A composition student of mine, mature and centered beyond his years, wrote a song cycle this semester. He wrote all the voice lines first. When it came to write the accompaniments, we threw around a lot of ideas. His ultimate choices were the simplest ones possible: arpeggiated triads in one case, changing drones in another. I had two impulses. One was a sense of disappointment, that I hadn’t been able to get him to try something a little more complicated and “artistic.” The other was that his solution was effective, that it would be immediately grasped and allow the emotionality of the vocal line to come through. In performance, my second impulse proved right: the songs sucked the audience in with their nakedness and vulnerability, their reception exhibiting none of the distanced listening that other, more clever and complicated pieces elicited. I admired his courage for selecting ideas that would foreground the depth of the poems, not the impressiveness of his compositional bag of tricks.
I wonder if this is what Feldman meant in saying, “For music to succeed, the composer must fail.”