The Muse

In the bygone times of yesteryear, Patrick maintained a blog of musical musings. Their wit, wisdom, and observations are archived below...

Aphorisms and Music

Artistic Respiration

That's What Gets Results

In Memoriam: Steve Gosewisch

On The Interconnectivity of All Things (abridged)

Method and Madness

Wilde Oscar's Rose


Nothing More Than Feelings

The Absractionist Myth

An Ode to Horatio

The Living Organism

Multidisciplinary Art      

On Empty Concert Halls

The Great Boston Bow-out

  Levels of Creation

Respect vs. Connection

Still Learning from Jazz

Stick Shift

The Forgotten Audience

Re-creation and Rebirth

Art Has Its Reasons

Philsophical Fragmentation

Artistic Viability

Grammar Police

Result Vs. Process


Aphorisms and Music
January 1, 2006 (Boston)

See the tree?
Truly see the tree?
Half the tree
All we ever see.

Ancient aphorisms, while lighting the way to Truth, never teach, they simply are. Rather than prescribe an action, they describe an immutable facet of the world in which we live. The realization and internalization of this truth often leads to growth generally referred to as wisdom, but the aphorism has merely shone light on something which, had it gone unwritten, would have nevertheless remained true.

Music is much the same way; it cannot prescribe, it cannot teach actively. Rather, what it can do is awaken in the listener, much in the same manner of a simple aphorism, the realization of a simple truth. As the contemplation of these truths form our journey for the ultimately unattainable, to hear music which embodies truth in such a pure and clear way also bids us journey. We emerge not necessarily transcended, but at least more than we were, and that is one of the highest goals to which art can ever hope to achieve.

The difficulty remains to the composers, how to express the enigmatic simplicity of an aphorismical truth using the still more abstract language of tones. However, it is through this inherently mystical medium that we can portray ever more intrinsic qualities of life, human nature, and the fabric of reality in the world around us.



Artistic Respiration
January 16, 2006

Some composers will tell you that one's attempts to write music will fall flat and remain static unless they continually listen to, internalize, and learn from existent music. Then there are those who proudly declare that one can only draw out the music inside himself if he abstains from corrupting his natural artistic impulses by letting music other than his own enter his ears. Both are valid arguments, and both are, in my opinion, equally true.

Music education, the act of learning something from studying or hearing a piece of music, can only occur when one approaches it with an open mind, when one stands as a student and says 'This can teach me something.' However, in the act of music composition one often finds oneself in an antithetical situation, where, at least during the moment of creation, the composer must believe conclusively in the artistic worth of what he is creating. He must shut out the world and exist as his own authority, taking his cue from within rather than without.

This Artistic Inhalation and Exhalation is an essential dichotomy and an intrinsic dilemma in the art of music composition, or the production of any art for that matter. For an artist to survive, he must do both, and in perpetuity, is he is to be productive and his art is to grow. The former is the only way to learn, and the latter the only way to get things done. Eternal learning without action is useless, even to theorists, but the idea that one's art can be enhanced through selfishness and close-mindedness is preposterous, given the communal nature of the art of Music. The trick is, to know the proportions with which to oscillate between the two.



That's What Gets Results
January 23, 2006 (Boston)

The old song was true: it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.

At least it holds true in the symphonic form. The symphonic form, one of the most purely abstract musical idioms, one where Journey stands in for Destination, and emotional (or purely musical) highs and lows are attained simply as a matter of course, is a blank canvas whereupon the composer creates his own world, and then explores it.

One of my teachers once said "nothing in music can ever repeat exactly; for music is life, or at least represents life, and no two experiences in life are ever exactly the same". Symphonic form is organic growth, one where a musical seed inherits a musical composition. And history has proven that it almost doesn't matter one bit what that seed is, aesthetically. In symphonic form, it's not what you wrote, it's the way that you grow it.

Now, while some maintain that some subjects lend themselves better or worse to symphonic development, these preconceptions are accurate for fugal subjects, lyric melodies, and the like. A piece in symphonic form is a world in which music can play, where, ironically, it becomes its most human; growing, discovering, facing adversity, occasionally triumphing, occasionally having some other force prevail against it. And just the same conditions of life accompany every person on their way, the composer can create his own conditions to effect and interact with any little musical germ he sees fit, because in the end, a symphonic composition is judged not by how you started, but where you went with it.



IN MEMORIAM: Steven A. Gosewisch
January 30, 2006 (Boston)

As composers, we usually write music either to comment on, or escape from, reality. Those moments referred to as 'reality checks', although useful for the trade, are usually avoided at all costs.

Some, however, are unavoidable. Earlier this month, one of New Jersey's best civic orchestras, as well as local high schools, and countless colleagues, students, and friends, suffered the sudden and unexpected loss of Steve Gosewisch. In Steve was lost a great conductor, a dedicated educator, and an all around complete musician.

