It’s only a few days into the Spring semester and the American Academy is in full swing again. I’ve managed to keep the same corner apartment, but pretty much everything else around me is in flux. As one of the only two fellows to have snagged full-year residencies, I’m interested to see what changes the new class brings. Unlike the ongoing, variable-length residency programs offered by artist colonies such as MacDowell and Yaddo, each class of Academy fellows begins and ends the residency as a unit in accordance with the academic calendar. As a result, each semester’s small and static pool of fellows has a significant impact on the program itself, and each individual seems to develop a particular role in the group–which is less likely to happen when people are arriving and leaving every week.

While I expect it will take some time for our new group to get comfortable with itself, I’m fortunate that my own work plan will by necessity hit the ground running from the get-go. In May I’ll be in the Philharmoniker Kammermusiksaal, working to record eight of my own pieces–two of them being commissioned works I’ve yet to finish! Talk about motivation. My Fall semester was busy enough, but now the heat is on. It gets me more than a little stressed on occasion, but having such an exciting long-term goal also keeps me from wallowing in too much unproductive soul-searching and provides some much-needed resistance.

What is resistance? Something to push against, something that challenges us to align our seething, disparate passions in service of a singular effort. Too much resistance can be frustrating and counterproductive, but too little can also be just as bad. This semester, I’m hoping that I’m up against the right amount of resistance, just enough to hit that sweet spot.

In music composition as in life, I find it useful to think about resistance, too. A piece of music may proceed against very little resistance, seemingly of its own accord; many early works by La Monte Young and other proto-minimalists certainly proceed in this direction, creating a sound world that feels more or less untouched by human hands. On the other extreme, it would be difficult (if not outright impossible) to imagine Mahler’s symphonies without that same element of resistance. It’s resistance that really makes the journey between A and B interesting–and it’s our choice of obstacles that colors this journey. And perhaps it’s Mahler’s handling of resistance that makes his symphonies so different from their 19th-century counterparts.

One of my favorite examples of resistance comes from Lutoslawski’s Postlude No. 3 for orchestra. Employing a device he would later recall in Venetian Games and the Third Symphony, Lutoslawski interjects the same fortissimo chord some fifty+ times into the short composition–sometimes assisting and hastening the music toward its goal, sometimes disrupting and destroying momentum as well. I like this example because of how the same monolithic chord can provide both resistance and forward motion in the same short piece. Another fun place to look is Bach fugues–the fugue subjects themselves are heavily charged with implicit or acquired resistance that is overcomes the subject rounds off.

Hitchcock once spoke of playing his audience like a piano, which surely applies to music just as easily as film. Nine times out of ten we can easily guess the outcome of a movie from its opening, when we couldn’t hope to foresee every little twist and turn that bring us to that resolution.

In some of my earliest composition lessons I first heard the oft-repeated dictum that a piece of music must “work”–it ought to hold together and survive a little musical tire-kicking as well. Having written quite a few of my own boring pieces that worked just a bit too easily, I might modify the above injunction with this caveat: “A piece of music should work–but just barely!”

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One thought on “Resistance

  1. two2twain

    I agree that some of my best work just barely hangs together… those are the risks that we take that makes our music interesting, and as “serious” composers, I think we’re in the business of creating music that takes risks.
    On the other hand, I think it best if I continue to teach my composition students, at least on the undergraduate level, to make music that is as cohesive as they can make it. Why?

    Two reasons come to mind…
    1. They may not be destined for my compositional world, which is, for better or worse, academia. Their world may one day be popular music, which certainly must hang together in order to accomplish the goal of making as many dollars as possible for everyone involved.
    2. They may not be destined to be composers at all. But if they can learn the standards of good composition, they will be able to tell worthwhile music from garbage when it comes time to pick repertoire for the middle school Christmas concert, a recital in graduate school or (for the student who ends up selling insurance) for a wedding or other ceremony.
    Just my two cents.


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