Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Composing Utopias

Harry Brighouse, at Crooked Timber, links to an interesting article by Erik Olin Wright on "Guidelines for Envisioning Real Utopias". This is very cool, and I couldn't but help recognize that this set of guidelines may apply to composition as well:
1. Evaluate alternatives in terms of three criteria: desirability, viability, achievability.
2. Do not let the problem of achievability dictate the discussion of viability.
3. Clarify the problem of winners and losers in structural transformation.
4. Identify normative trade-offs in institutional designs and the transition costs in their creation.
5. Analyze alternatives in terms of waystations and intermediary forms as well as destinations. Pay particular attention to the potential of waystations to open up virtuous cycles of transformation.
For a composer, this is obviously a wildly alternative set of terms for describing our work, and I'm not at all certain that point three is (or could even be made) relevant, but the distinction between viability and achievability is certainly a real one for composers and it is useful in composing to consider the trade-offs or ramifications which alternative realizations of ideas place upon a finished work. Consider, for example, the problems encountered by Glass and Reich when each started to write for more conventional ensembles: although these are profoundly different musical projects, in both cases, serious questions were raised about the essence of their own compositional idioms, the identification of the music with a certain ensemble character, the translation of the idiom into ensembles with their own features, traditions, and limitations, and the possibilities offered by technology for mediating or even transcending these issues, for example, through electronic amplification and mixing.

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