Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Trade Secrets

Paul Bailey writes:
composers are a strange bunch. i can hang out with my mused friends and we swap our successes and failures, but i have found that composers are not really type of people to hang out and talk shop. we like to dish on the politics and philosophy that surround art music, but i think its like we each think we are guarding the secrets to our own personal alchemy and are afraid to expose our process to to the masses for fear that me might get called out for being a fraud. its too bad, the sharing of ideas, strategies, techniques and “best practices” is a great way to pass on the tools of our craft, yet the most common transmission of this information is only to our private students and not to each other.
One reason we don't trade our trade secrets is that they're not really so secret -- for anyone with well-trained ears, the code to a piece of music is open, and every composer with adequate ears engages in music-industrial espionage at every opportunity. Another reason is that for any given musical surface, there are a sufficiently large number of alternative methods for generating that surface with no one methods necessarily better than any other. Another reason is that there is some prejudice out there against talking too concretely about the nuts and bolts of music, for fear of "destroying the magic"; one wants the musical end product to speak for itself and not for the technical legerdemain behind it. There is a not-so-small contingent of musicians for whom music which is accompanied by extensive technical discourse is somewhat suspect. (One of the reasons that old volumes of Perspectives of New Music are filled with discussion of that particular repertoire is simply that it was a repertoire which was amenable to such discussion). Another reason is that the more technical the discussion is, the more it feels like work. When accountants or dentists get together over beer, do they really want to chat about tax returns or tooth decay? When a composer has put down a manuscript paper or closed a notation file for the day, the mind, eyes, and ears are often ready for anything but more shop talk. Another reason is that talking in an engaging way about compositional technique is very rare. Sure, there are good historical repertoire-based harmony and orchestration teachers (I'm a damn good counterpoint teacher myself), but pre-compositional, or speculative theory is something altogether different

That said, there are a precious handful of composers who write or talk brilliantly and usefully about compositional technique. Get yourself first, children, to Lou Harrison's Music Primer, or to the Andriessen & Schoenberger The Apollonian Clockwork. John Cage's analytical half of the Virgil Thomson life and works is a remarkably clear and under-appreciated book. Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources remains, well, new and resourceful. I also turn for compositional instruction to sources outside of music: anything by or about artist Robert Irwin, for example, Paul Klee's fantastic little Pedagogical Sketchbook, or Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer. The best compositional lesson I ever had was either an afternoon spent posing for the painter Stanley Goldstein or learning to cook sambar with the vina virtuoso K.S. Subramanian.

And as to the statement that "composers are a strange bunch": you'll find no argument on the facts here. But as strange as we are, we also have to get our cars to the mechanic, buy groceries, fox leaky faucets, peel potatoes, shuttle the kids to school (and all the places they go after school), and pretty much all of the other mundane tasks of modern life. I sometimes wonder if that wouldn't be a better -- and more poetic -- point of departure for discussing contemporary composers than beginning with our eccentricities. In fact, I probably could tell you more about my composing if we started talking about cooking, or paramutual thoroughbred betting, or mumblety-peg -- things I like to do and do well -- rather than going right to my favorite voice leadings or scoring patterns or why I prefer to do chance operations with a poker deck instead of yarrow rods.


paul bailey said...


good points and good resources, my invitation isn't really to encourage a discussion about technique (i'd rather have all my teeth pulled also), but to shed some light on the process.

i've also had some pretty great conversations with josquin, satie and monteverdi, but unfortunately they aren't writing anymore(because they are dead). conversations with the living could be kind of fun and spirited...

thanks for playing,


Charles Shere said...

"John Cage's analytical half of the Virgil Thomson life and works is a remarkably clear and under-appreciated book. " I agree, but it's worth noting that it was greatly re-written by Thomson himself: one of the things that came between the two composers. I regret never having heard a definitive statement from either of them about the matter; both seemed evasive.

kraig grady said...

A big fan of Klee's 'The thinking Eye' but also, especially, Charles Olsens manifesto on Prospective Verse.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of weird that it's like that, but often musicians pretend to be magicians instead of pretending to be scientist.