A Night at the Orchestra with Hegel and Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse

As I took my customary seat in the local symphony hall at my customary time of 7:58pm Friday evening, I noticed something seemed a bit different about the audience this time: It was younger. And I don’t just mean the 20- and 30-somethings such as myself whom the orchestra was trying so hard to attract with student discounts and themed after-parties, although two such people were sitting directly behind me and two more directly in front of me. But the first two audience members to my right were middle-school kids, and to the left were a woman and her son, who looked to be just seven or eight years old.

Glancing at the program, I realized why parents might have picked this night to bring their children to the symphony. The concert opener was Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, famous as a segment from the classic Disney movie Fantasia starring Mickey Mouse as the title character who conjures a magic broom to mop the floor for him. I remembered this piece mostly as the subject of a bizarrely pedantic dispute between two scholars I had to read in a music theory seminar over whether the presence—or lack thereof—of a complete tonic chord at the end of the piece implied an authorial voice narrating the action of the story.

But not surprisingly, it seemed that the concertgoers around me had very different associations with it. As soon as the first downbeat unleashed the ethereal chords representing the magic spell, the young boy to the left began talking excitedly to his mother, although thankfully softly enough to only be audible during the quiet moments in the music. At one point, I think I heard him squeal, “Is this the part where they fight?” (I’ve only watched the Fantasia short once—because of that same class—but I don’t remember any fighting in it…)

But it wasn’t just the kids who were enjoying Mickey’s music. The young woman in front of me seemed to be squirming with delight as she rocked back and forth in time with the magic broom’s comically grotesque melody. Perhaps she had grown up watching the cartoon too. I began to wonder whether Walt Disney had really succeeded in his attempt at bringing classical music into popular culture while actually making money in the process. The remaining pieces on the program—Chausson’s Poéme, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka—were all based on dramatic or narrative subtexts too and kept the audience well engaged, if not enthralled (although the young boy seemed to max out his attention span after about 15 minutes of Stravinsky). But, I wondered, how many of these people would have bought tickets to the symphony had The Sorcerer’s Apprentice not opened the program?

For a seminar I’m taking in aesthetics, I recently read an essay by the Enlightenment philosopher G. W. F. Hegel bearing the ungainly title “The Oldest System-Program of German Idealism.”[1] Hegel laments the difficulty of closing the gap between “enlightened” thinkers and the “unenlightened” masses. This gap, he says, manifests itself in religion (as reason versus faith), in art (as what we call the highbrow-versus-lowbrow divide), and in philosophy (as the difference between what Hegel sees as authentic philosophy and popular “mythology”). He then proposes

an idea which, as far as I know, has not occurred to anyone—we need a new mythology. However, this mythology must be at the service of the ideas; it must become a mythology of reason. Until we render the ideas aesthetic, that is, mythological, they will not be of any interest to the populace. … Mythology must become philosophical in order to make the people reasonable, and philosophy must turn mythological in order to make the philosophers sensuous. Then there prevails eternal unity among us![2]

Thus, Hegel wants to enlist the arts as a medium for his “program” of unifying humanity under enlightened ideas. He envisions them as not only a sort of marketing ploy to interest ordinary people in philosophy, but also a way of drawing the philosophers down from their rarefied abstract contemplations into the “sensuous” world inhabited by ordinary people. Out of the great cultural triad of art, religion, and philosophy, Hegel is obviously most concerned with advocating for the latter. But many artists of a religious persuasion would express a similar sentiment: art can not only be a means of embodying spiritual truths in a way that is relatable to embodied humans, but also of ensuring that spiritual people continue to enjoy the physical creation rather than all becoming ascetic hermits.

What Fantasia seems to have done, then, is to complete the triad, using art-as-mythology to further the cause of art-as-philosophy. It could be considered an attempt to convey supposedly higher-level values in simple, vivid images understandable to ordinary people, which Hegel calls “mythology,” although we might also speak of popular science, pop spirituality, or pop psychology alongside folktale and myth. But Disney has literally imported “mythological” characters in cartoon form into works of classical music, in hopes of achieving a rapprochement between, perhaps even a synthesis of, the two. Since the split of classical and popular music culture a century or so ago, numerous music organizations have attempted similar projects, with mixed results (as my local symphony can attest).

But ultimately, the goal is not merely tricking listeners into discovering art music with the promise of familiar movie themes. It’s equally about reminding jaded graduate students that good music can be enjoyed on a simple level too, just like a silly cartoon—without worrying about such minutiae as whether there’s a C in the last chord.

For the record, though, there isn’t.

[1] The essay is technically anonymous, and some scholars believe it to be the work of one of Hegel’s colleagues, such as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, or a collaboration between Hegel, Hölderlin, and F. W. J. Schelling.

[2] Thomas Pfau, trans., Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and letters on theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 155-156.

The Artist’s Simple* Guide to Choosing a Career (*actually, not)

chansonnier de zeghere van male 3

I recently finished reading Alex Ross’ book The Rest is Noise, “a history of the 20th century through its music,” as the jacket puts it. I grew up well-acquainted with classical music of the 18th– and 19th-century variety (my parents owned a 10-disc set called “The Top 100 Masterpieces of Classical Music, 1685-1928”) but I didn’t really discover the 20th century until I ran across a composer named George Crumb my senior year of college and then spent the next few years breathlessly trying to catch up to the present day in classical music while simultaneously completing multiple graduate degrees. So I appreciated Ross’ weaving the various strands of 20th-century music into one sweeping narrative, which gave me a new perspective on the traditions to which the current generation’s composers are heirs.

