Is New Music Possible?

Chord Catalogue

by Nathan Cornelius

In one of history’s intriguing meetings of creative minds, Ralph Vaughan Williams studied composition for a time with Maurice Ravel. On one occasion the French master, surprised to discover his student writing sketches for a piece at his desk away from the piano, supposedly blurted out, “But how can you find new chords without a piano?”[1] Ravel apparently saw his compositional process as one of discovering hitherto unknown sonorities by trial and error at the keyboard. Indeed, the tropes of composer as groundbreaking scientist or composer as voyaging explorer are prevalent throughout music history, with harmony the main continent to be explored.

This, of course, assumes that there really are new chords to find that have not been used before. But it’s a bit disturbing for a composer intent on harmonic originality to discover a piece like Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue: all of the 8178 chords possible in one octave, which systematically and exhaustively lists all possible combinations of notes.[2] (And this is not merely an abstract exercise in music theory: it has actually been performed in a ten-hour “marathon solo recital.”[3]) To return to the exploring metaphor, such a piece is the equivalent of Columbus landing in America and not only encountering the Indians already there but being presented with a detailed map of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Besides science and exploration, many composers turn to theological or transcendental accounts of their creativity. In fact, the trope of the artist as divine creator, or at least demiurge, is one of the most deeply embedded in all of Western culture. Like God, literally speaking (or, in some traditions, singing) his sonic creatures into being, the composer creates a whole new world out of air, which is pretty much as close as you can get to nothing. As your own blogger wrote 7 years ago,  “Music, even more than other creative arts, comes as close as possible to God’s mode of creation—ex nihilo, out of nothing.  When a composer invents a tune out of his or her head, he or she has given birth to something that did not exist before in any form or in anyone else’s mind and is not a copy of any other creator’s work.” While my sanguine high-school self may have overstated the case a bit, the idea that creative originality should be valued because it most nearly approaches divine creativity is common in the artworld.

But the theological ground for artistic originality is problematic too. As Paul Griffiths argues in his brilliant philosophical essay, Intellectual Appetite, if the entire cosmos is a creation of God, no human creator can claim original authorship of either a sensory object (the physical sound of the music) or an intellectual idea (the score in a conceptual sense), “because anything that can be known by any one of us is already known to God and has been given to us as unmerited gift.”[4] Thus, Griffiths argues, it is not really accurate to say artists create ex nihilo: “our makings, unlike God’s act of creation, require something we have not made that we can work on. There will always be something about our makings independent of and prior to our work of shaping and forming, something that therefore does not bear our style-signature.”[5]

Furthermore, composers are indebted not only to their Creator but to their predecessors: “Anyone who speaks or writes now swims, knowingly or not, in an ocean of words already spoken or written.”[6] One could equally well speak of an ocean of tones, and there is no composer who has never tasted even a sip from it. Thus, “there are no absolutely new things, no novelties in the strict and full sense, nothing completely unprecedented. Anything completely new in this sense would, by definition, have nothing in common with anything that preceded it.”[7] While Griffiths is referring to novelty in an absolute philosophical sense, in practice a piece of music is only intelligible to its listeners to the extent that it shares qualities in common with music they have heard before. A work of absolute novelty and complete innovation would, if it existed, risk utter incomprehension and thus jeopardize its very status as an artwork.

Finally, Griffiths suggests that artworks can (and should) possess beauty completely independent of their purported originality, saying, “progress and novelty are of no particular interest to the studious; truth and beauty are.”[8] But why then do we experience such powerful fascination and palpable delight in the presence of a new artwork? This desire and delight may certainly be corrupted by fads, trends, and self-reinforcing avant-gardisms, but it seems to persist in its pure form even if the aesthetic appetite is disinterested and free (or as close as one can get) of such distractions.  How then can we offer a satisfactory account of composers’ desire to create new kinds of works? Furthermore, we intuitively believe there really is something new under the sun. Is artistic innovation then merely an ontological fraud?