In the time since his passing I've read many online dedications and memorials, and have been fascinated (but not surprised) by the amount Steve accomplished and how many lives he touched. I unfortunately must admit to not knowing Steve personally, although I have held subscription tickets to the Monmouth Symphony for years, and it was Steve who asked me to write a piece for the MSO for next season. So I cannot add to the long list of stories of how Steve changed my life, but I can still be left inspired by his accomplishments and use this space and this time to hopefully spread the word about this great musician to at least some others who would not have otherwise known about him.

I do feel indebted to Steve for what I have learned from watching him conduct or hearing him lecture; truly the musical world, especially in New Jersey, lost one voice far too early. And I will write my piece, if only to dedicate it to his memory; should it ever grace a concert program, it will be performed in honor of the man who called it into existence in the first place, a wonderful force in the field of music, Steve Gosewisch.


On the Interconnectivity of All Things (abridged)
5 February 2006 (boston)

I find it surprising (and alarming) just how many musicians, composers and performers alike, view music as some completely abstract thing, entirely cut off from interaction with other facets of life and incompatible with anything beyond itself. If that is true, if music is so limited, than of what use is it?

The real situation, the truth, is that all things, be they music, taxes, or a deli sandwich, exhibit distinct traits and common traits. (Although this argument has undoubtedly been presented before, and it’s complete thesis could last several hundred pages, I will choose to use this space as an introduction, a quasi mission-statement, to be added to an expounded upon later).

Works of ballet, opera, and multimedia, as well as installations and sound events do exhibit some of this interconnectivity, but what is meant by the term is not media crossover, rather the inherent quality of things to exhibit similar qualities, if those connections are realized.

So, more later, but for now show me a multi-course meal in the form of a beethoven symphony; give me a clarinet that plays not the sound of dripping water, but its wetness; show me how movement can really mimic sound, perhaps even create it; show me a painting of the wind and a song of amnesia; let a piece control how sharply we listen as a great essayist controls how quickly we read; let the elements of art be used as they always have, but to possibilities hitherto unheard of.

More on this later.



Method and Madness

February 13, 2006 (Boston)

"I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, cannot
be cast into traditional fixed forms; it is made up of colors and rhythms...
the rest is a lot of humbug invented by rigid imbeciles
riding on the backs of the masters." --Debussy

There is so much in that quote, so much content, and so much truth. A composer, or any creator of art, has always walked a line between direct communication with their audience, and a degree of sophistication which usually comes from schooling and exposure to 'intelligent' works of art. The question each composer must face and ultimately answer, is where that line lies for him.

Music, as a form of sonic communication, has a lot in common with speech; if an oration contained nothing beyond the passionate expression of the most visceral emotions of the speaker, chances are it would be a  cacophony of unintelligible noise; likewise, if the speech were too learned, it would alienate its audience, numbing even the most rudimentary emotional reactions with the cold sting of rationality.

The truth is in the history, and most music which has stood the test of time has achieved its position in the collective psyche of humanity through emotional connection rather than mere intellectual coherence. While it is true that, in most instances of today's concert music, a certain degree of strict intelligent cohesion must exist, it must never be forgotten that this intellectual rationalization is but the first step; if it were the end all of art, we'd be looking at paintings of the quadratic formula in the museums of the world.



Wilde Oscar’s Rose

20 February 2006 (Boston)

Oscar Wilde once said “There are two ways of disliking Art; one is to dislike it, the other is to like it rationally.” To this he added, “It is better to take pleasure in a rose than to put its root under a microscope”. This is an intriguing point of discussion for composers; for they don’t only admire the rose, they create it. After all, as the creator, one must know exactly what they’re doing....


If a composer is confronted with a rule book, they would to well to run. Run back to their desk and perhaps write a piece about the experience. But one thing is true, for all who admire the rose; the composer of the rose was God, and he had no rule book.

The true composer creates the rule along with the proof




February 27 2006 (Boston)

Putting aside the whole mystical intrigue associated with The Conductor, they fall into two categories, namely good and bad. Far from being as subjective as they sound, these categories have simple, defined criteria: 1) does the conductor do all he can to be as musical and loyal to the score as possible? and 2) does he use his motions, knowledge, and musical presence to get the ensemble play to the best of their ability? It is truly a sad thing to see a professional orchestra give a sub-par performance solely due to their conductor’s ignorance.

Because their overwhelming numbers warrant precedence in this discussion, let’s address the Bad Conductor first. These can usually be broken down into 6 classes, save those who have absolutely no idea what they are doing. The six Bad Conductors are: the Melodicum, the Harmonical, the Formalist, the Rhythmic Temp-est (NOT to be confused with a metronome, which usually proves a far better leader), the Academic, and the Orchestrational.

Mr. Melody is the man who would (and should) rather stay home a listen to a recording; frequently humming along, they are enraptured by the melody--and that’s all they lead. This buffoon uses all this energy dragging by the nose the one element of a piece which usually takes care of itself. Accompaniment patterns and steady tempi beware, all is sacrificed at the Altar of The Tune.

The Harmonic leader (more rare but just as deadly) will tread water limply until a dissonant chromaticism or striking modulation appears, in which case the piece must either grind to a halt or rallentando into cheesiness for the effect (thus ruined) to be heard by the unenlightened audience.

