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New Music for Old Instruments

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As a composer of concert music and member of an organization (Chicago's Fifth House Ensemble) that specializes in presenting cutting-edge music by living composers, I've enjoyed the chance to become acquainted with all kinds of exciting, mysterious, and unexpected sounds created using a variety of approaches. In the 21st century, composers working in all genres have access to a bewildering and wonderful array of electronic gadgets that produce sound very handily, including synthesizers, amplifiers, and electronic processing from electric guitar stomp boxes to complex software programs.

With all this technology there for the plundering, it's no surprise that the possibility of creating music on laptops and electronic instruments has captured the attention of today's composers, who now share in common with the pop artist the ability to conjure up a diverse sampling of timbres and looped textures. However, anyone who has ever heard Auto-Tune would agree with late electronic music luminary Milton Babbit's assertion that "Nothing grows old faster than a new sound." And with new musical technology gaining acceptance in all genres of music, one might wonder what is to become of a more ancient musical technology: performance on acoustic instruments.

While I'm excited by the possibilities inherent in electronic instruments and sound processing, the fact remains that the instruments of the orchestra -- strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion -- continue to exist in abundance. What about them? Are orchestras to be merely museums for featuring the symphonic masterworks of the past? Writing beats for laptops and symphonies for synthesizers is all well and good -- in fact, I think it's a great development and one that serves to really expand the palette of sounds and techniques available to the contemporary composer -- but at the same time I am concerned for the individual musicians who have spent hours learning how to perform on an instrument, who need music to play on their home piano, with their string quartet, or in orchestral concerts.

Writing for violins and flutes may not seem particularly cool in a culture that is increasingly responsive to electric guitars, programmed beats, and synth washes -- and a culture that worships what is novel and trendy. But I think that it is cool to write music for acoustic instruments, and if composers do not also work to enliven the more conservative musical organizations -- major orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music series -- then there will be much new music for earbuds and hip rock shows while the countless musicians who play violins and flutes will have find their repertoire lists becoming even more tilted toward works of dead white composers. Now, of course there are some musicians who play orchestral instruments in jazz, folk, or other semi-improvised styles, which together represent a much wider world than the world of notated music that we tend to associate with "paper and quill" composers. Personally, I love these other vernacular styles of music with a passion, but I also recognize:

1) that not everyone can or wants to perform those styles of music, or to improvise, and

2) that as long as performers of classical instruments exist (even if only to play the Beethoven and Brahms that major orchestras program to death), enthusiasts of those instruments will find their lives immeasurably worsened as their profession drifts into irrelevancy, lacking any influx of new music by living composers whose who can speak through those instruments in a contemporary language. And when our great orchestras, ballets, and opera companies finally manage to program even less contemporary music than they do now, they will become entirely museums of the past and, very soon after, things of the past.

To my mind, one of the biggest reasons that composing new music for traditional orchestral instruments brings something to the table that newer electronic means of sound production cannot is that the vast weight of tradition provides a useful foundation and springboard for creativity. Any composition written for the cello today is informed by centuries of repertoire and performance technique; while the weight of tradition can sometimes be burdensome, it's actually the existence of a baseline of gestures, principles, and idioms as to what constitutes effective writing for the cello that provides so many rich and exciting opportunities to riff off of the past.

One approach taken by several younger composers involves writing orchestral works that feature integrated electronics--in effect, updating the orchestra to reflect more current ways of experiencing sound. This kind of change--from within--seems like the most promising way forward, if the major orchestral organizations--which either explicitly or tacitly view contemporary music as a turn-off to an aging audience--would only realize that engaging living composers can be an incredible way to revitalize their orchestra and community. When composers of our time write music performed by the same instruments that are made to perform Beethoven and Mozart, we gain a new understanding of ourselves and how we relate to the past.