In his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, premiered last week in its entirety by Cantori New York (and again this Saturday, May 10), composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle finishes each verse with a recapitulation of the refrain “Ierusalem, Ierusalem, conertere ad Dominum Deum tuum”. With each return, the treatment of this text becomes increasingly ecstatic, ultimately bursting into a ten part exhalation. After the third statement of the text, I found myself wondering, “How is he going to top the intensity of THAT one”, only to be impressed by the resources brought to bear in the next iteration.
When I mentioned this reaction to Dr. Boyle after the concert, he said that he often challenges his composition students this way. How much further can you go? How can you make this section even more interesting, more intense? This resonated with me. Often I find myself wondering if the music I’m writing is too complacent, too satisfied with what it is. Sure, it can be listenable, recognizable as worthy music, and maybe even enjoyable, but how does it compare with the greatest music ever written? Is it really the best I can do?
I recalled a performance I saw at LaMaMa just the day before, a multimedia concert, theater piece, comedy act from Daniel Koren. One of the things that impressed me with Koren was how densely packed his material was. It seemed like not a minute passed without some reversal or surprise or gag that recontextualized what we had just seen, confounding our expectations with surreal and often hilarious results. Koren’s piece was immediately gratifying and enjoyable in a way that new pieces of concert music rarely are. (You can see his videos on YouTube, but I highly recommend catching the live show if you have an opportunity. Much of the strength of the work is the interaction between the live performance and the videos.)
Koren’s act would feel at home in a comedy club, where success is measured in laughs per minute. Four laughs per minute is considered the minimum for a comedian who expects to get hired again. What if a similar metric existed for music, if there was some way of measuring interest or surprise or resolution of tension? What if you evaluated the music you wrote to make sure that every minute there was something that kept the listener going, that delighted or surprised them. Imagine applying that metric and asking yourself Dr. Boyle’s question… Are you doing enough? Could you do better?
Now composition isn’t comedy. Most of us have far loftier goals than to merely entertain (no offense to the legions of comedians reading my blog). But if we lose track of the listener’s need to be engaged, we’ll never manage to get their attentions long enough to say what we really want to. If we want a listener to listen deeply, we first need to get them to enjoy listening superficially. As we make compositional choices, are we considering the listeners attentions? Are we giving them enough to keep them interested? Are our ideas strong enough? Clear enough? Engaging enough? Can we do better?
Not a practice that Adorno would likely espouse, but then again, that one time he hosted Saturday Night Live was a disaster.