Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Significance of Extra-musical Documentation

We all have our pet issues, don't we? My perennial sermon seems to be the inadvisability of imposing too much "text" on musical compositions. A recent statement in "The Gramophone" by Michael Tanner addresses this problem, with particular regard to a certain Slavic composer:

It's hoped that endless scrutiny of documents will tell us which movements are ironic, which victories that his symphonies apparently achieve are designedly pyrrhic, tell us, in fact, what the music itself fails to achieve.

Now, this is not to say that I necessarily agree with Mr. Tanner's complete view of the composer in question, but that last phrase deftly illustrates the hazards I see in applying too much extra-musical information, i.e., knowledge that does not proceed from the music itself. Do we fall into the trap of believing that a work is significant because we are told so, or because, after hearing it, we perceive it to be so? This blog entry is not meant to be an assessment of Shostakovich, and I am not at all certain I agree with Mr. Tanner's larger assessment [see "The Gramophone," July 2006 issue]. But, as always, there are larger points to be made, and greater concepts to be realized.

Monday, June 26, 2006

"Seek the wisdom of your elders, my son!"

Kyle Gann (and some readers of his blog) at PostClassic writes about old composers commenting on scores by young composers they have never met before:
"Ever since that day I have been dubious of hit-and-run assessments by Great Men, even when I myself am the great man. A composer recently asked to have a lesson with me, and I replied that, while I am always happy to look at someone's music, "a lesson" is something I feel capable of giving only the fourth or fifth time I see a student, after I've gotten an idea what they're trying to achieve in piece after piece, and have had a chance to observe what is holding them back or subverting their intentions. The inept feature that sticks out and ruins a young composer's otherwise suave piece might be the only original thing in it; it may be that they should keep the flaw and lose all the suavity they learned from other people's music, but it would take some depth of observation before I'd chance recommending that."
So, what do you all think our young colleagues at the forum are seeking, when they post links to their scores and ask for comments: Instant advice, or, advanced insights?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The First Thread of a Pattern

I first experimented with writing music when I was around fourteen or so. As with most young people, especially the ones we've lately seen at Sibelius Music, I was a bit ambitious, and did many things that exceeded my grasp. However, an interesting that illustrates a great difference between the youth I was and the youth we often see today, as well as a pattern that has continued into my twilight [sic] as follows:

A friend mentioned my compositions to our choral instructor in high school. She asked to see some of my things, and after a quick look at some choral pieces, she posed the fatal question..."Would you like the chorus to try some of them out?"

My answer? "No, thank you."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Artists and desire

"I've worked with a lot of artists, Em, and they all have a need that cannot be met by another human being."
In Madeleine L'Engle's novel Certain Women, which I am reading this summer (and can't recommend as one of her best!), the younger actress Emma is onboard the old and famous actor David Wheaton's big yacht, somewhere among the islands on the Pacific Northwest coast (near Vancouver, I think). David is her father, and he is very ill, probably dying. Together with friends and relatives, they talk about his life -- and his many wives...

Friday, June 16, 2006

When lyrics touch greatness

In the Still of the Night

-- Cole Porter --

In the still of the night
As I gaze from my window
At the moon in its flight
My thoughts all stray to you.

In the still of the night
While the world is in slumber,
Oh, the times without number,
Darling, when I say to you

"Do you love me as I love you?
Are you my life-to-be, my dream come true?"
Or will this dream of mine
Fade out of sight

Like the moon growing dim
On the rim of the hill
In the chill still of the night?

Why is this great writing?
Because it touches the heart? So do many bad poems.
Because the rhyming is effortlessly supple? So are most of Sondheim's works, yet few are as fine as this example.
Because the words are wonderfully singable? So are Barry Manilow's.
It is that word ''chill'' that makes this a lyric of genius. It catches on to the key word of the title, ''still'' and changes the whole lyric. A still, moonlight night. A lonely middle-aged man looking out of a window and wondering if the lover asleep in his bed will want to see him again. And he's cold. Like he will be the next day when lover boy isn't there. Brilliant.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Collective intelligence

"In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the use of the Internet crosses the line into delusion."- Jaron Lanier, in "Digital Maoism: The Hazards Of The New Online Collectivism", published in Edge.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A real woman feels no need to publish her works?

Just as it is generally assumed that professionalism represents a status and identity to be aspired to, especially by the middle class, so most practitioners of Western music history assume that composers view publication as a universally desirable goal. But given the fact that women historically have had fewer pieces published than men, we might start to wonder about the assumptions behind that statement. Why has it been assumed desirable to publish? Why does a composer publish music? Might there be reasons why a composer might not wish to publish? What are the larger implications of such a choice? Are women problematized through ideological conflicts arising from publication?
- Marcia J. Citron: Gender and the Musical Canon (1993), p. 108.
Reading on in the chapter, I find that Citron makes the common analogy between creating works of art and raising children, and that she assumes only mothers, not fathers, can feel insecure and concerned about sending their "babies" out in the big bad world, and thus are more naturally controlling personalities, reluctant to show their efforts to anybody outside their circle of family and friends -- people the artist/writer/composer knows and can trust -- since "women may feel more comfortable conceiving a work for a knowable context" (p.111). Publication is like sending your children out in the unknown, it is also in part like the loss of a family member, the grown child who moves out of the house to live on his own; a "loss of control that engenders anxiety" (p.112). This possible anxiety of separation Citron says can be a problem both to male and female composers, but she suspects the "social conditioning" (conditions?) make it easier for a man to let a work of his enter the public's consciousness, as that is expected and encouraged practice in the world of professionalism, where his activities are supposed to belong.

Maybe we can conclude that at least in the past, women may have been both discouraged from and genuinely uninterested in sharing information about their personal, intellectual, artistical, practical and spiritual experiences with the whole wide world -- today, that equals the www, or internet.

I played my first composition for an audience of mostly unknown people when I was seven or eight years old. I sent my first book manuscript to big publishing companies when I was eleven. I published stories and opinions in a school paper I was editor for when I was 13. I have never held the view that my work is only for my near and dear to enjoy, or felt that the risk of attracting ridicule and critique from perfect strangers could make the enterprise of performance or publishing less appealing.

Monday, June 05, 2006


Wits are never happy people. The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit—for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction is direct, with no integumentary obstacles. Wit is the cry of pain, the true word that pierces the heart. If it does not pierce, then it is not true wit. True wit should break a good man's heart.

—Dawn Powell