The solution, I think, lies at the border between creativity and epistemology. For Griffiths, “acts of knowing are in a limited sense creative acts. They make actual a good that without them was only potential: the dual good of your knowing something you can know, and of something’s being known as it is by one who can so know it.”[9] But one could also turn this statement around and say that creative acts are really acts of knowing, when the human creator first becomes aware that a particular arrangement of sound in time is not only possible but delightful, and then actualizes it in a sensible form, whether through the activity of marks on a staff, vibrations in the air, or merely neurons in her brain.

The world is pregnant with infinite numbers of potential arrangements, like an extension of Johnson’s chord catalogue to all possible aesthetic qualities beyond pitch, with all the permutations these entail. All of these potentials are eternally present in the mind of God, who wrote them into being in the act of defining the physical laws of sound. Thus, the composer’s work is not to bring music into being out of nothing, but to notice, select and present beautiful, even meaningful, arrangements of these potentialities. She is less like the sculptor building up a form out of clay (although even that artist has a raw material with which to start) and more like Michelangelo seeing the form locked within the block of marble and carving away the excess to make it visible. For the composer who has recognized this, as Annie Dillard puts it, “the writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool,”[10] revealing what was there in the world all along but has only now revealed itself to your ears, and through them to others’.

[1] Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 68.

[2] Set theory aficionados might prefer to cite the 220 unique set-classes as defined by Forte, while composers fond of overtone spectra might argue that chords genuinely sound different spread over many octaves rather than compressed within one, but these are merely quantitative differences. Johnson could easily respond with another catalog to those specifications if he wished.

[3] The increasing despair of the woman in the third row of the audience as she slowly realizes what she’s in for is positively hilarious.

[4] Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 22.

[5] Griffiths, 71.

[6] Griffiths, 167.

[7] Griffiths, 205.

[8] Griffiths, 202.

[9] Griffiths, 132-133.

[10] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 3.

Gambara: A Parable for Composers?


by Nathan Cornelius

In Honoré de Balzac’s 1837 short story Gambara, an exiled Italian nobleman finds himself following—nowadays one would say “stalking”—a mysterious woman through the streets of Paris. By the time the count learns the lovely Marianna is in fact unhappily married to the eccentric and reputedly insane composer Gambara, he is hopelessly smitten. Aiming to prove Gambara’s insanity definitively so Marianna can obtain a divorce and run off with him, the count embarks on a vigorous dialogue with the composer about all things musical.

His general mental confusion notwithstanding, Gambara’s opinions about music are trenchant. When his interlocutor proffers the Romantic ideal that “music exists independently of its execution,” Gambara retorts, “Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven are nothing at all without an orchestra.”[1] Like most composers, he believes he has superseded even the masterpieces of previous eras, with the singular exception of Don Giovanni, which he praises as “the only musical work in which harmony and melody are in exactly equal proportions.”[2] (Of course, he says this to a wandering Italian nobleman who is trying to seduce his wife…)

It eventually becomes apparent that Gambara spends most of his working hours doing experiments in acoustics and physics, modifying musical instruments in outlandish ways to further his research. His most infamous project is the “Panharmonicon,” a jury-rigged keyboard which can supposedly imitate the sound of any instrument or voice—much to his neighbors’ dread. Gambara’s ultimate goal is to discover “new laws [which] would arm the composer with new powers, offering him instruments superior to those he has now, and perhaps a more wondrous harmony compared to the one which governs music today.”[3] Indeed, Gambara’s harmonic experiments seem far ahead of his time; his opera (with a libretto by the composer based on, of all things, the life of Muhammad) attempts such wild tonal acrobatics that the count only perceives “a jumble of discordant sounds flung out at random.”[4] (Perhaps Gambara’s music would have fared better had he been born a century later.)

After several evenings of lively discussion at a seedy Italian restaurant, the count discovers that Gambara’s verbal and musical abilities approach something like coherence only after he has imbibed liberally. He decides to test Gambara’s mental powers by taking him to a new grand opéra by Meyerbeer, with drinks before and after. However, he has also become genuinely concerned for Gambara’s future as well as Marianna’s and hopes to divert the composer’s brilliant but unstable mind into some other pursuit where he might actually be able to make a living. In the story’s climactic scene, after the night at the opera, the count is on the verge of persuading the tipsy Gambara to give up composing and become a poet, or at least a music critic, when the composer passes out and has to be carried back to his apartment. When he finally comes to the next morning, Gambara wants nothing to do with the count’s plans and refuses to see him anymore.

