Elements of Style

Elements of Style

Last week, I tried to get into the matter of truth in music; this week, I’d like to look more closely at a similar issue, one perhaps more tightly connected to the actual craft of composition. When asked to define music, Schoenberg noted that it has the power to send us to “a dreamland of fulfilled desires, or…a dreamed hell.” Ignoring for the moment whether a piece of music sounds dreamy or hellish by comparison to other pieces, I think it’s reasonable to assert that the piece’s position on this axis of fulfillment or punishment depends on the extent to which the “goods” of the piece are “delivered,” whatever those goods may be. In other words, a large part of whether music provides an experience that is heavenly or hellish has to do with form, with the “verbs” of the piece, and not with its material, its “nouns.” The question now isn’t whether music is true or false, then, but whether it’s gratifying or tantalizing, in the old-school Tantalus sense of the word. Again, this is a question that stands apart from the question of whether the music is good or bad—there are pieces of very high experiential quality in both camps.

Now let’s reexamine the materials, the nouns, earlier set aside. What if the composer fulfills our formal needs but delivers hellish goods? Conversely, what if he or she leaves us stranded with no formal relief in a paradise of beautiful music? These, for me, are some of the most fascinating moments in music—moments in which the contrast between form and material is at its most striking. (It’s only marginally appropriate for me to be writing about this phenomenon on a website devoted to new music because it’s been around for hundreds of years.)

But we’re talking about musical circumstances predicated on the coevality of a) a form of sufficient rationality and gravity that we can reasonably impute things like “forming an expectation,” “fulfilling an expectation,” and “subverting an expectation” to it and b) affect-laden (or at least highly characteristic) material capable of exerting its own gravity on our interest or emotions. One of the most exciting things about new music today is that we possess a vast plurality of compositional means—I don’t mean sounds, but instead hundreds of years’ worth of experiential shapes and a nascent awareness of how to synthesize new ones—to pursue goals like this one. To live simultaneously in Schoenberg’s heaven and his hell sounds like a worthy project to me.

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3 thoughts on “Elements of Style

  1. davidcoll

    will this always be a post where you say “us” only to have the same peoples opinions ring out and voice their opinions? There is no “we”, there is no community, let alone a culture that does not exist in a plurality. Let’s stop these provocations and say things in a way where they don’t spur a subjective arguement.

    there is a lot to say about this…

  2. Colin Holter

    I don’t write these things just to incite debate among the usual rogues’ gallery of respondents. It’s my hope that somebody out in cyberspace reads what I send in every week looking for more than a whetstone on which to grind his or her axe.

    If a composer somewhere in the world thinks about his or her work in a slightly different way after reading my stuff, I’ll consider it a minor victory in my one-man crusade against boring music. Similarly, I’ve been moved to reexamine what I do by reader comments – the mean ones especially.

    Are you taking issue with my pronouns? I mean, I would’ve used “I” instead of “we,” but I wanted to sound inclusive.

  3. JKG

    “I think it’s reasonable to assert that the piece’s position on this axis of fulfillment or punishment depends on the extent to which the “goods” of the piece are “delivered,” whatever those goods may be.” We have never agreed more, even if in most cases we fail to agree on most things *grin*. Yes, I second this assertion in that a composer cannot be said to be successful if he cannot present his materials to at least someone, ideally a listener, to yield agreement where his expressed musical feelings are concerned. The are wonderful modern stylistic composers, I am sure – I just haven’t related to very many of them yet. And there are horrible caricatures of tonal composers in the traditionalist manner, whose milksop approach and pedantic values betray an all too plastic veneer. And if this weren’t enough, we all have “good days” and “bad days.” I wonder how Beehoven felt the day he felt he HAD to go around Maezel in order to produce the infamous “Wellington’s Victory” just one more time? The quality of the music is nothing of what we normally consider when we think of a musical titan this day and age, yet at the time – THE CROWDS WENT NUTS FOR IT. Certainly persistence to ones hold onto quality is the key to avoiding extremes. Also, Mozart is so meaningless to the gangbangers in some former crime areas of Miami, that when said composer’s music was played at certain corners, crime in those areas went downhill fast.


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