Yes, I am firmly planted within the camp that the quality of one's manuscript is just as integral to the composition as the conceptual, theoretical and philosophical content. Having worked as a copyist on film and television scores in LA for two years probably taught me more about how to be a good composer than the two years I spent in graduate school pursuing my Master's degree. That said, my dismissive attitude toward many prize winning compositions is rooted in the troubling practice of writing new works specifically for submission. Another former professor of mine once related the tale of a colleague who had cornered the avant-garde market in the 1970s by creating breathtaking hand-written graphical manuscripts to this end. He was apparently able to make a full-time living off of the prize money he collected, never once attending a single performance as no regard had been paid to what each hieroglyphic score would actually sound like.
Critical remarks aside, there are, of course, those works that are recognized for their virtue after going out into the world and cutting their teeth in performance. This year's Grawemeyer Award incumbent, a twenty-minute "instrumental cantata" by Serbian composer Đuro Živković is one such work, having made it around the block after a premiere by the impressive and prolific Klangforum Wien, way back in 2011. Refreshingly, and unlike its more broadly known cousin, the Pulitzer, the composer himself may not apply for the Grawemeyer and must instead nominated by a third party. So, how is the piece? Well for starters, here is the press-release.
As I have often remarked, I think the work itself should be able to speak more about the 'what' and 'why' than we are able to articulate so clumsily using language. The absolute refinement in organizing expressive gestures of sound to communicate the essence of thought, rather than fumbling for the right word is, at least from my point of view, the reason we have composers. This point makes me glad I listened to Mr. Živković's work (twice) before coming across such esoteric descriptors as "Its main theme is the need to return to oneself."
The work itself is solid, impressively constructed and very thoughtfully organized. That said, it seems to me to be so thoughtfully organized that there is an overwhelming aura of sterility, too firmly rooted in a broad and blathering wash of very tightly controlled and mostly cliched extended techniques. The piano breaks through this hard, crystalline lattice with some success, but never quite satisfies me in its overly timid attempt at contrast. The work swells to a sweeping climax and conclusion, again in almost too carefully measured a progression (not a moment sooner or later than you hope it will), and leaves the listener with a perfectly satisfying memory of an experience in text-book-beauty. For me, it falls somewhere between the opening cue of Jerry Goldsmith's score from "Alien" and Gyorgy Ligeti's large-scale orchestral works of the 1960s and 70s, but with a very contemporary, almost electronic sensibility. Of course, I will go so far as to assert that the greatest favor to this work over all is its flawless execution in performance by Klangforum Wien.
In the end, the only conclusion I have been able to draw for myself is, well, that I like the piece and am glad to offer my congratulations to a composer who seems to be going about this business of prize winning in the best way possible: by making art that motivates us to question what's good about it. Only time will tell.
Listen and judge for yourself: