Finishing Touches

Finishing Touches

Approaching the end of a piece’s composition is always an exciting feeling for me. For one thing, it means that I’m almost ready to put it to rest. But it also means that, so long as I’ve done my job well in the earlier part of the piece, I’ve accrued credibility with the listener that I am now free to spend. I realize that it sounds sort of presentational and almost charlatanesque to speak in these terms about new music, but I find it immensely satisfying to take a piece in a strange, unexpected direction once the audience’s cooperation has been secured—to build a foundation of trust at the beginning and then take risks toward the end. This seduction is a potential, I think, no matter the piece’s idiom (see, for instance, the Hammerklavier sonata and Xenakis’s Knephas). The further into the piece we are, the less sense we can make.

It raises a larger question, though: If we’re discussing music in terms of the extent to which it makes sense, are we ignoring aesthetic categories rendered inaccessible by the pursuit of rationality? I find Cage’s number pieces quite compelling, but although they were produced by a completely self-consistent system, I don’t think I’ll provoke an avalanche of contention (although one never knows) by submitting that they tend not to evidence a teleological experiential shape. There is something alluring about nonsense, and even though I usually appreciate it most in tension with sense, there are plenty of different-thinking composers who write high-integrity music. Thomas DeLio, whose music is almost singlemindedly concerned with the abolition of connection between musical moments, comes immediately to mind.

When we speak about musical pluralism, we’re typically talking about stylistic pluralism, a kaleidoscoping of conventions from various preexisting literatures. What appeals to me, however, is dimensional pluralism—music that strives to reconcile the immanent with the rhetorical, the generative with the intuitive, and perhaps even the sensible with the nonsensical.

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3 thoughts on “Finishing Touches

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    I still remember the first time I heard the end of Charles Ives’s Second Symphony which ends on a wacked out dissonance that seems to come out of nowhere. The piece is otherwise a rather sober, by Ives’s standards, pot-pourri of various quotations from the European symphonic repertoire and popular American songs of the day. It was obviously a harbinger of things that were to come in his music, but at the time I heard it I had only been familiar with the later gnarlier stuff and was disappointed until I heard that chord.

    So I suppose the reverse of Colin’s idea happened here. I found everything except the ending to be out of context. But I’ve since grown to love the second symphony on its own terms and not in the context of what came after it. And, I also later discovered that this seemingly unprecedented ending in fact had a precedent.

    Is anyone here familar with the Overture Burlesque by Napoleon’s “court composer” Étienne-Nicolas Méhul? It begins as utterly harmless classical period wallpaper, albeit with mirlitons (which is a fancy way of saying kazoos), but by the end devolves into a wild polytonal mess. Raymond Lewenthal recorded for Angel/EMI back in the 1970s, I believe. Can anyone think of any other piece of music whose ending seems inorganically related to the rest of the piece?

  2. glennfreeman

    Cage’s Number Pieces and Creationism
    In regard to “teleological experiential shape” and Cage’s Number Pieces. “Teleological experiential shape(s)” in music require an imaginative listener, as much as the music itself. Creation arising from one source is impossible.

  3. JKG

    It is interesting handling matters with a sense of conclusion musically. That is why I tend to design an entire piece first, so that I may wade into whichever section I prefer with impunity, rather than being propelled along by a work’s momentum. Beethoven was an exponent of using coda as a second development section, along with introducing entirely fresh and even unrelated material towards the end of the work. I find this concept fascinating, in that it blows to smithereens Adorno’s vapid conjecture that sonata is a “closed system.” I guess he just didn’t have a lot of time to study Beethoven *grin*. I find edits of large works to be daunting in that everything is pretty much set, so that you HAVE to work forward section by section. And yes, it is positively THRILLING to complete a new work, although the high does wear off rather fast these days.


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