Monday, January 12, 2015

Notes from the Pluriverse {1}



It was around 6:30 in the morning on July 18, 1997. This is one of those dates that I can pinpoint, not because I remember the exact date (I have a lousy memory for facts), but because it was the first day of the second Buffalo Music Theory Symposium – the dates are easily found on the web. I was there to present a paper on an unlikely topic, "The Z-Relation in Neo-Riemannian Transformations."

I didn't really know why I was there. In the first place, I had (and have) no qualifications that would put me in the company of the small and highly distinguished group of scholars invited to attend, and I had no expectation that what I had to offer would be of any interest to anyone there. In the second place, I have a phobia involving euphemistically named "conferences" where you suddenly realize you've been trapped inside someone else's fable.

I feel I can now admit that more than once I have fled a conference presentation on a topic of interest to me and rushed back to the sanctuary of my hotel room with a Snicker Bar and a Coke to watch The Price Is Right or Jerry Springer.

Milton Babbitt may have had a touch of this phobia as well. I was once told, by the organizer of a smallish invitation-only conference, that when the first scheduled meeting was ready to begin, Milton was nowhere to be seen. They waited for a while, then the organizer called his room. Rather annoyed, Milton said to go ahead and start without him – he would be there as soon as the game he was watching was over. Well, maybe this wasn't my phobia, just a matter of Milton's priorities. In either case, the organizer who told me the story didn't seem to appreciate the humor and was obviously inviting me to share in his indignation. But I digress.

The Buffalo conference was to turn out to be one of those rare meetings out of the admittedly few I have attended that lives up to the name "conference" (thanks to the synectic mix of participants & John Clough's sensitive planning ear). My mounting anxiety was to prove unfounded. Still, when I walked in to the hotel restaurant for breakfast the first morning, I was relieved to find no one else there yet. I just wanted to sit alone, eat my breakfast, and gather my thoughts while pretending to read my free copy of USA Today. I had just taken my first sip of coffee when a voice said, "May I join you?" I looked up to see David Lewin.

Although we had corresponded, I had never really had a private conversation with David before that – only small talk at a conference dinner once. I can't say exactly that he grilled me, but he was curious and managed to get me to tell him about some of my adventures as a closet theorist (defined as a non-academic theorist who knows enough to keep his mouth shut when visiting the academy). Then came a question no one had asked me before.

"Steve, do you compose?"
Big G.P. while I chewed on a bite of toast.
"Well, no, I don't ... I mean, not much any more. ... I used to. I used to try. ... There was a. ... It's not so easy with a 9-to-5 job. ... I just can't find the time. ... It's different than ...."

He interrupted, quietly, almost conspiratorially:

"You should make the time."

No one had ever before gotten to my well-guarded core.

Others began to straggle in and join us, and then we were all shuttled off to Buffalo (U) for the day.

I had breakfast alone with David the next morning as well. Evidently we were the only two early risers in the lot. Over the few years left we never talked about "a composing life" again. So I never got the chance to ask the same question back at him – to get at the core that I now realized we shared – more importantly, to get at how he got over the wall of that amazingly beautiful cloister he had built and into the more dangerous exoteric world of personal expression. It was much later, after his death, that I got an answer of sorts.

As I looked through his relatively sparse collection of compositions and noted the large gaps between their dates I realized that David's advice to me was advice he must have repeated again and again to himself. He wanted it all, but even he just couldn't find the time.

