Attention composers: your Twitter feed affects how I hear your music. This is, for better or worse, a 21st century truth that every young composer should think about.
That a composer’s personality might impact one’s experience of their music is not a new phenomenon. Mozart and Wagner are two extreme examples of this. It’s hard not to think of Mozart’s supposed playfulness and good humor during a piece like his String Quartet No. 19 in C Major (K. 465) or Le Nozze di Figaro. I’m not sure the Wagner example needs explanation: his megalomania and antisemitism are notoriously difficult to keep separate from his music.
But the “personalities” of composers past have only emerged after decades of scholarly research and cultural myth-making. In their own time, they had reputations, but very few audience members could proclaim to “know” them (I don’t really have any historical authority to make that statement, but I’m assuming it’s a safe one).
Today, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs put us in close contact with composers. These platforms allow them to publicly broadcast anything they want, be it their quirks, interests, opinions, or dinner plans, eliminating virtually all of the guess work and mystery for current audiences and future historians alike. I don’t personally know any of the composers I follow online, but, creepy or not, it sure feels like I do sometimes.
This becomes all the more apparent when I listen to their music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For starters, I listen to more new music now because of who I follow on Twitter. I also feel more connected to the music having a better sense of the person who made it, being able to go “that makes sense” or “huh, I wouldn’t have expected that” (major instance of the latter after downloading Gabriel Kahane’s first album just yesterday).
But is there a sort of self-selection bias here? Am I ordering music based on who seems interesting, cool, or whatever else? What happens when someone doesn’t like the online personality or lifestyle of a composer whose music they might otherwise enjoy? Is it possible to keep the two separate?
This seems like a good time to bring up something that’s been nagging me about Justin Davidson’s March 2011 article, “A New New York School.” Here are some excerpts:
These composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. They are not monkish craftsmen assembling six-minute miniatures, half an agonizing second at a time…This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.
In concluding the piece, Davidson drives home his point: “Rules can be a crutch or a cage, but they can also act as stimulant…What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”
One thing that’s been really wonderful about Twitter and the like is that it has debunked the myth of the composer as isolated genius, feverishly honing his craft as the rest of the world dallies in triviality. We still hear about the music and the struggles, but also about the basketball games, recent iTunes downloads, politics, babies being changed, bike issues and nights out. There’s also a good deal of humor and self-deprecation. In short, the social composer is distinctly more human than this guy, who stared at me from my piano teacher’s bench in 1st grade, the image of “composer as giant” that still weighs so heavily on our collective consciousness as classical music fans.
My sense is that Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly & co., are having a little too much fun for Davidson (an estimable critic and writer I deeply admire, whose aural description of the new music coming out of New York right now in the same article is the best I’ve read). Are all of his criticisms evident in the music alone, or are the composers’ extra-musical displays of inclusiveness and bohemian normality also affecting his–our–interpretation?
Davidson is distinctly inactive in social media, so perhaps I’m wrong on this one. Either way, social media has raised endless questions about identity and what it means to be a composer in the 21st century. The composer today can write his or her own story. It is not uncommon to be introduced to a composer’s online persona before being introduced to their music. This is new, and like anything else it has its benefits and pitfalls.