Some Have Versatility Thrust Upon Them

I just finished reading, and immensely enjoyed, A Talent for Trouble, the biography of film director William Wyler, by my fellow Arts Journal blogger Jan Herman. Two things at the end of the book struck me.

One was Wyler’s feeling about color photography, which he was late to switch to. “A red chair doesn’t look unusual in reality,” he once said, “but on the screen, you can’t take your eyes from it. That’s because the frame itself is not natural. It’s delimited by the blackness surrounding it. We don’t actually see that way with our natural field of vision. I was late in using color partly because I felt color could be phony, exaggerated.” More evidence of what I’m always saying, that art is about appearances, not reality. A lot of young composers, I think, as well as older ones, make bad music because they’re focussed on what the music really is, not on the way it appears to the audience.

The other point of interest was an encounter with Alfred Hitchcock. Wyler made all kinds of films: westerns (The Westerner, The Big Country), comedies (Roman Holiday), war films (Mrs. Miniver, Memphis Belle), social commentary (The Best Years of Our Lives, Dodsworth), suspense films (The Letter, The Collector), a musical (Funny Girl). One of Jan’s themes throughout the book is that this versatility worked against Wyler’s reputation, since in the ’60s an auteur theory arose that (over-) valued each director’s idiosyncratic viewpoint, and demanded that he turn out films exploring the same themes over and over. Hitchcock, “master of suspense,” benefitted from this, but Wyler called him “a prisoner of the medium.” Once Hitchcock admitted to Wyler that he was jealous: “You can do any kind of film you want. I can’t. They won’t let me.” (Watch Hitchcock’s late comedy The Trouble with Harry, and you might conclude that it was a good thing they didn’t let him.)

Auteur theory is a big subject in film criticism, but its musical counterpart, though quite patent, is hardly discussed. Many of the most well-regarded recent composers are those who evolved an immediately recognizable trademark in their music: Feldman, Reich, Scelsi, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine, Branca, and most of all Phil Glass, who has taken recognizability to an extreme that has ruined him for more sophisticated circles. Interestingly enough, this seems more true of the famous Downtown composers than of the Pulitzer crowd – it’s difficult to imagine reliably recognizing a work by Corigliano, Zwilich, Harbison, or those guys in ten seconds of a drop-the-needle test. (Babbitt’s an interesting case – uniformity not necessarily leading to recognizability.) I suspect that this partly accounts for Europe’s preference of Downtown Americans over Uptown ones, since Europe is where auteur theory originated and flourished. They seem to like our composers who carve out their own distinctive groove.

This is a personal issue for me, because, creatively, I find myself much in sympathy with Wyler. I too write static minimalist pieces (Long Night, The Day Revisited), wild collages (Petty Larceny, Scenario), microtonal pieces (Triskadekaphonia, How Miraculous Things Happen), jazz harmony pieces (Bud Ran Back Out, Private Dances), atonal pieces (The Waiting, I’itoi Variations), grand pieces for chorus and orchestra (Transcendental Sonnets). (I’m not the only Downtowner in this boat; Jim Tenney and Larry Polansky have similarly kaleidoscopic outputs.) Inside my head, my musical reflexes are so fixed and repetitive that I feel like I keep writing the same work over and over again, but I have trouble believing that my music comes off that way to the listener, and I sense that people have trouble figuring out what my central style is. I have a repertoire of melodic tendencies that I’ve nurtured closely for 30 years, and a few rhythms that have become absolutely fetishistic, but they recur disguised by widely ranging contexts. In that respect I’m really a little like Nancarrow, who used the same melodic and rhythmic tics in every piece, but whose music – if you brush aside the fact that it’s almost all for the same instrument – runs the entire gamut from meticulous discipline to improvisatory abandon, and from modernist abstraction to boogie-woogie.

