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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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A little catch-up today. It seems yesterday's commentary was more exciting than my moribund usual. I did a lot of complaining, but left off an important aspect that Darcy James Argue talks about -- how Steve Reich got tired of all the whining and started his own ensemble. Reich, Philip Glass and many others (myself included) had ensembles, but unlike Reich or Glass, some of us were not quite as style-bound. That's not a slam. Consistency and genius combine for the stuff of history. And understand that I think Reich in particular is a genius in his tenacity and shimmeringly beautiful compositions (Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim being among the high points), but conversely his scope seems limited enough to cause me to lose interest. Oh, whoa, but I lose interest in Mozart, too, so it's not a reflection on Reich, but only on my own restlessness. Much as I enjoyed Reich during the days of Tehillim, I had a gag reaction to The Desert Music (which from then until now I think of as The Elevator Music).

The point is that one can go varying distances with composer-based ensembles, and if the luck-fame formula fails and one doesn't break out of the ensemble, then the music and the composer are forever circumscribed by the ensemble or its historical footprint. If one imagines more than one's own technical skills (a controversial point for many), then the obligation is not to imagine less or write less, but to write for those who can (or may) perform the imagined music in the real air.

I take this issue personally, of course. As one who came to music in my mid-teens and who suffers from a mild but peculiar form of aphasia, I found it impossible to develop the deeply internalized mechanisms of instrumental performance. Quite simply, I could almost never perform what I could imagine. Argue quotes Reich as talking about "an 'ethical and moral' contrast between composers writing incredibly complex music that they couldn't perform and likely didn't hear in their heads." This is deeply offensive but still shame-inducing, for as a composer I often must first prove my grasp of my own music and be tested with carefully crafted wrong notes before performers will play it with respect. That incessant testing gets tiring, and to hear such a flawed concept reiterated by Reich in 2006 sadly identifies him as frozen in the past. (Are we all that sad? Am I?)

Okay, the point was reasonable in its day, but I think the quality of a wide range of music -- physically formed minimalism or mentally imagined modernism among them -- has borne out its own credibility over time.

* * *

When I spoke about Tower Records the other day, I didn't expect that my reference to us "blinking out of existence" would be troublesome. One composer wrote to me, "The pieces are supposed to outlast us, aren't they?"

Perhaps, I wrote back. But as far as us, no, we are gone. There is no transmission of 'us-ness' to those who have not known us, only evidence of who we might have been. Objects, places and events recede not only into a temporal past, but lose familiarity. Consider a project that might have taken ten generations to complete, like a great European cathedral. The concept carried forward, mutating as it went, sometimes abandoned before the spires were completed. It's tautological, but the reality is bewildering. I can't miss something I didn't know (the record booths that I mentioned), nor have the same reaction to the daily objects of life (telephone) as my grandmother. No matter how real the virtual reality that is recreated, it is someone else's reality.

Over at the Internet Movie Database, almost every film has a list of accompanying goofs & anachronisms that reveal the inevitable failure of reconstructing reality, even so far as the absolute minimum required for suspension of disbelief in the viewer's physical environment. The transformation of one reality to another is certainly a raison d'être of art. It's not in the feel or the atmosphere but rather in the detail that such reconstruction fails, moreso for me than my wife Stevie, whose reality-suspension mechanism is more ready to function as hoped than mine is. I might notice a clock in the background -- no, I won't be looking for it, but I will register it in a peripheral awareness -- and if the time jumps back or forward because the person responsible for continuity didn't make sure its time matched the story's time, the shell of the imaginary is shattered. Something will be gauzily wrong, even if it takes me several viewings to realize why.

Readers of these commentaries will know that science fiction has played a role in my perception of the real and the imagined. As a limited-budget television series, Star Trek was burdened by bogus science that was used to create house-of-cards realities. But the bogusness was consistent, and where it wasn't -- such as the randomly numbered stardates in the first series -- later versions strove to clean up the mess and strengthen the sense of believability. In constructing alternate realities, detail requires effort.

