Thursday, December 27, 2012

What's it all about, Claude?

As the semester is coming to a close, I can't help but wonder what exactly it is I'm doing.

I mean, really, what am I doing?  In a year and a half, I will have a piece of paper that says that I'm a "Master" of music.  Why is it that the more I learn about this stuff the less and less I feel I know how to do anything?

I am at a point now where if someone asked me how I do what I do, I would probably say something to the effect of, "well, I just write things down that I hear and it's mostly just guessing."

I would love to say that I have developed a revolutionary notation / pitch system and ink out  intensely visual graphic scores; or even more traditionally notated scores that eschew volumes of obnoxiously complex music.  But when I see time signatures in "28/64" and nonuplets tied across bar lines with lightening bolts and giant ink-block squares, I can't help but ask myself: But Why?   

Is there a clearer, easier way to notate that?  I often wonder if my notation is too conservative, but as a good friend and clarinetist pointed out about a piece I wrote for him, something can still be exceptionally difficult - even with traditional notation.  Even still, taking a more mature approach, I have heard it said that notation reflects the sounds that the composer is after; that if a composer wants sounds that can't be articulated with standard notation, then it needs to be adapted or created appropriately.  Perhaps the real answer is that I need to experiment with more sounds.  

One of the reasons why I love learning about music history is that you are given brief meals into the works and styles of composers - almost as if each composer were a type of soup.  You learn about their techniques, stylistic traits, influences, and personal lives, and I love taking things that interest me about each composer and then putting them into my work.  The most recent example of this is a piece is just finished entitled A Crossing Of Ourselves in which I use cluster chords among other things after having spent some time with Henry Cowell this semester.

Another thing that I enjoy about music history is that as you move through music history, your definition of music changes - broadens - accordingly.  Since learning more about the music of the twentieth century and the dozens of different directions that music has zoomed off in - each person being able to find success - I can't help but wonder where music begins and where music ends.  This is especially true when you look into works by the New York School composers - John Cage, Earl Brown, Morton Feldman, etc, and even more modern composers like John Luther Adams (not the one you're thinking of,) John Zorn, and others.

So as I reflect on the passing of this first semester and the first quarter of my graduate degree, I can't help but wonder how I can eventually be considered by the university to be a "master" of music when I'm not even exactly sure what music is or isn't to begin with.  I write it after all, shouldn't I at least know what I am or am not writing?

To be honest, I think that this is actually an even harder question to satisfy than trying to answer "Why do you write music?"  I come back to that one from time to time and my answer always changes.  If I don't even know what it is for sure, how can I articulate to someone why I do it?

Now is the part where you say, Well now you're just being silly!  Everyone knows what music is!  We hear it on the radio and in concert halls and in movies and video games and elevators!

Well, that's true that you hear it in those places, but I'm going to get a little Fight Club-Tyler Durden here and say that where you hear music doesn't define it.  Neither does when you hear it or how you hear it or why you hear it or what you hear.  If you can consider everything from "silence" to someone plucking an amplified cactus to be considered music, then what isn't music?  How do you define something that can't and isn't defined by what, when, how, where, and why?  This is something that I think would drive journalists nuts.

Even though I don't think music can be defined in this way, I do think that music can be illustrated by examples from each of those things.  For example, putting parameters in like where = concert hall and etc, can help establish expectations.  Perhaps therein lies the tool for defining what music is - to balance an intangible, abstract concept by defining it with an intangible, abstract concept.

Perhaps it is here in this swirling mass of amorphous, abstract conjecture that I can begin to formulate conclusions about what it is I'm actually trying to do here; which I assure you is more than just creating sounds that bounce off peoples' faces.

Or is it?

It will be interesting to see how I feel about this in another twenty or forty years.

                                                                                                                                                                                    December 8th, 2012

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