Saturday, September 25, 2010

From a Composer's Viewpoint

I recently spoke with a fellow composer about his compositional process. Evaluating our dialogue from within the framework of Nicholas Cook's ideas about 19th-century constructs opened my eyes to just how readily we (the supposedly "educated") accept the validity of those constructs. "When I wrote in the 80's," he said, "I avoided 3rds and 5ths like the plague. Of course, we all know about that era; composers couldn't use even remotely triadic materials." Couldn't? Or wouldn't? And why? Why are we so influenced by what the academic masses tell us we can or cannot do? (And yes, there are elitist "masses"--masses cultivated by critics who exploit herd mentality just as shamelessly as the purveyors of popular culture do!)

The composer continued: "This is one of my favorite compositions. It's essentially abstract in nature." He handed me the score. "I had been writing a lot of rhythm-and-blues numbers at the time, and I wanted to return to my greatest love: contemporary classical music." Two things immediately struck me as interesting in these statements: 1) This composer saw his rhythm-and-blues and his classical contemporary composing as two entirely separate entities, each with an affixed hierarchal value (he had to "return" to the exalted form after dabbling in the lower), and both immoveable within separate spheres, unable to overlap. 2) This piece that he labeled "essentially abstract in nature" was accompanied by a page-long program note.
"This contains no programmatic elements," he wrote in the program note. And yet a piece lacking programmatic elements was somehow enhanced by a program note?

I love what Nicholas Cook says about this in his typically clear and astute way: "Within the concert hall, 'pure' [instrumental] music reigns supreme. But the victory of music against the word [in the 19th century] was a flawed one. For as word was eliminated from music it began to fill the space around music. The paradox lies in the fact that if music needs to be explained through words, then it must stand in need of explanation, it must be in some sense incomplete without it."

When I was applying for grad schools, I very nearly removed the following statement from the biography on my website (for the very reason that the academic world seems to look down on programmatic music): "Words, to me, are music. I can't read a well-crafted poem or listen to a theatrical performance without musical voices threading their way through the spoken narrative. When setting a text, my own voice joins with the writer's in a unique way to form a new, or rather, renewed creation. Almost every piece I compose is inspired somehow by a poem, a theatrical idea or even just a word or phrase. Tonal music originally developed from vocal models, and my style tends to be governed by the lyricism and melodic phrasing associated with vocal writing, no matter my medium." Now I'm proud of myself for leaving it be.

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