Several episodes of the second Star Trek series had alternate realities within the alternate reality of the show, holographic realities which the crew had constructed to deceive or reassure the subjects of the illusion. Revealing that reality is in the details, the plot allowed the internal details to fade and the illusion to fail -- not in its overarching credibility but in the familiarity, the family, of the personal world. I liked that. In an episode called "Frame of Mind" that gave anyone who has ever been institutionalized the shakes, the character of Riker is studying a play for performance as a crew entertainment. Unexpectedly, he finds himself in the very mental institution that is written into the play, within which his mental imagery keeps shattering as soon as it acknowledges a flaw in his surroundings or others' behavior. The episode is like falling through dreams. He is in the play, then in the institution. Terrifying.

In another episode, a probe appears outside the starship and Captain Picard falls to the floor. Within forty-five minutes of audience real time passes twenty-five minutes of fictional time within which the stunned Picard awakes to live an entire adult lifetime as if his spacefaring career had been a dream. Only at the end is the dream deliberately unraveled, and the characters of the dream-life return to tell him that they are long gone, and they had placed all that was known about themselves into the probe. "Tell them of us," says Eline.

But telling is impossible. It even takes enormous personal energy to keep someone alive in one's mind. My father died a few years ago, and I can't remember his voice anymore, except maybe for the tone of a few syllables that started every phone call. I can only call up his face with mental effort; the memory has softened his face, made it plastic, removed the details that I once knew so well. I'll probably be the last to have known him, and when I'm gone, so is he.

Please pardon the Star Trek analogies, but there is another that makes the point of what we cannot do, the dream of intimate memory we cannot achieve, for we are forever separated (as far as we know) by biological barriers. The episode is "The Offspring," in which the android Data has made an experimental and more advanced version of himself that he treats as his daughter, named Lal. When the child android fails and is shut down, Data (a character without emotional ability) says to the crew that she has not been lost because he has incorporated her within himself. Perfect recollection. Yet even so, the power of the episode is not in the information preserved but in something more. Unlike Data, Lal had developed feelings -- a "system failure". It was beautifully written:

Data: "Lal, I am unable to correct the system failure."
Lal: "I know."
Data: "We must say good-bye now."
Lal: "I feel...."
Data: "What do you feel, Lal?"
Lal: "I love you, Father."
Data: "I wish I could feel it with you."
Lal: "I will feel it for both of us. Thank you for my life..."

No, there cannot be reconstruction of the past. The illusions in Hollywood film are false, documentaries are false, memories are false. There is no reality but reality (not even that for Neo in The Matrix), and even perceived reality is suspect because we edit the memories within milliseconds of them being transferred out of short-term déjà-vu memory to long-term bio-storage. We edit out the pain. Can I truly recall how it felt to slash my hand on that broken window? No. I see the memory, I recall the event, but the pain itself is edited away.

So yes, the pieces will outlast us. They will no longer be our pieces. We will be gone, and what's left will be the cathedral, with or without the spire.

* * *

One more thing to catch up, this time on the recurring notation theme. One forgets how attractive handwritten scores can be, as well as being legible. The microtonal score to Corner Table with Friends by Robert Bonotto is such an example. Not that I've ever done anything visually artistic with my own scores, but I appreciate the way Robert melds his artistic skills with the characters (perhaps a reflection of his own theatrical life) as a prelude to the music itself.

If there's anything to be lost with computerized notation, it's this sense of the manuscript, the handwritten hints to the composer's deeper meaning. No, this is not a moment in heartfelt praise of the lamented manuscript, just an assertion that the change is already deeply inside many of our working methods, from the computer notated instruction sheet (the score) to the fully electronic creation and realization of a compositional idea. For the former, when the computer notational assistance becomes a full compositional array of tools, the manuscript will vanish entirely. The memory of us will vanish all the more quickly, and only our artifacts will remain.

Musicology will suffer -- one can only hope.

Bonotto Corner Table with Friends
Part of the title page of Robert Bonotto's Corner Table with Friends. Here is a large version of the page.

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