The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

   This is probably my last rant about this years June in Buffalo. Feel free to peruse the rest. And I do mean peruse, not skim.  

    Also, what follows may be Good, Bad, or Ugly. I don't know yet. Let me know what you think! Sorry to those that have synesthesia, as this may just be annoying or confusing.

   Whenever you go to a festival of any kind, it always happens: the awesome piece that blows you away; the bad pieces you shrug and try to forget; and the train wrecks that we wish we could un-hear/see but will stay with us forever.

    I said last time that I had no plans on writing reviews. This is still entirely valid. Instead, this is about concepts, philosophy, craftsmanship, and trends.

   There were 13 concerts during JiB. Over 7 days, that can drain a person. This is especially true when a large portion of the music is dense and challenging--awash with sounds, swirling timbres, and intense moments.

    The Good: 13 concerts usually means a wide variety of music. It can keep you on your toes and provide a myriad of experiences in a short time.

    The Bad: Coherence. Half the concerts, roughly, were of participant works or from the performance institute. These concerts caused lots of strain--sometimes things were so dissimilar it was hard to concentrate. Other times you end up with a concert that was nearly the same throughout. The concerts by visiting groups were much more well planned. This is just a side-effect from the judging process. (Remember, The Bad isn't The Ugly. Sometimes, The Bad just happens as a side-effect.)

    The Ugly: 13 concerts is unlucky. That means that there will be quite a few pieces you severely dislike. The Law of Ugly states that there will be one piece per concert that you revile. That's a lot of Ugly.


    That being said, what did I observe? Again, no specific critiques. Instead, let's look at some trends. Let's start with the concepts and philosophy of music, shall we?

    The Good: JiB had a large number of people that had strong, coherent philosophies. The variety was high (the previous Good, and something I'm holding onto as we move forward), and the conversations led to lots of peer learning. The most interesting were those far different than my own.

    The Bad: Sometimes, those philosophies, no matter how interesting when we were discussing them, just didn't work. The Good from this are the composers that stated "I was trying something, and, yeah, this was a danger. And it didn't go as I planned. Whoops..." The Bad was when they didn't see that it didn't really work the way they had hoped.

    The Ugly: When The Bad goes too far, it becomes Ugly. A failed philosophy is always a learning experience. The Good comes from learning, The Bad comes from ignoring the learning, The Ugly comes when it fails, you ignore the learning, and you are derisive toward other people's philosophies. Pieces fail--some philosophies are much harder to implement than others. Some ideas work wonderfully musically while others, well...may not be suited to music at all. This is fairly subjective, but not always--craftsmanship is a different Ugly, however. But remember that first Ugly--with 13 concerts, and The Law of Ugly in effect, sometimes things can go horribly wrong.

     The Good: When participants took the next step in a philosophical thought. They weren't rehashing John Cage, Helmut Lachenmann, Arvo Part, Tristan Murail, or Brian Ferneyhough. Instead, they were taking ideas and making a unique perspective, often times mashing up ideas. One of my favourites came from Andrew Greenwald, whose work reminds so much of the direction I had once been going many years ago. The philosophy was clear, the craftsmanship strong, and what came out was, whether you aesthetically like it or not, incredibly successful music. Yes, much of what he was doing owes itself to Lachenmann and those ilk, but it's "in the vein of" not a copy. And that is a Good distinction.

     The Bad: The same old philosophies of the aforementioned group (and more, of course), and copying of their styles, philosophies, and music. Put your own spin on things! Go out there and do something that is you! As Augusta Read Thomas said "Always put yourself into the music--you are what you listen to, but don't lose who you are." (this is paraphrased from two separate masterclasses, and is my interpretation of her words)

     The Ugly: Oh, it's not your idea, how this music should go? Oh, it's a bad copy of "So-and-So." Uh, ya know, "So-and-So," the guy that wrote these famous pieces? Don't know him? What about these guys? Dunno them either...What about this movement? Any of these pieces? Oh...hmm...well...uh, you should listen to those and examine what you wrote. The Ugly rears its head high when a composer is unaware of where his music fits in time, others that have done similar works in the past, and all the previous moments. When composers try to completely reinvent the wheel, it seems to turn into a square. And a square wheel is quite Ugly.


Onto something less subjective: craftsmanship. Certain styles require a huge amount of care in the creation All music requires a huge amount of care in its creation. All things, really. This blog-post is no different. Even as I try a different style of narrative, I'm constantly thinking about the craft--and am completely aware that I am a composer first, a trombonist second, an audio engineer third, a video game player fourth, a chef fifth, and somewhere down at place 72, a writer. And because of the narrative shift, every word will be carefully scrutinized, by myself and by my avid readership (HA! it's a joke).

