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Aired Out

Recent activities in the past few weeks have centered around a kind of virtual inventory: the re-organizing of the Newman Catalog for promotional projects and such. And so in the midst of this housecleaning I’ve found myself coming face to face with several older works I’ve long avoided dealing with, each one teetering between full-blown promotion, and the ragged edge of destruction.

The self-absorbtion involved is staggering. And I’ve found that it’s turning out to be less of a slash-and-burn activity than I thought it would, or at least than what I thought I’d like. I’ve been much more middling and compromising about the whole thing than I probably should be. Pressed to make a decision on some of these pieces, I choose, in many cases, to not make a decision. These suckers are just too personal. I remember writing them, I remember the premieres, I remember thinking they were the best thing ever penned on paper. And yet I also remember the point when I would, say, delete one from my list of works, or not include it when building my website. It’s a tricky business.

The process so far has not exactly yielded any more nervous addition of juvenilia to the official catalog, but it did give one in particular the axe. Unstuck, a string trio I wrote in 1996 for a choreographer at Juilliard, was quietly taken off the website and removed from the List of Works a couple of weeks ago. No performances since the dance performances 10 years ago, no interest from those who might perform my music, and no longer any confidence in the music itself from the composer. That’s not to say that other works which haven’t been performed in an even longer period are going to receive the same treatment — there are just too many factors to weigh for each one.

In the Valley of the Elwy, for instance, is a work for baritone and orchestra I wrote around the same time as Unstuck, and though the work doesn’t represent me as a composer anymore, it does illuminate a direction of sorts, as well as show off a particular influence (tell me that doesn’t sound exactly like Barber), in what I consider now quite an adorable way. And so when I dredged the piece up during this process, I found it didn’t exactly win a spot in the official catalog, but it did get to be belatedly included up on the website. I don’t know why, it just seemed like that’s the way it should be.

Elwy may not represent me compositionally anymore, but then again, neither does Ohanashi, a chamber orchestra work which, only because of lack of aesthetic resemblance to absolutely everything else in my catalog, has been standing on the cliff ready to be pushed off for some time. But now there is recent interest in the piece — and I find that Ohanshi may not look like me, but others might like how it looks. This brings up a fascinating question which I suspect every composer at one time or another confronts: how does one approach these older works which may or may not represent current style and aesthetic? Very likely most don’t give a whit, and anything with usable performance materials is up for grabs and available to anyone who would care to perform them. I wonder, though. How would Britten feel about all his juvenilia exposed to the galaxy as it is, cataloged and published, and performed all over the place. (As a card-carrying Britten-head, I have heard some of what I just described, much of it simply awful). Or Mozart for that matter. Poor guy. Obviously, there are plenty more examples to go by, in both directions. On one hand, Brahms burned the stuff he felt wasn’t up to snuff. On the other, anyone can perform Old George Rochberg, or New George Rochberg. Just pick your style. So the question persists: Do I represent myself only with what I feel is Newman at his best, or do I present the world with Newman as a Continuum — the composer finding his voice, piece by piece.

Lullaby for Munch in Hell, once considered (by me) to be my best work, is another one of these bon-bons of juvenilia facing the terrific, yet terrifying prospect of new performances. I’ve held out on this one — it’s faced the box in the 5x5x5 locker on W. 29th St. (our storage space, where all-things-college live) more than once, and lived to tell the tale. What I’d love to do is write a new sax quartet, stare down the aging Lullaby, and retire her in favor of more mature compositional efforts. But I suspect that even if The World turns Perfect, and I get to write a new quartet, the Lullaby will remain. It may not be Me now, but Me then was a wide-eyed young composer ready to take on the entire repertoire, and I can’t see myself letting him down. Besides, for all I know, it’s still a great piece, and the thing holds up perfectly well against current work. I just can’t tell anymore with these pieces. And now from recent mumblings, it might even get two performances next season — so maybe this is a sign that I’m actually the only one losing hope in these delicate babies.

There’s yet another older chamber work for which I have a soft spot: Movement & Coda, a duo written in 1993 when I was 20 for the rather unwieldy combination of oboe and harp. It’s a good piece! Really, you’ll just have to trust me. I sometimes stumble on the score on the shelf and think, Damn, this kid was talented. What potential. But I see far too different (better?) a composer in those pages, and haven’t yet drummed up the courage to make up a web page for it, or include it in the (now currently under revisions) chamber music section of the catalog, nor am I ever likely to. I suspect that what I’m seeing in the work now is all potential, with not enough actual music to hold my interest.

Some pieces have had less of an impressive impact after reexamination. Exclamare, a short fanfare for brass quintet, was one of the first successful works I wrote. Tight as a drum, quite rhythmically exciting, and a healthy performance life for a number of years, one would think this piece would have been saved from extinction. After all, the career as it stands now points directly at what I would imagine would be a ton of brass quintets, who would probably like very much to play it. And so with that in mind, I picked up this piece again, thinking that surely this quintet was going to be reintegrated into the catalog and have a new life. But then I listened to it again, and thought … Eh. Maybe not so much. Perhaps what I thought was interesting in 1992 is not so very interesting to me now, and more importantly, I can’t imagine it being of very much interest to anyone else. And so, despite everything it has going for it on a practical level, an eventual No.

There are, of course, other works, even one or two I wouldn’t consider juvenilia, which have been hanging about on the chopping block, as well. They shall for the moment remain nameless. The fact is, it’s not necessarily a matter of strength in pulling the plug on some of these, it’s that I don’t think I even understand what some of these pieces are. Now with a bit of distance from some of them, I am sort of baffled as to what they mean in general, and how they might best fit into the world at large. I hold out for these pieces to either click into place (revisions! cut that movement!), or (more likely) for some benevolent fairy to descend and make these decisions for me. I’m guessing that by the end of this particular inventory project, and with the guidance of the mythical fairies, I will probably consign one or two more pieces to the hypothetical drawer. I would like to think that this works well for the musicologists of the future, who will drool over finding these works exactly there, in the darkness of W. 29th St., to dust off, catalog, publish, and show off to the world as missing gems. More than likely, though, that will be it for these castoffs. Their job was completed some time ago.

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