Jeremy Geffen Musical Canon

Jeremy Geffen on Shaping the Musical Canon

December 14, 2022

“Broadening the existing canon is important. Creating a new one is important as well.”

Interview of Jeremy Geffen, Cal Performances’ Executive and Artistic Director. Video filming and editing by Tiffany Valvo, Cal Performances’ Social Media and Digital Content Specialist.


Jeremy Geffen:
I think one thing that is not acknowledged about the way that a canon develops is that it’s never set in stone.

We especially think of the term ‘canon’ when thinking of chamber music, solo piano, or solo violin, or solo cello recitals and concertos, symphonies that—or other orchestral works, operas. In a way, it’s just a way of organizing, sorting works.

It’s not completely fair to assume that because a work does not have a large following that it is not canonical. There are a whole group of works that are incredibly important but are somewhat niche. The more esoteric the conditions that are necessary to create the work, the less likely that those conditions can be replicated moving forward. So there’s a reason why composers, when they’re commissioned to write a new work, think about the standard complement of an orchestra, because if they write for the standard complement, it’s probably going to—it’s ability to move forward is not guaranteed, but it’s more likely.

There has been some negative attention devoted to the canon recently that it needs to be expanded and I wholeheartedly agree with that, but I think one thing that is not acknowledged about the way that a canon develops is that it’s never set in stone.

As we in the performing arts world commission new pieces, we’re constantly trying to expand the canon, and the best way to do that is by creating the circumstances for which performer or composer feels that they can write something that means something to them at that moment.

I think if you talk to any composer or performer, if they start thinking about creating for posterity alone rather than for the audience that’s going to hear that piece, they’re sunk. You have to create for a flesh-and-blood audience because they’re the ones who are going to receive the piece and ultimately, it’s their reaction to a piece and their desire to hear more of it that propels the work to greater popularity.

It is helpful when you are planning a season to have certain key elements in place, and that’s not necessarily a work that is canonical as much as it is a combination of works and performers and specific circumstances that make that event that you’re organizing something that is unmissable.

There’s a unique type of intellectual inquiry that happens on a campus like UC Berkeley and that level of curiosity and inquiry absolutely informs what we can program at Cal Performances. And that’s not to say that we only program things that you really have to be intellectually curious to be interested in, because no matter how many times you program Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, there will always be somebody in the audience who hears it for the first time and that’s one of the reasons that you program familiar works over again.

Also because the way that they are contextualized, what else they share the program with, and the specific performers that are going to give that concert change the meaning of the piece.

Programming at Cal Performances reflects both the works that are going to, that are already accepted and familiar and embraced and for which we want to hear live performance, and those works that, if you want to hear them, you have to go to that performance because they are unusual. They may not have yet been adopted and they may be new or they may be something from 200 years ago or 300 years ago whose creator we had otherwise forgotten and hearing it again now becomes a revelation and can spark off some great revival in that composer’s work.

You see how many people surround you in your daily life. If you reflect on how many people surrounded you two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, you’ll see that there are some people who are constant and there are some people who, for one reason or another, are not. Just because you don’t see the same person every year doesn’t mean that the service that they perform to you, or the contribution they made to your life, is less valuable than someone you see every day.

So, we have to keep in mind that there are works, there are composers, there are performers who we haven’t heard of, who are from the past but who are really important and who can be incredible discoveries.

So, broadening the existing canon is important; creating a new one is important as well. So that’s one of the reasons we commission new work, so that there is an influx of new works, recognizing that a small percentage of those are going to go on to a longer life. Again, that’s not a value judgment. A work that is premiered on a small ensemble program that has an enormous impact on the group in the room, that is a valuable work, whether or not somebody else performs it.

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