There is a Moses and Aaron tragedy that's played out by all those who seriously struggle through their art. The field for that struggle is what I've tried to describe quasi-metaphorically in the tri-partite model. I now confess my inspiration for that entire fantasy came from David Lewin. The following is from a letter David wrote to Oliver Neighbour that is now part of the David Lewin Collection at the Library of Congress.
Your overriding interest is in the man [Schoenberg] and his music.  Mine is too, when I have my analysis hat on.  That is when I make Dr. Jekyll type statements, from your point of view.  But I have at least two other hats which I wear on occasion, which is when I say those narsty things.  One I would call my Theory hat.  When you get around to Lewin/Cone [“Behind the Beyond: A Response to Edward T. Cone,” PNM 7:2 (Spring-Summer, 1969), pp.59-69], you’ll see what I mean by distinguishing this from my Analysis one.  You probably will not agree with me that it is possible (much less desirable) to distinguish the hats conceptually.  On that issue, you would be on Ed’s side and not mine.  Incidentally, I have a great deal of respect for EC also; among other things, I took several courses from him with great profit at P’ton (or, as we used to call it, the Six and Twelve Store).  Then I have still another bonnet which, however, I don’t wear in print: my Composer hat.  With that hat on, my interest in either AS or serialism is as completely self-serving as my interest in Mozart or tonality … more so as regards tonality in any case.  Baldly, what interests me then is “what’s in it for me to use.”  From that point of view, my tendency is also to try to separate “the system,” to the extent I can, from AS’s personal musical profile; I am interested in using “the system” as a matter of public domain, so to speak, but of course not interested in writing watered-down pastiches of  Schoenberg’s personal discourse.  And of course, in between “the system” and AS’s personal manner lies a large area which one could classify as the “usual” sorts of technical things a composer can learn by studying the work of a great composer of another generation.  This area contains such things as control of rate-of-change that you cite (here one can learn much from Mozart also, and beyond that, from concurrent study of both composers).  And this area merges fuzzily. For me, into “the system” at one extreme and personal manner at the other.  Now one of these fuzzy boundaries exists for any composer: the one between craft and personal manner.  It seems to me that what we are arguing, in this context, is whether or not there is also a fuzzy boundary at the other end, between craft and “method” (to vary the terminology) in Schoenberg’s case.  I am claiming that there is such, and you are claiming there isn’t (more or less, when all the endless qualifications are made).  A lot of the reason I am prepared to maintain and defend that position, personally, has to do with my intuition as a composer.  That is, I feel that I can use “the method” as a vehicle for my own expression, to a considerable extent without feeling bound not only by Schbg’s personal manner, but more significantly by his general “style,” the latter involving predilections for certain kinds of musical situations, and certain ways of treating and working out their musical implications.  I don’t pretend to Olympian stature as a composer, but I’m very sure that every composer who has ever written twelve-tone music has experienced a similar feeling, if he is worth his salt as a self-respecting artist, of whatever rank.  (At least until recently, when it has become possible and even fashionable to write serial music without having heard any of Schbg’s music … or any music at all, for that matter.)  I’m sure Webern felt this, and I’m sure Berg did too, though he probably would never have dared admit it to himself.  It’s more than obvious that Stravinsky felt it.  Were/are we all just kidding ourselves?  Very possibly, it may be that all “the method” amounts to is a certain means by which obscure electrical circuits in the brains, or endocrine secretions in the blood, of many composers at a certain period in history have been stimulated, in such a way as to inspire creative results when the composers play the appropriate mental games.  I’m not being completely sarcastic about this, I think there is probably at least a grain of truth in it, and possibly a good deal more.  I would however, argue that even to the extent composers have been and are fooling themselves, in considering that they can use “the method” without being bound by Schoenberg’s “style” (as above), the illusion was/is artistically necessary, in order to accomplish anything; and it has turned out to be quite productive.  And then, to what extent can one distinguish a tenet which is necessary and productive for artists, from one which is artistically “true”?
February 26, 1974

1 comment:

Carsonics said...

Wonderful story. I am a composer who's interest in theory is one of necessity - I investigate music and technique that interests my imagination and curiosity - isorhythmic motets, Monteverdi madrigals, Sonatas for Prepared Piano, Haydn piano sonatas, the works of Bach, Schoenberg, etc. Rather than fooling myself that I am capable of understanding the enormous complexity of contemporary music and language, I focus on composing music and theory is a learning tool for my creative comprehension and investigation. I have composed serial music, but I'm more interested in my own conceptual understanding of that "system" and exploiting that rather than worrying about if what I am doing is authentic or even correct. I like to start by asking my own questions and exploring my own conclusions; that is in tandem with absorbing and learning from study. Creativity is a reflex - what goes into the mind comes out of the mind. So rather than being concerned with outcomes or political correctness, I am interested in the process - getting in there and getting dirty, learning through doing, finding my own voice. Composing is a necessity for me, not an option or activity. And necessity is the mother of invention. The weakness of composers who still feel the need to use serialism and 12 tone technique (unless for commercial reasons) is that it is not their own language and they may be great technicians, but they're lousy authors. Good music requires something real, personality, passion, not so much snapping together of things documented in theory books. Bach's music is Bach's language, not a language that Bach used. Yes, we need to study the masters and learn from them, but we also need to turn off the judgement voice that prevents us from exploring our inner musical child. You can show children how to draw a birthday cake, or you can ask them to draw a birthday cake of their own invention. With the first option they will copy what the teacher does. With the second option they will draw what is in their imagination - the second option is where true creativity develops.