Composers often like to joke about the fact that newly written pieces get their second performance only after its author’s death. Most would probably like to think that it’s because their ideas were too “ahead of its time” or that the timing of its release wasn’t quite right, and there’s a degree of truth to those types of statements. (Sometimes ideas can be good but not good for market or cultural trends, for example.) But the real reason why second performances don’t happen for most composers is because they’re usually not thinking about how “scalable” their works are.
Scaling is secretly what every musician wants, and can be a measurement for an idea’s success because it ties directly into how much publicity and repeat performances a piece of music receives. If a composer’s career were to be compared to a normal business operation, a repeat performance can be considered analogous to the process of turning a single shop into a local or national franchise. This expands the “scope” of a composer’s idea, allowing them to reap the rewards of it without having to deal with the day to day operations of being a sole-proprietor. Most musicians find this analogy somewhat strange and counter-intuitive, but if the creation of music that sustains itself on its own is the end goal, then thinking along those lines eventually becomes a necessity.
I was lucky enough to get multiple performances of a string quartet I wrote some years ago — it was short, kind of toungue-in-cheek, and written very quickly with very little editing due to time constraints. But I found out later that a number of people had played the piece on their own without even telling me in advance. It might seem like a small thing on the surface, but at least for myself it was kind of surreal, because up until that point getting even one performance of anything I’ve ever written required a tremendous amount of effort on my part. But here, the piece took a life of its own and people were using it for their own purposes, even without my knowledge.
That being said, scaling is not appropriate for every situation or every piece. Some composers write music for specific people, specific ensembles, or specific events/projects, often through commissions or contracts. Some compositions are super-particular to the performer and occasion — there are pieces, for example, that were written with specific performers in mind, dedicated to specific people, often riddled with unconventional notation and inside jokes that only people “in the know” would understand. In many cases, these practices can generate very interesting results, especially for the people it was intended for.
Also something to keep in mind: most bands and jazz groups operate by “niche”, meaning, they develop their own idioms and practices amongst each other in order to create an unique, highly-individualized music-making process. What allows them to “scale” is the recording, which lets musicians document and reproduce what they had created in the studio. Classical musicians have traditionally scaled by selling scores to publishers, in contrast to most other styles of music which had tended to rely on recordings as its medium of choice.
“Niche” pieces in classical music, however, typically have trouble “scaling” because its methodologies become very particular to a certain time and place that the general public may have trouble relating to. In some cases this is actually desirable because you actually want that level of intimacy between the composer, performer, and audience. On the other hand, if reaching a wider audience is the goal, then there are things that composers can do in order to increase their chances of success.
Some traits of a “scale-friendly” musical composition:
-The use of standard, widely accepted notation and idioms.
-Themes and ideas that are “universal” in nature. Abstract rather than specific. (ex. “themes” of conflict, love, morality, family, modernity, etc.)
-As easy as possible, from a technical point of view.
-Arrangements or references of already well-known works. (i.e. “mindshare”)
-Likelyhood of pissing off the performers/audience very small.
So a piece that uses a family-friendly theme, utilizing standard notation, written for grade-school level performers will likely “scale” much better than a really difficult piece full of extended techniques dealing with the issue of “that time when the composer’s leg was itchy during a hike and how they felt about it afterwards”. There is a market for “insider” music (some people prefer it that way) but by its nature this approach gears itself toward a very specific kind of audience, so most of its marketing and promotional efforts should be adjusted accordingly.
It’s not that one is better than the other — they each have their respective strengths and weaknesses, but it helps to make these types of decisions consciously, rather than at random. The challenge is finding that middle ground between what’s interesting and what’s palatable. (There’s also a market for music that pisses people off, but that’s a topic for another post so I’ll leave it at that.)
With enough education, the public can eventually learn to appreciate unconventional particularities, but entrepreneurs end up learning the hard way that educating people about new ideas can be very, very, expensive. Put another way, for every unconventional extended technique used, the composer can assume that it will be necessary to launch a multi-million dollar campaign explaining the hows, whats, and whys of forcing people to adopt a new skill and “listen” in a new kind of way. It took Béla Bartók a lifetime and a few masterpieces to get his “snap pizzacato” technique into the repertoire, and that’s just plucking a string a little harder than usual. A few things to ask: Is it worth it? Is it even possible?
Smart composers are at least aware of the risks (and potential fallout) they’re taking, even when they decide to throw something unusual in anyway. And sometimes all you really need is a page or two of well-written instructions, so it may actually be less work than it might seem on the surface. (See: Sofia Gubaidulina for examples of extended techniques notated well — her sounds are unusual, but surprisingly easy to learn and execute.)
With these things in mind, the next piece I’m writing is a string quartet using the Angry Birds theme. I’ve always tended to write for niche audiences (academic ones, to be exact), but the last few pieces have been moving towards broader, more universal themes so I think this is an opportunity to take it one step further. More info coming soon!