Sunday, October 28, 2007

Exercises in Style

Without much doubt, one of the significant events in recent music history was the invention of the note. Not that notes had not been used before, but rather that we started paying attention to them in a different way. In fact, we become fairly obsessed with notes, often attending to them at the disadvantage of larger or small pieces of the musical fabric. Indeed: making and playing and listening to and anything else that might go into knowing a piece or repertoire of music often took second place to the all-important task of accounting for, explaining, or justifying every single note. Like many other composers of my time, this obsession with the note colored my entire approach to making music, an approach that usually began with a breakdown of possible materials into their smallest bits, i.e. notes, and would then proceed to distribute said bits until they had been satisfactorily arranged in one way or another.

The Oulipo: although I know too little of their work -- and of that, mainly novels by Queneau, Perec, and Mathews --, I do owe something substantial to the famous writers' workshop for "potential literature" (a term of art I really like), and that came in the recognition that Oulipo members never restricted their work, their experiments, to operations at an elemental level, but instead allowed that they could take place at any level of work from the sentence to the paragraph to the chapter to entire books or series or even (at least potentially) libraries. The same generous re-consideration of the scale of ones work could reasonably be extended to music, as not only the notes themselves, but phrases, movements, whole pieces, and whole repertoires could be subjected to disciplined creative action.

One book by Queneau in particular, his Exercises in Style, played an enormous role in my thinking about this question of the scale of operation. Although I've only recently read the excerpts translated in the Mathews/Brotchie Oulipo Compendium, and up to then know only that the book sets out to tell the same unimportant story in 99 different writing styles, the fact that there was a book out there called Exercises in Style made it possible for me to compose a number of works, among them a small "opera seria for handpuppets" called The White Canoe. Mr. Gorey's libretto for the opera was composed of 13 scenes of rhymed couplets, had a clear narrative, and satisfied -- if sometimes irreverently, all of the conventions of the number opera form. The libretto more or less demanded a score that at least paid respect to those conventions. So my experiments took place at a larger scale, in that each scene began as an exercise in the synthetic combination of at least two styles. Say, Mozart and Cole Porter. Or: Offenbach and Philip Glass. None of the combinations were to be done in the same way. In the end -- and I'm unsure whether this is virtue or vice -- little of the music was tied too closely to either of the source styles, and none was a simple synthesis of a pair or trio but became instead what might be called a dialectical other.

The imitation of musical styles is not a skill for which I can claim any particular virtuosity, or even virtuosity beyond that expected of musicians trained in a particular repertoire or two. But there are some circumstances that almost force a style upon a composer, and some styles are much easier to reproduce than others. For example, when asked by drama teacher at the German Gymnasium in Budapest to set some songs for a production of The Good Person of Sezuan, the lyrics forced my muse into a corner in which the presence of Weill was unmistakable, and I didn't resist the temptation. Another time, I got a call late at night from a stranger offering a welcome sum of money for some counterfeit Viennese classicism. That was tricky -- it had to fit into the style, but it also had to be something that was, in terms of the historical corpus, original. In short, I was commissioned to become a tightrope walker between those two goals. The everyday forger is a copyist, but the successful forger makes original works designed to be mistaken for unknown works of others.

The connection between stylistic imitation and musical training is often close. The composition of a "Palestrina Motet", "Bach fugue", or a "Haydn sonata movement" are tasks still frequently assigned to students of music theory, although every good music theory teacher is well aware of of the two perils involved: first, that there is no single road to Rome in imitating a style, any number of theoretical regimes (or, shall we say, algorithms) can be called into play to replicate a musical score, and it's entirely undecided which regime is either the most "authentic" or the most "efficient; second, if a student's compositions hews to closely to its models, it will likely to bore, a failure in terms of originality (and the very reason we choose particular works as models is their quality, among which is presumably originality), but if the exercise is too original, doing things unknown in the models, then the work may fail on plausibility grounds. A tightrope walk.

All that said, I still have to admit to a decided haziness about exactly what "style" is, and the border regions between apparent styles (like those between idiolects, dialects and languages) are both fascinating and frustratingly vague. (I'm sure that Potter Stewart would have defined style as well as anyone (i.e. See it -> Know it. (Picnic. Lightning)).) But when it comes to music, speechlessness is the norm, so if we're a bit vague when it comes to defining style, it's entirely with the range of the acceptable.

1 comment:

Charles Shere said...

There's so much here to ponder and respond to. Oulipo, to begin with: I've been thinking about Oumupo for a long time -- a laboratory for potential music. Of course Webern evolved a style that suggests a potential Oumupo, one so successful and in its way inimitable that it's in danger of being taken as the only possible Oumupo, which would be a contradiction in concepts.

It occurred to me only after finishing my hour-long Composition as Explanation for solo piano that it is an example of Oumupo, and I'm sure there are many others. We can take Four Saints in Three Acts as an unconscious emblem.

As to the question, What Is Style, perhaps Schoenberg addresses the question in Style and Idea: it's so long since I've read it that I've forgotten.

Peter Yates has useful things to say about Style in his book Twentieth Century Music: the book's not at hand, so I can't supply the exact citation.