Monday, October 18, 2010

Due grandi gusti

“In both the arts and sciences the programmed brain seeks elegance, which is the parsimonious and evocative description of a pattern to make sense out of a confusion of detail.” (E. O. Wilson, Consilience, p. 239)
“Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, cool reason against passionate abandonment, which drive the mood swings of the arts and criticism, be reconciled?” (Ibid, pp. 235-236)
“…even the greatest works of art might be understood fundamentally with knowledge of the biologically evolved epigenetic rules that guided them.” (Ibid, p. 233)
Do you write rationally or intuitively?

Wait. You opened with three epigraphs. I’m not answering your question until you acknowledge the epigraphs.

I opened with three epigraphs. Do you want to know why?

Am I supposed to answer two questions now?

Do you always answer questions with questions?

Wait — what?

We are both Davy. Which one of us is the id, and which of us is the ego?

Does it always have to be just one or the other? Id/ego? Rational/intuitive? Plain text/Italic?

So which one am I?

Um, you are Italic.

No, I meant, id or ego? Am I Davy’s id or his ego?

I have a better question. What does E.O. Wilson mean by parsimonious in the first epigraph? My dictionary says it means stingy or frugal. And what are epigenetic rules?

He means efficient. Behavior that is hard-wired as compared to culturally programmed. “Proliferation” of detail would be more elegant than “confusion” of detail. Wait — I’m asking the questions!

You are?

Stop it! Okay, that Apollonian/Dionysian thing. Since you are I, I know you’ve gotten this question plenty of times. Where do you stand on the great divide between, as Wilson pretentiously puts it, cool reason and passionate abandonment?

Do you want to know how I usually answer that question?

Soupir. Please.

Okay, I’ll start, as I usually do in this space, with a seemingly unrelated tangent, let that drift into an anecdote or two, then utter some nonsense syllables not derived from words in Sanskrit, move to an awkward segue, then poof! an answer will have already emerged.

I find it fascinating to read the various discussions on the interwebtubes about teaching composition. There’s at least one really big one of these every year. It usually starts either with “what can be taught?” or “can composition be taught at all?”, and commenters stake out their positions with rigid philosophical rants and/or touching anecdotes. I only bring this up, because I love, love reading the heartfelt anecdotes about how composition teachers changed everything for me, of course composition can be taught, responded to in the next comment with one word:


Talk about your binary arguments.

By the way. I’m a composer. How do I pay the mortgage? I teach composition and theory. If composition can’t be taught, then I’m a fraud. So you know on which side my mortgage is buttered. And what’s with the silent ‘t’ in ‘mortgage’, anyways? Is the first half of the word the French for dead? (Yes: dead pledge)

Just a brief response, then on to the point. Ideas can’t be taught. The history of how ideas, once had, have historically been treated in pieces of music — that can be taught. Integrating someone else’s parallel solution into the specific problem at hand in a new way — fast and loose whether that can be taught. Creativity in the most primal sense can’t be taught — either you have ideas or you don’t — but being creative in the general sense can be taught. The composition teacher assimilates a body of existing solutions in order to bring the appropriate ones out when they can or might be helpful to a student in a similar situation. Boy is that generic.

Channeling a dead inventor: I teach the ninety-nine percent perspiration. Also known as chops.

The answer is: they’re both right.

In my undergraduate years, I had a colleague who had a big pile of great ideas for pieces, each with long and entertaining explanations of how the piece would go and what it was doing. He never wrote a single one of them. He was one percent guy.

Still ninety-nine percent won’t happen until one percent does.

Just like you can’t swim in the pool until somebody unlocks the pool room.

So I took two summers of composition lessons from John Heiss. He charged $50 in 1979 dollars in 1979 and $50 in 1980 dollars in 1980. I was working on my thoughtful work for violin and piano. Now imagine I had begun the piece with this self-enclosed phrase to the right — it has had articulations, dynamics and other symbols removed for the sake of clarity.

You don’t have to imagine it! It’s what I had actually begun the piece with! It’s a sharp chord in the piano with the violin sustaining the top note of the chord, breaking into an angular yet turgid tune, ending with the agogic accent while the piano arpeggiates and sustains another chord.

