Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Full Disclosure

This article, comparing the WikiLeaks strategy with that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets is one of the strangest and more compelling items I've read of late.

Composers have secrets, too.  There is a lot of debate over whether a piece of music should be explainable, down to the smallest single glyph of notation, according to a formal plan.  I simply don't know if that is even an interesting question, let alone criterion with which to evaluate a piece of music.  For one, any piece can be described by an indefinite number of algorithms and I am unaware of any convincing means for determining which algorithm is most efficient, relevant, meaningful etc., thus whether it is necessary to know the particular plan followed by the composer in order to understand how the piece works (let alone what it means)  is pretty much up in the air. For another, I am pretty much convinced that composers, whether formally or informally, negotiate between calculation (the plan), chance (or circumstance or whim), and choice (or habit or taste).  This negotiation is highly individual, tied in with one's identity as a musician, even as a person, and I don't think that many musicians are very articulate about this — it gets close to self-analysis — nor  do I think that they need be, nor do I think we need be party to such.  The work itself is what interests us, and an interesting work has a life well beyond its construction.        

The composers that mean the most to me seem to share one aspect of their working biographies. It is this: they each went through a period of rather fundamental research, identifying the materials that most interested them and developing a body of techniques that would be the foundation for mature work, if no longer necessarily followed with much of a system.  In some cases, there is some honest appeal to mysticism (Ferneyhough, for one, is upfront about this; Stockhausen was upfront about his own youth in thrall to Cologne-style Catholicism and to Magister Ludi; I think Nono's Marxism is, in its way, an equivalent faith, as is Babbitt's positivism — so clear and complete and precise as to be incomprehensible —  in its own way), but isn't an appeal to mysticism generally a way of signaling a level of complexity one hesitate to penetrate further, and thus for obscuring the wonderfully mixed and diverse impulses and efforts that lead to one's work?  For me, the ad libitum approach to their tool boxes used by Harrison, Cage, Feldman, Wolff, and Kondo has been influential, but I cheerfully take responsibility for every note, even especially the ones I cannot explain. 


AlexDaniels said...

I'm trying to think of something smart to say but I really can't. I basically agree with everything and disagree with nothing :) Great post!

Daniel Wolf said...

Alex: thanks for reading. And don't worry, if you keep reading, you're sure to come across something to disagree with!