February 13, 2008

Spark plugs and transmissions

The other day, A.C. Douglas pointed out this comment from composer Alex Shapiro:
The music in one’s head and the music on the page are examples of the two cerebral hemispheres, and they really are entirely different animals. The first is the True Inspiration and the latter is how the True Inspiration can be translated into something musicians can actually play and people can actually hear. Left brain, right brain. Maybe they’ll take a picnic together sometime.
Ah, dualism; that left-brain/right-brain caricature is a pernicious one, isn't it? Good and evil, communism and capitalism, atonality and tonality, Dick York and Dick Sargent—I blame it all on bilateral symmetry. If we had three arms, we'd probably think in terms of light, dark, and, say, crepuscular.

But maybe the whole notion of True Inspiration gets at another division: systematic and non-systematic composition. Again, a dualist caricature—composers don't pitch a tent in one camp or another, but take up residence somewhere along a continuum. But where you end up depends on your own relationship to True Inspiration.

Shapiro is obviously a composer for whom inspiration comes first: it's the initial idea, the spark, that drives the actual work of composition. This is, I imagine, how most non-artists imagine artists working. But my own experience is different: every True Inspiration moment I've ever had has invariably happened in the middle of a work session, after I've already been plugging away at the material for a couple of hours. I have no clue if an idea is an inspired one until I've tinkered with it for a while, and then it opens up and I can see where it's leading, what it can become, how it can shape a musical paragraph or movement. Or that it can't, in which case it goes in the trash, and I start from scratch the next time.

As such, I have a natural sympathy for compositional systems—it's how I investigate the possibilities of an idea. Mash it into a chord or stretch it into a melody and see how it sounds. Run an interval vector on the set and start transposing it around. Collect up the remaining pitches to form this or that aggregate and tinker with the juxtaposition. Or a particular rhythm: how's it work in augmentation? Diminution? Canon? Layer it over various phrase lengths—does the pattern shake out regularly? There's the old stand-bys: inversion, retrograde, combinatoriality (be the context tonal or atonal).

For me, once an idea opens up a possible landscape, a lot of the systematic determinism falls away—I live probably just left-of-center on a left-to-right systematic/non-systematic spectrum. I have favorite composers from all over the map—Poulenc was non-systematic and proud of it, as opposed to Stockhausen or Boulez, happily ensconced deep on the other side: the system itself is the inspiration, the music its realization in sound. Which, in a full circle sort of way, is not that far from Shapiro's description.

Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb by methodically testing some 6,000 different filaments; Leo Szilard suddenly glimpsed the entire mechanism of a nuclear chain reaction as he crossed a London street. Of course, Szilard's vision required a Manhattan Project to reach fruition. Edison's old saw—10% inspiration, 90% perspiration, or some comparable ratio—still holds, but some of us have to sweat first before the muse deigns to put in an appearance.

Update (2/13): ACD demurs:
[B]y the end of our reading he’d set our teeth to grinding, for what he described with some affection is a virtual definition of precisely what's wrong with most so-called New Music; a veritable instruction manual of how NOT to go about the making of the thing.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying this is how things should be done, but it is how I personally do things. As for affection, I would hazard a guess that I do have affection for a lot of music that ACD doesn't care for, but my affection has nothing to do with its construction, but rather its effect in performance. My point was that there's a lot of different ways to realize that final effect, and that the spark of inspiration can happen in a lot of different places during the work of composing. I would love it if entire pieces or even entire well-formed musical ideas came to me out of the blue while I was sitting on park benches, but for whatever reason—temperament, brain chemistry, undiagnosed ADHD—they don't. So I do what I can to get the muse in the mood, as it were.

It's worth pointing out that I was fascinated with systematic manipulations of musical material long before I heard of set theory or total serialism. I learned augmentation and diminution from the d-sharp-minor fugue in Book I of the WTC; I learned inversion from Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations—the old stand-bys are old indeed. For an exceptionally fine example of consciously, systematically manipulated materials, look no further than Sondheim's
Sweeney Todd; I spent the better part of a semester in grad school happily tracing all the mutations of the Dies irae theme in that score. And after all, music itself is already a highly organized system—that the end results are so wonderfully varied is as much a testament to the power of that system as it is to the power of inspiration.

