The other day a composer came. Such things aren’t out of the ordinary–composers come and go, visiting, presenting their music, and meeting with students, much the same way instrumental faculty will come and do master classes. I went to one of his presentations about a piece–which actually was pretty good. But the comment was made–disparagingly–about those who compose using math or serialist techniques. Personally I don’t see that one’s method matters, so long as one makes good music. How a composer makes music is a rather intimate thing, and so long as it works for him/her, it’s all good.
So my bathroom reading at the moment is Attali’s Noise. Oddly enough I haven’t read it, although a lot of other people I’ve read have. This quote is from the afterword by Susan McClary:
The tendency to deal with music by means of acoustics, mathematics, or mechanistic models preserves its mystery (accessible only to a trained priesthood), lends it higher prestige in a culture that values quantifiable knowledge over mere expression, and conceals the ideological basis of its conventions and repertories.
Sound familiar to the objection raised by the visiting composer? In an essay (“Swerve and the Flow”) John Rahn refers to mathematics as a poetic medium for theorizing about music (where music theory is a model of musical experience.) At the time I objected to this, and argued it. Now I’m not so sure he isn’t right. (He has this endearing habit of getting a person who disagrees to wind up agreeing with him.)
So if his experiences are true for him; mine are true for me; and we’re both describing the same thing–the act of composing/doing/discussing music (the line between all three isn’t always defined), then maybe with a diversity of method we can have a more complete picture of this thing we’re discussing. Say I like to use metaphors of contemplation to describe composition. He likes to use metaphors involving math. Each of us is drawing upon our specific path, life experiences, and gifts to describe something that may not be describable in ordinary, non-poetic language. I think the theoretical realm is better for a wide variety of approaches. Is my way accessible? Is John Rahn’s way accessible? That would all depend upon the listener. I think it’s better to wonder about where the two might overlap, if they’re different. (I’m not convinced they are past any surface differences.)
The rest of her quote:
This tendency permits music to claim to be the result of not human endeavor but of rules existing independent of humankind. Depending on the conditions surrounding the production of such a theory, these rules may be ascribed to the physical-acoustical universe or may be cited as evidence for a metaphysical realm more real than he imperfect material, social world we inhabit.
There isn’t a metaphysical realm? Gee, I didn’t get the memo. You know, I don’t think I want to live in a world where there’s no mystery, nothing beyond human blundering, and where everything that is can be objectively known, even though in the first part of the quote, she was arguing against objectifying music in this manner. Then in the second half, she pooh-poohs any sense of mystery or wonder we may have, insisting our world is imperfect (agreed), material, and social. I can’t picture a worse picture of despair, to only have a world like hers.
Music may be arcane, and so may be our methods for discussing it. But if everything were easy, would it be worthwhile to study it? What good is knowledge without wisdom? Had John Rahn been able to give me the exact answer to my objection, would the statement in his article have had as much meaning as it does for me now?
I think composers and contemplatives (and maybe mathematicians) point to something else. In a quote about a prelate’s discussion of why the apparition at San Damiano probably wasn’t authentic, Zinmdars-Swarts (in Encountering Mary) writes, “The true Christian mystic, he held, leads a normal (although rare) religious life, opening a new way that everyone may follow.” I think the quote applies to composers equally–we lead a normal musical life, but open a new way that anyone can follow. If they’re willing to listen.