A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   July 9, 2006   next

Dreams. It's Sunday morning, and I've just awakened from a long, complex one that's dropping to the mental floor like floating shards of glass milkweed.

The high school degree, back to get it, the math class to finish. Yes, no, flash. It's a high school class but for the PhD. The registration area, like a cafeteria, but with a wall of office furniture. Carrying bottles of wine for later, must find the locker combination for them, 10-2-4. No car. Where is the car? No passport. No transcript. It's time to register, but classes are missed already. Why did that happen? Oh, yes, breakfast with someone very important, clearly, up that short walkway to the tables. The aromas of eggs frying. No, not a restaurant. Is that a yard sale? More like a farmer's market. The wine is to go there, but the plane is leaving soon. Oh, wait, it's a German street market and the wine shop is about to close. The triangular corner cabinet is heavily decorated, with cut glass in the door. Offer the wine. Homemade it is, in lustrous green bottles in a bouquet and it has dill blossoms in the bottle. And fish? There are fish swimming in the wine. No, it must be water, then. Yes, this is a sample of how the display looks. Aren't the fish clever? How did they get there? This really was wine. Close the cabinet; tomorrow for the real wine as the owners chatter in non-functional German. Where is the car? Must meet back at the school, and some old friends are there, all younger, much younger, but all adults. Adults in this high school? The thought fades for there's the car in the attached bedroom, near the wine shop, but the car's windshield is loose. No, not loose. It's come off and sits on the bed, and the car is a convertible. The windshield snaps back in place like a plastic model car. It's light. Two tab-and-slot combinations hold it lightly and two screws secure it on each side. The screws are stripped? How? And where will new ones come from? Far to drive, and fast, can't take the risk of it blowing off. Ah, a wooden drawer of screws. But none are quite right. Yes, metric sizes. Who is that in a hurry? The screws drop. The milkweed shatters and floats toward the floor...

However coldly sweaty they leave me, dreams are marvelous things. They are like compositions, improvisatory elaborations of seed ideas embedded in the background image of our lives for hours or days or years.

The seeds drawn from the real -- the class never finished, the PhD just received, the wine shop, vinegar with dill, fish in the pond yesterday, my car just recently sold -- but the imaginative weaving of a new story from them, however non-linear and full of parallel details, astonish. And that was just the end of the story. What was the rest of it like? Adventure dreams, travel dreams, terror dreams, memory dreams, dreams that fix older dreams, dream people (real and invented, alive and dead), all inhabit my sleeping hours. There is a familiar environment of pseudo-towns and Escheresque streets and houses that collapse ifth-of-oofthlike into themselves that I recognize each time, and whose location and behavior can be counted upon ... at least until they can't.

That is how art works. Ordinary seed materials we all share, experiential or genetic, inform how we work.

Or do they? Having faced the Adorno question again, paging through hand-me-down toilet-top New Yorkers that chronicle the U.S. Information Agency's interest in abstract impressionism, and considering the number of hands-off composers working (the algorithmic composers, from simple math through fractal and genetic algorithms), I begin to wonder how much art is truth.

Certainly I believe art should speak truth. But this belief is tarnished by composers who create by formula. No, it's not that algorithms, say, don't contribute to the development of ideas, and if they are experimental, so much the better. But if they are experiments, one would expect a result. If if they are not experiments, one would expect substance. In other words, the further an art travels along the line from concept to fruition to development to completion -- and this applies to an individual artwork as well -- the more each of its experiments would be validated and incorporated or invalidated and discarded. Experiment yields new information, new ideas, new manners of working. The results of experiment yield a something out of which can be made art with a wider reach, music that gathers more listeners into its bosom.

In 1999, this idea was presented at Dartmouth when I spoke about "eclecticism and mediocrity, and the purpose of music -- particularly experimental music. It's my ongoing internal debate over [its] validity or purpose." Much of it still makes sense. An excerpt:

I would hope I'm not the John Tesh of the aging avant-garde, with talk of listeners' concerns over tools and technique. I have always felt that whether it was confrontational and provocative, or sensual and evocative, music has a fearful depth that could let the saints be ecstatically transformed as they were pierced by arrows, or terrorize a Stalin and Pinochet enough to have them seek and murder their composers.