Update II (2/18): Marc Geelhoed has sharp observations from a more performer-centric perspective. He also references the "divine afflatus," which is as good an excuse as any for linking to what, for a few months at least, was my favorite mural in all of Boston.

52 comments:

Michael Walsh said...

The idea and the expression could be considered two different kinds of inspiration. Both are required, but I think it varies by composer over which part of the process provides the juice.

Is the idea the real inspiration, with the expression just "the craft"? Are the ideas just the raw materials, with the right recipe being the real magic?

As far as the left brain-right brain paradigm goes, I also use a third brain for the creative process -- the hind brain. Some ideas have to be put up to simmer before the right expression occurs, but I think both count as inspired.

Lane Savant said...

The brain stem continues on down to the feet, which I find useful in breaking up inspirational blockages.
It usually goes like this;
OMG, I'm out of ideas!
Hmm....That sounds nice.
Wow, this is my best piece ever, now what?

Take a hike and forget all about it.
Repeat.

Muna wa Wanjiru said...

I found your blog post via Google blog search while searching for Teeth Grinding and your post regarding "Spark plugs and transmissions" looks very interesting to me and it is also very creative. I have a teeth website of my own and I must say that your blog is really good. Keep up the great work on a really high class resource.

In order to better cope with teeth grinding you may try some relaxation techniques and see how you sleep afterwards; yoga and breathing exercises could be of real help. Don't rush to administrate any drugs since teeth grinding could be dealt with otherwise too, and in far more natural ways. Have a look on the Internet, or talk to a therapist about the best ways to induce a relaxation state. Most people who have listened to soothing music, used aromatherapy or taken a long relaxing bath before going to bed, have shown significant improvement in the bruxism condition.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I believe that ACD was confusing compositional systems (serialism, minimalism, tonality, your-ism-here) with composers' compositional processes. For all I know, the god Wagner got notes on paper the same way composers ACD apparently regards as frauds get music on paper. The craft and the system aren't the same thing.

A.C. Douglas said...

Lisa wrote: I believe that ACD was confusing compositional systems (serialism, minimalism, tonality, your-ism-here) with composers' compositional processes.

ACD made no such confusion. ACD’s instant point was that if a musical idea (or ideas), heard full-blown in the composer's head and pressing for written expression and development, was not the sole cause of his sitting down to a blank page of manuscript, then he ought not to have sat down at all as he as yet has nothing to say.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

I just re-read your original posting. Apparently I was misled by the mentions of what's wrong with what you call New Music. But you've got a view of how composers work that I find odd - as far as I can tell, the process Matthew describes is no different from what Beethoven can be seen doing in his sketchbooks - taking ideas and working them out. We obviously don't know what Beethoven might have done at the piano or in his head that he didn't write down or talk about. That different composers might work out ideas in different ways, or do more in their heads or more at the piano or more on paper - there's nothing controversial about that.

Matthew said...

ACD, Lisa: I have heard the "work every day" mantra from enough different kinds of composers that I'm inclined to think it's near-universal. You don't sit down with blank paper because the muse has already smacked you in the head—you sit down on the off chance that she actually will. That's the gist of Ravel's quote along those lines—I once read another good variation from Philip Glass, who said he made himself sit down at the same time every day in order to train the muse to work on his schedule, and not the other way around. Good composers, I think, don't wait for inspiration, they're just more ruthless about throwing away work that doesn't bear its imprint.

I wonder if it's the peculiarity of composition training that makes the difference in hearing—I hear process and technique all over almost every composer I listen to: Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Gershwin, Schoenberg, Stockhausen. But that's part of what I habitually listen for—in a good piece of music, it doesn't stand in for the emotional effect, it contributes to it. Maybe if you don't spend your days pushing notes around the page, you're only inclined to notice the process when it's not contributing to the musical effect.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think with some composers it is impossible to miss technique at work - Bach and Brahms, for example, with their tremendous contrapuntal skills. It took me longer to say "how did he do that??" with, say, Puccini, where the surface effects are so obvious and so Spielbergian in their ability to manipulate emotions.

I've interviewed a number of composers recently for an article I'm working on, and have spoken with them all about the craft aspects of composing - that, to me, is sitting down every day and working. They would all agree with Matthew.

