I was happy to read Timo’s response to David Allen’s article; it put his comments from the article in context, and revealed that he and I have much common ground in how we think about these “response pieces” (I’m not a big fan of the word “sequel”, here).
Because much of the article focused on my Beethoven/5 Project, of which The Blind Banister is the first fruit, and because my own aspirations in embarking on the project did not really make it into the piece, I’m happy to have this opportunity to clarify a few points. Early in the article, Mr. Allen asks: “Why this, and why now? After all, in an ideal world composers would be allowed to write whatever they please.” And soon after, he boils it down to this: “The core assumption is that many, if not most, classical concertgoers have a built-in distaste toward modern music.” While I certainly cannot speak for every performer or concert programmer, I can say that that is not my “core assumption”, nor my motivation in soliciting new music that is, somehow, inspired by old music.
I’ve often felt troubled by the way the classical world segregates new music from old. Ensembles and presenting organizations devoted exclusively to new music provide a vital service—facilitating the creation and giving brilliant performances of new work in a volume that would be impossible without them. But the notion of “new music” as its own genre, and the attendant implication that it lacks a deep connection to music that was written 20, 50, and 200 years ago, is distressing to me. It is a notion that flatters neither old nor new music. To my ears, anyway, a truly great performance of Mozart or Beethoven will always be relevant, but it’s deeply dangerous to think of them as exemplars of an art form that died in 1917 after a long illness. And while yes, in an ideal world, composers would be able to write whatever they please, I hardly think that that ideal world would be some sort of vacuum. A piece of music’s relationship to the past needn’t be explicit, or admiring, but I have a hard time imagining that any piece worth listening to would be disconnected from it.
So, that was the genesis of Beethoven/5: my desire for everyone involved—composer, performer, and listener—to think of old and new music as existing on the same continuum. And why Beethoven specifically? Because composers have been using him as inspiration, source material, and lightning rod since his death nearly 200 years ago. Schubert’s A Major Piano Sonata (Beethoven Op. 31 no. 1), Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op. 13 (Op. 132), Schumann’s Fantasy (An die ferne Geliebte), and John Adams’s Absolute Jest (several of the late string quartets) are just the first four examples to occur to me. Given that composers have been wrestling with him for close to two centuries, I thought that asking a diverse and fascinating group of composers to think about Beethoven was sure to produce diverse and fascinating results.
That those four works I cited have roots in Beethoven’s music is not debatable. But equally, those roots are not the reason those pieces are being performed again and again—if they weren’t captivating on their own merits, their antecedents wouldn’t make them so. And that is the thinking I’ve applied to Beethoven/5: I want the composers to take the Beethoven concerti as a starting point, and in their first airings, at least, I want them to be heard in that context. But beyond that, I’ve specified nothing—I haven’t asked for the works to contain a quotation, or resemble the Beethoven in length, or form, or any other particular. And I greatly look forward to the day on which I sit in the audience and listen to The Blind Banister played by another pianist, in the context of a completely different program. The specifics of the commission will no longer matter; the work will have joined several hundred years of concerto repertoire. And if a composer is in that audience as well, perhaps The Blind Banister will itself provide the germ for a new piece of music. To me, that isn’t inertia, but artistic regeneration: a key component of my ideal world.