Friday, November 04, 2005

Gelassenheit, or Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

My work in progress has pretty much stopped sounding like a sketch; the scale and proportions of the whole are emerging. In order to get to this point, I had to jetison a whole section, notes - if not quite music - of which I had grown fond, but ultimately couldn't fit into this piece. But getting over or around this act of excision has been tough and, if you'll bear with me, I'd like to try to explain why it's been so tough.

Since writing a piece called Dessins d'Enfants (1999, trombone & piano, written for Roland Dahinden & Hildegard Kleeb), my composing has been increasingly engaged with the idea that very different means of putting notes together can lead to astonishingly similar musical surfaces. Like the good experimentalist I trained to be, I still work with first principles applied to fairly raw musical materials, but the finished pieces often exhibit features that immediately recall historical musics, although sometimes that recollection may be a bit skewed, as if seen through a funhouse mirror.

All of my teachers, and Alvin Lucier especially, have what could be called a "classical" attitude. Getting a piece into the shape that most clearly presents the idea of the work without excess or expressive baggage is central to that attitude. Quoth Lucier: "I like my music clear, like gin". But in the music that I am making now, clarity is less on display and ambiguity is a frequent trope (in the world of potent potables, bourbon would be a closer equivalent than gin). But that lack of clarity is an accident of surface, not a direct or inevitable result of compositional methods. One composer whose music has been essential to me, Jo Kondo, describes his music as the "art of being ambiguous". Kondo is never explicit about what exactly he is being ambiguous, but I am fairly confident that it is an idea about tonal music. If my own music achieves a similar level of artful ambiguity, I would be mighty pleased.

A lot of the accidental resemblance between my current music and older music is simply due to the fact that I'm making conventionally notated music for voices and established instruments instead of electronics and found or invented instruments. Some conventions just come with the territory, and it's been a series of minor revelations to discover some features of that territory. For example, I had no idea how much almost-tonal music you could make just by bopping about long enough with a diatonic collection of pitches, or how sensitive a musical style could be to the repeated application of a single motive: if you don't repeat it enough, it falls under the tonal attention radar, if you repeat it a bit too often it becomes boring or annoying, and if you repeat it very much, it disappears into background noise. These minor revelations seem to confirm that -- to paraphrase Schönberg -- there really is still plenty of music in C major, especially when you are willing to rethink what "C major" might mean.

But compositional identity is something like brand marketing, and coming onto the market -- even a market as minor as that for serious new music -- with some music that sounds to any extent like something familiar is risky. And that's the source of my excision problem. The section that I have now removed was generated by operations done in the spirit of the rest of the piece, so it belonged abstractly and intellectually. But when heard with a musician's ears, with all of the experience and habits that a life of playing music brings, the section just didn't fit. In spite of all my experimentalist claims, by not taking the risk of letting the piece fail on terms external to the experiment, by removing a section through an appeal to musicality, do I run the risk of just writing another piece of music? I need to think more about this notion of risk.

David Feldman & I talked recently about making a game theory for new music. (This came about when we discussed the recent Nobel Prize winners in Economics, two game theorists). David pointed out that back in the early seventies, in New York, he was on a mailing list for new music events, and while most of the concerts advertised were same-old this, or same-old that, the postcards that Steve Reich mailed out to announce his concerts with sample score pages were real outliers. The music appeared to be tonal, so it was clearly not one kind of some-old, but it was repetitive in a way that could not have been the other kind of same-old. Reich was definitely introducing something new into the market, and he did it by adjusting the balance between the familar and the novel in an interesting way. Perhaps that's a good model.

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