Where: Choir Room, Augsburg College

What: Junior Composers Institute (JCI)

With Whom: Randall Davidson, Dominick Argento

When: Monday, July 6, 2009

That was my Monday afternoon this week. And a good Monday afternoon it was! It was quite a treat to sit in on a session, led by Randall Davidson at the Junior Composers Institute with guest Dominick Argento, in the company of about 35 high school students and a few local professionals like Dan Dressen and Larry Weller. (A few participants in Nautilus Music-Theater's Wesley Balk Opera / Music-Theater Institute also stopped by.) The topic of "Selecting and Setting Texts" and quality discussion guidance by Davidson lead to some pretty interesting quotes and observations from Argento.

A sampling:

  • "Notes don't need a thing at all. It's not what the note is, but what it's doing."
  • Using 12-tone is like picking cherries off a tree for him.
  • "You have to treat a singer like a pet." Give them two or three bars to rest.
  • "What you want to find is your own voice."
  • The current level of music saturation in our society baffles him.

One JCI participant asked specifically about the level of musical saturation in our society--everyone has an iPod or an mp3 player or something constantly inserted into their ear that produces sound. Argento's answer was simply "It baffles me." He described having just come from his fitness class and how everyone had earphones in their ears and something strapped to their arms. Years ago, when he bought a 78 record of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," it was 8 sides and understandably, switching records all the time interrupted the piece. I, on the other hand, had to visit Wikipedia to find out how to write "78" intelligibly enough so anyone might understand me, since I grew up with 8 tracks and cassettes! So we really do have music at our fingertips 24 hours a day. Is this to our benefit? To whose deficit is it, if there is a downside to it? Argento: it cheapens music, there is too much of it, it's too easy. But more on that later.

When Argento begins a new piece, the first thing he does is to think about it for a long time. He said it's easy to begin a new piece too early, and that it is to one's benefit to think about it for a significant period time before one sits down to compose. Argento's words and especially his demeanor portrayed a particular interest for Beethoven's sketch books; he likened Beethoven's compositional progress (within the sketch books) to battles of the Civil War, with bloody bodies everywhere. This stands in great contrast to Argento's own compositional work: he composes directly at the computer (on a keyboard) where a finished piece is practically ready to go to a rehearsal. A computer, a composer in front of it, and electronic media have instigated the demise of the composer's sketch book. Sketch books aside, for a man who works in the aural realm, Argento has the ability to paint vivid pictures with his words.

In reference to selecting texts, Argento advised the Junior Composers to know what they are writing and who they are writing it for. For it is not only the text that the audience understands, but the subtext which the audience shares with the performers. He also touched on the "set" rhythm of poetry and the freedom with which a composer can compose when it comes to prose. Don't just set the text, he urged, but put your understanding of the text into it. Most importantly, there are two things to keep in mind, said Argento: what you really want to do and how it is perceived. Now ain't that the truth?

At one point Argento sat down at the piano and played the opening dah-dah-dah-dummmmmmmm of Beethoven's 5th--one ought to think of music in terms of those ideas, he said, not just a simple melody.

Let's go back to the "easy" music that saturates our society. If you really want to listen to, say Kelly Clarkson's "All I Ever Wanted," would you take the time to go to the store, spend your hard-earned cash on it, take it home, and play it over and over again, switching record sides (just for the sake of argument) every 30 seconds? Really, I'm thinking most people wouldn't. Would people do it for Stravinsky? Sure! Disney tunes? Most likely! Muzak? Probably not. So does that mean we lower our standards in order to have as much music as we currently have? It's a provoking thought.

What a delight it was to see so many young composers in the same room as a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer like Argento, ever-natural and ever-humorous. May these fine young musicians find not only their voices, but a way to feed us into a future with music to soothe our souls and lighten our days that neither lowers our standards nor makes us turn the records over and over again.

The Final Salon of the JCI is this coming Saturday, July 11, 2009, at 9 am at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.