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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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How much do we need to know?

That question was brought home last night in a discussion with a close friend, after I had lamented my weakness in the history and theory of music. Do we know enough to be articulate? Do we know enough to be composers? What does that knowledge, any knowledge beyond the technical skills and imagination, mean for an individual's expression within the artform?

Virgil Thomson (and thanks to John McGuire for this reference to Thomson's essay, "Why Composers Write How") distinguishes in great detail between composers who have studied from those who are naïve. Seventy years ago, that distinction seemed reasonable, as concert music was part of a long tradition passed down from teacher to student within a community of craftspeople. One would rise into the study of the counterpoint of Palestrina and Bach and the harmony of Haydn and Beethoven and the orchestration of Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov. By the mid-20th century, that theoretical knowledge would presumably stretch back to the Ars Nova, and to Gothic motets, organum and medieval monody, as well as reaching into the present with serial theory.

As far as composers being historians, that seems to be a given. Even though I can't imagine Mozart being one, certainly Schubert and Brahms had their hands in it, with the former's restaging of Bach and the latter's work as one of the first true musicologists. Now, it seems, being unable to distinguish Weber from Reicha or point out the references to earlier compositions in Bach's St. Matthew Passion or identify the unique points of Iberian monody are marks of a pathetic dilettante. Even new nonpop composers handle a historical breadth within pop sources, from Blind Lemon Jefferson through Jeff Buckley.

From being a society of description and tools we have become a society of metaphor and ideas. Our popular culture is filled with allusion, whether the haute television of The West Wing or the earthier The Simpsons or South Park. They are rich with reference, much of the latter's ironic -- and much of the former's including music as a participant in the drama, whether from Dire Straits, Lisa Gerrard or the aforementioned Jeff Buckley (whose recording of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is a pinnacle of television's mix of music, cinematography and montage).

Film and literature are thickly referential, as much if not more for the artist as for the audience. Where would Woody Allen be without Battleship Potemkin, or a dozen neurotic comedies without Play It Again, Sam? We understand "through a glass, darkly" without a shred of reference to St. Paul, and "bare, ruined choirs" lives alone without Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet wherein the late sweet birds sang. Rose is a rose, but what of her hips? Consider even our mundane words -- the poet John Ciardi spoke eloquently about the "ghosts of words," a phrase that reveals verbal phantasmagory as an artist's realm. Consider English's apparently contorted and irrational spelling in terms of its pronunciation. A ghost (Old English breath) and a spirit (Latin breath) cast similar shadows, but who is the ghost in plow or bough or rough? In its lost spelling (plough), we feel its Old English ancestor looking over our shoulder, and see how plough is akin to bough and rough as were those old words ploh and boh and roh. In just the past few sentences, I called on words from Greek, Old English and Latin, with roots in Persian and back to Sanskrit. A reformer might change the spelling of "through" and "shampoo" to be the same -- but then either we're done with Old English or we're washing out the Hindi; on the other hand, the similarly spelled "balloon" and "typhoon" call up German expanding through French and Latin vs. a word blowing in from the Mandarin. Our 'colonel' is related to hill, excel, culminate, and column -- but our 'kernel' is related to corn, grain, granite, and grenade. So "kernels sown on hills where erstwhile colonels lobbed grenades" contains more than clever homophones -- it introduces the ghosts of kernels and colonels to each other in a marvelous, opposite terror, echoing "grenades dropped on colonels where hills once exploded in corn." Now those are ghosts.

Whether it attempts to be descriptive (Beethoven's Gewitter, Sturm in the sixth symphony) or allegorical (Bach's B-A-C-H chromatic 'cross' motif of B-flat, A, C, B-natural), music is abstract. It references itself, and cannot call upon Shakespeare or St. Paul, kernels or grenades. And in that abstraction is the self-reference, both historical and theoretical, that presses increasingly on the composer's brow. The reference presses even harder in this era of irony and postmodernism, where it is de rigueur to include the past in the present, whether the Bach in Berg's Violin Concerto or the Arlen in my own Thièle for solo violin.

Without both knowing the references and having a means to express them, our music stumbles between the utilitarian or personal, the entertainment and the art. To survive 'meaningness' -- the search for relative significance, in the way Stephen Colbert's truthiness is relative truth without evidence or logic -- one reaches out for sources, whether stolen from a disrespected old man in Gavin Bryars's Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet or cribbed from the Duke of Prunes himself in songs by the Ramones or Gotan Project.

