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Attitudes, Thought Processes, and Their Resultant Ideas

The last few days I’ve been consolidating a general artistic statement for myself. (Perhaps one day I’ll post it. Perhaps not.) One of the things I realized while going through the exercise was that defining my musical interests flowed more naturally from describing my compositional process than from cataloging my materials. Not that the latter wasn’t doable, but I found the former to create a much more accurate picture of what I compose and why. (Artist friends: have you noticed this in your work?)

I was partially surprised by how surprised I was by this realization. I’d taken Intro to English Language. I’m aware of the hypothesis that how we talk about things shapes what we talk about. Yet up until this point, I had never thought of compositional process as having such a strong effect on compositional thought. But I suppose as Admiral Kirk said, “Well, now you have something new to think about.”

So how do I compose and what effect does that have on my music? I start by imagining the sounds of the instruments and the ways the can combine. This gives my music a strong focus on texture and sonority. Because the next step involves finding melodic embodiments of these ideas, from there my music tends to proceed along traditional, rhetorical terms. Still, because the emphasis is on texture, harmony for me becomes more of an organizing factor than a generative one.

To take a series of tangents that will return to the point: Harmony. So often I hear composers (especially my friends in the RB) talk about harmony as chord-chord-chord. I don’t subscribe to this interpretation because I was persuaded otherwise, first by Ernst Toch (I’ve linked to chapter 2 in his book, but chapter 1 is worth reading also), who describes it using the Heraclitian idea “Everything is in flux.”

Is harmony like a series of parade floats? I don’t think so. (Source: flickr.com/photos/pauljill/)

My second main influence is two sentences from Alfred Mann’s The Great Composer as Teacher and Student: “For a long time, ‘harmony’ continued to be the word used to describe a fabric of independent part-writing. It was not until the publication of Jean Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’haramonie in 1722 that the modern meaning was introduced.” This quote may be brief, but in combination with Toch, it profoundly changed me. I no longer think of harmony as isolated floats in a parade of “vertical simultaneities” (as Murray Boren would have put it), but rather as a cohesive stream with an overall sonority (and often direction). For instance, I hear most of Berio’s “O King” as a single “harmony” even if the vertical simultaneities change.

These reflections in turn remind me of a Morton Feldman quote I found just the other day: “For any music’s future, you don’t go to the devices, you don’t go to the procedures, you go to the attitude. And you do not find your own attitude; that’s what you inherit. I’m not my own man. I’m a compilation of all the important people in my life. I once had a seven-hour conversation with Boulez; unknown to him, it affected my life. I admire his attitude. Varèse’s attitude. Wolpe’s attitude. Cage’s attitude. I spent one afternoon with Beckett; it will be with me forever. Not his work; not his commitment; not his marvelous face, but his attitude.”

I tend to write more traditional music than any of my teachers at BYU, but my music has been informed—and, I would say, has been greatly enriched—by the (mainly) modernist attitudes I received from their teaching, which they passed on to me from composers such as Feldman, Cage, Xenakis, and Stockhausen. These attitudes are largely the reason that I start by thinking about sound. I don’t think I personally could achieve the music I do if my musical process began with melody and motive. And I really like the music I write, so I’m glad, even proud, to be a part of this tradition, even if my connection to it isn’t immediately obvious from the sound of my music.