Both of the preceding dissidents tend to live for the moment, and thus while one moment may be exciting, the whole (the part the audience is subjected to listen to) is either tedious or incoherent. Enter their antithesis, and worse than both put together, The Formalist.

Though it should be relatively obvious what this offender looks for in a piece, perhaps his potential for disaster should be pointed out. The Formalist is a bit of the Trojan Horse among bad conductors. His speciality being a firm understanding of the form of a work, and a complete disregard for everything else, his formless ideas are based more on the proportion of the length of the development to the recapitulation than to any musical events they may contain. This conductor often loses the trees for the forest, performers lose their places, and audience members, their minds.

Now, the Tempo King is another rare breed; he either gets sucked into the rhythms of the piece to the point of dancing (a teacher once told me “Lead the music, don’t let it lead you. The former is conducting, the latter is dancing.”), or, becomes so vehemently fastidious about tempi that he disallows any rubato, phrasing, etc. These are the guys who will never breathe while bringing someone in, or give notes their value on the page rather than the true value warranted them by all that has come before and will follow. While the Tempo-Tempest is not a bad trait to have inside any conductor, it creates a Bad Conductor when it escapes from his pulse and affects his governing centers of judgment and good musical taste.

On to my personal favorite, The Academic. He knows everything about the piece, but is more interested in telling you about it than leading it. Rationality supersedes all musical sense. Was Tchaikovsky foolish enough to ask the oboe to play the low Bb pianissimo, or did he want the color you get when you try to make the low Bb pianissimo? Academics often change a composer’s work as often as they defend it, usually to the contrary of whatever he picks up on as the general tone or common sense of the orchestra. They are the chosen-by-God communicators with dead composers who condescend to share their knowledge with us, or that small part of it our feeble minds can handle. They would rather study the piece than perform it, and it shows in every concert.

And finally, we come to The Orchestrationalist, a term which I’ve coined specifically for this purpose and will no doubt prove useless elsewhere in verbal communication. We’ve all met them: the string players. The man who will stand for 45 minutes basking in the visual and auditory glory of the violins or cellos, while the rest of the orchestra, like neglected children, clamor for a simple cue, a downbeat, or heaven forbid some feedback on how their sound is blending. But for the Orchestrationalist, no sound outside that of the instrument-they-used-to-play-decades-ago-but-lacked-the-proficiency-to-become-a-world-renowned-soloist-on blends, it merely distracts from the glory of the thing he wishes beyond all else he could do. Unfortunately, the rest of the orchestra is left wishing he’d be a conductor.

There may even be further ramifications of these classes (almost as many variant as there are types of ignorance), but for a general classification, they suffice.

And what of the Good Conductor, you say? Well, it should be obvious by now; each Bad Conductor exemplifies one obsession (not talent), and an ignorance of all others. The Good Conductor embodies knowledge of all these categories, plus the ability to communicate his thoughts, and above all a physical grace, charismatic demeanor, emotional connectedness and musical sensibility which allows not only for well educated, creative and innovative ideas, but his ability to realize those ideas.

Bad Conductors are like people trying to build a skyscraper: one only has rivets; the other only has steel; another, glass; etc. The Good Conductor not only has ALL the materials but also holds a degree in architecture and vision of what the completed work will look like, how it will function, and why it will be important to people.



20 March 2006

Nothing More Than Feelings

    Knowledge is the enemy of belief, yet sometimes necessary to bring beliefs to life. Hunches, gut urges, and inner feelings can usually only be molded into coherent communicative force through the intellectual application of knowledge. But knowledge for knowledge’s sake only leads to itself, while belief leads beyond itself.
    I’m often reminded of the story of the woman who inexplicably lifted her car when it was crushing her child. In this instance, the knowledge that she couldn’t possibly do it was eclipsed by the immediate feeling that she must do it. Not that she must ‘try anyway’; that she must do it.
    Belief requires emotional connection and imagination; knowledge merely rewards perception by presenting the very thing which was ‘known’. In that sense, permit me the indulgence, knowledge is unimaginable.
    People who deny belief and trust only knowledge will never see anything they haven’t already seen or feel something they’ve never been taught. The fallacy of their psuedofaith is that the great discoveries and breakthroughs of the past, which they study incessantly, were made by dreamers and thus can never be imitated by theorists.
    Now, belief is also relative, like perception and feeling, but the point is its existence needs to be recognized in whatever form it takes. People who ‘know’ things will tell you that there is nothing after this life; believers disagree. For my part, I would rather believe in something, than know there is nothing...those who ‘know’ call this foolishness. Perhaps. But if I turn out to be right, I’ll be pleasantly surprised; if I was wrong all along, I’ll never know what hit me. But a life led with belief, be it belief in God, morality, telekinesis, or the Red Sox’s chance for the pennant, will always be more colorful, more vivid, and more rewarding than a life mired by knowledge. Is it more ignorant? No; for the life of belief embraces both knowledge and belief, whereas the life of knowledge knows only one path; a tightly coiled loop leading only to itself.

    Given the  choice, I’d rather chose the life which asks me what I feel than tells me what I already know.



