Please Pass the Placebo

Please Pass the Placebo

Amy D. Rubin

I threw my back out last week. I wish I could tell you the damage was done while rock climbing or trekking up Machu Picchu. Nope. Apparently schlepping a camera bag in Park Slope is enough to do me in these days. During my lunch break, I hobbled over to a pharmacy in search of something, anything, to ease the pain. I read all the purported benefits and adverse side effects listed on a bunch of pain medications, but nothing struck me as capable of relieving my discomfort. Then I spied a box labeled “Backaid.” The packaging had bold graphics replete with the words “maximum strength” and a depiction of a guy with a glowing red orb pinpointing the exact same spot where I, too, was aching. I might have bought the stuff, if it hadn’t been stocked on the bottom shelf just inches off the ground. I couldn’t even bend down to put on shoes and socks that morning, and wearing flip-flops in October was enough of an embarrassing fashion statement. I couldn’t imagine hunkering down only to end up stuck on Duane Reade’s floor, unable to get myself back up again.

Of course all of this has nothing to do with music—although yes, there’s a lot of painful music out there and the drug companies aren’t doing anything about it. Guys, how about a morning after pill for disastrous premieres suffered the previous evening. But all this got me thinking: Are we composers of so-called new music unwittingly giving too much premium shelf space to our beloved theories at the expense of sound? With so many hurdles already—self-important venues, program notes, the emotional baggage of a thousand-year canonical history—I think it might be time to loosen up a bit on all the relational thinking. No need to firebomb any opera houses folks, I’m just asking for a little more sonic consideration whenever you feel the urge to insert, say, an intervallic aggregate simply because it bears a connection to another structural element. This isn’t the way to achieve beauty—if indeed that is your goal. Speaking for my own work, I’d hate to think that someone more literate or better versed on the theoretical side of the fence would “get” something more than a casual listener. I’ve always felt that music has little to offer intellectually, and really, there’s nothing to get. Who care if you can hear the set theory? If that’s all you’re searching for, then I’m sure you’ll easily find it, even if the composer never consciously placed it there.

Most people, on the other hand, look for something more general: Am I enjoying this? Is this hitting me on an emotional level? Do I want to keep listening? If you have to think in order to “feel” music, my bet is that you own one of those weird carts, the kind with a horse rigged onto the back of it. There’s no escaping the fact that music has an immediately visceral impact. It might not be as strong as the sharp jolt of a muscle spasm in the lower back, but it’s undeniably all-access. Music is only profound when we share it and even the un-profound exalts during this process. So instead of locking yourself in the studio to work out all those heady structures, maybe you should take a walk outside, drink a beer with a friend, or do whatever cultivates your sense of inner-beauty—parking yourself in front of Finale all day doesn’t count. Take a break, let everything wash over you. Now take a deep breath, and write something you never dreamed you would. Follow it up with something that reinforces its implications. Repeat. And for christsakes, would it hurt you too much to compose something that your mom would actually like to hear?

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10 thoughts on “Please Pass the Placebo

  1. JKG

    Well, well…
    To any and all of your naysayers who think all I do is play the devil’s advocate: I agree one thousand percent with every word in this post *huge grin*.

  2. pgblu

    Well, I hope your back feels better soon! Try yoda. I mean yoga. It works wonders for me. It relieves my interval aggregates.

  3. Matthew

    You might need that someday
    Are we composers of so-called new music unwittingly giving too much premium shelf space to our beloved theories at the expense of sound?

    Ummm… no. Next question?

    Seriously, if you think theory and craft are roadblocks to artistic expression, then you must have one of those special bathtubs that ejects the baby with the water. (I don’t think you think that, but that’s where this argument inevitably goes.) “Follow it up with something that reinforces its implications.” How exactly are you going to know what those implications are without analysis? Intuition, you’ll say, but intuition is nothing more than theoretical analysis that’s become second-nature over time.

    Incidentally, I’d love to build a time machine, go back and find the first person who decided that thought resided in the head and emotion resided in the heart, and buy him or her drinks until they changed their mind. Thoughts and emotions both live in the brain, and are intimately connected.

    But the back… the back is nothing but trouble. Have you tried Motrin? Women really are smarter than us.

  4. Colin Holter

    Are there any composers who care about theory more than sound? There might have been a few during, like, the Cold War, but I think they’re a dying breed of there are any left at all. I certainly don’t know any composers who would rather fill an aggregate than write a convincing passage.