As gestures, the phrase is unremarkable. It’s a typical short-breathed piece-opening gesture, and the phrases that were to follow were longer. That’s a very traditional and generic way to describe it, and it’s a pretty common opening gambit. If you were the composition teacher looking at this phrase, what would you notice about it?

I might comment on the wedge gesture and the registral span of the violin’s melody and ask if the composer really wants a beginning with such a big playground (not much room to expand). As an extension of that question, I’d also ask the composer to explain the dramatic leap of over two octaves. And I’d probably comment that the lengthening and registral widening happening at the end of the phrase is an effective cadence.

I would not ask the composer how he got the notes. Unless they sounded wrong.

But since I was the composer, and I thought I should be trying to squeeze as much music out of as few materials as possible, I cared where the notes came from. You can see in this phrase how much I cared: it’s the same thing three times, expressed differently each time, and not insignificantly, utilizing the entire chromatic. That “same thing” is a musical unfolding of five-note chromatic collections: the violin from C (up) to E, the first chord from E to G-sharp, and the ending chord from G-sharp to C. It was the way I worked for this piece, and for only this piece, and I was curious about what I could do with such a rigid and clusterful way of squeezing out the notes.

Did I expect the listener to discover and go ooh ahh about all that stuff the first, second, or tenth times around? I can’t speak for 1979 Davy, but he would have probably said a listener would note a consistency in sound, without remarking whether that consistency in sound was good or bad. But 1979 Davy definitely noted that the “bounding” intervals of those chromatic collections together spelled an augmented triad — of which there are only four distinct ones. Move that triad up by half steps a few times and the fourth time you’ll be back at the original augmented triad, while also having traversed the entire chromatic on the way.

The cool reason in 1979 Davy thus made such a chromatic journey structural: divide the piece into five sections, each governed by or derived from an augmented triad, successively higher chromatically until there is a return to the opening augmented triad thingie — thus a musical return of sorts built into the underlying structural process.

Eww. 1979 Davy uses structural process. Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.

Then the sections morphed into theme and variations: a theme does that entire chromatic traversal. Each variation isolates one of the triads, thus together representing a slower traversal of the same stuff. Okay, fine. That’s just a distant view or road map of a maze not yet constructed, nothing wrong with any of it. The ninety-nine percent has yet to come.

Thus that first phrase — the opening, but not all of, of the theme.

The musical and gestural shape 1979 Davy gave to that theme was increase of density, volume and register (an embryonic manifestation of Davy a-splode™) and a sudden calming sostenuto to end the theme. For that calming, the cadential chord reveals the skeleton of its harmony, the G augmented triad. Cool reason said this was an appropriate closure — a perfect manifestation of the underlying structural process.

Thus did I bring my theme and probably a bit of the first variation to John Heiss for fifty 1979 dollars (earned in nineteen 1979 hours working the circulation desk at the 1979 NEC library) worth of sage advice. There was plenty of commentary, as we read through the theme, about gesture and register, “good idea,” “this sounds a little off,” “this could be longer”, etc. When we got to that cadence chord ending the theme, John Heiss out-and-out said “this ending is wrong. You have to change it.”

All my explanations about Brazil — sorry, I mean where the notes come from — to explain why that chord was right were unpersuasive. Because with the evidence of the piece, what was called for musically at the cadence was not what 1979 Davy did there. And the evidence stacked up against me(him(it))? Quiet music morphing into sturm and drang music, very active, wide registral span, lots of very low stuff in the piano. The cadence, though perhaps rhythmically right, was too thin. After all that chromatic stuff spanning so much register, a middle-register symmetrical chord played softly was not rich enough to let the piece exhale. He was at least ninety-nine percent right. My assignment: fix this and bring it back.

