to the Tehachapi Mountains not only Györgi Ligetti, Morton Feldman, John Cage and Iannis Xenakis (to name only a few) but also a host of international press. some of whom stayed and currently form the backbone of Southern California New Music criticism and helped in influence talent the likes of Dorothy Stone, Rand Steiger, Erika Duke, Stephen Mosko, Gloria Chang and a host of others; and let’s not forget the very famous Aspen Music Festival where contemporary greats August Reed Thomas met her husband, Bernard Rands.


Lastly, I have to take profound offense at Campbell’s reference to Laurie Anderson in this article — to the exclusion of Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley. None of these are obscure names.

To be clear about my point: The rest of the world has been doing for centuries what the article represents as “a new paradigm.” We’re only just finally getting up to speed here in Eugene.

Nick Chase is a composer ( and former Eugene Weekly designer/cartoonist (Mahayni). He spends time in Eugene, Los Angeles and Weimar, Germany.