3 April 2006
The Abstraction Myth

In an age where form is still taught before content, method is prized over feeling, and we are urged not to distinguish between respecting the process and liking the result, abstraction remains the safe haven for those with precious little to say. But sadly for them, their refuge is a mirage. Abstraction is, after all, a myth.

Everything ever conceived owes its form and cast to the conditions of reality in place at the time of its birth; to antithesize is to imitate, to ignore it to tip the hat, to rage against is to admit defeat. The idea that any work of art can be brought into creation with no justification, explanation, or essence beyond that which is contained within itself is a noble effort, but ultimately impossible.

Even in the most abstract acoustic music, the musicians must breathe; the work has breath and phrase, akin to the rising a setting sun, the cycle of life, heartbeats, blinking, cell division, and yes even being stuck in traffic at the same time of day 5 days a week. Electronic music can escape further from analogies by eliminating most of the human factor, at least in direct performance, but  the sounds that were created, like those gems refined in a film’s foley department, were thought up by someone, and relate to his aural reality, which is the only thing he can draw from.*

A composer does not create, he invents. Creation implies bringing into existence something from nothing, while invention more accurately describes the composer’s ability to assemble existent elements, be they forms, tonalities, textures, or simply instruments or even more basically pitches and the laws of acoustics, into a thing completely new, redefining, and useful to some contingent of the population at large.

*Permit me the indulgence of using gender-specific pronouns ‘he’, ‘his’, et al. Although I have received some rebuttals of this system on account of blatant sexism, rest assured they are merely used for the sake of expediency; neither the feminist nor egalitarian lexicons have provided an adequate replacement yet, and while I can argue the nonexistence of the essential nature of abstraction itself, I think I shall never be up to the task of arguing, for or against, the feminist position.



April 24, 2006

The Great Boston Bow-Out
Admiration vs. Obligation

Boston is a musically gifted society, no one disputes that. But there is what I can only call a tradition here in Boston which cheapens the presentation of art, bores and desensitizes audiences, and clouds the musical conscience: from the hallowed Symphony Hall, to Jordan's resonant walls, even at the smallest impromptu gathering of musicians...everyone bows twice.

Or at least twice...entire orchestras are called back on stage, with their conductors (and if there's a soloist, the parking garage will charge you for that extra hour). Now, all this humble homage, while good for the lower back, has dangerous consequences. There must be some in the audience who are tired of sustaining applause until their heroes reappear from the wings (although some come back instantaneously, which is equally strange; as if they're afraid it will die out and they won't get their chance to join every other musician in the city) especially if they see no apparent reason to continue lauding a performance which they believe has had its due reward.

My problem does not come from congratulating our musicians, or showing your appreciation; my complaint is based on my observation of this multiple-bowing procedure at every concert I have attended in the last 8 months. I could almost excuse this gross overgenerous gushing in a small town in the middle of nowhere, which is so proud it finally has an orchestra; but this is Boston! I have never, even in New York or Jersey, seen multiple bows being taken (whether over a long or short period of time) with such frequency as I have in my short time in Boston.

In Russia, there is actually a special unison clap which magically takes shape from the disparate applause when the people decide  they want an encore or second bow (a rather elegant solution, but difficult to introduce to an outside population). But the power of this evocation is understood, and it is used very rarely. And they're not ashamed, if they don't like the performance, to not clap at all.

The difference between this situation and Boston is, if a Russian audience is applauding you, you've moved them. There is no obligatory noise which rises as an involuntary reflex from all members of the audience right after the final chords, as they rise to their feet, cheer, whistle, and think, 'where did I park my car/is dinner expensive in this city/when was my last dental appointment?'

Analyzing the social pressure to clap after every musical performance is an argument for another day, but for now, people need to realize that when something as special as calling out your musicians a second and third time becomes not only commonplace and expected, but mandatory, it ceases to bear any meaning whatsoever.



Respect vs. Connection
1 May 2006

Everything comes out of something; even a joke in a comedy film came about either through the direct experience of the director or a story he heard from someone. Humor is essentially experiential, not abstract. So it is with music, or anything else which is made to be communicative. An entirely abstract work of music (in the experimental, not philosophical, sense) finds its experiential audience only in those who had attempted a similar thing in the past. And thus its audience is not only limited, but heterogenious, a practice which is 1) dangerous and 2) pointless.

Completely technical and abstract music, like an experimental film, can be respected, its method of conception admired, but it always creates a barrier between the audience (observer) and the creator (proclaimer).
I stand by my rationalization that music, being a sonic art, is intrinsically communicative. This is not to say we cannot challenge our listeners, or occasionally confuse them. But to utterly confound them consistently merely succeeds in sending them away, to get their artistic edification somewhere else.



Levels of Creation

8 May 2006

In creating a film, or a play, the idea is developed into a script; this differs from a book in that the book is designed for personal consumption without any action from involved parties beyond the reader's imagination. The script requires these additional players and thus is not the finished product in itself.

So it is with music; as a non-book script is a thing to be transfigured into a film or play, a composition goes from idea to sketch to completed piece, yet is not finished until it is performed. I would venture further to say that it is not finished until it is performed enough that through multiple interpretations its true essence can be revealed.