The idea that inspiration, rather than consistent work and increasing skill, is at the root of composition is a 19th century Romantic view. It's pernicious in many ways. It's not how composers actually work, for one thing. For another, I believe it keeps a lot of people from even trying composition. Composers change; they have successes; they make mistakes; they learn. (I can say from personal experience that writing is the same way, whether it's fiction or non-fiction or narrative. It's a lot easier for me to structure a technical document well now than it was ten years ago.)

I wave Die Feen as a prime example. It's tough to hear the composer of Tristan in that one, just as you can barely hear the composer of Aida or Falstaff in Un Giorno di Regno.

A.C. Douglas said...

Lisa wrote: But you've got a view of how composers work that I find odd - as far as I can tell, the process Matthew describes is no different from what Beethoven can be seen doing in his sketchbooks - taking ideas and working them out.

That’s NOT what Matthew described. What Matthew described was sitting down to a blank page of ms, and messing about with process in order to spark a musical idea. That’s a tail-wagging-the-dog method of composition that NO composer whose music we now recognize as good or great ever employed. Beethoven’s sketchbooks (and the little notepad he habitually carried about with him wherever he might be) were chock full of musical ideas. That was their (the sketchbooks and notepads) very raison d'être.

Process is but a mere tool put to work in the service of the spinning out of musical ideas to create a seamlessly coherent musical narrative, as I put it in my post, not the thing itself. As I wrote to Matthew privately, if a piece of music "smells of the lamp," it's music that, as music, is not worth the paper it's written on. If, on listening, one can immediately discern or sense a process at work in the piece's creation, the piece is a failure as music. With all genuine music, and certainly with all great music, the gestalt of the finished work always transcends and makes transparent the process of its creation which process is revealed only on assiduously studied inspection of the score, and perhaps not even then. With much of so-called New Music, one can not only discern a process at work, but recognize within a very short span of time that the process itself IS the work. I don't know what word one should use to designate such a work, but music is not among the candidates.

ACD

maestrissimo said...

ACD is rather famous for sweeping generalizations of the sort that would seem to emanate from one who knows not the first thing about his subject matter. For example, he is rather adamant on ascribing superhuman abilities to one particular conductor - who has never demonstrated the ability to give even one single downbeat clearly - abilities which practically amount to the chap's being able to assign each eyebrow hair to a particular string player in a large orchestra, and conduct that player independently of every other.

ACD is regarded by several knowledgeable professional musicians of my acquaintance as something of a joke - if we didn't know he exists in our own time, we'd probably think Berlioz or Shaw invented him to hammer home some moral point in an uncharacteristically hamfisted manner.

Lisa Hirsch said...

maestrissimo - I disagree with ACD about lots of things, but I'm finding this an interesting conversation. It's certainly getting me thinking about central compositional issues.

Which conductor are you thinking of? Furtwangler? Sure, unclear downbeats, but I would not dispute the greatness of his conducting.

ACD, I'll get back to your points in a bit.

Lisa Hirsch said...

ACD - I believe you are mischaracterizing Matthew says: But my own experience is different: every True Inspiration moment I've ever had has invariably happened in the middle of a work session, after I've already been plugging away at the material for a couple of hours. I have no clue if an idea is an inspired one until I've tinkered with it for a while, and then it opens up and I can see where it's leading, what it can become, how it can shape a musical paragraph or movement. Or that it can't, in which case it goes in the trash, and I start from scratch the next time. The idea clearly precedes the tinkering.

As far as your distinction between music and non-music, which you base on how the music is composed: it's a non-starter from any intellectually honest standpoint. I mean, I dislike most rap, but I'll be damned if I can come up with a definition of music that would exclude it, nor do I think it is in any way desirable to exclude rap.

You're looking for ways to justify disliking particular types of music. Go ahead and dislike any music you dislike, but be honest about it and just say WHY you dislike it. "It's not music because of how it's composed" is just bullshit.

Matthew said...

