Words Finally Fail me

Something else I’ve been thinking lately builds on my recent post What Composers Talk About –  and it will seem self-contradictory to say it, but I can’t tell the absolute truth if I’m constantly on the watch-out against self-contradiction. Someone nominated me for some award, and for the first time in quite a few years I had to write an artistic statement. I used to love doing this. I had all kinds of “reasons” that had led me to write the kind of music I write, I had studied subjects that backed up my choices, I had followed a logical chain from my experiences to my aesthetic, and could delineate it. These artistic statements never won me any awards or anything, but boy, did I find them convincing. 

Lately, though, I’ve felt that my music has ridden rationalism to the end of the line, and I’ve got little left to say about it. It’s not that I feel my future musical goals are less clear, but that I can no longer articulate them. The multitempo and microtonal structures I’ve come up with through study and experimentation are still, I think, interesting, but their interestingness is beginning to get in the way. It’s time for them to fade into the background, and to simply be there in the service of something inchoate, something I can’t specify because if I could specify it, it wouldn’t surprise me the way I want it to. So I’ve reached the point at which a lot of musicians always have been, who can’t bear to say why they’re writing music or what they want it to do. And I, long-time maven of blindingly logical artistic statements, am feeling the unfamiliar suspicion that artistic statements aren’t of much value. It seems to vary by field, possibly by age; I read a lot of visual artist statements, and they always seem able, even driven, to scope out some field of exploration whose premises they can explain. In recent visual art, the work and the explanation even seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps younger artists should need to explain where they’re headed better than older artists with larger portfolios need to – but to conclude that would be merely to extrapolate from my own possibly idiosyncratic experience. Now I find myself having a hippie-ish, totally uncharacteristic urge to just write “My music is…” and then leave it blank, or draw a psychedelic picture or something. 
But here’s what I came up with under duress, partly remembered from the kinds of things I used to write:

I recently joked in print that I write a cool, steady music in an attempt to calm myself down, and it wasn’t entirely facetious. I think I’m also trying to calm the world down. Modernist music was an honest reflection of tensions underlying the veneer of civilization, but in the end it morphed into a self-fulfilling prophecy – people now know the world is chaotic, violent, and disappointing, and no longer need to hear that in the concert hall. I believe in the artist’s ability to envision a future, and at this point that future must be sustainable and ecological. Toward that end, I think the future of music lies in increased sensitivity and perception, which is why I work with tempo complexities and higher harmonics among the overtones (with an increased array of expressive intervals). In other words, I think music has gone as far as is currently meaningful in an outward, extroverted direction, and now needs to turn inward, to become more meditative and develop finer gradations (much like Indian music, a tradition I admire but have never studied). The challenge now is to absorb dissonance and complexity without giving rein to anguish or anger. My music sometimes employs political texts, but I don’t believe the artist has much right to preach: I prefer to state ideas in sharp focus but with their ambiguity intact so that people have to settle within themselves what their reaction is. 

I’m not as impressed as I used to be.


  1. mclaren says

    “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.54.

  2. says

    “I think I’m also trying to calm the world down.”
    I think you may have touched on it right there, Kyle…you felt that the world needed that music at that point in time. Whether or not the underlying impetus for a composer is specific compositional techniques, stylistic influences from other composers or personal inspiration from one’s own experiences…they all more or less speak to whatever holes or gaps a composer is drawn to filling with their work. Some write music just for themselves, but those of us who do write for something bigger…maybe it’s not the point to latch onto any one “Big Idea” for an extended period of time…but simply to be aware of the world around us enough to know where those holes in our world are when they happen and to be creative enough to attempt to fill them.

  3. says

    Thank you for the excellent pair of posts (4/21 and 23). They’re great food for thought for young composers in particular, trying to figure out which (if any) aesthetic boxes they fit into, or if/how categories even apply anymore. Thanks again!

  4. says

    I always struggle with what to say to an audience or on program notes. I have tried technical explanations, as well as personal and even self-effacing and joking commentary. It all feels put on and superfluous.

    The only time I have felt anywhere close to genuine is when I’m answering direct questions. Maybe it feels genuine because it is not a prepared answer, but at least it gives me a place to start. Honestly though, I really do like the spare approach when putting music out there. It might be fun or potentially useful to have an anecdote or explanation/explication about Cold Blue’s latest Peter Garland CD in the liner notes, but not having it there shows a restraint that I can admire.