With much modern music, especially that in the chamber music world*, composers seem to neglect this last step in the creation of a piece of music; namely, that they need performers, and hopefully many performers. In many instances, it seems the composers are only concerned with the completed piece, not the finished one, neglecting the performer or writing a piece which removes the performer (literally or by some created distance) from the work.  The piece then becomes the script to a film which was never made.

Interpretation, as I said, is the final stage, albeit one of luxury which few pieces enjoy. But much of this selfsame modern chamber music disallows interpretation, or strictly forbids it. I often think of how people learn throughout their entire life how to interpret Bach; now, in this example, we're dealing with a high quality script, but also music which never makes technique preclude interpretation, or worse, makes technique an end in itself. In that situation, a composer is just shooting himself in the foot.




Still Learning from Jazz
22 May 2006 (Boston)

Jazz holds only two things sacred--communication and ego.

Honesty is inherent in them both.

And all the training, the technique, the education, takes a backseat to


The mind yields to


And chops are never an end in themselves...

This is why the 'classical' realm, particularly composers,

can still learn a lot from Jazz.



The Forgotten Audience
16 June 2006 • New Jersey

Considering music is at its core a communicative art, whatever a composer may think his purpose is as an artist, the absolute worst thing he can do is alienate his audience (any more than is necessary, of course).

The forgotten audience...between the pleasant armchair ears and the fastidious theoretical minds lie the discerning patron...the majority of listeners. Sharp enough to perceive that a piece is written by someone who knows what he's doing but not crippled by admiration of method; they retain enough of the 'unlearned' listener to simply know what they like.

When a mind (of a composer of listener) gets too intellectual for its own good, it makes the grevious error of blurring the line between respect of method and love of product. Admiration of effort and acceptance of result are, and will forever remain, two different (and sometimes opposed) things.

So we're back in the concert hall...and the eternal question rises again: how aloof shall we be, how esoteric, and how much will we allow the listener to steal from us with no challenge? The balance is difficult, but the point is there must be that balance.

Quality (that elusive, amorphous spectre) has been described to me as a combination of 1) coherency 2) mastery of medium and 3) authority of gesture. I find it hard to disagree with this definition, but it is, after all, only the definition of quality; when someone tells me that a piece was of high quality or exhibited 'great craft', my mind echoes the old cliche, and I envision a night spent listening to this piece would be like my blind date wtih the composition who 'has a great personality'...

There must be an artistic magnetism beyond mere quality, just as a mastery of technique is the starting point for an artist's development, not the end. Every musical sound, and every musical silence, must communicate something, otherwise our music becomes nothing more than excerises in self-gratification, like a man who speaks about himself all day and says nothing of substance, albeit he speaks of himself with 'great craft.'



Stick Shift

29 June 2006 • Tanglewood

The myriad techniques of conducting that can be collectively described as 'good' are surpassed in number, variety and complexity only by the dizzying array of methods which are branded with the delightfully dismissive title 'bad'. But although (and perhaps because) a conductor can and does exert his own personality on any piece he conducts, it seems the foundation of 'good' technique is the degree to which he endeavours to remove his own influence from the performance, and allow as much as possible the display of the composer's vision.

Now, as fundamental as this idea seems, it remains a technique either too frequently ignored or too rarely attained. In premiere performances so much of the conductor's (and performers') concentration is spent on simply getting the rough idea across, while older 'classics' suffer the vice of familiarity.

We can leave the specific method for a conducting treatise, but I think we'll all aree conducting Wagner like Mozart is as inexcusable as leading Mozart like Wagner. While period performances are not at all pheasible on the large scale, historically informed performances must be considered the benchmark for presenting music of the past.

The nuts and bolts of it, without flowery language, is that when playing older music our string sections should be reduced and our winds should try their hardest to play (on their modern, loud, and equally balanced instruments) the sounds that the composers heard both in their minds and their concert halls (which, after all was what made them put pen to paper in the first place). An inability or refusal to make this the foundation of any approach to conducting or performance belies either ignorance of selfishness, two of the greatest destroyers of communicative art.



Re-creation and Rebirth
19 August 2006 • Tanglewood

I often wonder if constancy is no more important to the longevity of a piece of music than adaptability. That is to say, is a composition's life protected more by a singular process, purpose, and production, or is there an inherent value in creating music which, through various means, changes from performance to performance, while retaining a certain incorruptible essence?

 In a word, is contancy a prerequisite trait for a masterpiece, or can a piece gain popularity by making interpretation, which changes by performers, location, and even the current social and politcal situation, a main contributing factor for the formation, or completion, of the work of art?

I'm not referring merely to aleatory pieces, or those which involve improvisation, but to a style which makes performers complete the work, rather than just repeating it. In this way the piece may survive by perpetually being reborn with each performance, rather than simply recreated.



Art has its Reasons
6 October • Boston

There is and can only be one reason someone writes music, creates art. It is not to please, or to attmept to influence, enrage or speak to anyone beyond himself.