Reading Ross’ accounts of composers’ personal and philosophical motivations made me reevaluate the fundamental reasons why I make new music. I realized that we as artists have a choice about who we write for. I use “write” simply because it describes my work as a composer, but the same choices apply to creators in any medium with substitution of the appropriate verb. These choices, in turn, fundamentally determine what sort of music, words, pictures, or performances, etc. we create.

First, an artist must choose whether to make art for his or her self, or for others. For writers in the performing arts, the “others” they must consider are both audiences and performers. This is not, however, to draw a distinction between work that appeals to performers and to audiences; in practice, they are the same. A strong performer who truly resonates with what they perform will almost inevitably share that experience with those who listen. Thus, the composer shares their work first with a small group of performers, and then through them with a larger audience.

Writing either for oneself or for others requires another choice between three alternatives, which manifest in slightly different ways. If you write for yourself, it could be for self-expression (releasing heartache, joy, wonder, or angst pent up inside you), self-discovery (learning about yourself and crystallizing your unique abilities more clearly), or research (discovering new possibilities in the world outside yourself). Similarly, if you write for others, it could be for entertainment (allowing them to vicariously release their own joy, angst or whatever through your own work), catharsis (helping lead them towards revelations that catalyze personal healing and growth), or mind-stretching (enlarging their sense of being by making them aware of new ways of being in the world).

In either case, the first option consists of giving either yourself or others what you know you want, whether expression or gratification. The second is to give yourself or others what you may unconsciously want but are afraid to admit, finding a transcendent solution to problems that have haunted you but which you have been unable to articulate. The third option in each case, however, is supposedly detached and disinterested, satisfying no need, fulfilling no desire other than pure intellectual curiosity.

A self-motivated artist must be indifferent to the possibility of having a career. Such artists may in fact have successful careers if their motivation dovetails with audiences’ demand, but this is purely coincidental. Charles Ives made his living selling insurance by day and composing at night because he knew (and didn’t care) that no one would buy his work.  In recent generations, academia, with its promise of tenure, has provided refuge to numerous such composers, freeing them to pursue their own work without needing to please the masses. However, achieving a tenured position typically requires one to first write to please others in a very superficial way: catering to the tastes of one’s professional references and committee members, a burden from under whose weight some artists’ creative spirit never rebounds.

I’ve always believed that having an other-centered motivation makes more sense for an artist, both idealistically and practically—idealistically, because it is hard to justify one’s vocation on purely internal grounds, without benefiting the world somehow, and practically, because writing for others greatly increases the chance of receiving some form of compensation for one’s work. Which level your motivation aims at—whether you aspire to create entertainment, catharsis, or mind-stretching—determines the size of your potential audience and therefore the feasibility of having a good career.

People are only going to pay for something they feel they need, and only a few people feel a palpable need for intellectual stimulation (again, being in academia likely distorts one’s perception of the size of this group). However, many, if not most, people do want entertainment, even emotional support, and are willing to pay for it (sadly, in modern society, we often pay for the mere illusion of it). Of course, it is still up to you as the artist to introduce yourself to your potential audience, but maximizing your exposure won’t do you nearly as much good if there are only a dozen people in the world who could be interested in what you create.

In addition, the kind of other-centered motivation you choose determines the range of styles in which you can write. Consumers of entertainment are looking for a known quantity; your local symphony orchestra plays the “Emperor” Concerto every year not because patrons are wondering what it sounds like, but precisely because they already know, and they know they like it. Art music and entertainment music do not have to occupy separate worlds, but the composer has to stay firmly within the styles most people are familiar with in order to do both. If you are writing for catharsis, you can push people out of their comfort zones a little, so long as you bring them back to a comprehensible place by the end. A true experimentalist spirit justifies your work solely for stretching performers’ bodies, listeners’ ears, and everyone’s minds; in that case, the more radical the style, the better.

In trying to become a composer as I was inhabiting the world of higher education, I was taught to assume a hierarchy among these goals. Naturally, most academics, having the security to pursue self-expression, prized that set of motives above those that reached out to hoi polloi of the outside world. Within each triad, entertainment, the bread and circuses of the masses, ranked the lowest, as did self-expression, a naïvely Romantic concept. Slightly better was trying to improve the uncultured masses through catharsis, or oneself through personal growth and self-knowledge. But the loftiest motivation for all creative work, as in all the other departments of the university, was surely research—finding out new sounds purely for the thrill of discovery. If you could get people to sit through the results of your experimentation, so much the better; the greatest service we could do for our audiences was to stretch their minds.

But after contemplating Ross’s history, I realized that even I, as a (hopefully) lifelong academic, don’t actually live according to such principles. I listen to a fair amount of 20th– and 21st-century music in a conscious effort to stretch my mind and my ears, but I’m not doing it so much for pleasure as out of duty: as an aspiring professional, I feel I ought to be aware of the latest developments in my field. But in those times when I need the comfort of music to help me get through the difficulties of life, I don’t turn to ultra-modern music, even though I live with it constantly in my professional work. (I eat spinach every day, too, but I still don’t consider it comfort food.) I listen to what I’m thoroughly comfortable with, to music I’ve heard dozens of times before which holds no surprises for me. (This may be partly because I tend to strongly associate any piece of music with the circumstances in which I first heard it. Thus, I’ve found it’s dangerous to listen to new pieces of music during difficult life experiences, because if it turns out to be worth listening to again, it will forever be linked to bad memories in my mind.)