  5. John Lato says

    I’ve recently stumbled upon this blog (your acousmatics vs. soundscapers post came up for some combination of words and Google), and I’d like to say thanks very much for your interesting and often thought-provoking writing.
    I have long believed that creating titles and program notes is harder than writing the music, and this post resonates with that experience. If I could sum up my music in a pithy paragraph, I wouldn’t have needed to write the piece to begin with. I think Rob Deemer has the right of it as well. For myself, and I suspect many others, each piece is necessarily an individual contribution of whatever we think necessary at the time.

  6. says

    Hi Kyle,
    Your relating ecology to inwardness reminds me of something the poet Alice Notley wrote some years ago:
    “There is too much human material now everywhere: the world is covered with ‘the man-made.’ None of our problems can be solved by making more of it, more of the material . . . All achievement, writerly & poetic achievement included, must become more invisible. . . . Poetry . . . could be a force for the reestablishment of the invisible, for making people’s inner lives more important than this constant assertion of substance. For poetry is not about words, or how one thinks, or making things. It is about essence — the secret inside the material.”
    KG replies: Nice one. I’ll look her up.

  7. says

    “So I’ve reached the point at which a lot of musicians always have been, who can’t bear to say why they’re writing music or what they want it to do.” – Kyle
    Could be a transitional moment leading somewhere.
    KG replies: Think so; hope so.

  8. says

    Modernist music was an honest reflection of tensions underlying the veneer of civilization, but in the end it morphed into a self-fulfilling prophecy – people now know the world is chaotic, violent, and disappointing, and no longer need to hear that in the concert hall.
    A nice massage, maybe, could help you with tension, but not with tendentiousness. You seem to imply that modern”ist” composers DO know exactly, and CAN fully rationalize, what they are doing.
    KG replies: I don’t get what you’re saying. The subconscious often pushes a creative artist in unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable directions. But by and large, I do believe that composers have some general conscious choice in their stylistic directions.

  9. Ph1l says

    That was a little cryptic. Sorry.
    It seems that in the rush of a feel-good vibe (hence the word ‘massage’) your post and your quoted artist statement are conflating two stereotypes about modern(ist) music that are neither universally true nor related to one another.
    On the one hand, modernism is indeed an attempt to push rationality as far as it will go, and on the other hand, modernist art is often harsh and full of “anguish”. These two things by no means need to go hand in hand, but your post, perhaps inadvertently suggests that the ugliness is a byproduct of the rationality.
    The most ‘rational’ music I know of is actually extremely euphonious (though arguably not particularly ‘listenable’ because it’s nauseatingly euphonious — but to each his own). It was first outlined by the 13th-century philosopher Ramon Llull and rendered in our times by the proprietors of http://lullianarts.net/harmonic2.htm
    Point is that ‘pushing rationality as far as it will go’ depends on your definition of rationality (rational about what?) and your definition of ‘too far’ and ‘far enough’. One can reject the solutions of Karel Goeyvaerts and still be a modernist.
    KG replies: I’ve made the point you’re making elsewhere: here, for instance:
    “Of course, there were actually two 20th centuries. The first, symbolized by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Ives, was a dramatic irruption of violent, irrational energy, as music abruptly claimed all those sonic phenomena that earlier centuries had prohibited. The second 20th century, which began as World War II ended, was quite the opposite, a worship of technical devices by people who, in any other generation, would have likely become lab technicians rather than composers. Yet by a quirk of inadequate terminology, both 20th centuries—the lion’s roar and the ferret’s jargon-blurred murmur—became yoked together under the term ‘modernism.'”
    But I think you’re confusing this rationalism for the rationalism I was referring to, which was merely having logical reasons for writing music a certain way. When I said I’d ridden rationalism to the end of the line, I certainly didn’t mean I’d ridden modernism to the end of the line – on the contrary, I lost all interest in modernism some time in grad school, if not earlier. You’re right, rationality can be used to support many different styles – though leery of over-reliance on rationalism, I always employed it in the service of rather consonant music. I don’t think it was rationalism that made music ugly, though I might concede that it was rationalism that eventually made ugly music uninteresting.