Brian Penkrot: Feldman and Food Porn

I have a complex relationship with reality food TV.  The majority of the programming I watch is food related, including food competitions like Chopped and Iron Chef America.  I like to justify it by pointing out that I do not watch shows that focus more on restaurant drama than culinary artistry because I feel less like a voyeur and more like an aesthete.  But I obviously can’t smell or taste the food.  I can only guess from visual cues if it is even hot or cold.  Panels of judges describe the sensation of eating food for me, and I get to live vicariously through them.  It is food pornography, and it always leaves me hungry.

A question I come back to repeatedly with these competitions is the time element.  If I am going to watch the greatest chefs in the world create the best dish they can, wouldn’t I want to see them taking the time to make sure things are perfect?  Why would I demand 7 perfect dishes in 10 minutes?  This is a question that is also rightfully raised in timed composition events.

On September 14, the Society of Composers chapter at the University of Iowa began a 24-hour composition project.  Each composer was to create a new piece in 24 hours for a performer or group of performers with whom they’d been randomly paired.  After 24 hours, the performers would have 24 hours to prepare the pieces for a concert the following night, September 16.  As a composer, there is nothing more terrifying than the day before a deadline when nothing is written.  As a performer, there is little that is more stressful than receiving unfamiliar music the day before a concert.

But the response was overwhelmingly positive.  Every composer in the program wanted to participate.  We had more performers interested in participating than we had composers available.   The concert itself was well attended, and the audience was very receptive to all of the music performed.  How in the world was it possible that we had happy composers, performers, and a big happy audience for a concert that rushed every aspect of the creative process?

It’s because nothing was perfect.  Nothing was supposed to be – how could it?  The composers wrote to the utmost of their abilities and the performers played their hearts out, and there were some wonderful performances of some very good music.  But no one expected a masterpiece in 24 hours.  No one expected flawless performances with such limited rehearsal time.  So everyone relaxed and just had a good time, including the audience.

To me, this speaks directly to a lot of the recent writings on the state of new music.  It may perhaps be true that what prevents an audience from enjoying and subsequently returning to new music concerts is the oppression of venue and its inherent rituals.  But this seems to be a cosmetic answer to a problem that is bred within the community – it lies in the approach to our own music and each other.

There is no secret that today’s job market is sparsely populated with openings.   It becomes increasingly hard to cheer on the success of others when that success makes them that much more qualified for the few positions available.  On the other hand, the performance of a new piece indicates the culmination of a lot of hard work and is a representation of you as an artist, so it had better be good.

With the pressure to separate from the pack and prove our worth, it comes as no surprise that some people react by becoming smug or condescending when defending their work or critiquing the work of others.  But it is the attitude of self assured genius that turns people off of new music.  Many of the composers on new music concerts already have some intimidating degrees.  It takes only one person whose sole purpose is to convince everyone of his/her greatness at the expense of everyone else to give the impression of a snobby and vindictive scene.

For example, last spring my university hosted an event attended by several schools from the region over a weekend.  There were perhaps 45 composers total in attendance.  One student from one of the schools was vocal about how much of an amateur he thought everyone was.  After that weekend (and to some extent even now), my reaction to that person was tied to my overall impression of that school’s program.  One person’s insecurity was able to make an impression of an entire group of composers as unfriendly and arrogant.

Perhaps the answer is heeding the words of Morton Feldman: “Down with the masterpiece.  Up with art.”  An approach to our own music and the music of others that allows flawed work to exist, that admits those flaws are there, and acknowledges that becoming as a composer and artist will be incomplete at best.  A drive that hopes only to create is one that lacks fear and inspires others to create.  A drive that hopes only to create masterpieces is one that has nothing to say to anyone, except “hey look at me.”

Talking to a composer after the 24-hour composition project, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard much of what he had written in his time here.  He said he hadn’t written much.  But, he also said that this project had lit a fire that he had not felt in some time, and that he was inspired to go compose immediately.  Several other composers standing close joined the conversation by saying they also felt inspired by the process to go write.

Which is the same reason why I love cooking shows.  I don’t have to taste or smell the food; in some ways, it’s immaterial.  But tuning into the creative flow that allows a chef to make four amazing dishes in an hour for 300 people is all the inspiration I need to whirl around the kitchen and make a chicken dinner for my family.  In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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