All this is to say, I now believe those academic-composer voices may have been wrong: for me at least, research is not the goal of art. I would be much more satisfied to know I created something that another person might want to listen to again and again, drawing comfort and happiness from it repeatedly over the course of their life. But this is no excuse to just write sappy, unadventurous music. Instead, it is a call to pursue the tension between stretching listeners’ ears to enlarge the range of pieces that can have a cathartic, comforting effect for them, and writing music that inhabits that sweet spot, giving them time to actually enjoy it. It’s a challenging paradox to balance, but anything less is short-sells both my art and my fellow humans.

Mazes, Traveling Salesmen, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity: Stephen Goss, Labyrinth

Labyrinth, by British composer Stephen Goss, was commissioned by the Guitar Foundation of America for their 2016 International Concert Artist Competition, where it received some outstanding performances, particularly by competition winner Xavier Jara and runner-up Andrea De Vitis. Dedicated to the memory of Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, Labyrinth takes inspiration from Eco’s book From the Tree to the Labyrinth. Eco contrasts the images of the dictionary or “tree of knowledge,” which organizes the world into a finite, closed loop of connections that can be exhaustively known, and the encyclopedia or “labyrinth” of knowledge, which allows for practically infinite ways of connecting the dots to find order in the world.

Goss sees this distinction as parallel to the difference between a classical labyrinth (traditionally found on the floor of a cathedral), consisting entirely of “a single path from the mouth to the goal,” and a maze, “which gives the traveler choices for the route, some of which lead to dead ends.” An even better metaphor, he suggests, might be a network of points “in which every point can be connected to any other point.” This suggests the classic computational problem of the traveling salesman, who seeks to find the shortest route that visits each of a certain list of cities.

France, Eure et Loir, Chartres, Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Labyrinth of the Cathedral

Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral, France

Thus, Labyrinth is constructed in a series of 13 short fragments, played without pause. These may be literal quotations, clever reworkings, or outright forgeries of works from various periods of music history. Goss specifies which fragments should be played first and last, but instructs the performer to play the remaining fragments in a different order every time, without omitting any. This instance of mobile form (that is, the piece has no determinate order of sections) presents two related challenges to the performer: one practical and one aesthetic.

The practical problem is one of memory. For many musicians, playing confidently from memory is one of the greatest hurdles they have overcome in their training, and they feel a certain pride in being able to play an entire piece, start to finish, without the score. The problem with a work like Labyrinth is that it must not be played start to finish. Nor, if you take Goss’s instructions literally, can it be played in any of the orders one has previously used. No need to worry about running out of possible orders, though: there are 11!, or approximately 40 million, possible permutations!

Instead, the challenge in playing the fragments in a non-linear fashion is to remember not only which fragments one has already played in that performance but also which orders one has followed in previous performances. When Labyrinth was the set piece for the GFA International Concert Artist Competition, the judges employed someone to mark each contestant’s ordering of the sections to ensure no one played in the same way in different rounds of the competition. Some of the contestants I spoke to solved this problem by dividing the fragments into three or four chunks of fragments which always occurred consecutively, so that they only had to remember which chunks they had already played.

In my opinion, this solution follows the letter but not the spirit of Goss’s instructions. One of the beauties of mobile form is its potential for improvisation, the ability to choose in the moment what you will play next. Therefore, as I practiced this piece, I decided to also practice making up the order on the fly. To be sure, this comes at the cost of a less-than-perfectly-smooth transition now and then, but I think the marvelous freedom it affords is worth the price. I think of it like a maze, where each junction requires a choice: sometimes the choice can be made decisively, but other times there will be a slight hesitation, and that’s okay.

Whether the performer plans the order of sections in advance or decides it spontaneously, they will then have to confront the aesthetic problem of performing Labyrinth: how to decide which sections should follow one another. One approach would be to do so randomly or by some statistical process: one could roll dice to determine the order, play every other (or every third, etc.) segment all the way through, follow reverse alphabetical order of the fictional composers’ last names, and so on. However, such a mechanical approach seems lacking in artistry. For me, some segments will naturally follow each order in a more aesthetically pleasing way, especially if they are tonally related or have pitches in common.

In other words, the performer of Labyrinth is obliged to execute a sort of real-world traveling-salesman problem, determining which fragments lie “closest” together in musical space and constructing a route that connects them all in an efficient—and elegant—manner. This process could very truly be described as playful, even competitive. I remember visiting the Human Maze in Winter Park, Colorado as a child and trying to find my way to the stations with the letters M, A, Z, and E to stamp my passport and get out of the maze. At the age of four, I was only able to complete this quest after several trips up the lookout tower in the middle of the maze and a good deal of help from my father. Meanwhile, older children and adults would dash past me, trying to complete the maze in record time. (Two decades later, I read that the creator of that maze started a successful business franchising his setup to other amusement parks and resorts throughout the country.)

Winter Park Amaze'n Maze

Human maze, Winter Park, Colorado

However, you cannot simply calculate the ideal ordering of fragments in Labyrinth in advance and then play that. More specifically, you can never prove that you have found the ideal order, according to your aesthetic tastes or anyone else’s. Remember, once the number of points gets large enough, the actual traveling-salesman problem can only be solved by a computer large enough to pass for a minor planet. Various algorithms can generate reasonably good paths, but it is extremely difficult to prove that no shorter path exists. In particular, so-called “greedy” algorithms, which operate by simply traveling to the nearest unvisited point to one’s current location, tend to fare poorly in finding an optimal solution, since they run the risk of having the last two or three unvisited points be widely separated from each other. Similarly, it would be easy in Labyrinth to get stuck with only one or two segments left to play which didn’t pair well with each or with the ending.