In the intervening time, I tried a myriad of rewritings for that cadential chord — first just shifting the notes of the triad in register, which solved nothing; chromatic five-note chords like the first chord, but they sounded wrong; slow arpeggiations of all those chords, which sounded wrong; the entire chromatic collection, which sounded way wrong. My final solution was keep the chord and add to it the notes of the beginning augmented triad area (the C augmented triad) and futz with where to put them in register, and voilà! A new cadential chord that filled the bill. It had a rich low bass note and an open sonority, perfect to accompany canapés, pasta salads, and Davy a-splodes™. I thus brought it back to 1979 John Heiss with the pride that is always accompanied by a shit-eating grin.

He liked the chord, and he said it worked. Then he said something that I thought was curious: did you hear the chord or did you rationalize it? I wasn’t quite clever, or ballsy, enough to respond with my own question: if it works and you agree it works, why would it matter? Instead, with all the shit now eaten, I remained tight-lipped. He looked at and played the chord again, discovered it had the notes of two augmented triads a half-step apart, and declared You rationalized it.

Aw man! You got cool reason in my passionate abandonment! Oh yeah? Well you got passionate abandonment in my cool reason! Oh, wow, mmmmm! It’s two great tastes that taste great together!

The real answer is I rationalized a dozen or more solutions and I went with the one that felt best. Two great tastes.

Ba! Cam! Nu! Oy!

Before this duo I had been writing very motivically for years, always thinking in terms of creating beautiful things by solving complicated puzzles. I also liked the sound of violin harmonics. I had not yet had Buffalo wings.

In the years that followed, I thought I had come up with a perfect working method for getting the notes. Thanks to an old Martino article (The Source Set and its Aggregate Formations), I had discovered the world of all-combinatorial hexachords and the trichords that loved derived them. I liked being able to control the entire chromatic in this way. I liked the way the trichords sounded, I liked the way the hexachords sounded as chords, and the puzzle solver in me liked getting from one chord to the next using just a few possible steps from what I had set up as a complex-sounding yet simple-to-operate system of moves. I felt I could be pretty free with how much I used of each possible rationalized harmony or harmonic area I was in, had figured out ways to monkey with internal counterpoint to sound like real voice-leading, and I also liked the puzzle-solving aspect of sticking with the system and getting it behave a little like traditional harmony. Mind you (and I always do), the underlying chart, such as it was, was always close at hand, and the only deviations I allowed were flour in the gravy — extra unjustifiable notes that were there to thicken.

So the extra notes were there for me, if I needed them, in thickness and in health.

And I could hold my own in any conversation about modulating from B hexachords to E hexachords either by deriving them trichordally, or by isolating shared pitch sets. I just hardly ever got the chance to do so.

I eventually abandoned those complicated a priori thingies — my last all-combinatorial hexachord piece was my second piano étude — in favor of a much freer, chartless way of working. I’m pretty sure that any listener would not be able to tell where that break is, since rhythm, texture, voice-leading, etc., stayed pretty much the same. It’s just that I made a clean break with the justify this note buttstick that had been the underlying assumption of most graduate seminars I’d done. And it felt like I got to be so much more spontaneous when writing. Though I admit it took a few years finally to wash away all the guilt about being so spontaneous.

So instead of concentrating hard on getting the groups of notes to resemble other groups of notes in my pieces, I think very hard about musical things. Phrase lengths, texture, register, cadences, breathing, space, and long-term narrative, for starters. And recontextualizations — framing music already heard in a different way so that it sounds and functions differently. I never would have done that while I still had my charts.

As a variation of something I said here previously — getting rid of the charts was like the first time I went around Rome without my trusty Italian phrase book. Having finally learned my own language, I started speaking in it. Though my Italian still kind of sucks (il mio Italiano ancora assai succhia).

So when I get that question about whether or not I am an intuitive composer — when I am finally finished rolling my eyes, I say that it feels intuitive when I write, but I know that the choices I make have been conditioned by a lot of exposure to other music and by what I have learned by writing a lot of music. I then note that for me the best intuitive composers are the ones who know a lot about music and a lot of music. I get passionate abandonment in my own cool reason and vice versa. Yummy! — that’s the most rational way to put it.

I also happen to like the feeling of not knowing what I'm doing. Because it's one hundred percent perspiration.