The argument has been made that great art endures, that those pieces which speak to humanity enjoy a longevity equal to their purpose and worth. But this would permit the re-emergence of forgotten piece if society comes to identify with them, retroactively. This never happens, because no one can call the forgotten back into service, even if it is desperately needed.  Public consumption does not validate a work of art.

Honesty is the only unique contribution a creator can give to his creation, its value judged on this alone, and only within himself.



Philosophical Fragmentation

2 December 2006 • Boston

I'm becoming more and more convinced, as I read side-by-side the interpretations by others of the meaning, purpose, and implication of a work of art, and those those put forth by its actual creator, that there can be an inherent philosophical or analytical value to art, that is, it can exist in a form that demands interpretation, introspection, and discussion (things which ensure its longevity), without prescribing any one specific interpretation. Simply put, the public knows a philosophically heavy work when it sees it.

I recently read an interpretation of a film which contained no less than five completely contradictory but valid interpretations of its intended meaning. Then I read the take by the film's own creator, which as you can imagine provided a sixth, and some would say correct, interpretation.  But the creator was careful not to disallow any of the other stances on the art's meaning (surely he knew of them and possibly foresaw their emergence even if he had not implicitly tried to point to any one in his art); after all, he knew all were valid intepretations, and also he had an understanding of the 'no publicity is bad publicity' rule; that having five schools of thought debating his work was better than having one camp understanding it.

The conclusion I'm quickly becoming convinced of is that a work of art can have deep philosophical significance by its nature rather than its content; if a work of art sets itself up for interpretation, than it will be interpreted many different ways by many different people. It seems the old song was true: It's not what you do, it's that way that you do it. After all, even the most symbolsim- and philosophy- laden tales could also been seen as 'just another story', and those full of what appears to be artificially injected meaning come off as most offensive, presumptuous, and insulting to the psyche. When all things are told, the simple tales themselves, the honest themes and natural cadences of life reflect more truth than could ever be expressed by artificial means.



Artistic Viability
1 February 2007 • Boston

Why is it that abstractionist music can be appreciated by score study? The most romantic music cannot; it must be heard. The great conductor and pedagogue Hermann Scherchen put it best: "Music must not be understood. Music must be listened to."

This applies to not only 'romantic' music, it seems, but any music which is beyond 'rules'; unbound by theory. This applies to the intuitive, the imaginative, the spontaneous, the irrational...the products of all those things within us that make us human.

And in fact the more poignant, the more visceral, the more human a piece of music is, the less it can be appreciated fully merely by staring at blobs of ink on a page. It must be heard.

Now I say, since music is a sonic art, which type of work holds the more valid claim on truly exemplifying that art, of being part of its continuum? Some say that pieces cannot distinguish themselves since the perceived abolition of 'rules' in the 20th century; or (more dangerously) that art can except anything as its own. To these I say stop reading and listen.

I realise that I am, of course, only speaking to the inquisitive. It would take the theorists a while to invent a rule or equation to justify their understanding of or interest in my arguement.

So much for them.



An Ode to Horatio:
On Fragments and how  //....anti    bad  /  only 2 conf...Not on and/or yet~! wha-? then yes...

If the title of this little rant made complete sense to you (be honest now), you can stop reading here, for two reasons. First, for the balance of this arguement there will be no more expressions such as that, and if it makes perfect sense to you (perfect sense now) you probably don’t want to spend time reading an argument against implicit fragmentation. For the rest of us, either the ones searching for where I explain that the text of this article may not display correctly in whatever web browser they are currently using to view it (including the stalwart few who are opening the page in other applications just to check - let me believe they exist), and what I think would be the majority of us who understand the basic idea behind the title without picking up on any details, for you my friends, read on.

I consider it a great privelege to converse often with non-musicians, hobbyist musicians, and artists in different fields than music. One of the first questions I ask them, while listening to something - anything - on the radio, is “do you like this and if so why?” This inevitably leads to the real question at hand, “Is this a work of merit?” Which, while for the most part entirely subjective, seems to follow suit with some pretty simple guidelines. Chief among them is the phenomenon of fragmentation in music. It invariably leads to a negative response.

I have experienced this with any music from any time period, and with a diverse range of subjects, so don’t think this is a hifalutin warning to new music creators. Although the music of the past exists and that of the future has yet to be, so perhaps it is most appropriate for the mdoern musician.

It seems that anyone who is not a full-time practicing musician (including those initiated who strayed from the faith) can tolerate anythig else in music - strange tone colors, dissonance, complex textures, lack of simple harmonic progressions (especially non-musicians), but when a piece gets too fragmented, they get lost, and they take their sense of appreciation with them.

For one quick example, I played the Rite of Spring for a friend, and I heard a string of, “this part I like”, “this part is bad/wierd/difficult/noise” and my subject’s flip-flopping loyalties to the work directly coincided to those parts where the music, however dissonant or complex, either ‘rolled’ in that wonderful Stravinskian way, or took on a more ephemeral, fleeting nature.