Visualization of the traveling salesman problem

My personal solution to performing Labyrinth was to envision each fragment as a point in a network, with paths connecting each pair of points, but with some paths weighted more heavily than others according to their efficiency. (In computational theory, this is apparently known as an “ant-colony” algorithm.) That is, I will tend to choose certain transitions more often which I think flow more smoothly. These weights may be stronger for certain pairs of segments than others, but in every case, but I will allow myself to choose even “awkward” transitions a small percentage of the time. For example, I particularly liked following up the “Scherzo” segment with “Contrapunctus,” both because of their common pitch B-flat and because of the musical humor of following a quote from a witty scherzo by Beethoven with one from J. S. Bach’s incredibly serious Art of Fugue. I thought of making a rule that these two segments would always appear next to each other in my performances of Labyrinth, but the few times I allowed myself to break this rule, I always seemed to come up with an especially intriguing order! One of my solutions is recorded at this link.

Chartres Labyrinth Outdoor

Garden labyrinth behind Chartres Cathedral, France

Classical performers in the Western tradition are trained to learn pieces of music linearly and by exact repetition. Everything is scripted and rehearsed, thought out beforehand; non-linear, spontaneous, or improvisatory performance feels strange and uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if this dynamic carries over into my life outside of music as well; I often find myself rehearsing what I will say in various social situations beforehand so I can put on a polished show when the time comes. Learning and performing Labyrinth has led me to explore an alternative mode of performing—even a mode of being—which I have found incredibly freeing and stretching. Having a flexible repertoire of responses which I can draw from at will, leaning more on tried-and-true favorites if necessary but mixing in new ventures as well, feels empowering, both in music and in life.

Music of Truth and Reconciliation? Christos Hatzis, Going Home Star

Many musicians today are pondering how they as artists can respond to injustice and violence in the world. Does the very act of creating beauty somehow counteract the destructive effects experienced by those who suffer? Or is it possible for a work of art to actively promote healing and restoration while still remaining a work of art rather than a statement of political activism? And is it possible for musicians to support this work of reconciliation in their music if they have to identify with the perpetrators of the injustice? Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis engages compassionately and provocatively with these questions in his haunting ballet, Going Home Star.

(A brief video trailer for the ballet is included above, as an example of the staged production. The complete soundtrack has been released on the Centrediscs label and is available through streaming sites such as Naxos Music Library and YouTube.)


Going Home Star was commissioned by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Canadian government and First Nations (the accepted Canadian term equivalent to “Native American” in the US) leaders agreed to set up the commission to document the abuses of First Nations peoples under the country’s residential school system. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, all aboriginal and Inuit children were required to attend church-run, government-funded boarding schools intended to assimilate them into Western culture, language, and religion. Aside from the alienation and emotional trauma inflicted on families as a result of this forced separation, in many cases children at the schools were physically or sexually abused by the clergy who were supposedly teaching them. Prior to coming across Hatzis’ ballet, I had been completely unaware of this dark chapter in the history of my northern neighbors. Hearing and reading the story made me not only want to know more about it, but to care more too.

And the story of the ballet does in fact draw audiences to care about the atrocities of the residential schools by presenting two individuals who have been wounded by it. Annie and Gordon, two young First Nations people, are struggling to find their way in urban Canada after going through the residential school system as children. While Annie works in a hair salon by day and escapes to partying and drugs at night, Gordon lives as a homeless person on the streets. As Hatzis describes it[1], Annie is “trying to make it in the white world… It is only as she’s failing in that kind of life because she’s being discriminated [against] that she realizes she’s not who she’s trying to be, and she begins to discover all her own hurts hiding all along inside her from the residential school experience.” After Annie and Gordon meet and fall in love, they begin the painful process of confronting, even reliving, the memories of their past in order to reclaim their cultural and personal identity and work towards some measure of healing.

For Hatzis, writing the music for Going Home Star posed both artistic and personal problems. In creating a dramatic work, Hatzis aims to inhabit the persona of his characters, feel what they feel, and let the music flow from that experience. Naturally, for a subject fraught with such a dark and disturbing background, this experience proved emotionally draining over the course of the writing process. Furthermore, Hatzis was forced to confront the tension between the core spirituality of the characters and their story and that of his own life and work. With roots in the Byzantine church, Hatzis describes himself as a non-denominational Christian, and many of his works deal with spiritual or mystical themes from the Christian tradition. Yet he recognizes that the atrocities of the residential school system were perpetrated directly by various Christian denominations who tried to impose their religion on the First Nations people, and Annie and Gordon’s process of healing comes from growing back into their distinctive Native American spirituality. Thus, Hatzis confesses, “In some ways, the things that I believe in have become a source of pain for the people whose story I am trying to tell… My catharsis, my salvation, was [in asking], how honestly can I tell their story, even if mine can be placed in a very dark light? It has been a challenge for my own faith, for sure. I don’t think your faith is any good if you don’t challenge it: if it survives the challenge, then it’s real; if it doesn’t, then it’s not.”