  5. JKG

    Go ahead, backpedal…
    I might actually be wrong here, because who am I to say someone affected by the “beauty” of his work’s design isn’t also interested in it sounding appealing. There are no few isolated incidences in the mid-20th century where design over final realization was an issue, Colin. In fact, in universities all over the country, there are professors and students whose work will only ever be performed in university venues, because the final result stinks to most people. The original conceptions may in fact be gorgeous in the eyes of their creators, but most folks don’t even consider these futile attempts to be music at all – but rather the egotistical sonic sewage of untalented hacks who heap one credential upon another in the hopes of validation and respect. Of course they uphold one another, because who else will? This is not true of every professor or every student, but there is still an awful lot of politically correct pretenders out there. Outside of academia, one could scarcely get away with such sonic garbage – unless one of the various mutations of punk is your thing. How come some folks can’t be more honest about this? Is it because they have a vested interest in upholding those with little if any musical ability?

  6. JKG

    The answer is sometimes, yes…
    “Are we composers of so-called new music unwittingly giving too much premium shelf space to our beloved theories at the expense of sound?” I just love this question, Matthew. It bespeaks theprospect that some composers are waaay too caught up in systematic manipulation of sound rather than working to communicate some idea or feeling. Don’t get me wrong – I suppose communicating a system is potentially just as valid, but how much meaning does that have to most people? And if skirting the entire issue of an audience is of relevance to this practice, then what exactly makes such sound manipulations music? Wasn’t it Ives who said, “What does sound have to do with music?” So, in essence we have a certain culture that does glorify system over any need to communicate anything relevant. It is no wonder their work is generally reviled, even if some of the techniques prove important to some talented individual later on down the road – someone who knows and recognizes the value of communicating meaning to an audience. And just because music is new, of course, doesn’t mean it should lack appeal – unless your definition of “new” only includes whatever has been invented regardless of it’s capacity to convey meaning in general.

  7. Matthew

    JKG wrote: … [S]ome composers are waaay too caught up in systematic manipulation of sound rather than working to communicate some idea or feeling.

    OK, so what exact “idea or feeling” are you trying to communicate? Happy? Sad? Somewhere in between? Well, you can’t do that directly—you have to come up with some sort of musical representation for it. Most likely some combination of the pitches we get by arbitarily dividing the octave into 12 equally-tempered half steps. Then you’re going to place those pitches on a regular rhythmic grid, and relate them to each other using whatever rules of counterpoint make sense with your chosen harmonic vocabulary. Is this manipulation of sounds systematic enough for you? I could keep going.

    Really, what you’re communicating via music is a particular idea of beauty and order, which means you have to decide what sounds you find beautiful and then figure out a coherent way to order them. That sure sounds like a job for theory and logic to me.

    I sometimes get the impression that exclusively tonal composers somehow think that what they do is completely spontaneous and natural and non-schematic in comparison with their more experimental colleagues. But they’re just taking the highly organized and rigidly delineated tonal scheme for granted. (Occasionally they’ll try some rejoinder based on the overtone series, but are they actually composing in just intonation? No? Thanks for playing.) And I’ve heard plenty of postmodern and New Tonalist music in which the mere adoption of a triadic vocabulary was the sole artistic statement being made. When I use triadic tonality, I make darn well sure that it’s because it’s what’s required for that particular piece of music, not just because it’s something that I’m comfortable with. And I’m always fully aware of just how much manipulation is going on in even the most simple tonal progression.

    As for the whole concept of “appeal”—the only way you know something is going to appeal to the audience is if it appealed to them in the past. Which means you’re either repeating yourself, or imitating others. If you’re trying to create something new, there’s a big element of risk involved, no matter how accessible your vocabulary. How do you manage that risk? Craft and self-analysis.

  8. JKG

    Craft and self-analysis…
    Bravo. I counldn’t agree with you more, Matthew. If “self-analysis” has anything to do with “personhood,” then I admit I you’ve expressed succinctly my own feelings regarding the heart of musical craftsmanship. As far as the risk one takes when pleasing an audience, I think it’s important to recognize that pleasing an audience and communicating with them are too different things. I have seen in the past where that is definitely a problem with some composers, as they confuse the two. Since the manner in which music is communicated is not apparently two-way (even though this does take place at the heart level), then there must be a post facto descriptive and critical impression of the work when all is said and done. If any effort at all was made to reach the listener in terms they could understand, I think the expression of “how” a piece moved them is definitely made easier. To analyze one’s self with regard to others for the purpose of sharing something meaningful to them – I like that. Bad tonal music is even worse than bad mannerist music, as tonalists should know better in today’s cultural milieu.

  9. jbunch

    I hate to say it, but as pretty and familiar as most of John Adam’s catalogue is (even sometimes as slick/hipp-ish) none of my non-musician friends have ever even heard of the guy. They imagine me to be talking about the president of yore.


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