Sacramento – Harold Meltzer’s new sextet Brion, played by the Cygnus Ensemble here at Sacramento State last night, opened with a quiet piccolo solo playing the same motive over and over. It was a high note followed by several staccato repetitions of a low note. Pianissimo string chords played underneath. At first the relation between them was tonal, but it branched out into bitonality and mild dissonance. Lasting maybe a virtual minute in experienced musical time, it was lovely. But what was better was that, almost halfway through the piece, the whole section came back. By writing that passage, Harold created beauty; by repeating it, he gave it to the audience. We could now take it home. It was a generous gesture, generous toward the audience.
Charles Wuorinen’s Sonata for Guitar and Piano was on the same program. Lots of musical beauty flew by, but it was not Wuorinen’s intention to give us any of it. Nothing ever audibly came back, no discrete musical entity was ever defined, nothing was burned into the memory. He wanted us to admire his formidable technique, all the beauty he could create, but to keep us from getting any of it and taking it home, he showed it to us in only the most ephemeral glimpses. In a way, his piece was all about him, telling us what a clever composer he is.
I have been wondering for awhile now (and in a way this is really a continuation of my previous post) how it came to pass that we have trained composers to be ungenerous toward the audience. Composers are people who provide musical beauty for the world. How did it become a sin to actually give it to them?
In my theater piece Custer and Sitting Bull, I have a passage in which Sitting Bull repeats a question over and over (and this really happened) to a panel of American military inquisitors, “Do you know who I am?” Then, later in the piece, I bring this section back verbatim. People have run up to me after concerts gleefully repeating, “Do you know who I am, do you know who I am?” They clearly love this passage – perhaps they could have loved any other passage just as much, but this is the one that I burned into their memory, this is the one I gave them. It’s clearly the hook of the piece. People respond so extravagantly to any little generosity that it’s touching. And yet, I know of a well-known composer who expressed stern disapproval to someone when this passage returned in the piece. I was pandering to the audience.
How did the audience become the people from whom we composers are supposed to withhold our riches, rationing beauty out to them in only tiny drops?
I find lately that almost all of my critiques of student compositions have to do with the music moving on too quickly to something else. A composer will start with a gorgeous opening gesture – and 20 seconds later, the mood of the piece has already changed. I’m constantly telling students: “At the 20-second mark in a performance, the audience member has realized that a new piece has begun, quit talking to his neighbor, glanced at his program, and is beginning to listen – and already your best idea has gone by, never to return.” I have no one to pin the blame on, but somehow our students are internalizing the mandate that musical ideas, no matter how beautiful, should never be repeated nor dwelt upon. I see fabulously professional pieces with one stunning little timbral idea after another, none of them sustained long enough, or repeated often enough, to register in the listener’s conciousness. Why do we create beauty only to immediately take it away again? Relatedly, I get students expressing doubts that something lovely they’ve written in a piece is too “banal,” or too “cheesy,” by which they mean too obvious, too recognizable and enjoyable by the listener. You can see these young composers burst forth with an impulse to give the listener something fun to listen to – and then squelch it, for fear that they’ll look too naive and not professional. It’s the strangest thing in the world.
I’m going to make a political analogy, so if criticism of poor, dear George W. Bush hurts your feelings, just skip to the next paragraph. Wuorinen’s compositional attitude is like Bush’s: “I’m the Decider.” I don’t have to give you anything, you should just admire me because I’m so great. In response to a reporter’s opinion, Bush snapped, “Who cares what you think?” When the prospect of invading Iraq brought about the largest world protests in human history, Bush said, “I’m not going to be influenced by a focus group.” Bush has never expressed generosity, which I guess to Republicans would be a sign of weakness. By contrast, what has Obama done for us? Almost nothing, so far: just given some speeches about how we’re important to him and he wants to do something for us. And so instantly responsive is the human mind to even a suggestion of generosity that the entire world is cheering.
And that’s why Philip Glass is the most successful composer around. If you want to tell me his musical materials are cheap, I’ll agree with you, depending on the piece. But he is invariably generous. When he gives the audience a piece, good or bad, they take it home with them. You want to convince me that there’s more beauty in Wuorinen’s sonata than in, say, Glass’s Akhnaten? Fine, I’ll go along. But people are more grateful for a hot dog you give them than for lobster étouffée that you let them smell briefly before whisking it away.
Want an example of a composer whose materials are exquisite, and who is superbly generous with them? Morton Feldman. The older he got, the more generous his music became.
I love that statement from Schoenberg’s “Brahms the Progressive” essay that I’ve quoted so often:
Evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, repetition, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony and even logic – none of these elements produces or even contributes to beauty. But all of them contribute to an organization which makes the presentation of the musical idea intelligible.
But I think it’s a little too open to self-serving academic misinterpretation, and I’d rephrase it this way:
Musical beauty is not difficult to create, and almost any materials will do. But to transmit that beauty to the listener, to give it to him or her, so that the listener feels like he owns it and can take it away from the performance with him, requires some combination of repetition, evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony, or logic.