Sunday, September 10, 2006

Surface, not veneer

Years ago, in an exhibition in California, a couple of small drawings by Don Weygandt stood out. They were just still lives, maybe even bowls of fruit, but they were so well composed that the relationship between his delicate lines and the space around them quickly erased the images from my mind, but those lines and that articulated space have remained with me ever since. Weygandt later explained that his own teacher had been an abstract expressionist, and that although he used concrete images in his work, his working method had been imformed deeply by that his teacher.

In a few sentences, Weygandt had explained something very hard to me, and something that is also hard about music: surface appearances, the immediate sensation or impression of a work, can often be incidental rather than essential to the work itself. In my own work, I have come to understand that the surface, which may be modal or tonal or anti- or atonal or none/all-of -the-above, is often simply the accidental by-product of compositional concerns that lie elsewhere. Often, the surface may be more than suggestive of some historical music, but that rarely comes from an impulse to imitate existing music, it comes instead from some fairly abstract ways of working with musical materials, and it is often unclear whether my methods have anything at all to do with the methods of the composers of the works my music resembles. (Which should not be too surprising, as there are always alternative algorithms for arriving at the same result). I enjoy the possibility of a musical universe in which "work like Mumma, sound like Monteverdi" (or the other way 'round) is a real possibility.

There is a notion with considerable currency in the music community that new music should be given a veneer -- packaged, one might say -- so that the work is more immediately attractive to a wider audience. Such a veneer typically appeals to aural habits or supposed natural preferences. (Advocates for a program of tonality-or-bust often make an appeal to nature that becomes tenuous when one starts to define precisely what that tonality may or may not be; written too broadly the definition collapses under inclusiveness, written too narrowly the definition evaporates in the real evidence of alternative tonal practices around the globe). I have to reject this notion, and not only because I wish to reserve the right to use whatever surface happens to project my ideas best, even when my choice is at wide variance from the surfaces on offer for standard off-the-shelf market commodities. I have to reject it because this is a fundamentally pessimistic, if not cynical, assessment of the human capacity to listen. While musical practice and music-cognitive research have defined to some extent the extent and limits of music perception as it has been practiced, it is far from clear to be that they have defined the extent and limits of music as it might be practiced; and that is something that can only be defined through new compositions.

It might be argued that mine is an elitist stance, making unneccesary demands on listeners, but I disagree. For one, it hardly represents a the position of a real power-wielding elite of any sort; it is the interests that mass-produce musical commodities and compete for market share and profitability who can yield such real power, and can even be connected to real political power (if you have any doubt: just try to aquire a major market broadcast license). But more importantly, the idea that music can challenge listening habits and that listening to music is a highly individual activity is an optimistic idea. I am optimistic that listeners can attend to more than surface, that listeners can be open to the possibility of learning and changing through the listening experience, and that individual character and quality of response to music is the individual sign and symptom of a universal music-perceptual competence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But isn't an attractive surface - whether incidental to the work or not - a good, positive 'skill' to develop? I remember when I first looked at your blog and started reading the archives I came across this post of yours on both Ferneyhough and Feldman. Pairing up these two made me think of how attractively surface-y both of their musics sounded yet what's underneath still offers its own set of challenges...I do think of surface as something good, something to hook you into whatever else the work may offer. It encourages repeated listening. And to follow from that, by repeat listening you can trust the listener to see a work as nothing beyond a pretty surface, if that is indeed the case.