Taking Away the Mystery

I had an interesting conversation with composer John Halle at a party last night. We were talking about how difficult it is to get information from books and articles about how certain serialist works were written. In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well, we agreed, it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself. Personally, I am far more pragmatic: in my book on Nancarrow I gave as much information as I could ferret out about how the pieces were written, exposing every process to public scrutiny. And I was told by a third party that György Ligeti considered my Nancarrow book “too American.” Lately I’ve been trying to get information, for my 12-tone class, about how Stockhausen mapped the row of Mantra onto various “synthetic” scales, and all I find is a quote from Stockhausen about how he dislikes explanation because it “takes away the mystery.” Well, taking away the mystery is precisely what I’m trying to do, to empower my young composers and show them that there are no secrets out there that they can’t use. Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices. Every time I write a microtonal piece I put the scale and the MIDI score on the internet, to make sure I withhold no secrets from those who might be interested. Perhaps it’s a foolish career move. But for me the power of the music is in the sound itself, not in the mystification one creates by keeping the generative processes of inscrutable music secret.

I will add that for Berio’s Sinfonia I used David Osmond-Smith’s Playing on Words: A Guide to  Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. It’s a little ponderously written, but ultimately fairly clear, with charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece. Best of all, it identifies every musical quotation in the third movement by measure and instrument. Such forthright accounts for this repertoire are rare. And why? Afraid the hoi polloi might get in on the action?


  1. says

    I always figured that when composers talk about the “mystery” of composition, as Stockhausen did, it’s a cop out. I figure that in reality they started with a master plan, a row, a set of parameters and constraints, and then, somewhere along the line, they discovered the plan didn’t work they way they expected it so they improvised, editing the derived result into something more personable. That is, they used “taste” over some algorithmic choices.
    The exception I believe is Cage, who followed all his plans to the very end, regardless of the outcome.
    That could be due to just plain ornery stubbornness or genius. Or both. Not sure.

  2. Bob Gilmore says

    For sure, the whole impact and aura of Stockhausen and Boulez and quite a few others would be unthinkable without this kind of mystique, this hiding of the secrets of their creative processes. I always wonder what they were afraid of. This is necessary in order to create an atmosphere within which composers whose music is clear and comprehensible (not only minimalists but tonal composers like Copland or Britten) can be castigated as simplistic.
    Maybe we need WikiLeaks applied to that whole generation.

  3. says

    Kyle, you are the Julian Assange of musicology. We want radical transparency! Seriously, though, I agree about the secrecy stuff, it plays right into the western world’s Great Man myth and is not at all helpful.
    KG replies: I would love to be the Julian Assange of something, but I’m afraid I’m only the Al Franken of new-music academia.

  4. says

    Didn’t Schoenberg say something like, if you’re not willing to share something because you’re afraid someone will steal it from you, it never really belonged to you in the first place. (might be in his Harmonielehre somewhere or in one of the Style and Idea essays, it’s been a while since I read them).
    The idea stayed with me anyway, best be to clear about how you do things in my opinion.
    KG replies: Hadn’t heard that.

  5. says

    ah, THAT explains why my undergrad years in composition were so soul destroying! my teacher learnt in Europe and never gave a single thing away. i should have done musicology. no, cryptology.

  6. Ken Fasano says

    I look forward to your deconstruction of Mantra! It is already well known that Stockhausen didn’t follow his form-schemes exactly, and even allowed for this in his form-schemes! For example, in Gesang der Junglinge he put in “inserts” to celebrate the birth of his daughter.

  7. mclaren says

    There’s no evidence that these kooks used any systematic process to generate that acoustic sludge. Barring hard evidence to the contrary, Occam’s Razor requires that we assume the pitches and rhythms were spewed out at random with no organization and no plan.

  8. Christopher Culver says

    “Barring hard evidence to the contrary, Occam’s Razor requires that we assume the pitches and rhythms were spewed out at random with no organization and no plan.”
    Luckily there are thousands of pages of hard evidence, namely sketches collected at places like the Sacher Foundation, or classes of serialist writing year after year at Darmstadt.
    In any event, I also like Osmond-Smith’s book on Berio, but it took me forever to get a copy. It was nice that the score of Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 clearly labels the quotations that form the basis of the first movement, while my pocket score of Berg’s Chamber Concerto explains how the row is a greeting to his friends. If only more publishers could put that kind of basic information in the study scores, then we wouldn’t be dependent on academy studies that are printed in tiny quantities.