March 2013

Bubbles and Beyond

An Ongoing Musical Saga

by Alexander Comitas (Eduard de Boer)

Let me begin by thanking Aristos for calling attention to the plight of classical music composers in the Netherlands who reject the dictates of the avant-garde--and, I might add, current trends such as minimalist music. Sadly, the Dutch press, by contrast, has shown hardly any interest in the story told by Michelle Kamhi in "Bias and Inanity in Arts Funding: A Tale of Two Composers" (Aristos, December 2012). Yet the story has wide relevance. It isn't only in the Netherlands that composers who refuse to embrace the avant-garde's radical break with time-tested musical practice must deal with resistance, neglect, or downright hostility.

The gist of "Bias and Inanity" is quite accurate. There was one factual error, however, that prompted me to write this. Contrary to what was stated there, I have had the good fortune to receive numerous commissions throughout my career, most of them underwritten by the very funding system the article is critical of. By providing a fuller backstory (and sequel) than was possible in that brief piece, I hope to shed more light on what I consider to be the root of the problem--that is, the cultural establishment's emphasis on "originality" as the prime criterion for assessing new work in the arts.

Report on Bias

The story begins in the mid 1990s. In 1994, I wrote a report on the Dutch FST (Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst, or "Fund for the Creation of Music"), the predecessor of the present NFPK (Nederlands Fonds voor de Podiumkunsten, or "Dutch Fund for the Performing Arts"). In that report I publicly voiced my objection to a trend I had observed in the system of support for new music. As I pointed out, the composers who received the most money from the FST were largely the same composers who sat on its board or advisory committees. Since the founding of the FST in 1981, those who did not fulfill their ruling criterion of "originality" had been receiving fewer and fewer commissions, eventually being excluded altogether.

My report created quite a stir in Dutch musical circles, and the result was not pleasant for me. In the following weeks, I was the object of false accusations. One colleague of mine, for example, claimed in a national newspaper that I had only written my report out of frustration at being constantly rejected. Yet in the report I had clearly expressed my gratitude to the FST for the fact that all my applications for commissions had until then been granted---although the fund's advisory committees invariably commented that my work, while having a high degree of craftsmanship, lacked "originality."

From then on, however, my applications to the FST were regularly rejected. As a result, I was soon forced to transition from composing for symphony orchestra to composing mainly for wind and accordion orchestras if I wanted to earn money from creating new work and ensure that my music would be performed. (In addition, I continued to write choral and chamber music as before.)

The Saga Continues

In 2007, I set to music the whole FST story dealt with in my report. I composed a 'secular oratorio' entitled Der Förderverein ("The Council")--inspired, in part, by Dmitri Shostakovich's satirical cantata Antiformalist Rayok [search for "Rayok"] [video - 4:46 (don't miss the final minute!)].* My piece was performed in the Dutch university town of Groningen and subsequently taken on tour to Italy in 2007 by the fine Groninger student choir and orchestra Bragi.

During this difficult period, I adopted the pseudonym (Alexander) Comitas. It was an intentionally ironic name for a traditionalist composer, since it is borrowed from Latin--a "dead language," as some critics had characterized my musical language. The word means "politeness" or "affability," and was meant to suggest that I will keep voicing my opinion on contemporary classical music, but always in a polite way, without attacking anyone personally. I never concealed my real identity, by the way.

Throughout this time, performing groups continued to solicit support for my work. In time, the FST began to grant commissions on a regular basis again--including a "commission in retrospect" for my "composition" Bubbles (in reality a parody of avant-garde work) in December 2006, which was highlighted in "Bias and Inanity." A month later, I also received a joint commission from the FST, the Dutch opera company Opera Zuid, and the wind orchestra festival organization WMC to compose an opera (with wind instead of symphony orchestra), based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Emperor's New Clothes." Eventually, even the comments that my work lacks "originality" ceased.

That conception of originality, which has prevailed for decades, is utterly misguided in my view. As I've argued in "Busoni's Garden" (2011), it discourages craftsmanship and ignores what makes a work of art truly valuable in a timeless sense. As I see it, this misconception is at the very core of the gigantic rift between what critics tell us is great contemporary music, on one hand, and what classical music audiences actually love to hear, on the other.

Bubbles and Beyond

That is what led me to "compose" Bubbles--my one and only "avant-garde" work--in 2005. As related by Kamhi in "Bias and Inanity," its underlying material consisted merely of random notes played by my then young and as yet musically uneducated children, on a keyboard connected to my computer. Using several computerized processes that were entirely mechanical and in no way truly creative, I translated this meaningless material into a score playable by an ensemble of various instruments [Bubbles (Five Miniatures for Ten Players), 3:49].

In 2006, I submitted the result to the FST with a request for a "commission in retrospect." My aim was to test the presumably "expert" response to a composition that I judged to be worthless non-music but that conformed to their idea of originality. Within a few months, a letter from the FST arrived, informing me of its favorable decision. Not only was I granted the requested commission for the piece but, topping that, I was told that both advisory committees regarded Bubbles as "surpassing my regular output" with respect to its idiom! Understandably elated at having proved my point, I told the story to a few friends. But I didn't go public with it. My friends warned me that doing so would only stir up controversy, which might ultimately jeopardize my future applications to the only source of regular support for new music in the Netherlands.

I decided to give Bubbles a central place in The Emperor's New Clothes, however, so that its story would eventually become public when the opera was performed. Unfortunately, the premiere of the full work has been postponed several times, owing to the global economic crisis and the Dutch government's resulting austerity measures. But when excerpts from the opera were scheduled, including one containing Bubbles, I did contact the press-only to find, to my amazement, that there was no interest whatsoever in making the story known to the public.

Subsequently, my friend and fellow composer John Borstlap called to tell me he planned to sue the NFPK. I said that if he liked he could use the Bubbles story as an argument for his case--which he did. Prior to his court case, however, I informed the NFPK of the truth about the piece, as I didn't want them to learn of it through the court hearing. As John later told me, the NFPK's spokesmen in the court proceeding nonetheless maintained that Bubbles was a fine work and that its method of composition was perfectly legitimate!

As noted by Kamhi, the outcome of John's case was initially a Pyrrhic victory, since the NFPK wasn't obliged to compensate him in any way. Eventually, however, he did extract--with great difficulty--the funding of another commission. So now he can do again what composers are born for.

For myself, I feel very fortunate. Since childhood, I have had a passion for composing in orchestral textures, and even now I am able to follow my heart's desire, as long as I write for wind or accordion rather than symphony orchestra. Occasionally, I make a version for full symphony orchestra but keep it in a private drawer.

I know several talented colleagues in the traditionalist vein have not been so fortunate, however. They can't get commissions at all, the music they manage to write is hardly performed, and they are blamed as if it were due to lack of talent. As a result, many high-quality compositions from recent decades that would be enjoyed by classical music lovers at large are still waiting to be heard. Yet I am hopeful that the day will come when they are, and that it will prompt a rewriting of the history of twentieth-century music--a rewriting that is now long overdue, as I argue in "Busoni's Garden."

Meanwhile, the Bubbles story continues to unfold, having now reached America's shores through Aristos. I wait with interest to see what ripple effects, if any, it will have.

* I also recommend this fabulous performance of Antiformalist Rayok--with Boris Yeltsin, the first freely elected president of Russia, in the audience.