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.