ACD: Not quite what I described—I described sitting down at a piece of paper and putting a bit of music through its paces to see whether it led anywhere inspired. I don't think it's qualitatively different from sitting down at the keyboard and improvising until something comes up that seems worth pursuing, or even pulling ideas arbitrarily out of nowhere—think of Schumann's "Abegg" Variations, or the "BACH" (or even "DSCH") motive. I would never dismiss out of hand musical ideas that came from even the most artificial-seeming mechanism. If they turn out to get you to someplace inspired, then they're inspired.

I may not know much, but I think I know a little bit about compositional practice—studying to be a composer is a lot of investigating how the old masters got from point A to point B, or even how they got to point A in the first place—and I can say that any attempt to generalize the way great works have come into being is a fool's errand. The ends have justified an astonishing variety of means. I agree with Michael Walsh at the top of this thread—which part of the process provides the juice is a highly individual thing.

A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...

Lisa wrote: As far as your distinction between music and non-music, which you base on how the music is composed....

I made no such general statement. I was very specific. What I said was that any piece composed by the tail-wagging-the-dog method of tinkering with process in order to arrive at musical ideas cannot help but end up non-music.

That’s not quite the same thing is it.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

Not quite the same; equally invalid as a distinction between music non-music.

Matthew said...

Hey, now, I do have enough of an ego to insist that you only fight about posts on this blog. :)

It occurs to me that the chicken-egg problem of whether one dislikes the process because of the results or dislikes the results because of the process is loosely related to compositional judgment—what we sometimes call musical intuition is usually nothing more than a repeated analysis of the technical means behind music we like, repeated enough times to become a reflexive habit.

A.C. Douglas said...

Maestrissimo wrote: ACD is regarded by several knowledgeable professional musicians of my acquaintance as something of a joke....

Well, well, well. Whadayaknow. The famous Dot-Dash-Castaway has left the nether regions of the classical music forums and entered the more enlightened regions of the classical music blogosphere to spew his Dot-Dash-Castaway rubbish and half-truths.

For background on this clown, see these two Sounds & Fury posts where, as a charitable gesture, he was referred to only anonymously here and here. For a description of what it means to be a Dot-Dash conductor, see here.

ACD

Osbert Parsley said...

Thanks very much for this discussion, which I've followed with some interest. I've just posted about this on my own blog; essentially, this discussion made me realize that, unlike ACD, I perceive musical narrative easier when a compositional system is evident, rather than the other way around.

Yvonne said...

Ravel's words (perhaps this is the quotation alluded to above):

[Ravel was asked the question that creative people can't seem to avoid: how he composed, how ideas came to him, how he put them to good use...]

"I don't have ideas. To begin with, nothing forces itself on me."
"But if there's no beginning, how do you follow it up? What do you write down first of all?"
"A note at random, then a second one and, sometimes, a third. I then see what results I get by contrasting, combining and separating them. From these various experiments there are always conclusions to be drawn; I explore the contents and developments of these. These half-formed ideas are built up automatically; I then range and order them like a mason building a wall. As you see, there's nothing mysterious or secret in all this."

A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...

No ideas? To begin with, nothing? Ravel, of all composers!

I wonder if this is the same Ravel who declared that long before he sat down to write the actual notes for any of his 1927 violin sonata’s motifs or themes, he had clearly framed in his mind the form, instrumental texture, and full character of all its motifs and themes.

Yvonne’s above quote of a quote of Ravel’s is almost certainly a hearsay quote, not a direct quote; a something that someone said they heard him say kind of quote. Or an annoyed answer by Ravel intended to startle for the benefit of some socialite or other who was gauche enough to pose the questions to him.

ACD

Matthew said...

Yvonne, ACD: The (possibly apocryphal) Ravel quote I was thinking of was to the effect that he composed at the same time every day, so that when inspiration did strike, he would be around to receive it. That's a good one as well, though. (It's always a slippery slope to start assuming that quotes arise out of sarcasm or deliberate misinformation, especially given how elegantly honest Ravel usually was in talking about music. But I suppose even a well-bred Frenchman could be pushed to far.)

Trying to confirm my remembered Ravel quote, I also came across this one, from Ernest Newman:

The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working. Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and Mozart settled down day after day to the job in hand. They didn't waste time waiting for inspiration.

That's a pretty succinct version of what I was clumsily groping for.

Michael Walsh said...