      The Good: Ferneyhough, Thomas, Wyner, Murail, Felder, Wuorinen; they are all master crafters. Many of the participants were able, and sometimes even quite good at their craft. JiB actually had some of the finest crafter participant works of any festival I've attend. Granted, I don't go to many acoustic festivals, but that shouldn't alter things (electroacoustic or acoustic doesn't matter--at least, it shouldn't).

     The Bad: Certain things are difficult to be convincing. If you are writing in a triadically based Romantic style, you've got a lot of history going against you. The tradition dictates certain forms of construction, structuring devices, and forms. When you try something different, it's obvious what is different because the "learned" audience knows from whence it was derived. The Bad comes when it fails--a collective groan goes up as things go south. But, often times, there are redeeming qualities, and it turns itself into something the listeners can still make it through without anger.

     The Ugly: You've got an idea for a piece--whatever it is, you better do it all the way. Oh, crap, it's being somewhat half-assed. Uh-oh, it's entirely derivative and being half-assed. Well, maybe it'll go by quickly. THE PIECE IS TWENTY MINUTES?!? You've gotta be friggin' kidding me! No? The Ugly comes from these moments. Each moment isn't carefully considered and crafted. Maybe you're doing a specific construction, a fugue for instance, and you start to play with the idea of the fugue. That has to be incredibly carefully considered, each moment crafted as lovingly as possible. Or perhaps you're working from a framework of silence being of importance. Remember that when sound occurs surrounded by silence, the audience attends to that sound even more strongly. Make the sound worth it. If you don't, well...an audience following The Ugly isn't as forgiving as The Bad.

     The Good: The piece got in, made it's statement, and got out. Each moment was crafted, each idea and theme afforded the time it needed. This is a wonderful show of craftsmanship. At JiB, happily, it wasn't just the guest composers that pulled this feat off.

    The Bad: A piece slightly overstayed its welcome, was long-winded, or cut off without really saying what it needed to say. This happens to us all as we compose. Ferneyhough called me on it quite effectively. No man can avoid The Bad forever. The audience smiles a wane smile, the composer winces a bit as s/he realizes it didn't quite go as planned. Always be cognizant of time--Ferneyhough is good at it, Mozart and Bach are masters. Bruckner shows what long-winded speeches can say. And Feldman shows the kind of material that can be spoken like Old Entish--important things can take a long time to say. This relates to a theme in playwriting: the longest scene is often the most important. It's important to remember what Ferneyhough told me because he is quite correct.

   The Ugly: Did I mention 20 minute pieces? What about 45 minute? Ok, that only happened once and it did technically demand at least that much time. As stated above, often times The Ugly comes when The Bad has gone way too far, like those refried beans you had meant to throw away a couple weeks ago, and now the entire container is thrown away (or cultivated for a new kind of mold that seems to be all colours all at once). When you have an idea, say exploring a certain set of pitch relationships, you better know exactly how many relationships there are, how many permutations of those relationships there are, and the ways to best show them to the audience...because if you've only got about 20 permutations with only a few really effective ways of navigating them, and your piece goes for 20 minutes, well...You better be Morton Feldman and know how to craft all those moments.


    I think I've been vague enough not to ruffle too many feathers, but specific enough to make my points. It seems like The Good gets short-changed, but, for me at least, The Good always seems to be able to be recalled with only the slightest bit of description. Remembering that transcendantal moment, that sublime instant when all music made sense is something I revel. I hold those moments in brain as the fondest of memories. These are technically The Best, but they're only derived in relation to The Good. The Bad are common occurrences, things encountered at every concert. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right words, but we've all encountered them. The Ugly don't happen too often, but The Law of Ugly is pretty strict in its "One Per Concert" rule. But we block it out, so it's important to hold The Ugly up to a mirror.

    All three (or four, if you're lucky and get The Best as well) are equally important experiences. As a composer (or any artist), you will run into all these at various times in your own endeavors. We all try exceedingly hard for The Good; The Bad pops up often; we avoid The Ugly as best we can, but sometimes through stubbornness, bad luck, ignorance, or any number of other factors, The Ugly rears its deformed head; The Best is what we all dream for any performance--it's important to take it in context after The Euphoria fades from the performance and really work retrospectively critical.

    All in all, JiB was definitely a member of The Good. The Good outweighed The Bad and The Ugly. While following a standard statistical deviation in concerts, masterclasses and lectures where all members of The Good.

     I've done as JiB told me. Now onto his ornery aunt, Ems. Actually, they're not related, just happened within a week of each other this year.

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