Let It Be Something

Let It Be Something

Music can be many things—pristine, sloppy, austere, irrelevant, exulted, flat-lined, cerebral, relentless, naïve, etc.—and in most cases, it can exhibit many of these traits simultaneously. However, the music I find myself attracted to avoids the middle-of-the-road-ness of being all things, all of the time. It might seem quite simplistic, but it’s the music that displays only a few of these or other qualities to a ridiculous extreme in a very tangible way that turns me on as a listener. I’m not sure if this is akin to Kyle Gann’s post-minimal definition of totalism or not. I just like stuff that goes totally overboard or shows an extreme obsession towards an otherwise immaterial component of its own musical makeup.

It’s thrilling to hear a great rendition of Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, or early Glass, Reich, Tenney, and Lucier, when performed well in an appropriate acoustical environment. This is the music that defies all those theory treatises we were forced to read and write in school. I unwittingly took on a pitch class set analysis of Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 thinking that some sort of pattern might emerge in such a small number of notes—no dice. And don’t even get me started on the concept of anarchic harmony in late-Cage (that paper never got turned in). Kevin Volans once gave a classroom of young composers some sound advice about music: the rate of change must change. Seems agreeable if you’re going to apply the concept in a Feldman-like manner. However, the same approach has significant potential to produce something unruly, without a point of view—i.e. welcome to the road’s middle.

I later presented Volans with a piece of mine for five guitars and gong. He proceeded to give me the exact opposite advice, pointing out that the gong didn’t blend well enough with the texture, which was monolithic. Instead, he suggested investigating the light installations of James Turrell. I was already familiar and knew exactly what he meant: almost nothing should change. In the end, the gong remained in the piece, but it’s played very softly. The piece, like many others I compose and listen to by others, is a singular object: one thing all the time. This doesn’t imply it has to be simple by any means. I thoroughly enjoy Ferneyhough’s music for its same brand of obsessiveness. Ultimately, I find that when composers let their music unfold itself to the utmost extreme implied from the very outset (or there about), it becomes exciting for listeners, like an amusement park ride or a hot stone message. In any case, allowing your music to merely be something, rather than ostensibly everything, insures, at the very least, that it won’t end up being closer to nothing.

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6 thoughts on “Let It Be Something

  1. siconesis

    To be or not to be
    Dear Randy, your thoughts on the matter are very perceptive and intelligent. What you describe is the difference between being superficially universal and a profound way of just being.

  2. kmanlove

    Everything to everyone
    I’m always troubled by people that hear my pieces and then say, “Well, why didn’t you do ______?” Your explanation sure beats my “Cuz that’s not what it does!”

  3. Colin Holter

    If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Don’t harass people about the music they didn’t write. It’s my absolute least favorite quality in a teacher.

  4. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    some extremes to shoot for
    I agree with your idea very much, in theory. I love music that fully realizes its intended aesthetic, makes a bold choice and sticks with it. But I’d like to make a case that it can be really ANY musical goal that works, as long as the composer fully commits to it. So, how about being extremely subtle? Extremely lovely! Extremely elegant! Extremely understated. I think too often we mistake “extreme” for being all intense, all the time. But as someone who loves, in addition to much more complex things, a good melody with pretty accompaniment… well, that’s an extreme in its own way. Extremely simple. Extremely graceful. The danger comes when the composer doesn’t trust his/her melody, and feels the need to mess it up to make it “more interesting.” That’s when it becomes middle-of-the-road. Writing a great tune and presenting it unadorned is extreme in its way, and that’s a way I greatly admire when it’s done well.

  5. pgblu

    middle of which road?
    This brings to bear the ancient mind game that I have pored over for 2 decades now.. What about being extremely middle-of-the-road? Is that good? Is there no one there but yellow stripes, dead armadillos, and doomed composers?


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