Worlds Apart

Worlds Apart

During my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet the composer Conlon Nancarrow. He came to visit the school for a day, and a few music majors were invited to lunch with him. I was very excited, because his music was strange and interesting to me. Around the same time, I had heard Kyle Gann talk about analyzing Nancarrow’s works for player piano for the book he was writing, and about his adventures visiting Nancarrow in Mexico, so needless to say the idea of getting to talk to the composer himself was very intriguing!

As the small group sat at the lunch table and chatted (which turned out to be not so easy, given that Nancarrow was not a big conversationalist), I finally summoned the courage to ask him, “What is your music about?” He paused, looked at his plate and growled, “I write music about music.”

I still think about that statement often, because it is so far from what drives me to make music. While methods of weaving together notes and rhythms are fascinating and fun (and sometimes frustrating!), they are not ultimately what pull me to my composing table every day. What gets me there is the message that the techniques are meant to deliver—the story, the mood, the sonic landscape that will be evoked from the way those notes and rhythms are put together. I almost always have something extra-musical that I am attempting to deal with through the compositional process. Sometimes it is a story or a sense of place or a concept that I want to communicate to a listener, and occasionally it is simply something that I am trying to personally explore, and it is not necessarily crucial that the listener “gets” that particular message, or something different. For me, the most successful music comes from the things in life that haunt me until I compose them out of my system.

I find Nancarrow’s statement somewhat haunting because I wonder what it would feel like to have the music itself be the primary impetus for action. I’ve tried to experiment and compose that way, and while it’s interesting and fun for a while—in a crossword puzzle-working, Scrabble-playing kind of way—it doesn’t feel totally satisfying to me in the end. Nevertheless, I absolutely respect and admire the music of so many composers who approach their craft in that laser-focused-on-the-nuts-and-bolts sort of way. Even though my musical world view is situated in a very different place, every angle we take to making music is a way of experiencing life and sharing it with others.

What is it that drives you to compose and/or perform music? What pulls you to your work every day?

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5 thoughts on “Worlds Apart

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Great story, Alex! It is worth mentioning that 2012 is the Nancarrow centennial (October 27). His music should sound more around the whole world.

    “I write music about music”. Great words by an overlooked composer.

    I sense that in response to your last two questions, there can be many replies by different composers, and that’s what makes the music world so exciting!

  2. chris s

    I have been dealing with composers who seem to want to hear extra musical factors in composition in the past interviews for grad school.

    I have to say for me it depends. Sometimes I can write some good stuff with the nuts and bolts approach and other times an extramusical source pushes me to write good music as well.

    In the end I think it is a balance of both. I was relistening to a piece of mine written a few years ago under tremendously difficult extramusical circumstances. I hear the piece now and the emotional content and sound has been lost – it seems very much a student piece with some heartfelt ideas.

    Nevertheless, there is a piece I am working on now that is loaded with extramusical content that drives it. I think it will be more successful than the aforementioned piece because I wrote two prior pieces – one more of a nuts and bolts, crossword like puzzle piece – with some emotional attachment but not too much, and another that was loaded with emotional intent and under deadline. Since, I learned much from these two prior pieces, I am employing the lessons I learned from them and from recent study in this piece.

    My only complaint about writing with an extramusical/emotional content compelling you is it can be very trying emotionally.

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hi Chris – thanks for your comment! I agree that a balance of nuts-and-bolts vs. extra-musical inspiration can be an ideal situation for many folks. When I say extra-musical, I don’t necessarily mean emotional or difficult…I’m talking about basing a composition on, say, a quote from a poem, or a photograph. Goodness knows writing music is hard enough without bringing in extra drama if one is not up for that!

  3. Mark N. Grant

    Nancarrow’s comment echoes Stravinsky’s notorious “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality.” (from his 1936 Autobiography) Often this quotation is shortened to the somewhat misrepresentative “Stravinsky said,’music cannot and should not express anything’.”

  4. chris sahar

    Mark –

    I agree wholeheartedly with Stravinsky, this is what made me find the questions about extramusical factors to describe my music a bit difficult in my recent grad school interviews. How can you say it describes your music if the chance of it being communicated is ever increasingly dim?

    Without going too far off topic, that is why I wonder if there is simply a music text looking solely at music and function and how it has changed over the centuries?

    To close, I can relate one famous example of Stravinsky’s truth with the folk song “Ring Around The Rosie” – many know it topically as an innocent little children’s song to form a circle, spin around, and end by falling to the ground. Kids love it. Yet the lyrics are all about the Black Plague – its concluding line “we all fall down” means “we all fall to our death (from the plague)”.


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