While Hatzis faced this spiritual tension between his subject matter and his personal beliefs with remarkable openness and authenticity, the project itself posed the real danger of cultural imperialism, as he was tasked with “telling a Native story in the most non-Native kind of way: a ballet, which was invented in the court of Louis XIV.” It would be easy, given the circumstances of the commission, to co-opt the Native story by repackaging it in a Western genre, thereby predisposing the audience to view it through a Eurocentric cultural lens rather than on its own terms. His solution was to adopt a postmodern approach and rely on collage, irony, and parody to critique Western cultural standards, bringing them down from their assumed normative status to an equal footing with the First Nations culture.

To accomplish this, Hatzis deploys a dizzying array of musical and sonic materials. Native traditions are represented by several astonishing passages of katajjaq (Inuit throat singing, traditionally done in competition with a partner but here performed in a solo version by the remarkable vocalist Tanya Tagaq, who has forged a distinctive career as a solo katajjaq artist), several authentic First Nations songs and chants (as sung by Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers), and spoken accounts of survivors of the residential school system (narrated with beautiful simplicity by Wood and Tagaq). Modern Anglo-Canadian culture is strongly present as well, running the gamut from lowbrow (tango and dubstep) to highbrow (quotations from famous ballets like The Rite of Spring and Swan Lake, as well as something that can perhaps be best described as “Anglo-American classical lite”—imagine a Canadian remake of Appalachian Spring). Meanwhile, several distorted versions of the famous “Old Hundredth” hymn tune (known to many modern Christians as “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”) and some original music from the court of Louis XIV (a pompous march by Lully, also distorted in various ways) suggest the colonialism of the early white settlers and the priests that followed. Finally, the electronics track accompanying the live score includes a diverse collection of musique concrète sounds, from trains passing, church bells, northern birds, and flames burning, to human screams, gasps, and giggles.

By placing Native American, Anglo-American, European and purely natural sounds as equal components within this gigantic sonic collage, Hatzis raises the question in listeners’ minds as to what cultural mindset they will use as the norm in interpreting the work. For example, as a listener familiar with the Western musical tradition but not with Native American music, my first instinct was to perceive references to the latter as simple exoticism, evoking a “primitive other,” while interpreting the Western-style music according to the emotional cues I’ve learned (this tune is happy, while that one is sad). As I continued to listen, however, I became aware how the Native music contains an equally diverse range of emotional content of which I am largely unaware, while the quotations from Western music could equally be seen, from a Native point of view, as simply standing for the invasive “other” culture. For example, while the “Old Hundredth” tune is constantly transformed in its emotional connotations, appearing now as a festive dance with trumpets and timpani, now as a solemn elegy with lush strings, it always refers to the supposed “Christianizing” influence of the residential schools.

I was initially drawn to Hatzis’ work for its collage, quotation, and distortion of pre-existing musical materials, deconstructive “postmodern” techniques I often practice in my own work. Yet, after listening to the entire ballet and Hatzis’ remarks on it, I recognized that these techniques are not just a game of clever cultural critique to be enjoyed for its own sake, but a means towards a greater goal. Hatzis’ ultimate aim in this process is not deconstructive but constructive: by undermining the Western cultural assumptions many Canadians (and Americans) may hold, he opens the possibility for true reconciliation between the Anglo/Euro-Canadian and First Nations cultures through a shared understanding of each other’s experiences.

This theme of reconciliation is most poignantly embodied in the final scene, “Morning Song,” where Hatzis layers musical strands representing the conflicting elements—an eerie pizzicato version of the “Old Hundredth” with electronic sounds in the background, a group of Inuit singing a hymn at an Anglican service, a distorted recording of katajjaq, and the spirited powwow song “Tootsie”—on top of each other with increasing intensity, until finally they are all overwhelmed by a recording of flames licking up wood, as Annie and Gordon burn a model of a residential school on a ceremonial pyre. Out of the cleansing flames, the sound of the Northern Cree Singers emerges a final time with the joyful “Morning Song,” representing a new day of hope for Annie and Gordon. The effect is devastatingly cathartic: like Annie and Gordon, I too am able to let go of some part of my cultural baggage as I seek to compassionately and courageously engage with those different from me.

[1] All quotes from Hatzis in this post are from the following interview with Michael Wolch on Classic 107 radio in Winnipeg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOdO6ybdFMY

Sanity vs. Creativity? Robert Schumann Revisited


Sometimes the point of contact between art and life becomes uncomfortably close.

Last summer, I wrote about Robert Schumann and the dichotomy between his two musical alter-egos, exuberant “Florestan” and introspective “Eusebius.” I half-seriously suggested that some composers might benefit from creatively embracing a sort of artistic schizophrenia and simultaneously pursuing radically different trajectories in their work.

The week after I posted that essay, things got a lot more personal. One of the most talented and brilliant musicians I know, capable of learning music with extraordinary facility and interpreting it with rare sensitivity, had been struggling with mental health for some months and experienced another breakdown. While it can be deeply unsettling to see anyone in the thick of a battle with mental illness, it was particularly painful to see one of the persons who matter the very most to me in the world having to deal with it. Doctors eventually reached a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, after the two opposing mental states alternately experienced by those who have it). Wanting to learn more about it, I started reading the book Bipolar Disorder by Francis Mondimore, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. While scanning through his chapter “Bipolar and Creativity,” I was intrigued to find a discussion of Robert Schumann.

