Composers: Selfish, Subversive, or Socialistic (or Plagiarist)

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In a previous post, I distinguished between the qualities needed to be a good composer versus a great one. “Good” composers, as I defined them, not only have the technical ability to write music but also are able to launch their music out into the world and connect it to listeners. They must have the dedication and doggedness to stick with a project they believe in through the inevitable adversity and criticism. They also have the personal charisma and persuasion to get other people excited enough about their music to want to put on a performance, as well as the organizational abilities to make sure the production runs smoothly. Lastly, there has to be the vision and initiative to create new platforms and opportunities to present music, lest traditional venues never open up.

But this post isn’t about how composers can make their music succeed. It isn’t necessarily even about music. It’s about the role—the responsibility, even—of artists in society, and the choice of various ends to which they can apply these so-called career skills. And it’s about the transformation that has occurred in my own imagination as I’ve realized that my vision of how I’d use what I learned in my composition degree was painfully small and narrow.

So imagine, if you will, a composer who is quintessentially “good,” having all the tools to ensure her music gets heard. This composer capitalizes on her abilities to promote her music and succeeds in presenting it to a wide audience. She builds a portfolio, organizes a concert, advertises on social media, speaks brilliantly about her work, maybe even records an album. You might call this exemplar of industrious self-promotion, following the path of countless figures from music history, the selfish composer. There is potentially negative connotation here: whether the composer consciously intends it or not, there is always the potential for a bit of a personality cult, since the music’s popularity is, to an extent, based on the reputation of the composer herself, symbolized by glamorous headshots, glowing reviews, and pithy artist statements. If her music is good, presumably audiences will enjoy it and appreciate her effort, although it may not transform their lives unless it is also “great” (in the sense of my earlier post).

Now consider another composer who takes all the same actions to present her music to the public, but with one difference: she writes under a pseudonym and champions her work disguised as someone else’s. This evasion of the culturally embedded link between an artistic creation and the identity of the creator makes this artist a bit of a subversive composer. The subversive composer works just as hard as the self-promoting one—after all, she still has the same natural interest in seeing her music succeed—but forgoes receiving any of the credit. Her portrait does not grace the album cover of the recording, and the performers do not acknowledge her from the stage by shading their eyes from the floodlights. However, if the music is, like Romeo’s rose, just as beautiful regardless of the name attached to it, both the selfish and subsersive composers will make a comparable contribution to the artworld. While the audience might miss having a living, breathing connection to the genesis of the music in front of them, they may also be able to perceive the work more clearly without the distraction of the composer’s personality popping up before their eyes.

(Composers might have various motivations for writing pseudonymously. German guitarist Tilman Hoppstock recently attributed some of his compositions, written in Romantic style, to the nonexistent 19th-century composers Franz Werthmüller and Allan Willcocks, believing no one would take his music seriously if they knew it was a 21st-century anachronism. Eventually, the ruse came to light when he attempted to publish biographical articles of his alter-egos in scholarly journals, drawing sharp criticism that he had crossed a line of academic integrity. On a smaller scale, I know a composer who contemplated having an ensemble he played in read his latest piece with his name removed so that he could simply hear his colleagues’ honest, unfiltered reaction to his work.)

But if composers can do just as much good for the artworld with or without their name attached to their work, why need they limit themselves to disseminating work that actually is their own? A good composer would also be capable of advocating for worthy works by other composers who are unable to promote it themselves. (For instance, the original composer may be dead, or convinced their music is awful and doesn’t deserve to be heard, or simply lacking the administrative skills to organize a successful performance.) A composer could choose to leverage her marketing and persuasive abilities to benefit society by bringing listeners the best music possible, irrespective of who wrote it. Rather than seeking to maximize her individual investment of effort in her own product, this almost socialistic composer shares her talents for the common good. If she has the dedication and selflessness to advocate for others’ music just as passionately as their own, the results can be equally powerful—or even more so, if she finds a previously undiscovered “great” composer to champion and bring to light. And if I, as a composer, find myself unable to speak as wholeheartedly on behalf of others as I do for myself (assuming our work is of comparable quality), then maybe it’s time to take a look at my motives for engaging in this business in the first place.

To put it neatly, the selfish composer promotes her own work as her own, the subversive composer promotes her own work as if it were another’s, and the socialistic composer promotes someone else’s work as someone else’s. The fourth option in this logical matrix would essentially be plagiarism—promoting someone else’s work as your own. While, thankfully, I don’t know of any composers with the audacity to attempt this, I would reiterate that the benefit accrued to society from a great artwork is (or should be) independent of the name attached to it. Of course, the effects of a legal battle between composers over authorship of a work would certainly be deleterious to the artworld!

