On Monday I participated in a very nice event at my alma mater that included readings of poetry and fiction, a photography presentation, and performances of two of my semi-recent compositions. As the readings unfolded, I felt slightly envious of the writers, who could simply hold their books and read to the audience themselves, and the photographer, whose wonderful pictures were exhibited in the art gallery. In contrast, presenting my music involved bringing four musicians to the campus (superb musicians who did a brilliant job), organizing a number of rehearsals, and, once we arrived, arranging for music stands, a PA system, cables, etc. And then—POOF!—the music was finished.

This is always how it happens. I know this, and yet there are still times when I feel surprised at how quickly the moments pass. It’s especially pronounced when I am performing myself; when I am working the laptop in one of my electroacoustic pieces, I am focused in such a way that I don’t actually “hear” the piece as the audience does. There have been many times when one of those performances ends, and I have to ask the other musicians, “How did it go?”

I am continually struck by the fleeting nature of a musical performance relative to the amount of human labor involved in making a single performance happen. This is not at all to suggest that making music is more work than writing a book or making works of visual art—they all involve a tremendous amount of effort. With artists who produce a physical product such as a book or a painting, however, there arrives a point at which the thing is done and can be directly experienced by nearly anyone from that point on. But in the time-based medium of music, there always has to be that additional layer of translation in linear time. Given that, when I’m composing something I always try to keep in mind the thought, “Okay, you have (for instance) eight minutes to say what you have to say, so make whatever that communication is as sparklingly crystal clear as you can!”

Sometimes if I think too hard on this issue, the whole scenario becomes completely ridiculous—like when you stare at a written word for a while and it suddenly looks as if it’s spelled all wrong—and I wonder, why on earth do this composing thing? It makes no sense. However, in the end, those moments of performance are for the musicians and the listeners to soak in. When someone says that a performance made them think about something in a different way, or gave them an idea, or that it made them forget about whatever was bothering them, I know that creating such ephemeral chunks of time in space is absolutely worth the effort. They are focused reminders that every single moment is unique.

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7 thoughts on “Impermanence

  1. Colin Holter

    Given that, when I’m composing something I always try to keep in mind the thought, “Okay, you have (for instance) eight minutes to say what you have to say, so make whatever that communication is as sparklingly crystal clear as you can!”

    I see what you’re saying, Alex – but one might just as well be like, “you have eight minutes with the audience, so cram as much information, contradiction, and richness in as you can to optimize the chance that everyone will be able to find something meaningful to them.” Either way, of course, there’s no guarantee that any communication will take place. I guess we just have to live with that.

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Everyone has their own way of approaching the process–this is just my $0.02. Of course there is no way whatsoever to ensure that music will resonate for another person, so I simply try to make sure that I have expressed whatever thing as well as I can. If someone reacts to it, then great, and if they don’t, that’s fine too.

      1. Colin Holter

        Right right right – that’s the standard disclaimer we have to issue to ourselves. I’m just saying that the evanescence of musical time is a problem that presents itself differently to different composers, which is to be celebrated.

  2. Paul Muller

    I have friends who are visual artists (paintings, photography) and it seems every square inch of their walls are covered with works. Another friend is a ceramic artist and his house is covered with a quarter inch of dust and his garage is full of sacks of clay, kilns and glazes. All of my work fits in the MP3 player in my pocket, and it is also in the cloud where anyone can access it :)

    The wider question may be this: will technology provide for an acceptable realization of music such that it does no longer requires performance? The advantages are obvious, as well as the downside for our performing friends. But if I can create a piece on my laptop and deliver it to the ear buds of a world-wide audience, then the exertions of “…bringing four musicians to the campus, .. organizing a number of rehearsals, … arranging for music stands, a PA system, cables, etc.” are avoided. The work remains accessible in the cloud and I am freed to create more.

    I absolutely agree that musicians bring an irreplaceable contribution to a piece of music – and live performances will surely continue. But the natural selection processes at work on the musical arts as a whole may eventually favor the laptop-to-ear model that has emerged in just the last 10-15 years.

    1. Jennifer Hruska

      I agree. Recorded music needs to be an important tool in the dissemination of a composers work. Of course that’s no piece of cake either. It’s astonishing how many online music distributors there are. And then there’s that thing called “marketing yourself”. It’s daunting but so is getting a live performance together as we know. Maybe it’s sort of like deciding whether to play the flute or the double bass…

  3. Daniel Wolf

    What a strange and ephemeral art music is — just pushing air molecules about, to let them spread out, dissipate, and get recycled into ordinary air again! Nothing left but the fragile and wildly variant memories we’re left with, or, our imaginations still churning, generate anew with increasingly tenuous connections to what actually happened with those molecules. I suppose that a good portion of my aversion to sound recording comes from the way in which a recording has the tendency to replace this creative conservation function of memory.

    A beautiful post, Alexandra.


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