Thursday, June 22, 2006

Distinguished American Composer Ingram Marshall On Japanese Deer Chasers, 'Success', And The Life Of Composing Music In America

"What is the defining moment in a "successful" composer's life that could be called a "tipping point"? This was the question, brought up in conversation with a colleague, that became the focus for this article. When I started, I thought it would be short, simple, and to the point. I would interview a representative group of colleagues and, I was sure, they'd all have an event that could be pointed to unreservedly as this magic moment. Would it be a commission, a recording, a publishing contract, a great review maybe?

It turned out to be not such an easy question to answer, either on specific grounds or more general ones; the concept of a tipping point in a composer's career is something which can't be accepted without questioning, and what actually constitutes success in the world of contemporary classical music is no easy issue either.

Of late, the term "tipping point" has become quite fashionable, largely due to the book of that title by Malcolm Gladwell. It designates a moment when a series of events or circumstances conspire to create an unstoppable rush to success or widespread popularity. Gladwell uses the paradigm of the infectious epidemic, such as the deadly Spanish Influenza of 1914. His first example is the unexpected fashion success of a type of shoe known as the Hush Puppy.

Most of his examples concern marketing and advertising and deal with phenomena in the world of mass popular culture rather than anything close to art, so I wondered how relevant his ideas and examples would be to contemporary classical music composers. A phenomenon such as the Gorecki Third Symphony, which almost overnight became a "pop" music chart-busting recording in England in 1993, might fit into the Gladwellian paradigm, but I don't think that heady rush into popularity changed the Polish composer's artistic life at all; it just confirmed for him the rightness of his direction. After all, he'd written the piece in 1976, nearly twenty years earlier.

These days, tipping point is often used to refer to a point of no return, and is employed rather ominously by science writers in describing the doomsday scenario of global warming. With the ideas of catastrophic climate change and worldwide epidemics in mind, perhaps for our purposes the less volatile term "turning point" might suffice to describe a moment in a composer's career when she suddenly finds herself successful, or feels that she has "made it," or something along these lines. But what is it that could be called the signification of arrival in the world of new music composition?

In terms of scale, no success in the contemporary classical music world can match the book sales of millions attributed to The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, one of Gladwell's more interesting examples of tipping point activity gone wild. But perhaps an unexpected success or sudden rash of publicity can propel a composer into a higher realm of notoriety and engender some kind of elation of arrival, of having made it into the big time.

Classical music composers, compared to their colleagues in the popular music industry, may not have the sales numbers, but perhaps the analogue of the tipping point can be useful. But we have to use the concept somewhat awkwardly. The idea might be that one reaches a point of no return, that one's music has become sufficiently admired, bought, talked about, programmed, recorded, published, as to dump the composer into a free fall of ecstatic acclaim and acceptance from which he will never return. In other words, his or her stature as a big time composer is solidly locked in; that would have to be the idea, wouldn't it?

There are obvious examples of composers who, at some point in their careers, went from being strictly underground, cult avant-gardists to widely accepted, famous celebrity artists—almost household names. Perhaps the most glaring example is Philip Glass. When his collaboration with Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs, Einstein on the Beach, was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, it seemed that overnight, thanks to the publicity surrounding it, he became a "famous" composer. The cultural clout of the venue seemed to be the extra weight he needed to tip over into the limelight, no matter that he went back to driving a cab the week after the big success. Of course, the Met as an institution didn't produce the opera, but allowed the hall to be rented out on two nights when it was dark; for Glass and his supporters this was a bit of good luck.

Philip might disagree that this was the "tipping point" in his career, but he'd have to agree that his life changed after that. Did "Einstein at the Met" really send him on his way to unstoppable success? I think it did. But I also think that had it not happened there it would have someplace else—although a staging in Brookln, Chicago, or San Francisco wouldn't have had the same cultural clout.

But let us reconsider the Gladwellian model of a tipping point, where a series of small events can escalate and push a phenomenon, whether it be a disease, a type of footwear, or a book, into huge numbers (or relatively large numbers, in the case of a classical composer such as Glass). The escalation seems ineluctable, and it lasts for a relatively long time or creates a self-sustaining system.

Still, it seems to me that there are tipping points that may appear to do that but actually create a temporary rush of success that peters out, so that the artist feels he is back to square one. I suspect that this kind of situation is more common for most composers; in this case, there is a "near miss" pattern where big things seem imminent but somehow the rush to make it into the big league never quite happens. I call this the "Deer Chaser" version of the tipping point.

You might find the device known as a deer chaser in formal Japanese gardens. It's a wooden contraption through which water is funneled: a slow drip from a source above it slowly accumulates into a carefully balanced trough which, when sufficiently filled, suddenly tips forward on its fulcrum, allowing all the accumulated water to rush down onto a lower level. This process causes a loud thwack to be heard." ...

American composerIngram Marshall in NewMusicBox June 21, 2006.


Mr Marshall and I both had works performed at the First Annual New Music West Festival, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in 1976 -- his work for watercourse and electronics and my work for carillon. I have admired his work, and his thoughts, ever since. Three months ago, his orchestral work "Bright Kingdoms" was premiered by the Oakland-East Bay Symphony under progressive conductor Michael Morgan and a commission from the progressive Magnum Opus commissioning program in the San Francisco Bay Area; a program, administered by Meet the Composer, which has allowed smaller community-based orchestras to do the commissioning of American orchestral music which the richer San Francisco Symphony fails to do.

Magnum Opus: This is the fourth season of the Magnum Opus project, one of the largest commissioning projects of new symphonic works in the U.S. Sponsored by Kathryn Gould through Meet the Composer, Inc., it grants the Santa Rosa, Marin and Oakland East Bay symphonies to jointly commission, premiere and give repeat performances of nine new works by American composers over five years.

Oakland East Bay Symphony, under Michael Morgan

American composer Ingram Marshall.

Photo credit: New Albion Records. With thanks.


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