System and Its Discontents

I’m teaching Bartok again. I use the little Erno Lendvai book that explains the “systems” with which Bartok allegedly composed. One is the “axis” system, which luckily has nothing to do with the “axis of evil,” but is rather Bartok’s tendency to equate four tonics separated by minor thirds; thus, the “tonic axis” of a particular piece might be C, Eb, F#, A, the subdominant axis F, Ab, B, D, and the dominant axis G, Bb, Db, E. This is especially clear in the piece I usually analyze, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The first movement begins on F# and ends in C; the second begins on B and ends in F. The end of the first movement is especially telling, with the primary theme reiterated over and over on the pitches C, Eb, F#, and A, and all of them somehow sounding very tonic chord-y. It’s astounding that, after a century of the diminished seventh chord being such a cliche with specific connotations of anxiety, Bartok could redefine it and find a fresh new use for it.

The other, less convincing system is Bartok’s tendency to articulate his temporal forms via Golden Sections. The Golden Section is an irrational ratio found in nature and apparently used in a lot of ancient Greek art and architecture. It’s found by the formula x/1 = 1/(x+1), and equals the square root of 5 minus one, divided by 2, or approximately .6180339887…. It’s increasingly approximated by consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci series, the series in which the last two numbers are added together to get the next: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, and so on. There’s a cottage industry surrounding the golden section on the internet if you’re interested. Bartok apparently timed the climaxes of some of his pieces to mark the golden section, so if you multiply the number of measures by .618 you’ll find the climax; and if you multiply the number of measures in each half by .618 you’ll find the measures of the secondary climaxes, and so on.

What has struck me for many years is how uncomfortable music students are with the idea that a composer would use a system to compose. (Bartok denied using any such system, by the way, but the evidence is eerily compelling.) The axis system they don’t seem to mind, but they don’t like hearing about the golden section points in Bartok; the idea that he would plan out in advance where his climaxes are going to occur disappoints them. But that’s nothing compared to their distaste for the complicated double inversion canon in the first movement of the Webern Symphony. I present Webern as sympathetically as I can, relating his canons to the ingenious Renaissance music on which he did his doctoral dissertation, but after a couple days’ explanation they harrass me with questions along the line of, “But do you really like this piece?” One day I related the sad story of Webern’s fatal shooting, and added the detail that the American soldier who had pulled the trigger regretted it for the rest of his life. In the dramatic silence that followed, one of my more incorrigible composers muttered, “But then when he heard Webern’s music, he decided it was OK.”

It’s not from any prejudice against dissonance or complexity. Quite the contrary: they all become Rite of Spring fanatics, and they fall in love with the improvisatory feel of the Concord Sonata, the facts that Ives’ unbridled imagination welcomed the wrong notes that got printed, that he added an unforeseen flute to the “Thoreau” movement, and even the very fact that I can’t explain away Ives’ harmony. The theorist’s inability to reduce the music to basic principles strikes them as a decisive victory for the composer. I know what’s coming up, because I go through it every two years: they will be unpleasantly incredulous when I lay out the detailed pre-compositional structure of Babbitt’s Post-Partitions, but for some reason Stockhausen’s Gruppen will seem more interesting, more expansive, despite its fanatical 12-tone overall plan. Afterward, they will warm up much more to the intuitive feeling-out of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel.

To some extent I think there’s a little adolescent romanticism in this reaction. Students – and the noncomposing population in general, actually – derive comfort from the idea of music as inspiration. The composer is a special kind of person able to summon up music out of his or her soul, and derives power from the sure-footed certainty of being able to judge at every moment exactly what tune or harmony will sound exactly right next. Doubtless there would be a general deflation were it learned that a symphony has to be built like any other large structure: that composers use devices, plan out themes and harmonic structures before the piece is written, sketch out sets of pitches from which they intend to draw, concoct relatively abritrary structural skeletons over which they will hang their harmonies and textures. For hundreds of years composers had sonata form as a pretty specific template, and when that collapsed, the early modernist composers had to come up with some kind of framework to defuse the anxiety of the empty page. You don’t expect an architect to proceed without blueprints and concealed steel girders, and it’s not entirely fair for a composer either. What’s astonishing about someone like Bartok is how passionately he was able to pace his crescendos and decrescendos to completely efface any hint that there might have been a precompositional plan.

By and large, however, I think my students are right, and I learn from their spontaneous dismays and enthusiasms. Minimalism (as has been little acknowledged) gave birth to a certain amount of systematic thinking in the 1980s, and as I look back in my own music, I don’t treasure the ingenious systems I came up with back then nearly as much as the occasional unique moment that fell into place without my knowing how until afterward. There’s an element of sincerity involved. A precompositional system may commit you to a D# and an E colliding in measure 137, and how will you know you’ll still mean that when you get there? As Ives said in defense of improvisation, how do I know that those are the notes I’ll feel like playing next Thursday night at 8:19? And though Ives did it experimentally, he disdained what he called “composing with a ruler,” i.e., setting up strict processes and letting them run. A system can be the result of inspiration, but a system carried out temporily precludes the possibility of surprise or inspiration arriving at some point later in the work. (This has always seemed to me to apply even to the Schillinger system, that it defines elements early in the piece and doesn’t allow for the spontaneous creation of new ones.) It’s a lecture read from the page, without the possibility of the reader gauging his audience and reacting to interruptions or nuances of reception.

The reaction my students have explains the tremendous aura Morton Feldman exerted from the 1980s on. Here was the Frank Gehry of music: pure inspiration stretched out over six hours, every sonority judged by ear, every note individually weighed, expanse without architecture. After decades of bureaucrats tinkering with systems, he was the Godzilla of musical sincerity. (There are reports that Feldman used more structure than is assumed, but I haven’t yet found them convincing. As for Feldman’s own word, when Stockhausen begged him to divulge his system, all Feldman would reply was, “I don’t push the notes around.” Stockhausen’s alleged response: “Not even a little bit?”) Feldman gives young composers permission to decide at any moment that the music can take a left turn, that nothing stands in the way of their whim. What he doesn’t tell them, that I suspect is beginning to dawn on them, is what an existential quandary Feldman has left them in, what massive and sustained concentration it takes to create a compelling, unified, large-scale musical image without structural props.

In the era in which I went to college, WEBERN was GOD, and a composer was judged by the intricacy of his systems. I still rather like Webern’s music, but I had begun racheting down his pedestal even before year after year of my students convinced me that he was always going to be a hard sell. Algorithmic composing software makes systems really easy to explore, so the issue is not going to go away. But we’re in a good, calm place right now, unbuffeted by the winds of competing ideologies that have all spent their force: we can look back critically over the modernist era, decide what worked and what didn’t, and use it to guide us in deciding what priorities to put forward in a postclassical world.