The Newman quote covers a lot of ground, but not all of it. Tchaikovsky had settled down late in life to a schedule where, as he put it "Madame la Muse has learnt to be on time", but this period produced a lot of safe, substandard work, including his Fifth Symphony. But the inspiration for the Sixth struck him like a thunderbolt, and he completed what is probably his best work in record time.

ACD's notion that if the process is evident in the music or actually is the music, then it is not music, strikes me as an allergic reaction to too many compositions by music students or desperate composers willing to pass off study exercises as finished works.

But lack of inspiration is independent of the mode or style of expression. An uninspired twelve-tone composition may strike us as "academic" in a way that a paint-by-numbers sonata movement may not, but in both cases the weakness is not the process used but that the finished product was so lame that the process was left as the most interesting feature.

There are fugues and theme-and-variation works that are among the highest musical art, and here the process has to be manifest for the music to work at all!

A.C. Douglas said...

There are fugues and theme-and-variation works that are among the highest musical art, and here the process has to be manifest for the music to work at all!

You are here confusing process with form. That's clearly NOT what I'm talking about in my comments on this matter.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...

Matthew wrote (quoting Ernest Newman): The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working. Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and Mozart settled down day after day to the job in hand. They didn't waste time waiting for inspiration.

But you can bet, giving odds, that none of those composers ever sat down to a blank page of manuscript with no already well-formed musical ideas in their heads. Their own testimony makes that abundantly clear.

ACD

Matthew said...

ACD: I might just take that bet, depending on your definition of well-formed. And especially with fugue, that's an awfully fine line to draw between process and form. The "Hammerklavier"—"fugue" or fugal? I would say the use of the process is part of the formal argument.

David said...

I don't dismiss the the right/left brain paradigm so easily. The idea of complimentary opposites working in a unified or harmonious fashion has been around for ages. Communism and capitalism are an anathema to one another, whereas our left/right brains are not (nor are the polar opposites of things like major/minor or consonance/dissonance.

The Chinese were on to this eons ago. In fact they considered music as being the progeny of "two poles"---the proverbial yin/yang.

One reason that tonal music continues to speak to us is such powerfully evocative ways is precisely due to all sorts of polar opposites interacting in a harmonized/ordered fashion. And order is, to a significant degree, a function of our left brain.

DmichaelE

A.C. Douglas said...

Matthew:

Think of form as a given matrix. Process involves how one goes about filling that matrix.

In my last I should have gone even further and said, you can bet, giving odds, that none of those composers ever sat down to a blank page of manuscript with no already well-formed musical ideas in their heads, and with at least a sense of the ground plan of the complete musical narrative in which those well-formed musical ideas would play their parts. In Mozart’s case, he had it all full in his head; in Beethoven’s, typically only the broad outlines. That’s NOT to say that Mozart didn’t, at times, need to sweat bullets of hard work in transferring that in-head narrative to the written-out page. It’s only to say that at no time did he sweat bullets to come up with what that page should look like when finished.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

That does not mean it's the only valid way to compose!

Michael Walsh said...

On ACD's bet:

How could Beethoven write four different overtures for Fidelio if he had "a sense of the ground plan of the complete musical narrative" before he started the first one? Is it a failure of inspiration that the first three of these four different and wonderful works turned out to be a failure for the purpose for which they were designed?

Why did Handel rewrite one of the arias in the Messiah six different times to end up with an end-product which is usually omitted from performance? Was he so unclear on his own musical narrative that he couldn't cut this aria?

Some composers have spent large portions of their lives on operas or symphonies that they were unable to complete. I don't think you can tell a priori whether their inspiration was faulty or whether the tools they had to produce the composition weren't equal to the task.

A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...

Michael Walsh: Had you done even a modicum of research, you would not have put forward your rhetorical questions.

Beethoven wrote four different overtures NOT to the opera Fidelio, but to several operas which, in the end, became the opera we know today as Fidelio. B was working in a form unfamiliar to him, and it took him some nine *years* before he solved the problems of that form. The composition of the four overtures, however, considered as works in themselves, you may be absolutely certain he accomplished just in the way I above set forth.

