Monday, March 12, 2007

Yes, I'm conscious of my self-consciousness

Soho the Dog, a few days back, had a telling quote from Herbert Brün that addresses one of my favorite topics: the relative self-consciousness of the creative artist with respect to his/her place in history.
    Brün: "A composer of music has to be aware of, and to have a penetrating insight into, all the factors which converge to an ideology in the cultural make-up of his contemporaries. He has to come up with an idea, a musical idea, which just passes the accumulated past by not exactly belonging to it, by not conforming to its approved laws, by labeling its claim to eternal validity succinctly as a mere ideology."
I think this attitude sums up so much of how creative artists are taught to think, especially in the academy. I don't disagree at all that the most important works do just what Brün asks them to do; but is it because that's the artist's intention or is it because a gifted creator will naturally find new and interesting paths? Of course it can be some of both, but I think there's a delicate balance that has long since tipped too far in the "reach for greatness" direction, as opposed to the "let greatness find you" posture.

Brün is clear that this trailblazing should be an intentional goal of the compositional process. It's little wonder because most histories are designed to focus on those who found new paths. Schoenberg gets at lot more attention than his contemporary Rachmaninoff in any sort of music history text. I'm not even sure I disagree with that, but we have to accept that a consequence of this emphasis is to change how students think about what's important. I was petrified about the thought of even trying to compose anything when I was a student, partly because it seemed impossible to choose a musical language from so many choices, but also because of the assumption that I needed to have something new to say. Note that the problem was both the weight of historical precedent (how could I compete?) and the perceived need to redefine it in some way (how could I be relevant?).

As with most such matters, I blame myself here to a significant degree; nothing was really stopping me from writing, but I never was able to sit down and compose until I found myself in a very specific situation where newness wasn't a factor. For me, it was when as a church pianist I started to notice that a lot of the chorale-based organ pieces I liked to play weren't that complicated - and some weren't that good. Because I wanted more repertoire and was pretty lazy about going out to find it, I found myself instead writing my own little preludes (such as this fugue on "Duke Street") which were proudly derivative of the models I liked best. My main purpose was to have some new rep, not to reinvent the wheel or win a contest or anything. The point is not that I found my inner Bach or even my inner Paul Manz. It's simply that I approached the process as a craft with a clear purpose, with an attitude much different than the one advocated by Brün. In fairness, I doubt he would advocate that attitude for a beginning composer, but I still think it hits most of our composers too soon.

This attitude is instilled in so many ways. I remember in a high school summer arts program being presented with a "ratings" system for evaluating works that was very strongly focused on originality. As I recall, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat were big winners among the folks who developed the system. (Why that particular Stravinsky, I'm not sure.) I like and admire both of those works, but there are many "less original" works (whatever that means) that I'd rate much higher.

Whatever one thinks about them, though, there is certainly a danger in composing for history. We can't close Pandora's Box, but we need to understand that we lose something by not thinking in more humble, local terms. Tangentially, this reminds me of what Henry Fogel has been saying about the unexpectedly high quality of some of our nation's regional (more local) orchestras. He confronts the assumption that the important music-making only goes on with the major, name-brand orchestras. When we're conditioned to think globally, we can forget to appreciate that music is at its best connecting with a localized group of people - whether it also makes it into the history books should be secondary.

One of the things I adore about Douglas Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot is its exploration of the idea that inspired creativity can often result from facing the challenge of strict creative constraints. (The book is loosely centered around attempts to translate a tightly rhymed and metered little French poem into a satisfyingly rhymed and metered English poem.) Working within a somewhat closed system, the artist is more likely to be consciously focused on aspects of craft and technique; however, the sort of problem-solving that's involved can lead to unexpected and original solutions that may indeed redefine the system. J.S. Bach is the supreme example of someone whose genius was manifest in this way. True, it gets more complicated with some of our more "revolutionary" composers . . .
[This post originally went on a lot further(!), but the issues get so complicated that they deserve a more well-developed argument than I'm ready to make. I mainly just wanted to react to Brün's quote, which I do think expresses a pretty common and problematic ideal, and will just post the above for now.]

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