Turning Off the Cruise Control

My divagations about literalism versus intuition sparked an interesting sympathetic comment from the excellent San Francisco composer Dan Becker, director of the Common Sense composers’ collective. As he admits, it may sound like a “stoner” reaction, but it captures the psychology by which composers incorporate the real world into their musical thinking, especially for those of us attuned to the phenomena that minimalism brought into awareness:

During grad school, I drove across the country several times. Once on a desolate four-lane highway, I remember that I wanted to pass a car that seemed to be using cruise control. For fun, I decided to set my own car on cruise control just a bit faster than the other. I remember “phasing” past that car ever so slowly, thinking and feeling that this was like being in the guts of an early Steve Reich piece.

But I also had a personal insight that for me was crucial. I realized that if I were doing the same basic thing without cruise control on, I would have reacted very differently. There’s a lot of psychological tension when you get close to that other car. You don’t want to be in their blind spot, etc. I’m sure that without the cruise control on I would have sped up and passed him as I got close. A silly stoner-type thought maybe, but for me it was mental fireworks!

I realized the element of “human consciousness” was absent when using cruise control. So in music if a process is a mechanical one, it might be beautiful and elegant, but in the end for me it was doomed to be sterile. What was needed was to inject human consciousness into the process. As the composer, I needed to jump inside, dance around, see how it felt. Push it, stretch it, speed up, slow down. In other words, turn OFF the Cruise Control.

Knowing Becker’s music, which has a general postminimalist momentum and shape but great freedom within the note-to-note details, I can easily see how this realization about free will would translate into compositional technique.