While the exact nature of Schumann’s mental illness is debated, most scholars, including Mondimore, believe he had bipolar. Thanks to the numerous letters, journals, and essays of Robert and his wife Clara, musicologists can reconstruct the trajectory of his illness and his creative work fairly well, revealing marked fluctuations between the wild, uninhibited creativity of the manic phase on one hand and severe depression and near-paralysis on the other. For example, Schumann created dozens of works in the calendar year 1840, including most or all of over 20 (twenty!) song-cycles. In 1844, by contrast, he failed to complete a single work. By 1849, he had resumed his frantic pace of dozens of new works a year. But in 1854, in an apparent attack of severe depression, Schumann attempted suicide and eventually entered a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life.

This perspective on Schumann’s career, combined with anecdotal evidence of numerous other composers reported to struggle with mental instability (everyone from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff), raises a disturbing question: Do some composers pay for their inspiration in corresponding bouts of depression and mental turmoil? Conversely, are artists blessed with relative stability of mind shut out from reaching these highest levels of creativity and invention, since their highs just aren’t high enough? Are allegedly sane composers like kids on a backyard swing who, even at the apex of their flight, still can’t quite touch that certain tree branch?

As it turns out, other scholars have sought to answer this question. Robert Weisberg has attempted to study the relative quality of Schumann’s output from manic and depressive periods in a somewhat scientific manner. Using the number of existing recordings of a work as a (rather imprecise) proxy for its quality, his research found that while Schumann composed far more works during manic years than depressed ones, he did not appear to compose at a higher level while under mania. In fact, the average popularity (as measured by recordings) of his works was roughly the same for works written in manic years as depressed years. He simply created more “great” works in years when he created more works overall. (Incidentally, my favorite Schumann piece, his A-minor piano concerto, was begun during a period of apparent mental stability in 1841 and completed during another calm year in 1845, after the intervening depression and creative dry spell of 1843-44.)

Thus, Weisberg argues that Schumann’s affect affected (pun intended) not the quality of his work, but the readiness, flow, or even motivation with which he worked. In manic periods, he wrote feverishly, but only some works turned out to be high-quality. In times of depression, he may have had more difficulty in starting to write a piece, but when he did manage to work, his output was a similar mix of the great and merely good. (This is essentially the reverse of the common college student’s dilemma that sleep deprivation increases creative and innovative thinking but decreases motivation to actually do any work…)

Thankfully, then, there can be no Faustian bargain, an artist trading their mental health for uncanny inspiration. To be sure, those who struggle with mental illness cannot be held responsible for their condition anyway. But even if someone were willing to pay the terrible price of violent mood swings, there would be no payoff in creativity.

On the other hand, is the dividing line between luminaries like Schumann, others with bipolar disorder, and allegedly “normal” people really so firm? While mental illness is all too real, one could also see the roller-coaster career of a Robert Schumann as merely a more extreme illustration of the ebb and flow of inspiration experienced by all intelligent and creative personalities. We all go through dry spells where it feels like our work is worthless and we just can’t hit on a good idea—which is when we must cling more firmly to the confidence that our muse has not deserted us entirely, but merely left our side for a moment, and will return soon enough. On the other hand, we also experience euphoric seasons when we are so obsessed with a project that we can hardly seem to finish sketching a good idea before the next one pops into our brain. In such times, we must remind ourselves to eventually take a calmer and more measured look at our work, knowing that everything is likely not as brilliant as it seemed at first.

With both mental health and artistic talent, a neat categorization of humans into “normal” and “abnormal” is deceptively simplistic. We all face the same struggles; some brave souls just have to face them more directly, in both life and art.

Athletes and Artists, Part 3: The Soul of Tempo Practice


I’ve previously written a couple of posts on what musicians can learn from the practices of professional athletes. The first essay explored how the same dynamics that occur between spectators, coaches, and players appear in the music world between listeners, composers, and performers. The second enumerated a few lessons musicians could learn about practicing from phrases a certain professional football team uses to describe their work. This third installment draws from my recent firsthand experience in practicing a sport.

Ironically, my involvement in athletics this year came about due to an injury sustained while practicing music. Last spring, I developed a mild case of tendinitis in my left arm, likely from excess tension during a hard week of preparation for a guitar competition, and had to take several weeks off from playing. With extra time on my hands and favorable weather beckoning outdoors, I decided the thing to do was, quite naturally, run a marathon. (In reality, I had been taking longer and longer jogs over past few years and was waiting to make the leap to an actual long-distance race, but the timing of my injury had something to do with it as well.)

Also ironically, running the Baltimore Marathon this fall gave me the chance to not only compete in an actual spectator sport but also to visit a couple of professional sports venues. The Baltimore Ravens’ stadium was open before the race, being the only place with enough restroom facilities to accommodate thousands of runners, so I hung around in the concourse to stay out of the predawn chill before heading to the starting line. The last few hundred yards of the race also passed through Camden Yards, the nearby home of the Orioles, but by that point I was too exhausted to be more than vaguely aware of the field’s existence.

Once the immediate physical fatigue of running 26.2 miles had dissipated, however, I started to feel a strangely compelling desire to do it again and to learn how I could improve my time in the future. After reading a couple of highly informative books by Hal Higdon, I realized that although my training had certainly increased my fitness and stamina, it had fallen well short of optimizing my potential for improvement. Furthermore, I was falling into exactly the same pitfalls in practicing running as in practicing my instrument. In the rest of this post, I want to show how the principles of training for a race can also apply to learning a piece of music.

Higdon’s training approach rests on systematically alternating different workouts specifically targeted at developing different skills. On some days, athletes will run long distances at a consistent slow pace to gain endurance. On others, they run faster in short bursts to practice speed. On still others, they try to sustain a moderately fast pace for a longer duration to build strength and combine it with speed and endurance. Thus, Higdon’s runners don’t need to worry about how fast they are going on endurance days or how long they can hold out on speed days; the important thing is that each workout accomplishes its specific purpose.

