Composing Generously

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.


  1. kraig Grady says

    I went to a concert about a year and a half go with over 15 pieces on it. Including Xenakis, Boulez, etc. and the 11th quartet of Shostakovitch happen to be in the middle. When the concert had ended with way too much music. The person picking up the chairs started whistling one of the themes from Shostakovitch. It appears that these were the only notes that counted. The only thing that one could call resonance. How is much new music anything but another disposable commodity if it is instantly forgotten?

  2. says

    This is great. I started becoming fascinated with literal repetition after I read Peter Kivy’s essay called “The fine art of repetition.” At the time, I was composing a short piano piece called Something to do with Trains. I was struggling with how to continue from a certain point, and for some reason I had it in my mind that repetition is a copout, etc. but I’m happy to say that I convinced myself to repeat most of the first section of the piece literally, capping it all off with a coda.
    I just couldn’t come up with a good excuse for varying the initial material. It sounded exactly how I wanted it to sound, and the entire time I was writing the first part of the piece (the part that is repeated), I was thinking that it is all going by so fast, and it really deserves a second hearing. So, in the end, I wrote the second hearing into the piece, and I’m so glad I did. It turned out to be one my personal favorite compositions.
    KG replies: Sounds like a well-informed creative decision. I’d love to hear it.
    UPDATE: I see now you provided a link to it. It’s lovely. Reminds me of a piece I wrote in high school, though of course it’s tremendously more polished. The repetition isn’t at all over-obvious.

  3. Jacob says

    Compositional point taken. And I’m glad to see you critique Wuorinen’s work rather than dismiss it. I would hardly expect you to become a Wuorinen fan, but of the criticisms you might have made about his work, I’m surprised that this is the one. His music has long been concerned with recapitulation and return, and a varied rate of exposition. (I don’t know the particular piece you are reacting to, but since you reach beyond it immediately to issues of personality, I think it is fair to consider his corpus generally.) He is intensely concerned about form, comprehensibility and clarity. He writes different kinds of pieces, some of them making greater demands on attention than others, but he is quite willing to write pieces for the public sphere of a certain deliberate obviousness, so they can be absorbed properly in their setting — his ballet/concerto Five and the opera Haroun are good examples. Some of his chamber works, my favorites being the Horn Trio, the 3rd String Quartet, and the Piano Quintet, have a sociable flow of ideas appropriate to the shared intimacy of the form.
    As for the personal characterizations you make, look, he’s a problematic artistic personality, and I wonder if you aren’t blending your reactions to the rate of change of his material and his other qualities. If the beautiful details to which you allude struck you as emotionally warm in and of themselves, I doubt you’d make the same criticism of his principles of development.
    I believe that if Wuorinen’s art strikes one as cold and arrogant, and no more than that, then one has not penetrated far enough into it emotionally. My take is that it is music which shields a deep vulnerability and a deep love, that longs for warmth but out of a mixture of deformation, shyness, pride and nobility, will not stoop to openly obtain it. Listen to him as a kind of Cyrano, not a Bush, with the sort of emotional generosity the former (and not so much the latter!) deserves, and you may find that Wuorinen is more generous in return than you expect.
    KG replies: I well imagine that I could obtain a score to that sonata and, upon close study, realize the truth of what you’re saying. The fact that it would require that work is not a terrible thing – but it is comparatively ungenerous.

  4. says

    Thank you for being so generous as to leave us these thoughts. I have long read your blog, and before that other writings, but this is my absolute favorite. Thank you.

  5. says

    My “yes, but” quota for the day: yes, but why does that repetition have to be of surface-level material? Wuorinen repeats plenty of stuff, it’s just not the sort of stuff or the sort of repetition that’s going to whack the leading edge of your conscious attention. I’m not left feeling wanting by his music, and I think it’s because of the generosity of conscientious craft.
    I could negatively categorize this idea: bad minimalism might be stingy with repeating good material; bad atonal modernism insists, via repetition, on bringing to the explicit surface what’s better left for implicit appeal to the subconscious. (Short version: not wasting one’s time can also be a generous gesture.)
    KG replies: 1. It doesn’t have to be surface level, but it has to be noticeable. And it doesn’t have to be repetition: as Schoenberg noted, it can be evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony, or logic.
    2. The kinds of messages that I don’t want to waste my time are the ones I really don’t want to get anyway. If I’m enjoying a novel, it’s always too short. Bruckner’s symphonies are all too short. I love music, and I only want it to be short when it’s not very good.

  6. says

    To continue the political analogy: Notice also that Obama is not afraid of repeating his signature phrases, e.g., “there is no red America, there is no blue America” and variations thereof. Clearly these strike a chord with his listeners, and Obama is loath to deny them the pleasure of hearing them again and again — I think each of his major speeches (e.g., DNC in 2004, the Wright speech, DNC in 2008, the post-election speech) have included them in one form or another.
    Getting back to music, to expand on your point about “register[ing] in the listener’s conciousness”, musically-uneducated listeners (like myself) need the repetition, otherwise we have no real entry point into the piece, no way to know what the composer considers the key musical ideas and what is (by contrast) simply context for those ideas.
    KG replies: I see no reason to limit that logic to musically-uneducated listeners. I think it’s all of us.