by Nathan Cornelius
In one of my favorite books on music, Harald Krebs’ Fantasy Pieces, the composers Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro meet at a café to talk music. Each orders a coffee and a slice of Schwarzwalderkirschtorte and proceeds to offer a brilliantly perspicacious analysis of each other’s works. When Chiarina tells them to go home, one of them pays the bill and is surprised to find the total comes to exactly one-third of what he had calculated. Of course, Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro are all pseudonyms of one composer, Robert Schumann, representing different sides of his musical personality. As the book progresses, Schumann’s alter-egos become increasingly disjointed and their discussions increasingly far-fetched, discussing music written several decades after their lifetime. Eventually, even Chiarina (Robert’s wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann) becomes unable to keep them under control, and the book ends with Florestan and Eusebius in Dr. Richarz’s insane asylum, composing versified modernist music analyses whose form mirrors their content.
While Krebs’ book is overall a whimsical send-up of Schumann’s own literary conceits, it also raises some substantial psychological questions. We know for a fact that Schumann did ascribe different sections of his compositions to the pseudonyms Florestan and Eusebius and that his mental health deteriorated in the latter years of his life. It is just conceivable that he might have had what would now be called multiple personality disorder. Perhaps at some point his sense of multiple identities went from just a literary device he occasionally used to an inescapable presence in his life.
When I was a graduate student in composition, my mentors would tell me that school was a good time to branch out and explore many potential styles of writing to see which ones suited me the best. But by the time I became a professional composer, they said, I would have found “my own voice,” a personal style I could call my own. The goal of this process of stylistic exploration was assumed to be the cultivation of a deep and distinctive musical personality which would uniquely mark my work. My teachers often spoke of creating a unified “sound world” for each piece and eventually from one piece to the next, once I had only decided on a direction in which to go.
For my part, I struggled to follow this advice, careening from neo-romanticism to post-serialism to spectralism and back within just two years as a composition major. Whatever direction I pursued in one piece, I would run off and do something completely different in the next. I rationalized my utter lack of continuity as a composer by appealing to my freedom as a student to try different things and see what worked. But deeper down, my aspirations really were somewhat unsettled.
Finally, one of my teachers asked me a simple question that I had never thought to consider: “What kind of music do you actually want to write?” After some reflection on this, two things became clear. First, I had a particular affinity for two very different kinds of music: one sensuous, passionate and sympathetic to tradition, and the other noisy, provocative, and unflinchingly innovative. You might say I have a bit of Florestan and Eusebius inside myself. Second, I was also fascinated with a dialectic between two strongly contrasting kinds of music in uncomfortably close proximity to each other. I remembered my excitement when I first discovered works such as Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 or Penderecki’s Symphony No. 2, which alternate between biting dissonance and soothing consonance in a single movement.
The problem with both of these interests is that they violate my teachers’ ideal of a unified compositional voice, almost like intentional musical schizophrenia. Is it even possible for a composer to develop a coherent and persuasive voice in two opposing styles at once? You can’t hike up both sides of a mountain at the same time. Even Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius differed primarily in emotional affect, not in technique or style, both being emotionally Romantic yet rhythmically and harmonically adventurous. Trying to write both neo-tonal and spectralist music at the same time is a different enterprise altogether.
Yet the state of the music world is also very different today than it was in Schumann’s time. In the past century, all of the Western fine art traditions have become deeply fragmented. No matter how much stylistic unity and economy any one piece or oeuvre may have, you cannot count on any common context within which listeners will perceive it, the way Schumann’s contemporaries would have understood his music in relation to Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. As Chaya Czernowin puts it, every piece written today has to first teach its listeners how to understand it in order to actually be understood. While Czernowin prefers to construct her self-defining musical forms in a minimalistic language—and does so with great subtlety and skill—a study in radical contrasts could come across to listeners even more readily. In this autonomous, anything-goes environment, adherence to any existing compositional tradition no longer provides a significant boost in comprehensibility.
If anything, juxtaposing utterly alien musical characters in the same piece affords the composer a broader expressive palette from which to paint the outlines of a musical form. As soon as a dialectic between opposing kinds of music (tonal/atonal, loud/soft, pure/noisy, etc.) is established, listeners are immediately aware of the symbolic grammar of the piece, even if they may not yet know what the various symbols stand for. By manipulating these musical characters over the course of the piece, the composer performs operations akin to those of symbolic logic, creating a network of meaningful relations which may be understood either in the abstract or as metaphor.
So far this year, I’ve written two main pieces, one of which included my best impersonation of a 19th-century rondo-scherzo and another that started with almost 5 minutes of aleatoric noise. It feels like giving one side of my creative personality an outlet allows me to concentrate on developing the other side for a while without being constantly tempted to look the other way. Still, pursuing two divergent goals at once, whether in the same piece or alternately in different pieces, is risky business. While you may not end up as an insane genius like Schumann, many lesser creators have surely faded into obscurity as the contrasting facets of their work ultimately canceled each other out. But, if realized with conviction and skill, this method of working can potentially offer a powerful tool for communicating within an increasingly fragmented artworld.