Most ears from the groups already discribed don’t listen the way musicians do, and this should come as no surprise. But they do grossly outnumber us. This article is long enough without entering into the argument over who should (a four-letter word to me) be the audience of a piece of music, but it goes almost without saying that any piece would enjoy a larger audience if this one issue were addressed.



The Living Organism

For all the talk today about composers writing abstract music which they claim mirrors organic growth, it seems that in the majority of cases the theory book gets dropped on the plant while it’s still a sapling, and the ear is left staring at the processed product of what was once our little green plant’s hapless parents and wondering, had the real organism had a chance to grow, it possibly could have escaped that fate.

One of the last holy grounds for true organic development, naked and pure, is relatively mainstream jazz improvisation. Not the fragmented mish mash of vitriolic virtuosity nor the mind- and ear-numbing minimalist loops (which miss the point of minimalism), but those solos, either blues- or melody-based, which truly grow from a unity instead of merely juxtaposing diverse elements. Here lies some real organic growth.

And what do we hear? Well, for one thing, repetition. Repetition is used, as in anything from literary rhetoric to the actual plant the solo may be illustrating, as a way to form a groundwork, a state a normalcy, the insistance on the importance of a given musical germ and the growing energy to let that germ sprout roots and branches (which it needs, of course, in that order). The analogy to natural processes abound in the manner with which each note is presented. Entirely new material will be approached obliquely, then perhaps explored more thoroughly. Most importantly, it is never frenetic and, while maintaining musical interest and artistic intensity, presents the infinite potential of a relentless consistancy.

In concert, chamber, or orchestral music, too often our little plants grow too quickly without maturing, branch out in the wrong direction and can get no nutrients, or attempt by some plant-existential crisis to change species after attaining self-awareness. We would do well to turn to jazz, or watch a real tree, if that is what we wish to create.



Grammar Police

Music is a language and as such it needs a grammar. Now, luckily for us composers, it is abstract enough of a language to allow the parallel creation of the grammar itself, and this grammar (however esoteric) can be accepted by the mind if it is logical. I am of course utilizing a wide reaching definition of the otherwise four-letter word ‘logic’. It seems grammar needs little more than patterns and consistency to the point of potential predictability, a sense of pertinence and purpose to the task at hand.

When pondering this I often think of rap lyrics - the very best ones. The ones so embued with literary allusions and subtle references that they can’t be understood by non-native speakers of the language and even can’t really be grasped by listeners who don’t live the life the rapper’s talking about. Now rap lyrics don’t employ the proper literary grammar of their language, but not only does the listener understand it well anyway, it would in fact be detrimental to the art to impose ‘correct’ literary grammar, alien in this case, to the work.

So it is with music. All the best pieces which have survived, from Bach to Prokofiev to Dallapiccola, have established a grammar before they start talking to people. The details of the grammar were irrelevant; the important point is rules were established, even for the simple reason of the audience knowing when they were broken. Any music from Vivaldi to Varese can give us the sense of coasting in a law-abiding way or violiently, humorously, or impudently throwing us a curveball - now while Vivaldi's tequila shot may be Varese's morning coffee, we know it's a shot within the grammar of Vivaldi. It's shocking to the audience because we know it is bending or breaking some rules, even if we don't consciously know what those rules are. As with rap, though, the audience has to listen with acrobatic ears, and an open mind.



Result vs. Process

As a contemporary composer and practical musician (there is, of course, a difference, but that seems a topic for a later article), I struggle with the big existential issues of our art in the modern age: what one writes, how one writes, and for whom. Not to mention why nobody listens.

Well, that statement is both a humorously ignorant generalization and a subtly two-edged blade; while it is true ‘classical’ music does not enjoy the prominent place in the entertainment, social, and intellectual lives of the populace at large it once did, it is equally true, no doubt related, and possibly causal that the audience just don’t listen like they used to.

Perhaps what all these perpetual (and perennial) musings and whinings on the part of us composers stem from the frustration that ensues when we compare our present state of artistic affairs with that of an age, however long ago, when the art we created had a different audience, a different monetary support structure, and a different place in society life. Now, being careful not to deify the composers of the past, who were for the most part in the same boat as we are today (although perhaps it had a few less holes in the hull), it is worth mentioning that the system of patronism (today patronizing) wherein a wealthy person, independently or by the state, commissions and supports a composer regularly is a fading memory today.

But this is not an article about how times have changed, which is inevitable - nor is it about how art has changed, but perhaps how we have changed. Yes, times in the past were different, but so was the music which was being produced...could these two issues be related?

The postulate is, another glaring generalization, that on the whole for serious CPE composers, and those before and some since, composition was an exercise in producing a result, whereas today, and since I would dare say the pre-war years, there has been a shift in compositional focus from the musical result to the compositional process. The danger of this shift is that in holding the process above the result, the work focuses on the composer’s experience of the work and not the audience’s, which is, as one wise composer termed it, musical masterbation.

