Steven Stucky

In Memoriam – Steven Stucky

Steven Stucky was a great composer. He was also an indefatigable educator and champion of new music. We will miss him dearly. The following is an interview he granted us for our inaugural issue, about the business and craft of composing.

How has composing changed since you’ve been working in the field?

Modern forms of communication – of which the Internet is the most obvious paradigm – in addition to the way they’re threatening older institutional social models and economic systems for handling art, at the same time the whole process of sharing art among ourselves, as a society, has become so much more transparent and open and democratic. I’m kind of thrilled that I can find a new piece by a relatively unknown composer pretty easily on my own without the help of an agent or a publisher, and people can do that with my work, too. And I think that’s fantastic.

I’m always surprised when people come up to me and say, “I like your music, especially piece X,” which I happen to know has never been commercially recorded. So they’ve found it by some other method. That’s pretty exciting.

I think I’m lucky I became established before the ice began to crack under our feet. And I can keep going around on the ice without falling through. I worry more about my students, and other younger artists, who are still training in record numbers for a profession we all still feel a little bit frightened for – performers and composers alike.

…whatever happens to the economic models, the delivery systems, people will still be doing this.

I’m teaching at Juilliard now and see the number of people still streaming out onto 65th Street and wonder what will become of them. At the same time, I have to believe that the impulse to perform or compose music, like what you see in students from Juilliard or anywhere, is so powerful – and the impulse to listen even in new ways – that whatever happens to the economic models, the delivery systems, people will still be doing this.

We don’t know what it will look like or what the business model will be, but there’s no way it can go away because it’s connected to people’s lives. It may be closer to the grass roots or work in ways we don’t know how to describe yet, but it won’t go away.

Institutions are certainly evolving; some older ones will pass away and be replaced by something we may not be able to guess at yet. But I think the audience instinct is very strong, too: To receive what you’d have to call a spiritual experience is not going to go away. We just don’t know what the delivery systems are going to look like.

Tell us about your creative process, as a composer:

It’s changed over the years. And I understand it less and less well: The more experienced and the older I get somehow the creative process gets more mysterious.

When I was younger, I relied more on so-called inspiration, meaning that something pops into your head. When you’re younger, something that pops into your head tends to be something that exists already – you’re recycling unconsciously.

I use that method less and less now. It may be that all of my ideas have already come to me and I need to go finding them.

The second thing is that when I was younger I engaged in a lot of planning: I would know a lot about the shape of the piece and some of the details before writing it down. I do that less and less these days; it seems less and less successful for me as I get older. I supposed I’m looking for ways to be less formulaic and predictable and to repeat myself less baldly than I might otherwise do.

Nowadays, almost everything I write is on commission, so I begin with the physical facts of instrumentation and the hall and even personalities of musicians. But I tend not to know enough about the piece to start, but start anyway because there’s a deadline. I imagine it’s like a novelist who only knows the first page, or, who is it, John Irving, who only knows the last page when he sits down? He knows the ending and nothing else. And then I begin to discover what is the setting and who are the characters and how they interact.

I would have had a much more detailed map in the old days – and for whatever reason that doesn’t work very well for me or appeal to me as much.

I’m getting ideas by working with the materials rather than waiting for the materials to perfect themselves before putting them into a piece.

How has technology shaped your work as a composer?

In my case, basically, no. I’m just old enough and never became involved in electronic music. My thinking process and my physical writing process is almost exactly what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Having said that, there’s almost nobody younger than me who could still say that. I don’t compose on the computer, and I don’t use other digital technology very much.

The only way it’s affected my life is kind of trivial but wonderful. For example, I use a copyist – I send a piece of paper to a copyist – but I get the proofs and all the other transactions back by PDF instantly. All of that helps quite a bit. But the process of composing for me is just about the same.

How have you seen commissioning change in the years you’ve been working?

I’ve been writing music since – God! – at least the ’60s, and I do think that there was a sharp increase in commissioning opportunities in the early ’80s. It partly had to do with the Ford Foundation resident composer program, which was visible and inspired smaller organizations, too.

…there are so many more routes to commissioning now – crowdsourcing, friends getting together to co-commission a piece, individual donors who make it a hobby…

From my vantage point – and I’m looking at younger composers whom I teach or whom I know – it looks to me like the number of commissions being solicited and fulfilled is higher than ever. That sort of flies in the face of some of the bad news about the economic situation and the economic model. But there are so many more routes to commissioning now – crowdsourcing, friends getting together to co-commission a piece, individual donors who make it a hobby to do this.

Traditional commissioning is still going. Those of us who’ve lived off that model keep suspecting that it will go away, but it hasn’t gone away yet. During my lifetime, that model got bigger, and it spread to smaller institutions. The idea of a university doing this kind of commissioning when I was a kid was unheard of. It was the Boston Symphony and the New York Phil. And now it’s those and Pocatello Idaho and Fire Company in Minnesota. From the top down there’s been a democratization and a spread of the idea that commissioning is fun and interesting.

It’s not dying – or not dying yet – at the traditional level. We’re all worried about it, because it’s clearly in a period of transition, and we’re nowhere near finished with the transition yet. Some of us are fearful that the economic trends are going to change the landscape drastically at the level of the big institutions. But it’s early in that process right now, and it doesn’t seem to have to have cut off opportunities for composers just yet.

I think the recession is going to have a permanent effect. It came at a moment – not so much the aging of the audience as much as the morphing of the culture – into a culture in which there are 500 channels instead of two and in which the attitude toward the performing arts is mostly an attitude of entertainment: The New York Phil is in competition with reruns on TV and other forms of entertainment. And that means the subscription model is a lot less viable than it used to be. There are a lot more single-ticket sales and less loyalty to institutions – more playing the field.

For me, there are more giant cultural shifts than the graying of the audience. I have the feeling that the audience for classical music, with a capital c, was not young in previous decades. They were people who could afford the tickets, so they were old enough to have built up some money and have had the kids move away from home.

It’s not just age. It’s everything. It’s a whole rearranging of the multiple audiences and the hundreds of niche audiences that overlap in interesting ways. They’re not monolithic the way they used to be.


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