While I had been aware of this principle as I was preparing to run a marathon, I had found it surprisingly hard to put into practice. Most days, I treated my workout as if it were a race and ended up running at the fastest pace I thought I could keep up for the given distance. Naturally, this meant most workouts left me feeling almost completely spent. In addition, having never run a marathon before, I had no concept of what an appropriate pace for that distance would be, nor was I used to running at that pace, since I had mostly practiced running faster than that for shorter distances. Fortunately, I was able to manage my speed reasonably well on race day and avoid a major collapse, but as I staggered away from the finish line, I was left wishing I could have made things easier on myself.

Higdon convinced me that if I wanted to really train well for a race, I would need to run both slower and faster in practice. Slow workouts would need to be not just comfortably slow, but uncomfortably slow (at least until I got used to it), so as to stress my body as little as possible. On designated fast days, on the other hand, I ought to have pushed myself even harder than I did, knowing that I would have plenty of time to recover before attempting another such effort. Previously, I could only manage to change my speed when running with friends whose comfortable pace was either faster or slower than mine, forcing me to adjust in order to stay with them. A true distance runner, however, could determine and execute their proper speed for each training session on their own.

A few days after the marathon, as I was practicing for my first recital since my arm injury, I realized I had fallen into the same mindset in my practicing. Not only had I been treating each workout like a race, I had been treating each practice session like a concert, trying to go at concert tempo with concert-like intensity, both physical and mental. This had no doubt led to over-pressing and straining and contributed to the injury. I realized it would be necessary to separate the speed, intensity, and thoroughness aspects of my practice in order to prepare optimally for a concert.

To concentrate on each physical and musical gesture I intend to execute in performance, it is necessary to play at well under performance tempo. Trying to go faster before the piece is fully performance-ready just leads to crossed signals in your neuromuscular system, increasing the potential for injury. On the other hand, you can’t play fast without ever practicing fast, so some speedwork is necessary as well, but it needs to be coupled with lightness, perhaps even softness, freed from the weight and tension of everything else you intend to do with the piece. On days when I do seek to combine speed and intensity under performance-like conditions, it would be healthy to end my practice early, sacrificing quantity for quality to avoid injury.  Finally, on days when I want to cover lots of music thoroughly, I need to allow myself ample time to take breaks and stay relaxed so that tension does not build up over a long practice session. By combining these various “workouts” into a regular weekly rotation, I can ensure that I develop each piece sufficiently without overextending myself physically.

For all the physical and mental effort required to prepare for a long-distance race or a musical performance, both endeavors provide valuable practice in paying attention to your body and concentrating on the task at hand. Last week, I was spending time with family on the afternoon before the concert. Things took longer than planned, and suddenly I realized I had barely an hour to finish my mug of hot chocolate, travel home (a distance of three miles, with no transportation arranged), change into concert attire, warm up, and set up the video camera before the concert. I calmly took the last few sugary sips of energy, excused myself, and started down the street on foot. After telling my legs to settle into an easy jog, I tried to focus on—and even enjoy—the rhythm of my heart rate and breathing and the feeling of the breeze on my face. I arrived home, barely winded, and went about my normal pre-concert routine. Far from being distracted by the stress of the evening, I felt more relaxed than I ever have for a recital.

Having a challenging goal for which to train forces you to practice with conscious and intentional focus, but the reward of this ability to focus and be present in the moment is beautiful, both in running and art. Just as the musician who lacks intention in practicing has much in common with the runner who lacks intention in training, so also the soul of the distance runner is closely akin to that of the true artistic performer.

The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form


I recently had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10 for guitar and tape. Davidovsky is an Argentine-born composer who has spent most of his career in the US, especially at Columbia and Harvard universities. As with much American music from the more “academic” strain (Davidovsky’s biggest mentor was Milton Babbitt), Synchronisms No. 10 does not follow any traditional form. Instead, the piece appears to be through-composed, with a number of distinct sections following organically upon each other, creating an interesting and colorful variety of sound worlds. Somewhat surprisingly, the piece begins with several minutes of solo guitar before the electronic part enters. However, near the end of the piece, the guitar’s opening gestures recur exactly as at the beginning, but with an electronic accompaniment this time. As I listened to the performance, the obvious recurrence of this passage gave the whole a much more defined shape in my mind, causing me to smile and nod in approval almost involuntarily. Suddenly, it seemed as if I liked the piece a whole lot more, even though it had done nothing new.

Even though Davidovsky studiously avoided using any classical forms, I realized that this recurrence of the opening material was actually functioning in a way analogous to a recapitulation in traditional form, even apart from the return to a home tonality which is traditionally associated with it. This suggested to me that perhaps the main purpose of traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo is not to provide a tonal structure, but simply a framework for recurrence. In a piece of any substantial length, some element of recurrence is necessary to create a satisfying listening experience, whether the language is tonal or atonal. In fact, I would argue that the longer a piece is, the more essential repetition or recurrence is to maintaining a coherent construction of form.

Similarly, in the visual arts, the larger a work’s physical dimensions, the more important its form or composition is. The painter, potter, sculptor, or architect constructs these forms out of elements dealing with the distribution of materials across space, such as shape, color, balance, and proportion. However, while a work of visual art can be grasped instantaneously, in a single glance, a work of music must be experienced through time. Therefore, its structure must be articulated through elements dealing with the disposition of materials across time, such as repetition, variation, recurrence, expansion, or contrast.

