The following is a guest blog feature by upcoming Dogs of Desire composer Ted Hearne. His new piece, entitled Is it dirty, will be featured on the Dogs of Desire performance on the 2010 American Music Festival. Don't miss out... .Friday, May 21 at 8:00PM.
Last year, I was asked to write a piece for the Albany Symphony's Dogs of Desire ensemble, and I'm happy to report that, through the generous assistance of Meet the Composer, the Dogs will be premiering my piece this week. My piece is called Is it dirty, and is set to a text by the American poet Frank O'Hara.
The Dogs of Desire have a slogan: "the power and punch of a rock band... the precision and clarity of a chamber ensemble." This sentiment seems to reflect a desire among many American composers of my generation to draw upon influences from diverse musical genres and traditions. But it's also laden with its own assumptions and immediately provokes lots of questions. Does a good rock band inherently have 'power' but not 'precision'? And is 'clarity' necessarily a defining feature of a good chamber ensemble? I found myself asking: do the Dogs, in their hope to fuse rock and chamber-music traditions, really aim to combine only certain specific qualities from each one? And is it even possible to make a meaningful fusion by lifting single signifying qualities from given musical genres? What would "the power of a good chamber ensemble and the precision of a good rock band" sound like? And aren't some good chamber ensembles also rock ensembles? And what if the Dogs played an arrangement of a song by the White Stripes? - would it be more 'precise'? And if it was, would that make it better or worse? What if they played a song by The Dirty Projectors? - that band might be considered, for lack of a better word, a more "chamber-y" group - their music is definitely more "precise" than that of The White Stripes - but aren't they both "rock bands?"
Having spent most of the last decade studying at music conservatories (Manhattan School of Music, and then Yale School of Music), I've heard many composers from older generations speak of a time when any foray into the non-classical world was not welcome in their "serious" music. By all accounts, there used to be more boundaries defining "classical music" - or "concert music" or whatever you wanted to call it - and those boundaries served to separate music composed in a conservatory decisively from music in the rock or popular tradition.
But I grew up being able to write whatever kind of music I wanted to write without getting hit with stylistic criticisms from my teachers. For composers that are my contemporaries, the question has been not whether to freely use an eclectic mix of influences in our music, but how to do it in an authentic and meaningful way. It's easy for me to "fuse" rock ideas into a contemporary chamber piece, but much more difficult if I want to communicate anything to people who actually listen to rock music. In other words, fusion alone doesn't mean anything anymore. But I feel that fusion itself is still an important goal - and that meaningful and well-executed fusion in music can achieve no less positive results than a world of greater understanding and tolerance among people from different backgrounds. It may sound ridiculous, but that's what music should do, right? - communicate. And what is the point of cross-pollenation of influences if not communication among disparate groups of listeners?
Is it dirty takes a messy approach to fusion - it should sound like two very different songs superimposed on top of each other - and I'm excited to hear how it comes together when I arrive in Albany to work with the group next week. I use the two singers, an electric bass guitar, drum set, and distorted keyboard sound as the cornerstones of a simple song clearly influenced by American rock songwriting. This song is corrupted, interrupted and smeared with a second song placed more or less on top of it - a dirtier, more dissonant, more sustained music that comes from a very different place but is ultimately no less rhythmic or evocative. The piece gets its purpose through the interaction between both kinds of music.
I'm really excited for this week's rehearsal period and performance, and grateful for the opportunity to work with David Alan Miller and the Dogs of Desire. I hope you'll join me at the show - Friday, May 21 at 8PM.