It’s been on my bookshelf for decades, but I’m finally reading Frank Herbert’s famous 1965 science fiction novel Dune. While I undoubtedly intended to read it back when I bought it, I never got around to it—its more than 500 pages of tiny print and its rumored complexity required a level of commitment that I never was able to muster up.

When I tell people I’m reading it, it generates a whole range of responses, most of which are along the lines of “Why are you re-reading that now?” The assumption being that this is a book that I along with everyone else would have read many years ago, most likely during my teenage years when most folks who don’t have a lifelong relationship with sci-fi engage in a brief period of flirtation with the genre. I actually never had such a phase, but did read a bunch of science fiction (though not Dune) in my mid-20s, mostly the avant-garders of the genre: folks like Brian Aldiss, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

I’m glad I finally caught up with it. Dune, aside from its compelling, page-turning narrative, is one of the most fully realized and sustained conceptions I’ve ever read. Herbert created a totally believable yet completely alien universe replete with its own unique customs and traditions, geography, history, and language. (There’s even a glossary at the end of the book.) I find this really inspiring from a compositional standpoint. Don’t worry, I have no intention of ever attempting to turn Dune into opera or musical theater. Rather, it has provoked a much more fundamental question. What is the purpose of writing a piece of music in a world which already has so many other really great pieces of music?

Most pieces of music take materials that exist a priori and shape them in personally unique ways. Only a few pieces set up paradigms which are designed to serve that piece and no other: Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, Terry Riley’s In C, and Lucia Dlugoszewski’s Exacerbated Subtlety Concert (Why Does A Woman Love a Man?) immediately spring to mind. Usually when a composer stumbles upon a transformative paradigm—e.g. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone matrix, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, Partch’s 43-tone just intonation scale and the instruments he built to perform music which utilizes such a scale, Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening, Stephen Scott’s bowed piano—it becomes the basis of a life’s work. Admittedly, Herbert went on to write five sequels based on the Dune universe and is known principally for this portion of his creative output.

But what if—like the stories and novels of many other science fiction writers—each of a composer’s pieces would set up its own unique sonic universe? There have been a number of composers who have set out to do just that—e.g. John Corigliano has said that’s how he works, but the nature of the commissions he accepts already proscribes the worlds he enters into: instrumental forces used, concert halls, etc.—all of which exist independent of his conception and prior to it. Each of Alvin Lucier’s compositions is the realization of a specific process, but all of these processes are related to one another, and—as in the case of Corigliano—mostly work with pre-existing materials. A closer analogy might be a Partch-like composer who would have to build a different instrument and a new theoretical system each time he composed a new piece. Of course, the instruments built by composers like Bart Hopkin or Walter Kitundu—singularities which are not necessarily designed to be compatible with one another unlike the Partch’s instruments—often determine the specific music they subsequently create for those instruments, but their approaches are less rule-based and more intuitive. (Curiously neither self-identifies as a composer.) Perhaps the only way to address such issues is in electronic music where creating a new Max/MSP patch for every piece is de rigeur; but what’s a Luddite like me to do?

Another question reading Dune has raised for me is much more sociological and goes back to the reaction of folks who assumed I had read it years ago. This goes in both directions: This book, which was written on its own terms by an American who was virtually unknown before he wrote it, is less than 50 years old and it’s an undeniable classic of its genre with virtually no detractors. This book is decades old and still feels current. What piece of music written in this country in the past half century, or even century, has had a similar significance to listeners and composers alike? Earlier I referenced Ionisation which is from the 1930s; concerts featuring it are still a rarity. Perhaps In C, which was first performed only months before Dune was published, and has been recorded over a dozen times since then? And yet the minimalism espoused by this work is still controversial in some parts of the compositional community.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

7 thoughts on “Alienation

  1. JHigdon

    How About…
    Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942)? No doubt all composers know it, but it’s iconic amongst the general public…even those who don’t listen to classical music. I think of how many times I heard that piece during the turn of the Millenium…significant!

  2. philmusic

    “.. it’s an undeniable classic of its genre with virtually no detractors..”

    Yes, but are there any virtually virtual detractors?

    I mean Dune has virtually no detractors who are virtual??


    Phil Fried who notes that Dune is partly based on T.E. Lawrence’s 7 pillars of Wisdom.

  3. wjmego

    “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

    He didn’t necessarily mean it had to be OUR world. Invent your own.

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Point taken Jennifer, but the reason I didn’t mention Copland’s Fanfare or—for that matter—Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which is also pretty universal, is that neither of these works created its own paradigm.

    Actually perhaps a better example might be Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess, which are both totally unlike what had preceded them. Although it can be argued that the seeds for Rhapsody (1924) were already planted by things that Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, and even Paul Whiteman (who commissioned and premiered Rhapsody) and some of his more adventurous sideman (e.g. Bix Beiderbecke) were already doing. And with Porgy (1935), even Gershwin’s himself created a prototype with Blue Monday which sadly never made it past the previews of one year’s edition of George White’s Scandals.

    As we all know, originality is something of a hobgoblin, not only now when folks think everything’s been done, but even when looking back carefully into the past for a first example of something. So admittedly my whole premise is a bit of a lark. But it is interesting that creating a new universe from scratch is the essence (yikes, there I go using essence again) of science fiction and that’s what fans seem to love about it, whereas conformity seems more conforting in most other endeavors among the general public, whether artistic or otherwise.

  5. philmusic

    “..Actually perhaps a better example might be Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess, which are both totally unlike what had preceded them…”

    Frank, a few years back I attended a concert conducted by Gunther Schuller, where he performed just such a work–the name of the composer, who was African American, escapes me now.

    Anyone with info?

    Just because Gershwin is remembered doesn’t necessarily make his work the “first”.

    Phil Fried

  6. Frank J. Oteri

    I wonder if you’re thinking of the great James P. Johnson who traveled fluently between jazz and classical idioms. He is shamefully represented discographically. There are a few re-issues of his jazz recordings which are great, but what little is still available is hardly representative of his breadth. And Marin Alsop recorded a single disc of his classical pieces many years ago with Concordia, but the disc has been long out of print. I luckily tracked one down a few years ago after looking for it for over a decade.

  7. philmusic

    Thats him! A fine work as I remember.

    This get me thinking about T.E. Laurence (of Arabia) again. He mentions in his book that living as another culture is a “yahoo life”. Yet we as composers frequently set songs and libretti with the intention of dramatizing things other than ourselves.

    Different; genders, ages, cultures, nationalities, sexual orientations, politics, colors, intelligence, animals, inanimate objects, even spirits, etc., etc.

    Perhaps then it is better to understand the “many” rather than being the “one”.

    Phil Fried


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.