Saturday, September 08, 2012


The composer of modern times is taught from the first that his art exists on an ideal plane. He is the creator of invisible cities that are destined to be but imperfectly modeled. The collection of symbols that fill a score are poor empirical markers in a grand scheme of idealized cartography; pencil marks symbolize conceptual tethers across the fabric of virtual time, a frame presented as spatial metaphor by sheets of paper, inscribed left-to-right in perpetual extension. The modern composer, though, does not wish to see this play of symbolism, the masquerade of denotation and connotation that exposes the shadowy nature of his work. He is adamant: he works with concepts, with virtual sound, not with the objects he uses to symbolize them—he is the seer-through of metaphors, the surpasser of the physical symbol. He would prefer to eliminate the intrusion of the empirical into his work entirely; and thus, today, he reduces its physical underpinnings to a minimum.

It is the score, the composer feels, that expresses the form and materials of a work most perfectly, usually in a language of inexorable certitude: but it is here that he appears as a strangely careless worker. The language of his score is perfect, determinate, it conveys his creation in symbols more crystalline in their significance than those of any other century, but the calligraphy of this language is flat and inelegant, the ink poor, and the paper cheap and indifferent. Fixed on the perfection of content and seduced by the dignity of his language, the composer is shockingly unconcerned with his materials. Like some anguished Augustinian who, reflecting upon the impossibility of realizing the perfect Form in an imperfect world, regards all but the rudest works as insulting in their pretension, the composer hacks out models of his creations in the cheapest stuff available—if the Form is sublime and immaterial, what matter if the model is of finely-worked gold or of refuse tin?

But the 21st century composer is no latter-day Neo-Platonist. The high regard in which he holds the products of his slipshod craftmanship owes nothing to “the Sublime”, but to their “functional efficiency” as “communicative media”. “Functional efficiency” might well be the credo inscribed above the modern composer's desk—the phrase captures the spirit and ideal (dissonant words, surely) of everything he does, down to the sawdusty clunk with which it drops off the tongue. The modern composer fetishizes efficiency down deep. His scores are written quickly and with the most convenient means available, they are efficient with regard to both time and material—and if their performance results in something like what he expects, they “work”. Let the symbol be functional, let the minimum in time and resources be expended, let the desired effect be achieved; any additional effort is superfluous, “ornamental”, inefficient.

What has given rise to this obsession? An over-weening belief in the truth of the first proposition of this essay: that the composer's materials, tools, and creations are concepts, processes, and relationships in virtual time and space. And it is true that the composer works with the immaterial, with “music”, let us say; but he works with it through the physical tools and materials of his craft. If we exclude, for a moment, the cocoon of sybolism that envelops the composer's work table, he is a person whose work involves drawing shapes and lines of various forms, sizes, and contours, on a piece of paper with a certain texture and weight, with a pencil, pen, or marker that produces so much of a mark with so much pressure, etc. Or perhaps he clicks or types these shapes into place on a laptop, using a piece of software that inscribes them upon a liquid crystal field with algorithmic precision. Regardless of its symbolic essence, the act of composing, in short, involves constant, minutely modulated interaction with the physical world.

Elementary, says our composer—what of it? Just this: the physical world—especially that postage-stamp corner of it that the composer transforms into a score—has a way of talking back to the one shaping it. The composer's fancy not only acts on the score, but is acted upon, first (and most importantly) in the feedback-like process of composition, then in the interpretive creation of performance. As embryonic music is written out, as its shadowier reaches are tied down to specific, notated events, the emerging shape of the score and its every physical detail begins to influence the conception of the piece being written. A powerful sound in the idealized composition is now a B-flat in cello; not just B-flat, but that B-flat, the quarter with the smudged notehead and slightly crooked stem. The composer is confronted, whether he knows it or not, with his concepts in physical form, and the beauty or ungainliness of that form speaks to its creator, reveals (or creates) aspects of his work—moods, assumptions, implications, flaws—that he could never have discovered in its mental blueprint. His symbols are not silent messengers of creation, but physical objects that carry with them a host of connotations and metamessages.

Score-writing is a craft, for this very reason. The score as object may be graceful or clumsy, beautiful or indifferent, confident or timid; ipso facto, the piece represented will bear with it overtones of gracefulness or clumsiness, beauty or indifference, etc. To have an awareness of the significance of physical detail and to possess the skills necessary to mold the object to suit both its material and conceptual goals—this is the essence of craftsmanship. The modern composer, however, is no craftsman—his final product reveals an awkward, tangential relationship with the physical materials of his art, reveals the indiscipline that makes his work a coaxing of these objects into rudimentary form. One finds that great music (with exceptions) goes hand-in-hand with beautiful manuscript and attention to physical detail; there is something in this craftmanship that is integral to the compositional process[1] and which, in the final product, speaks volumes about the creator in its perfection or absence.

1. An anecdote of Morton Feldman's gives an example of what I have in mind. Toward the end of his life, Feldman's publisher encouraged the composer to send his just-finished manuscript to them, and to skip his habitual step of re-copying his music in calligraphic score. The effect of this time-saving idea was dramatic: “my music deteriorated”, Feldman relates, without “the opportunity for extra thought while copying”. (from this interview).