The satirical yet tragic figure of Gambara strikes me as a compelling image of the pitfalls of being a composer. In a sense, Gambara’s plans fall victim to his overblown ambition: he declares, “My music’s goal is to offer a representation of the life of nations conceived from the loftiest perspective,”[5] but to his listeners, he fails to capture a coherent representation of anything. Like Gambara, many composers aspire to be researchers, discovering universal laws of sound, designing unique instruments, and developing innovative quasi-scientific theories to explain their results. But in reality, Balzac seems to be saying, the best composers can hope for is just to be poets.

Music is, in other words, fundamentally not a science. It cannot, by its very nature, convey universal truths about the world, whether of sine waves or human souls. Any artist who sets music-as-science as his or her ultimate goal is bound to be disappointed. Poets, by contrast, rarely strive for the universal, the all-encompassing grand statement. Instead, poetry typically depicts some limited, personal, and deeply meaningful corner of the world as experienced by a particular individual (often, but not necessarily, the poet).

Science aims to populate an exhaustive catalog of birdsongs (and some composers have tried); poetry revels in the song of a lone hermit thrush in the northwoods. Science expounds a theory of the atmosphere; poetry paints the color of the sun’s first rays hitting a mountainside through layers of lowland haze and smog. Science strives to treat human relationships in general (in which guise it is often known as psychology or sociology); poetry describes the moment when two people who secretly like each other make eye contact and are momentarily struck dumb. Science (calling itself theology or philosophy) claims to depict a comprehensive spiritual worldview; poetry tells the story of the sufferer who experiences divine comfort in the valley of the shadow of death.

The paradox is that any art, by becoming more personal, also becomes more universal. The more the artist depicts what is unique to him or her, the more evident its relevance to the lives of others, as, in Gambara’s words, “each individual existence is drawn to it by the memory of its own experience.”[6] This doesn’t mean musicians can’t be researchers. Their research, however, is not an end in itself, but a means toward poetic expression. Articulating these glimpses of transcendence demands all the resources an artist can muster, and they do well to cast a wide net for new ways of doing it.

This was, I think, why I became a composer in the first place, before I became lost in the thicket of research. I wanted to respond to such transcendent moments in a creative act that could be shared with others. Lacking the inclination (or the discipline) to practice the craft of a poet, novelist, or painter (and so on) enough to be able to capture these moments, I chose music as my medium of expression—or maybe it chose me. And so Gambara’s struggle against distraction, criticism, hubris, and confusion is my own struggle as well. Will I succumb to the temptation to strive for a universalizing masterpiece that promises more than music can possibly deliver? Or will I allow my works to be unique and beautiful in their limited state, each a witness to an aspect of truth compact enough to be grasped in a single glimpse?

[1] Honoré de Balzac, “Gambara,” in The Unknown Masterpiece, translated by Richard Howard (New York: New York Review Books, 2001), 69-70.

[2] Ibid., 114.

[3] Ibid., 78.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 125.

Daniel Sharkey, untitled no. 267

Recently, I’ve been writing about how careful listening can lead us to discover new dimensions of sound, and of the world. Rather than talking more about this topic this week, I’d like to take a few minutes just to watch this short film by Daniel Sharkey, with music by my friend Jasper Schmich Kinney. Sharkey’s images and Schmich Kinney’s music speak to this idea far more incisively than any of my words could.

untitled no. 267 was a collaboration between Colorado filmmaker Daniel Sharkey and Nebula Ensemble, a group which with deformingprisms writers are involved in bringing “the now of music” to the Colorado Front Range. The film will be screened at Nebula Ensemble’s upcoming concert, ACOUSMA: Film and Electronics in New Music on Saturday, February 20th in Denver. This exciting concert will also feature another film collaboration between Sharkey and Schmich Kinney, a new electronic work by deformingprisms contributor Stephen Bailey, and much more. Details on the concert are available here.