As to Handel, ditto. H found it necessary to rewrite any number of arias for Messiah, NOT because he didn’t have the musical ideas and the full ground plan of the musical narrative of each in his head before he sat down to write the actual notes, but to accommodate the singers and their gifts (or lack of them) available to him at actual performance(s). Again, as with Beethoven, with each version considered as a work in itself, you may be absolutely certain he accomplished their writing just in the way I above set forth.

ACD

Michael Walsh said...

Ah, so you are saying that each individual instance or revision of a musical work is composed as to the ACD plan, and there is no uncertainty or miscalulation on the part of the composer, regardless of much evidence from the composers themselves that they were uncertain about the success of their execution or the need for further revisions of what they clearly considered the same work.

I shall consider myself enlightened, sir.

A.C. Douglas said...

Ah, so you are saying that each individual instance or revision of a musical work is composed as to the ACD plan, and there is no uncertainty or miscalulation on the part of the composer....

No, that's what you're saying, sir.

ACD

Marc said...

Thanks for the link, Matthew. Great discussion and post, even if it's way too belligerent for the original topic. That's not your fault, or Lisa's, or Michael Walsh's.

David said...

Matthew wrote;

"Shapiro is obviously a composer for whom inspiration comes first: it's the initial idea, the spark, that drives the actual work of composition. This is, I imagine, how most non-artists imagine artists working. But my own experience is different: every True Inspiration moment I've ever had has invariably happened in the middle of a work session, after I've already been plugging away at the material for a couple of hours."

Clearly there are many ways that composers work. Late in his life Brahms said that he would try to get into a meditative state and when he got there entire pieces would "arrive" in completeness---melody, harmony, form, orchestration. He attributed this to a belief in the Almighty as the source of "true" creative inspiration. Strauss and Stravinsky alluded to this as well.

DmichaelE

Elaine Fine said...

What a conversation! I have to add my two cents.

Nobody really knows the way another person thinks or creates. We think we know about the way Mozart wrote because of what he wrote about what he wrote. We think we know about the way Beethoven thought because of his sketchbooks and what he wrote, but the actual way his brain worked was his business, and the actual way Mozart's brain worked we will never really understand.

Once in a while, when we are playing or listening carefully to music that is really great we get a sense of what we think the composer's logic is (or was), but in my case, it is often a superficial observation. The more I grow as a musician, the more I think I understand, and the more I grow as a musician, the less I know about the mystery of really great music.

It is pretty clear that real creativity happens in parts of the brain that we do not control (though I cannot be sure about everyone--maybe there are people who can control their creativity). I have not met a living person who can accurately say where inspiration actually comes from. Some people (like Mozart and Beethoven) attribute it to God, I guess, but since God is an abstract concept and a personally-defined entity that some people believe exists as one thing and other people believe exists as something else, that does not count as evidence for me.

People make statements about how they work, but much of the time those statements are not totally true all of the time. I can (honesty?) say that right now I believe it is as hard to tell the real truth in words as it is to find truth in music.

I do have to say that the concept of staring at a blank sheet of music paper is as absurd a concept as staring at a blank sheet of typing paper. I don't work that way. I tend to mess around on the fiddle or the piano, and then I have to go searching for a piece of music paper when I get an idea.

I like to follow the "form follows function" model for construction myself: putting ideas together, and seeing and hearing how they work. I have very little control over what the creative part of my brain does, but I can say that I get what might be called "inspiration" when someone wants something written and when I have time to write it. From that point until the piece is finished, it determines what it will be while I am working on it. Sometimes that "what" happens early, and it is pretty easy, and sometimes, as in the case with this comment, the "what" takes a long time to make itself clear.

David said...

The issue of "process" has also permeated the art scene in Soho and other centers of fine art. Obviously, this has been a issue in music going back to the Schoenberg/Hauer 12-tone invention.

Bernstein (in the Harvard Lectures citing Chomsky) and Richard Taruskin have argued that 12T music has no “underlying deep structure born out of the subconscious” in the way “natural language” does.

Like computer languages, in 12T music your given the rules beforehand whereas in natural languages rules are abstracted “after usage,” not before. The subconscious desire to establish communication is at the heart of the evolution of natural language and tonality (for the most part) evolved in much the same way as natural languages did.

The process is not the thing, but rather the end result.