Manfred Clynes is convinced that there are pan-human musical gestures, and I agree with the sense of that, if not the details. In fact, my wife Stevie Balch and I presented a paper to the first World Congress on Arts Medicine proposing that music can serve as a replacement for lost verbal language -- music as a different kind of language, not on its own terms.

Composer John McGuire said to me that he sees his process of composition as 'solving problems'. This bothers me. It seems a kind of bloodlessness, and I'm not convinced he speaks the truth about it himself. Perhaps the genesis of a piece is a problem, or the process of driving it to completion presents obstacles, but 'problem to be solved' has the false patina of an experimental music that really doesn't follow the course of experiment.

In other words, composers of experimental music in general have not presented a hypothesis, offered evidence, followed a process of testing, and drawn a conclusion that revealed their success and failure. That's not really experimental at all, and, except for theoretical exercises, it doesn't solve musical problems, much less problems outside a circumscribed sonic world.

Aside: Composer Larry Polansky disagreed with my version of 'experiment.' What I was describing, he says, was scientific process; experiment was the equivalent of dropping a testtube on the lab floor to see what would happen. A check on the vulgate meaning of experiment revealed that, indeed, it is "a test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something previously untried; the process of conducting such a test; experimentation; an innovative act or procedure." Only underscoring 'innovative act' allows the meaning artists have used. I stand by the original view that it's a misstatement; such work is not experimental except in the longest reach of its meaning.

In 1991, musicologist Leigh Landy wrote a book called What's the Matter With Today's Experimental Music? He failed to make a case for defining experimental music, equating experiment with indeterminacy, and dismissing all other music that will always be "a large ... part of our musical landscape" as prizing "craftsmanship above innovation."

I don't believe music offers many problems to be solved, but neither is it mainly a personal expression, a cry of anguish, or a shout for joy. It's my turn to be cold-blooded. Cries and shouts are emotional components, as much building blocks of music as tonality and texture and melody and gesture. But music that is driven by such personal expression alone is a kind of masturbation -- pleasurable or necessary, perhaps, but rarely art.

On the other side of this question, and the one that confounds me, is the idea that music is communication. I want to believe this, but communication with whom? Why? How -- with what means and most important, with what language?

This makes me brood. In my quest to create a weave of linear sounds, I have written some extremely complex music that sometimes bewilders audiences. Softening Cries is an orchestral work -- the second movement of a projected Symphony No. 4 [note: this symphony was abandoned] -- that includes multiple arches of sound that never stop over a period of twenty minutes. With each listening, one can focus on certain lines or sets of lines, but how much can be heard at one time? What is the point of contact with a piece that cannot be heard in its entirety? How much of it matters? Why did both musicians and audience like it?

This is my experiment: to push the borders of 'hearability' and use the evidence of my audience's reaction, interaction, and feedback to validate each experiment. It's as close as I can get to scientific experiment, even if it can be fairly described, in Landy's phrase, as "craftsmanship above innovation." But the era of experiment-as-indeterminacy is coming to a close, in much the way that [Michael] Frengel has brought his rhythmic studies under a kind of digital scrutiny: experiment-as-determinacy.

And now -- another dilemma -- if compositions are doomed to be heard only once in our America, should we strip them down, simplify the experiment, if only to make it possible at all? Certainly I hope that our listening skills will evolve to include that multi-threading, to make Softening Cries as easy to hear 'through' as a Bach cantata.

The dream world has its own experiment, validates its own facts, draws its own conclusion, and manifests its own substance. The ordinary informs the illusory, the super-reality of our minds. That is what art touches.

We bottled the dill vinegar in 1994
For reasons unknown, my dream reached back to dill vinegar with red clover that we bottled in 1994.

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site