Saturday, February 17, 2007

Loneliness or Conviviality?

For a musician, the tension between individual identity -- identification with ones own music, and personal statisfaction with the music's quality -- and conviviality, the capacity of music to connect to others, is often irresolvable and sometimes unbearable.

The words are chosen carefully here: identity is something other and more than ownership, the work is rather more like an extension of ones person and is as different from the work of another as one person is different from another person. Conviviality is a term of John Cage's, and was a quality he recognized in both the ensembles and the renewed but not retrograde tonal languages of composers like Glass or Reich. The connection to others found in this conviviality is something other than communication, unless we both reduce communication to the most basic level, like the communication of diseases, and raise it, to something approaching perfect empathy.

There are two pictures of composers that never sit quite comfortably with one another: the lonely artist taxing mind and soul in his garret (think of Sebastian Bach retiring each evening armed with a bottle of brandy to empty while composing*) and the public artist either triumphantly received or completely misunderstood. These images are perhaps reconciled in the popular imagination in the moment of Beethoven's funeral, in which the streets of Vienna were packed to mourn the loss of a popular but still very private public figure, yet Beethoven had spent his last decade effectively challenging every element of his music that had led to precisely that wide acceptance.


In our musics, composers have a tendency to stage this conflict as a tension between the immediate surface of the music and that which lies beneath it. I owe my teacher Alvin Lucier a lot, but this is a particularly large debt: Lucier counseled me to get away from the notion that an attractive surface or veneer was necessary or even, in any honest sense, a net addition to a work of music. Lucier's advice was to distill the work to its essentials, to its core idea, and to allow both depth and surface to emerge naturally from this distillation. This absence of a clearly delineated surface does not mean that the music is less polyvalent, less deep, or less rich, rather that the complexity of the whole was not immediately separable into its layers or parts. You might compare it to the difference between a massive piece of hardwood, let's say a chunk of rosewood, and a particle-board plank with a rosewood veneer. In the hardwood, the complexity of patterns and relationships goes all the way through and across the wood, and each cell is marked by a history unique to the whole. The veneer, on the other hand, is effectively stripped away from one of its dimensions, its natural, historical depth, and glued to a compacted mush of fragments of lesser lumber even more anonymized.

Lucier's advice came to me at an important moment. Many of the composers whose work I had treasured, the first generation of minimalists, had been moving decisively away from a music in which one surface (the "notes" played or sung) was principally a means towards the production of an acoustically complex whole. The notes were often of little intrinsic musical interest in themselves, save for their capacity -- through amplification, repetition, overlaying, phasing, interference, combination tones, etc -- to become something else, richer in both detail and depth. Indeed, the music of Reich, Glass, and others, became largely a music about those notes, those damnably uninteresting notes, and although this may have opened their works to a larger audience of musical consumers, there was definitely something substantial lost in the move. The conviviality of the mass audience had replaced the more intimate conviviality of the older audience, one that was measurably smaller, but also one that had been committed to the notion that our practice of listening, real existing listening, if you will, had the potential to change.


In the end of Morton Feldman's interview with Walter Zimmermann, Feldman speaks of young artists and their attraction to the convivial. Feldman offers his blessing:

"But God bless them, and good luck to them... and all I could wish them in life is to be lonely."
* For some reason, I'm also reminded of the story, possibly apocryphal, of an episode of The French Chef, in which Julia Child drops a piece of poultry, and -- without missing a beat -- grabs it from the floor, looks right at the camera and says her never-mind: "remember, when you're in the kitchen, you're all alone."


paul bailey said...


half the battle is knowing which notes to keep. its always much easier in my head. your observations are a needed tonic in the dark of night.

keep fighting the fight,


Anonymous said...

I never heard that about Bach before ... undoubtedly he must have spent many nights getting the cantata finished for next Sunday (or more accurately for the copyists on Friday, for the rehearsal on Saturday). I wonder why he didn't use coffee ... maybe his brain was too active already.

Composition is (almost always) necessarily a lone activity, whether dramatised with brandy and candlelight or not. That's independendent of the question who the composer intends to communicate to.

Some music certainly has constructed layers and parts (eg Bach!) - some doesn't. A lot of effort has gone into trying to pin down how the layers relate to each other in successful compositions... without all that much enlightenment.

'Allow both depth and surface to arise naturally from a distillation of the core' is the type of mixed metaphor that gets me drunk almost immediately. I can sort of see what it means, but I think it might miss one aspect : you don't know what 'the work' is until you can imagine its sound, and at that point it's practically done already.

To put it another way, the solution of compositional problems can involve the surface and the depth reacting on one another in a way that makes you reassess what you thought the 'core idea' was.