As a composer, how much of oneself is lost when doing this? How much becomes a conscious attempt to 'reach an audience' as opposed to exploring a musical concept and rolling it out for delectatious sensory examination? Reference itself becomes the modern form, and a sonata or fugue become not forms for their own sake, but forms for such reference, cards to be played, moments of cackle, the "aha! a fugue, that ironic sumbitch!" The plagal cadence is transformed from an indirect if deeply understood implication into sonic iconography, perhaps from blues or gospel or even the Beatles, increasing its distance from religious context. Counterpoint itself grows intellectual, leaving behind the evocative Ars Nova and its Ma Bouche Rit or Adieu, m'amour right through the dissonant "wiggly counterpoint" that, according to Thomson, is "as easy as falling off a log" (later parodied by Peter Schickele in his contrapuntal P.D.Q. Bach Art of the Ground Round: "Loving is as easy as falling off a log.") Similarly, the dichotomous modern whistlestops of abandoned harmony and simple harmony have left open the way for the fully loaded reference train. A Tristan progression or Landini cadence inside minimalism are obvious to a fault, as they would be within hyperserial new complexity. But they're damn yummy either way.

So do we know too much in general and consequently need to use too much that is specific? In other words, a composer must have at hand dozens of styles and hundreds of techniques unknown to (and unneeded by) Mozart -- or Stravinsky, or Stockhausen. An infinitely connected world has perversely and forever ruptured the historically connected, Eurocentric musical arts. We are relegated to pastiche, or no reference at all.

The dilemma is extreme. References we might wish to make -- to popular music in particular -- are stymied in practice by copyright restrictions. We can hide them until the future arrives, or we can reach across in our amateur way to other cultures or reach back into the past and pull out material that to our frustration carries with it implications of the tonalities and formal approaches we no longer wish to use. We become confounded when the coherency, the reference, the ghosts we wish would guide us are lost, and the results of our efforts lack redeeming social value.

Does that mean we're off the hook as far as knowing history and theory well? Certainly we need an ear that can dissect harmonies and identify structure and guide our theft of ideas effectively and hide what we've done as our own. But what do our audiences need from us? Guidance? Inspiration? Confrontation? Is what we know ultimately unimportant, so long as we remain jongleurs of a tiny slice of the postmodern age?

Personal Aside

In these matters, my voice is not an authoritative one. As I wrote to my friend, I was a wretched music student, bored by traditional counterpoint, a subject that was taught by Rutgers composer-in-residence Robert Moevs. My first melodic assignment was completed in whole tones, an act that Moevs saw as defiance (rather than its real source, ignorance), souring our relationship.

My musical history had already been erratic, lacking musical instruction until age fourteen. Aside from whole notes in the low register of a bass clarinet, everything about musical theory came from school encyclopedias and a record player built from a kit. Notation was hieroglyphics, with a Rosetta Stone in recordings that could be matched up with score examples. (Trying to match a Wagner opera with an encyclopedia clip of eight measures of condensed score was serious practice.)

After being accepted grudgingly as one of six music majors in a Rutgers department that needed bodies, my scanty knowledge was humiliated during those years of lackluster instruction. Knowledge of music history came from record jackets and library books (and occasional guests such as the very young Pauline Oliveros) -- so I know more about Gesualdo than Palestrina, and almost nothing about Schubert, even though Der Doppelgänger still comes complete from memory. My orchestration book was Rimsky-Korsakov's, but my real bible was Stravinsky's Rite. I learned to read four-line monody with hardly a glitch, but conducting transposed scores remains a nightmare. What kind of consistent education was that?

Nor was I allowed to graduate. Aphasia disrupted my body symmetry, leaving no dominant side. Playing scales and arpeggios at speed was impossible when concentrating on both hands at the same time (so was swimming). The arbitrary keyboard proficiency exam assigned me to play scales and arpeggios in A-flat harmonic minor. My deliberate, two-hand focus was unsatisfactory, and so in those years before disability laws I left Rutgers without a degree.

Everything after 1970 came from scores, books, and listening, learning from a patchwork of available sources, from professionals who would talk to me, and from concerts. Composing as a naïf felt like patching a hole in a boat's hull while simultaenously bailing. Indeed, there was absolutely nothing gratifying about being inarticulate before people who were passing judgment on my future as a composer -- performers, ensembles, conductors -- so I overcompensated for the ignorance, with ten years spent learning proper theory and history.

The efforts made me a good radio host, but when I step into a room where Valotti tuning and pitch classes are in play, I sink. In the film version of Amadeus, F. Murray Abraham plays the old Salieri being pushed down the hall in his wheelchair, crying out "I am the patron saint of mediocrities!" In my own mirror, that's me. Who can tell the truth -- or the truthiness?

Rose hips are big this year
The rose hips are huge this year, as the early warmth and wetness kept the Japanese beetles at bay.

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