Since I so admire so many of the auteur-type composers, I had always intended to gravitate toward a small set of ideas and explore them over and over, as my friends John Luther Adams and Peter Garland have. If nothing else, it strikes me, in the current climate, as a good career move. But my muse doesn’t take directions very well, and it just works out that after writing a motionless Zen essay I’ll next get inspired to write a chaotic parody, and then a postminimalist dance. Jan discounts the claims of the auteuristes and praises Wyler’s versatile ability to adapt to each new genre. It’s in my own best self-interest to ride in that bandwagon myself.


  1. says

    I understand auteur theory and how it relates to Wyler differently. I don’t think it’s really about mining the same recognisable few ideas over and over, but about preferring self-expression to a more abstract form of craft.
    A musical example could be favouring the “doing his own thing” signer-songwriter over the versatile, “fits into any context” studio musician. The former would be seen as expressing himself, and therefore authentic, while the latter is perceived as merely a transparent technician.
    KG replies: But, given differences of medium, what you’re saying sounds to me like what I meant. I got a commission from the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. One of my friends, like Bernadette Speach or John Luther Adams, would have felt compelled to write a piece that expressed their aesthetic in a new medium. I found it more rewarding to enter into the history of choir and orchestra music, to learn some things from William Billings and Brahms, and – in contrast to the extreme difficulty and demands of my Disklavier and microtonal music – to write a reasonably conventional choral work that could function in the social circumstances large choral works function in. Of course, I spread through it as many of my rhythmic and harmonic tricks as I could work in, but satisfying the medium was more important to me in that instance than making a recognizable “Kyle Gann piece,” which sounds to me like what you’re saying.

    And incidentally, I think that choral piece is the best thing I’ve done, too.

  2. jimmymac says

    the difficulty with applying filmic auteur theory to music is that in general movies are much more collaborative than music compositions.
    also i think it’s important to look for the auteur within the eclectic. ligeti’s micropolyphony, polansky’s computer music, etc…
    (sometimes the ability to effect sea change is considered “fearless”)
    however i do agree that if constant variety is your game it’s much tougher. you gotta be a virtuosic mofo to gain the desired attention and appreciation.

  3. says

    I’m not sure the uptowners are any less Auteur-oriented than the downtowners — I’d be more inclined to think that they simply manifest their Auteur-ness in less recognizable ways, i.e they’re less likely to compose imagistically and more likely to compose linguistically (I’ve been reading Music Donwtown on the subway, and loving it). Philip Glass uses characteristicly Glassian images, so the audience can easily identify a new work as a Glass work. More linguistically oriented uptown and midtown composers tend to articulate a consistent personal style, but the idiosyncracies that make it their own style aren’t audible. Your mention of Babbitt is a case in point — he’s obsessed with combinatoriality, but listeners can’t hear combinatoriality so he isn’t recognizeablt Babbittian. Uptown Auteurism tends to reside, as you put it in your first point, in what the music is rather than in how it appears to the audience. You seem to be grouping yourself with the non-auteurs, but you also say that you often feel like you “keep writing the same work over and over again” and in a sense you probably are.
    Alternatively, maybe the correct definition of Auteurism is “composing imagistically, using images that have a particular identifiable characteristic similarities.” Under this model, we have two intersection continuums: imagism versus lingusticism, and consistency of technique versus inconsistency of technique. Auteurism would be Imigistic Consistency, but what are the names of the other three quadrants?
    Ultimately, though, I’m simply finding that the useage of Auteurism doesn’t really seem to match up with its supposed definition. I think there are really three key variables: imigism v. linguisticism, genre, and technique; and a given composer tends to be either consistent or inconsistent in each. The useage of “Auteur” seems to actually be “consistent in genre, and fairly consistent in imagisticness.” But I think plotting people on the complete matrix is more useful. Returning to film, Robert Altman makes a great example of somebody who jumps from genre to genre, but always handles each genre in the same ways (improvisation, freedom for the actors, interest in exploring the unexpored areas of the genre, etc.). Is he an Auteur or not? The definition and the useage conflict. I should also note that my more complex system is still guilty of significant oversimplification.
    Anyway, very thought-provoking stuff :)