Letter to a Young composer

I recognize and celebrate your “right to write,” to compose, express your innermost feelings, create or recreate impressions of life around you, to celebrate beauty (or otherwise), make social commentary through music, to experiment, as well as to look forward, in creating something new and never heard before.

If you choose to express yourself through other human beings (rather than simply electronic means) please get to know your fellow performers. Study their abilities before you write for them. Study their instrument, listen to their recordings, search out those who share your common interests and ideals, and write for them as well as yourself. Find advocates and match your abilities with people of your own generation. Remember that every generation is supposed to improve technically (at the very least), as they have the wisdom of previous generations given to them in single moments that took those same elders years to acquire through study, experimentation, and success (as well as failure). Study the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Berio, just to mention a few who live on through their music.

When I was much younger, every composer was older than me, but for my peers. So I played the music of my peers, and commissioned the older composers (my teachers, whom I respected, or composers whose music spoke to me). Thus, Michael Horvit (an early electronic piece with live saxophone written for my teacher Jeffrey Lerner), Gunther Schuller (a concerto by my teacher Gunther, dedicated to my saxophone teacher Joseph Allard), and David Amram (a musician I played for, liked very much and became a lifelong friend) were my beginnings. I also remember my classmate Richard Hermann, who wrote a small short solo piece that I played at New England Conservatory, with Pulitzer Prize winning composer Don Martino in the audience (Rick’s teacher). I loved Martino’s music, knew I would commission him some day, and was glad he was there. He told Rick, ‘He’s a very good saxophonist but he needs to learn to play what’s on the page (Rick’s music had many meter changes, expressive marks, etc., but I thought I had freedom in this solo piece). I felt lucky to have heard that from Rick (not Don), and vowed to be true to the pieces and music I played. In the case of Don Martino, whose music of the time was considered by me to be most difficult because of both technical demands and ‘over-notation,’ (for instance, Don would frequently write a musical line with three expressive markings over each note in the line. He invented the double tenuto (looks like an equal (=) sign, and might use it over a dotted sixteenth note, along with a crescendo and diminuendo! I will never forget playing the first 2 pages of the concerto that he was writing for me, in his basement, and having him say “What are you doing?” I said, “I am playing what you wrote! Look at all these markings.” Ironically, Don said, “That’s just for the unimaginative performers. Play it like Brahms!” I did, and then, I understood the care and meanings of those markings. For the most part, in the close to 100 pieces I have commissioned I have known the composer. I would estimate that less than 10 were not my friends, and chosen considering some extra-musical reason; a grant application, a career-builder, etc. They were not as successful, and I try to avoid them these days, and have been relatively successful doing so. (Thank-you Ringo Starr for, “We get by with a little help from out friends.”) I much prefer working with, and making friends. I make 5-6 new friends (new works) a year. Music is not a business; it is a way of living a happy and fulfilling life. And I spend a good amount of time teaching, because that is my major responsibility (in my own small way) to civilization. I formed the “Radnofsky Quartet,” to play great music as well as commission new works. The Masterworks we play include the works of Bach, Wuorinen, Donatoni, and I am very proud of our own commissions, (which include Lei Liang (as part of World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund, Inc., which I founded and continue to direct), as well as Felipe Lara, John Morrison, Eric Sawyer, Lansing McLoskey, Armand Qualliotine, John McDonald and Fran Trester (to name some but not all, and with apologies to any inadvertently omitted). I also formed a publishing company with Michael Couper ( to do the same kind of work in disseminating the work.

In all cases previously mentioned those composers knew me, and set to work. They did their homework, and so did I. I told them to write anything they wanted and I would learn it. Neither side abused that. We knew the responsibility, time, and integrity required to make good on such a promise.

In the case of workshops with young composers, and sometimes preconcert preparations in single meetings with composers just a day or two before a performance, I find that the young composer does not know me, my work, has taken fingerings out of a book that doesn’t work, has written the highest notes possible as fast as possible, the lowest notes the same way (and as soft as possible), has tried to invent new notation that he/she expects to be sight-read and/or recorded, or upon discovery of what was incorrectly notated makes a change that further complicates the timing of the sax-o-athlete, which at least acknowledges that the saxophonist is human. In most cases, humanity is also forgotten, as the composer merely recomposes, with the expectation that the other human being will upload the information, and fully process. It doesn’t work that way for me. It seems inconsiderate and impolite to ask such of another person, much less expect it.

However, as we know, the next generation is able to thinks and act using multiple processes and multi-tasking, as humans are rewiring themselves. It is happening now and as you meet those people who are wired like you, treasure their abilities. As you do experiment, be patient and polite with your performer. You own your creative thoughts, but they need to be imparted to your performer in such a way that the performer can be your re-creative as well as creative “medium.” If your manuscript looks like an architectural drawing (by the way, I love composer manuscript, as it tells me about them in a personal way, but it must be readable), or you invent new symbols, or ask too much in a short amount of time, don’t listen to your performer, or write music that you can’t “hear” yourself, you will have problems in achieving musical success. Any one of these things can de-rail you, your performance and career. Your teacher, Lei Liang, earlier in his career wrote atmospheric, spatial, simple notation, and no more or less than was needed; later he added much more specific notation, such as may be seen in “Yuan,” in specific time frames, pitches, rhythms, etc. But his music is still of the same honest, true soul, a person who knows himself, and has something to express. He is a person of great character (and always was). Consider your models, and I wish you much success.

Looking forward to meeting all of you and learning your music, and am happy to hear from you through the process,

Most sincerely,

Ken Radnofsky

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