Might Music be a Limiter of Possibility?

Might Music be a Limiter of Possibility?

Even empty staves already impose limits.

I have to confess that I was surprised and a little disappointed that only our own Colin Holter responded to Alexandra Gardner’s post last week about breaking habits. As soon as I read it, I was immediately fired up by several of its ideas. It took me in very different directions from her original topic, so I didn’t post them there for fear I’d drive the conversation off-topic. Luckily, I can just start a new thread today!

When Alex talked about embarking on a new piece with the intention of avoiding “certain techniques that feel like [they’ve] reached critical mass” in previous work, I immediately thought that, nice as such a notion is for honing compositional skills, might such a provision also box you in and hinder the piece? After all, isn’t having not to do something as constraining as having to do something in the same way that “forming a habit of not doing something” is the same as a habit of doing something?

But then I had one of those weird “A-ha!” moments, which I get all too often these days when I think about music rather than when I make music. (I clearly need to break some bad habits, too.) Anyway, here’s the “A-ha!” moment: Basically, a musical composition—any musical composition or any musical performance, for that matter—is a process of isolating specific sonic events from the total possibility of what is audible. It asks listeners to treat certain sounds, your sounds, in a different way than everything else that is going on in the auditory spectrum—to listen more attentively to those specific sounds at the expense of all other sounds. Even John Cage, when he declared all possible sound occurring during a period of 4’33” to be his composition, was putting a limiter on the sound that is around it since the sound that occurs four minutes and thirty four seconds after the piece began is not intended to be heard as music. Sure, Cage realized this and later created pieces like 0’00”, Musicircus, etc. that try to get around this, but even still, the moment you declare something a musical composition or a musical performance you are setting it apart from the rest of the universe which is not part of that particular gig. Similarly Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening tries to combat this seeming limiter of experience, but if we followed it to its logical conclusion we’d always be listening to everything and as a result probably would not be able to do anything else. There’s a time when you have to stop listening. So limits are there for a reason.

Some of John Luther Adams’s recent pieces also attempt to shatter the space between the artificial limiter of musical composition/performance and the total sonic experience. Here, too, a frame is created—if not by the compositions themselves, by the people who listen to them, just as a matter of physical reality. Listeners, who inevitably will not be able to hear all that these pieces contain, can only focus on some of what they contain and that focus is what makes it music. The sounds generated in The Place Where You Go To Listen will theoretically go on forever, but no listener will stay there long enough to hear it all. And in Inuksuit it is impossible for a single listener to hear the totality of the piece as it is unfolding in time. Each listener’s limited hearing of it is ultimately that listener’s experience of it. It can’t be more; the limitations of perception have themselves become the frame.

So what does this all have to do with breaking bad composition habits? In my case, I guess it means don’t be afraid of limiting what you do since, strangely, limiting sonic possibility (however you choose to do that as composer, performer, or as a listener), is actually what makes sound into music.

And now I’m off to Poland for the 2011 General Assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres and the Warsaw Autumn festival. Then onto Tallinn, Estonia, for the International Music Council’s World Forum on Music, and finally to Oslo, Norway, to spend a week in residence at the Norwegian Music Information Centre. Stay tuned for periodic reports about my adventures there.

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2 thoughts on “Might Music be a Limiter of Possibility?

  1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Frank- what a great post.

    This is really important issue for composers, I believe. It’s easy for us to write off this kind of self-critique as unnecessary (“ok, maybe I limit myself in an unproductive way, but my music is still good”). But in order to be a really honest, devoted artist, I think we need to confront the question- how and when do I choose to limit myself?

    It’s easy to restrict our personal guidelines to parameters like pitch and rhythm/meter. But why not try and tackle things like physical space, notation, or even performance behavior?

    I’m about to dive into writing an evening length theatrical work for solo percussionist. This could be a good exercise in not limiting myself too soon….

  2. Stephen Lias

    Great comments, Frank. I spent many years writing incidental music for theatre and each production presented a new and fascinating set of limitations (we can only use flute for this show… the actors should sing all the incidental music… we need them to play instruments that don’t evoke a period or location…). I always found that I was at my MOST creative when deprived of my most familiar avenues of expression.

    Now, when I get commissions, I find that I’m a bit disappointed when the commissioner tells me to write whatever I want. I guess I’ve come to expect that each new piece will present a fascinating set of challenges and that figuring out a solution is half the fun.

    Best wishes for your travels. Tell mutual friends at IAMIC that I said hello. I’ll be in Poland a week behind you.



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