Here is another gross generalization, but it is worth thinking about. Serialism, magic squares, I-ching, are all processes, not results, and the results they produce often pale in comparison with the elegance of their generative systems. Even simple compositional methods like pulling one’s hair out, binge drinking, procrastination, and the appeal to dark powers, while they have definitely been employed by composers of the past, it seems once the result was produced, the process was unimportant. Any perusal of a modern program note which takes more time to read than the piece does to play proves somewhere along the way we forgot to leave the process where is belongs - as the precursor and progenitor of the music, not the music itself. The sad truth (and generalization #3 - my limit for this article) is that in process-driven music, the process is often more interesting than the result.

The obvious problem is that the audience cannot, except in rare cases, hear the process. They can only hear the results of that process. Now, some music is designed to protray aurally and consisely some organic growth and that’s fine; that’s not the process to which I’m referring here. We all know what I mean; the nuts and bolts, the stuff that should be left in the shop once the hot rod rolls out of the garage. If the greasy rags and socket wrenches are more impressive than the car they worked to build, the result is the same: while that may be one hell of a greasy rag, the car is lacking something fundamental.

Although I am a strong proponent of preconcert talks and audience involvement, I highly doubt Mozart and Brahms did Q&A’s at their premieres. Blame this change on the new environment, the gradually ‘deafening’ audience, or a thousand other reasons, but the fact remains, their music, and that of many others, is a result which has an impact on the listener without any knowledge of the process. That’s true elegance.



Multidisciplinary Art
1 September 2008

Aside from the obvious practical hurdles one encounters in trying to bring multidisciplinary music, that is, a musical composition with an equally important aspect of drama, acting, lighting, computer effects, staging, etc, to life, it is amazing to me why and how the style is still considered today to be either revolutionary, novelty, or fringe. Worst among the detractors are those who say these types of pieces involve other arts to distract from a musical work which cannot stand on its own merit.

What then of the other art forms?

Film is primarily visual, but uses sounds, music, color, acting, staging, space, and time. Every shot in film must be composed (and it is interesting the term is the same), colors mixed, lighting chosen, and lines delivered to create what we call a finished 'film'.

Painting, while not usually a performing art, evidences motion in the brushstrokes, which directly produce the image. Its medium largely is color, but needs the collaboration of lighting, and even placement within an environment to have the intended effect.

Dance, of course, necessitates music and movement, and requires space, staging, time, even color.

Writing must be read, plays must be performed, even theoretical scientific formulas must be experimented.

And beyond all of this, even within the realm of music itself, there is opera (some modern ones of which, and one could argue romantic ones as well, require staging, acting and music to act in confluence. Yet music for chamber ensembles wherein acting, motion, lighting, or electronic effects are an integral part of the music's creation and the listener's experience are still not only rarely created but even more rarely given their fair chance. Although they make greater demands on the performers and the performance space, amid the vanguard of young musicians the necessary skills are becoming quite common.

I am hopeful for the future, but confused by the present.



Music, in general....
15 September 2008

While all art forms; visual, printed, sonic, or performing are at their core communicative, music manifests this communication in a most mystical way. Music uses a logic and a language which is self-referential and enigmatic; it exists without being, intangible and ephemeral, and yet penetrates the very soul. It is for this reason music has been in the realm of magic, of transcening human limits, since time immemorial.

The nature of music is sonic excitation. The logic of music is tonal organization. The act of composition is like creating a world of six dimensions in one instant, and the moments of performance are inviting others to dwell in that world. The effect of music on the listener, even today, is still magical and transcendant, and in that sense we as listeners, performers, and composers feel linked to the infinte.



    Thoughts on Empty Concert Halls
Or, a Preamble to Multidisciplinary Musical Works
Saved from the Archives, August 2003

    Art cannot just exist, it has to be appreciated to gain a soul.  Art must be appreciated and for that it must be paid attention to, and for that, it must have its own dedicated forum. Paintings have museums, plays have stages, architecture creates its own forum within itself...but when music is taken out of the concert hall and played everywhere, it is heard nowhere. Ubiquity, it seems, breeds apathy.

    No one would think of mowing their lawn during a production of King Lear or working out in front of Starry Night; and yet, this is the place music holds for too many; it is background; it is ignorable.  

    Music’s forum is the concert hall and they are going empty because people can listen to any music at any time while they do anything--this does not happen with any other art--so, perhaps one solution is to provide the audience with music which must be experienced in it own forum. What of music which can only be truly experienced (not only by the musically ‘educated’ but even the casual listener) in the concert hall? It would never be recorded, but recordings are part of the problem...and if it were recorded, word would travel “it sounds good, but you have to see it live to get the full effect”. As composers, we can pack the concert halls again by producing music which can only exist in the concert hall.


    Then the obvious problem--why would anyone want to go hear it? Music must show people themselves, give them a feeling of existence as must provide what people find lacking in their lives. Music may comment, but music should always can be a reflection of society, but it must also remain a reflection of the individual. Otherwise it gains humanity at the sacrifice of the human, gains a life at the loss of a soul.

    If music gives people something they need which they can get nowhere else, they will come to it; and if it is only presented in the concert halls, that’s where they will come. The composers of music have a lot of work to many have lost their way; when in a crisis, more of the same never results in finding a solution. But simple truths solve the most complex problems.



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