What this thought experiment taught me, then, is that an artist’s mission is not ultimately to promote their own work, but rather to benefit their communities they inhabit. These communities include both other artists seeking an arena to share their musical talents and the art-loving neighbors who come to enjoy their creations. The composer, thanks to her musical talent and professional training, has the resources to invest in, enrich, and expand these circles of musicians and music lovers for the greater good of the community, whether “professional” musicians or “amateur” audiences.

One contemporary artist who embodies this vision is Claire Chase, founder of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a flexible, iconoclastic, and brilliant ensemble based in Chicago and New York. I recently had the privilege of listening to her talk as she described her work with ICE in terms of integrating artistic, educational, and social innovation. She says her primary motivation for starting ICE, now a multimillion-dollar organization, was just to provide a venue in which her musical friends could share their unique contributions: “It was never my intention to make a living from it. I wanted very much to do what I loved, and I also wanted for the people that I loved to be able to do what they loved. The living part came later.” May such a magnanimous attitude towards our talents, both musical and entrepreneurial, pervade us all.

Claude Vivier, Lonely Child

by Nathan Cornelius

The history of Western music has largely been defined by methods of combining contrasting voices, with distinct rhythms and melodies, into a harmonious whole. From medieval motets to Renaissance counterpoint to Baroque fugue, all the way up to 20th-century “micropolyphony,” composers have developed intricate systems of composition and notation to regulate this complex relationship of parts. However, Canadian composer Claude Vivier negates the central thrust of this 800-year tradition in his masterpiece Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra.

Lonely Child was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1980. Vivier never heard the piece performed live, as he moved to France the following year and, tragically, was murdered in Paris in 1983. The text by Vivier himself, alternating between French and an imaginary nonsense language, is a lullaby comforting a sad child with fantastic visions of fairies, magicians, and stars. Vivier grew up in an orphanage and never knew his biological parents, and the text is often considered a depiction of his own childhood.

After an introduction featuring a sparse string melody interrupted by strokes on the bass drum and rin (a Japanese percussion instrument vaguely resembling a gong), the soprano enters with the text, accompanied by sustained notes from the full orchestra, moving in exact rhythmic unison with the voice. However, the texture continues to be sparse, as nearly all the instruments are concentrated on either the soprano note or one other lower part (which takes the place, if not the function, of a bass line). The lone exception is the first violins, who softly play hazy clusters in a very high register, appearing like a glassy sheen on the soprano’s vocal timbre.

In fact, these violin notes, as Bob Gilmore has shown, bear a precise mathematical relationship to the two principal voices.[1] Vivier generates them by repeatedly adding the frequency of the “bass” note to that of the soprano, as if they originated from electronic interference between the two notes. For example, the soprano’s first note is A440 (the A above middle C, having a frequency of 440 Hz), while the lower voice plays the G just over an octave lower (196 Hz). The violin notes above this approximately frequencies of 636, 832, 1028, 1224, and 1420 Hz (440 + 196 + 196 +196 +196 +196), forming a dense stack of notes. Played by itself, this cluster would sound noticeably out-of-tune, but in this context it blends seamlessly into the two lower notes. Vivier creates similar harmonies above each pair of soprano and bass notes for the entire melody, as it gradually ascends higher and higher.

With this innovative and boldly simple structure, Vivier has done away with the traditional musical elements of harmony and texture and absorbed them into a single element: timbre. (Timbre is often referred to in layman’s terms as “tone color,” and Vivier himself called these chords les couleurs.) The texture is such an extreme of homophony that it ceases to be noticeable as a texture at all. Meanwhile, the piece does not have harmony in the traditional sense, since there are only two main notes sounding at a time, but each simultaneity has a unique overlay of violin notes that impart to it a distinctive color. As a result, the dominant perceptual element of the piece is a series of shifting timbres generated by the relationship between the melody and its supporting voice.

Although Vivier is mentioned far less than his friends Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail as an influence on the “spectralist” movement in 20th-century music, works like Lonely Child come as close as any to fulfilling the ideals of the movement. The spectralist composers conceived of music along a set of continua, such as pitch to rhythm, or harmony to timbre, and sought to show how these apparently distinct musical elements were actually two forms of the same entity, in a sort of musical theory of relativity. Vivier’s Lonely Child is a nobly elegant embodiment of that idea, but more than that, a deeply poignant and sensuously beautiful work of art.

[1] Bob Gilmore, “On Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child,” Tempo 61 (239), 2-17.