A Moment of Silent Noise


by Nathan Cornelius

I love listening to the music of Gustav Mahler for his colorful use of the orchestra and skillful use of counterpoint. At any given moment, there are usually more things going on than I can pay attention to at once, yet everything seems to cohere into a grand and monumental sound object. This was certainly the case at a recent performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony I attended. Indeed, spending an hour-and-a-half five rows back from a hundred-piece orchestra can be an overwhelming sensory experience. So it was strange that the most profound moment I experienced listening to the piece came when hardly anything was happening.

Unlike most symphonies, Mahler’s 9th ends not with a grand finale but with a lyrical, passionate, and expansive slow movement. (This movement is famously known as Mahler’s farewell to life, since the 9th was the last work he completed, but that’s another story…) Sentimental epithets aside, the music does carry a certain sense of unfulfilled longing, and each time it builds to a climax, it abruptly drops away to a single note just at the moment one would expect it to resolve. These “anticlimactic” notes are played softly, sustained by one of the strings, in contrast to the lush orchestration Mahler uses elsewhere in the piece. At the last major climax, about two-thirds of the way through the movement, the texture once again thins to a single note, but this time it is a high C-flat, played fortissimo by all of the violins, and held for more than two measures.

To play a note so loud and long, the violins must use the whole length of the bow several times, as Mahler indicates in the score. They generally also try to stagger their changes of bow direction to keep the note from sounding like several short notes in a row. Furthermore, with this much pressure on the bow, the  bow change creates a brief crunching, scuffing noise as the hairs grind against the string. This, of course, happens anytime a violinist plays loudly, but we are normally not consciously aware of it, simply perceiving it as a component of “the sound of a violin playing loudly.”

As the intense C-flat stretched on and on, I became increasingly aware of this chorus of bow noises as one violinist after another reversed direction. Surprisingly, the note itself seemed to recede from my perception as I concentrated more and more on the noises. Instead of the note being foreground and the noise being background, the sound flipped inside-out so that the noise was foreground and the note background. By the end, I could almost imagine myself surrounded by a deep silence, broken only by the chorus of little scuffs, even though I knew I was in fact listening to twenty-odd violinists sawing away at full blast. The only other listening experience I’ve had anything like it is listening to the combination tones that arise from an intense sound of rapidly oscillating pitch in a resonant hall, such as a soprano singing a high note, a clarinet playing a rapid tremolo, or (most remarkably) a marimba sustaining closely spaced chords.

This curious experience suggested to me several principles about musical listening. First, music conveys information to us by the very act of changing or evolving over time. If a sound were completely static, we would cease to notice it after a while. Our consciousness quickly gravitates toward any new stimulus and thus away from an ongoing, unchanging stimulus. When we listen to a new piece, everything seems unfamiliar and thus clamors for our concentration. If the piece contains too much musical information, the effect can be overwhelming on the listener. However, once we become used to the sounds we are hearing, we begin to notice more subtle variations or changes within them and soon forget how bold and brash they seemed before. Thus, I was only able to pay attention to the bow changes when the note C-flat had sounded for so long that it ceased to register as a new stimulus to my hearing.

Second, careful listening makes you aware of components of the sound you don’t normally notice, and careful composers can help listeners become aware of components of the sound they don’t normally notice. This can be as radical as, in my case, listening to the production noise while ignoring the subsequent note, executing a sort of figure-ground reversal, but it can be much more subtle as well. In keeping with the previous principle, composers must also be careful not to include so many musical events in their work that listeners are never able to attend to all the incoming stimuli being thrown at them and thus never attain this level of hearing. Sometimes a long note—or a long silence—can work wonders to help the ear process what it has just heard and focus its concentration on what comes next.

Finally, it takes a long time to reach this state of awareness. With the vast array of stimuli around us, it is hard to devote our attention solely to what we’re experiencing in the present moment. Even when we do listen, it is usually not at this intimate level of detail, and it’s not possible to simply flip a switch and instantly become attuned to the nuances of a sound. Instead, we have to gradually soak deeper into the sound and let our inner ears open wider, like a fern unfurling its fronds. Indeed, I spent much of the first movement of the Mahler distracted by something that had happened on the way to the concert.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this magical moment struck me only after more than an hour of concentrating on the music. I think this is also why, when the final strains of music faded away and the audience waited for an incredibly drawn-out half-minute before anyone dared applaud, the silence seemed the sweetest sound I’d heard all day.