Subjective Judgments (Or, Why Do You Like That Sound You Like?)


by Nathan Cornelius

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Walden School Creative Musicians Retreat in the beautiful countryside of New Hampshire. Over the course of the week, over 30 composers had their music premiered by the fantastic Wet Ink Ensemble and a chorus of festival participants. The format of the concerts was unique and interesting in that each premiere was immediately followed by a few minutes of discussion, hosted by composer Martin Bresnick. I was struck by the stylistic diversity of the program, from minimalist to post-spectral to neo-Romantic to jazz-influenced, as well as Bresnick’s ability to perceive the essence of each piece and ask penetrating questions about it, regardless of the particular style. At some point in nearly every discussion, though, he asked the composer how they chose certain elements of the piece, such as harmony, melody, or instrumentation.

As a composer, I long for a chance like this to get nerdy and talk about some complex process in my piece to a roomful of fellow nerds who might actually understand me. On the other hand, as an audience member, I found myself becoming bored whenever a composer launched into such an explanation in the forum. (I would do well to remember this when I’m the one talking.) The majority of the composers at the festival, however, did not take this route. Instead, most of their answers to the question “Why did you write that?” were along the lines of “Because it sounded good” or “Because I liked it.” Bresnick would then follow up by asking what specifically they found attractive that led them to choose that material, but most of them couldn’t pin it down any further.

For many composers, our music’s raison d’etre is fundamentally subjective, not objective. We cannot always offer a rational explanation for our creative decisions, because they stem from intuitions which operate at a pre-conscious or pre-rational level in our minds. (In terms of my last post, the heart chooses first, and the head comes into play later.) We sometimes try to hide our insecurity over this lack of rationale behind an elaborately constructed screen of technique and compositional virtuosity which baffles anyone trying to peer through to the motivations behind it. But admitting the composer’s subjective, personal preference as sufficient grounds for creating a work seems just as disturbing. If composers simply ought to write what they like or what sounds good to them, are they then at the mercy of their own taste?

All composers have probably had the experience of hearing a work for the first time, admiring it passionately, and dreaming of writing a piece like that someday. In other words, we like the piece, we think it sounds cool, and we want to emulate it. As I retraced my musical life in search of an answer to my dilemma, I realized that the kinds of pieces that provoked this reaction in me have changed many times. In the past decade of my music studies, I’ve successively fallen in love with the music of Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Crumb, Penderecki, Carter, Sibelius, Murail, and Mahler—not exactly homogeneous in style. Along the way, I’ve modeled my attempts at composition after each of these composers’ work, if not stolen it outright. My pieces have literally quoted tunes by Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Sibelius, and Palestrina, and I’ve borrowed very specific processes from most of the rest.

In each case, my interest in writing music in a certain style was preceded by many hours spent listening to and studying that style. For example, when I was listening to a lot of Beethoven, I started to think it would be cool to write a piece that aspired to Beethoven’s ingenuity in motivic development and maybe quoted one of his themes too. Later, after discovering Penderecki, I still admired Beethoven, but imitating his style no longer seemed so attractive, because I was more intrigued by Penderecki’s expressionistic contrasts in texture, timbre, and sonority. In other words, the progression of music I wanted to write followed the progression of  styles I was immersing myself in as a listener.

Thus, I’ve learned that I can have a real influence on my own musical taste, not by willing myself to like a certain style, but by listening to it and studying it until I understand it deeply. My changing musical interests have not followed a linear process of evolution towards greater sophistication. But with each new composer who enters my circle of musical influences, the music I dream of writing gets richer, deeper, and more satisfying. And while I never actually reach the level of the masterpieces that inspired me, the very fact that my goals keep getting higher encourages me to keep trying.

So if you want to diversify your range as a composer while still writing music you like, try to cultivate a broader palate for your musical taste. Make a habit of regularly exploring music you’ve never heard before and see what happens. When something piques your interest, listen to everything by that composer you can get your hands (or earbuds) on. While this process may or may not lead directly to inspiration for a new piece, it will certainly expand the universe of sound worlds in which you feel comfortable both as a listener and as a composer. And if you do it for long enough, you may find that the kind of music you prefer has completely changed.

In music, as in life, it’s good to listen to what your heart tells you, but sometimes you also have to intentionally nudge it in a different direction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to some weird new scores I ran across in the library.


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