The move toward equal-temperament, whether you like ET or not (I recommend Ross Duffin’s book on this) can also be said to have evolved with the same communicative/emotive aspirations. A heightened desire for greater emotional expression in compositions led to the practice of tempering to allow for greater melodic and harmonic freedoms. (We all love thirds and sixths now, don’t we?)

The music of Golijov, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road stuff, Tan Dun, John Adams, Paul Moravec, Alex Shapiro—music that tends to get the lion’s share of publicity these days—-is far removed from the music of the Boulez/Carter/Babbitt axis. That says something.

I recall how back in 1986 when Boulez was in NYC on the IRCAM tour how he brazenly stated that any attempt to make the past seem important must be considered a "ruse." Now he's conducting a Mahler cycle for DG. Apparently Mahler's music has some value to Maestro Boulez.

BTW, Mahler conducted his 5th Symphony eight times in his life and made revisions after every performance. Was it his right brain or left brain that prompted those revisions? Hmmm.

DmichaelE

David said...

Michael Walsh wrote:

"As far as the left brain-right brain paradigm goes, I also use a third brain for the creative process -- the hind brain. Some ideas have to be put up to simmer before the right expression occurs, but I think both count as inspired."

I like that.

And as those of us who compose can attest, editing is a key aspect of our work. Having too much material, rather than not enough can be a problem.

For me, filtering out what doesn't work from what does in a given composition is predicated largely on left-brain activity---at least I attribute that process to my left brain.

DmichaelE

Marcus said...

AC wrote: "But you can bet, giving odds, that none of those composers ever sat down to a blank page of manuscript with no already well-formed musical ideas in their heads. Their own testimony makes that abundantly clear."

So what? Maybe they worked out the procedures in their head before sitting down because manuscript paper was expensive. How do we know they didn't?

A.C. Douglas said...

David wrote: And as those of us who compose can attest, editing is a key aspect of our work. Having too much material, rather than not enough can be a problem.

A perennial creative problem for the genuinely gifted is all the arts, isn’t it; cutting away what doesn’t belong, so to speak. Akin, if not quite the same, as Michelangelo’s removing the excess marble to reveal the finished work within.

ACD

David said...

Yes, sometimes I'll be working on a piece and get a truly inspired idea that just doesn't work in the context of the music at hand. So it gets filed for another day. I'm sure Beethoven had similar experiences, hence his notebooks.

DmichaelE

David said...

Getting back to Matthew's original comment:

"Ah, dualism; that left-brain/right-brain caricature is a pernicious one, isn't it? Good and evil, communism and capitalism, atonality and tonality, Dick York and Dick Sargent—I blame it all on bilateral symmetry. If we had three arms, we'd probably think in terms of light, dark, and, say, crepuscular."

Why do you consider the reality of left/right brain a "caricature," and a pernicious one (as in deadly, insidious, fatal), at that?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, communism and capitalism are anathema to one another. Good and evil too.

But surely you understand that there is polarity in nature (cation/anion, stamen/pistil, male/female), a condition in which complimentary opposites exist in a synergistic fashion to produce and create.

Tonality and atonality (as syntaxes) may be anathema to one another, but the relationship between consonance and dissonance in tonal music is a defining characteristic of tonality. To a great extent it's what gives tonality its juice--it's emotive power.

Assuming that you ascribe intellect/theory to the function of the left brain and inspiration/emotion to the function right brain, I don't seen these as being contradictory (or pernicious) elements in the process of composing. Both are essential and as others have pointed out, most music that we consider to be great has a good deal of both in the mix, and both could be the result of a particular moment of inspiration.

As for crepuscular (I had to look that up), I've always looked at music as being multidimensional. For me, melody and rhythm are linear. Harmony is spatial---the third dimension. Like an artist who uses basic forms (squares, circles, triangles) to create perspective, harmony is what provides depth, especially emotional depth.

Brahms talked about getting to a "trance-like" state so he could more easily tap into a certain creative energy, an energy he ascribed as being divine. Maybe he was trying to find that "crepuscular" place where left and right brain coexist in a harmonious union.


DmichaelE

David said...

BTW,

ACD, regarding Alex Shapiro's "Kelp" CD and her "picnic" comment (which started this dialogue), thank you for the tip about her CD. Lots to like!

"Surry down to a stoned-soul picnic."

Ah, Laura Nyro. Now there's some synergistic left brain/right brain music.

DmichaelE

A.C. Douglas said...

ACD, regarding Alex Shapiro's "Kelp" CD and her "picnic" comment (which started this dialogue), thank you for the tip about her CD. Lots to like!"

Indeed there is. I wrote a detailed review of Shapiro's Notes from the Kelp CD which you might find of some interest. It can be read here.

ACD

David said...

This is a fascinating topic precisely because there are many ways/processes to go about composing music.

As I mentioned, Brahms attributed much of his creative inspiration to consciously seeking a spiritual connection to the Almighty.

Brahms:

"This cannot be done merely by will power working through the conscious mind, which is an evolutionary product of the physical realm and perishes with the body. It can only be accomplished by the soul-powers within---the real ego that survives bodily death. Those powers are quiescent to the conscious mind unless illuminated by Spirit. Now Jesus taught that God is Spirit, and He also said, ‘I and my Father are one.’ (John 10:30)"

“To realize that we are one with the Creator, as Beethoven did, is a wonderful and awe-inspiring experience…I always contemplate all this before commencing to compose. This is the first step. When I feel the urge I begin by appealing directly to my Maker and I first ask Him the three most important questions pertaining to our life here in this world---whence, wherefore, whither (woher, warum, wohin)?

“I immediately feel vibrations that thrill my whole being. These are the Spirit illuminating
the soul-power within, and in this exalted state….I feel capable of drawing inspiration from above…I realize at such moments the tremendous significance of Jesus’ supreme revelation,
‘I and my Father are one.’ Those vibrations assume the forms of distinct mental images, after I have formulated my desire and resolve in regard to what I want, namely, to be inspired so that I can compose something that will uplift and benefit humanity---something of permanent value.

“Straightaway the ideas flow in upon my, directly from God, and not only do I see the distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration. I have to be in a semi-trance condition to get such results---a condition when the conscious mind is in temporary abeyance and the subconscious is in control, for it is through the subconscious mind, which is part of Omnipotence, that inspiration comes.”


Very interesting.

DMichaelE

David said...

Richard Strauss too had a few things to say along the same lines:

“Composing is a procedure that is not so readily explained. When the inspiration comes, it is something of so subtle, tenuous, will-o-the-wisp nature that it almost defies definition. When I’m in my most inspired moods I have definite compelling visions involving a higher selfhood. I feel at such moments that I am tapping the source of infinite and eternal energy from which you and I and all things proceed. Religion calls it God.”

“I realize that the ability to have such ideas register in my consciousness is a Divine gift. It is a mandate from God, a charge entrusted to my keeping, and I feel that my highest duty is to make the most of this gift---to grow and to expand.”

On his inspiration in creating his opera Der Rosenkavalier; “While the ideas were flowing in upon me---the motives, themes, structure melodies, harmonic garb, instrumentation---in fact the entire musical measure by measure---it seemed to me that I was dictated to by two wholly different Omnipotent Entities.”

This last statement echoes Brahms' experience.

DMichaelE

Christopher Culver said...

In composing his Symphony No. 3, Per Norgard had visions of cosmic oneness and claimed that he was only channeling the divine. At the same time, this inspiration flowed from what was initially just tinkering around with intervals (which led to his discovery of the infinity series). For Norgard, transcendental art was something that one used one's reason to stumble on.

FWIW, the Third is one of the most well-loved symphonies in Denmark for the average concert-goer, it's by no means amusical and scary modern art. ACD continues to bloviate.

Matthew said...

DMichaelE: I referred to the whole left-brain/right-brain thing as a caricature, because scientifically, it is—recent research with brain scans have shown that while the two hemispheres of the brain are structurally distinct, they're always working in concert with each other, and the notion that some particular skill or subject can be ascribed to either side doesn't really fly. I view the division of skills into one hemisphere or another as an instance of the tail wagging the dog, an application of our inborn habit of dualism.

David said...

Matthew,

Thanks for the explanation.

A wise sage once asserted that intuition is the highest spiritual gift. I suspect intuition has something to do with the two spheres of the brain interacting---or being on a picnic together!

DmichaelE