Because of this principle, I would argue that truly through-composed music (that is, forms relying exclusively on variation or contrast instead of repetition or recurrence) can only work on small scales. One significant exception to this might be so-called process music, in which certain musical parameters follow a clearly-defined trajectory over the course of the piece, so that the character of the music is constantly in flux and thus never literally repeating. These large-scale trajectories provide a way for the listener to conceptualize the entire piece in a single glance, so to speak, without needing to recognize material they heard earlier. Even so, most examples of process pieces use either repetition or recurrence as well to help construct the form. Composers may even construct processes that undo or spiral back upon themselves, so that the end of the piece is the same as the beginning—a sort of terminal recurrence that signals the piece’s completion. (For a brilliant example of process music, see Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on how minimalist art showed me that the ideal balance between repetition and variation in a work often tilts much more towards repetition than I think. After my experience listening to the Davidovsky, I now wonder if this principle applies to all musical styles, not just minimalism. For example, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had as a composer was taking a seminar in Schenkerian analysis, a music theory paradigm which attempts to show that tonal music uses the same basic patterns at all levels of its structure, from phrases to sections to entire pieces. As a theorist, I don’t necessarily buy all the assertions of Schenkerian philosophy, but as a composer, it opened my eyes to the potential to expand any musical idea without adding any new material, by simply replicating the pattern of the whole in each of the parts, much like a fractal.

To take a completely opposite example, serial music also relies heavily on repetitions of a basic tone row, albeit transformed through processes such as retrograde and inversion (not to mention extreme contrasts in rhythm, timbre, or texture). While serial music is notoriously difficult for listeners to comprehend, I wonder if this is not due to its lack of tonality but rather to the fact that the repetition and recurrence in its structure are not apparent to listeners, having been buried by the radical variation of other musical parameters. The same sort of structure is still there, but it fails to create a sense of cohesion for listeners if they are unable to perceive it.

In my opinion, the difficulty for composers in writing long pieces is not in coming up with enough ideas to fill the piece, but in stretching out a single idea to fill the appropriate amount of time, like blowing up a balloon or throwing a pot on the wheel. Much as novice potters tend to leave the walls of their pots too thick because they don’t realize how far they can stretch the clay to enclose a larger volume, aspiring composers tend to leave their musical materials underdeveloped, moving on from an idea before it has grown to its full potential.

So the next time I’m stuck searching for inspiration in a piece, I intend to check what I’ve already written and consider if it might just be time for some repetition, or at least a little more stretching of an idea. After all, if you never pop a balloon, you’re not blowing them up big enough, right?

Thomas Adès, In Seven Days

The title of Thomas Adès’ piano concerto In Seven Days is, of course, an allusion to the Biblical account of creation. With each movement titled after the aspects of nature referred to on the corresponding day of creation, one naturally expects some parallelism between the structure of the music and the literary structure of the creation narrative. Indeed, Adès provides just enough numerology to satisfy curious minds without overloading the music with symbolism. Many sections of the piece have time signatures in seven, and the prevailing number of voices in the piano part increases progressively in each movement, from one to seven. However, Adès’ genius in this music goes far deeper than mere mathematical ingenuity, as he brilliantly manages to embody the essence of creation and the natural world on every level of the piece’s structure.

After an spiky, energetic orchestral introduction, the latter part of the first movement (“Chaos – Light – Dark”) and much of the second (“Separation of the Water into Sea and Sky”) are built around long chromatic lines in contrary motion. Somewhat surprisingly, these lines do not expand the register outward as if to represent a nascent expanding universe, but actually converge towards middle C. However, Adès is constantly sneaking them back out by octaves (almost like a Shepard-Risset glissando) to stretch out this process over several minutes. Thus, Adès has foregrounded register as a primary compositional element, which serves as an apt figure for the concepts of “void,” “space,” and “expanse” in the creation narrative.

In the third movement, “Land – Grass – Trees,” Adès retains register as a primary compositional element, while adding another process on top of it. This movement (my personal favorite) is a majestic passacaglia based on a spiraling chord progression with smooth voice-leading which transposes itself up a semitone every 8 chords.[1] Thus, the pattern must cycle through all 12 transpositions of itself before duplicating itself an octave higher. Over the course of the movement, the pattern repeats almost four full sets of 12 cycles, thus rising about four octaves in register. However, Adès does not deploy it in a static fashion as in traditional passacaglias; instead, the rhythmic values of all the instruments and thus the speed of the progression become gradually faster with each set of 12 cycles. This recursive process, musically akin to fractals in geometry, suggests the organic growth patterns of living plants branching out geometrically into smaller and smaller leaflets and fronds. One can almost feel the first plants and trees solemnly unfolding towards the sky.

Literary scholars of the Old Testament have noted how the creation account is structured to match days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6, and Adès’ music does the same. Thus, movement 4, “Stars – Sun – Moon,” returns to the massive, long-lined trajectories of the first movement, but with a much more active texture in the piano part, as if the primordial light has now been differentiated into multitudes of stars. Similarly, movements 5 and 6, two fugues dedicated to the “Creatures of the Sea and Sky” and “Creatures of the Land” respectively, continue to develop the elements of register and recursive growth even further. For example, the first fugue has a lengthy exposition in the winds, ranged from high to low (flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons),[2] after which the strings take up the subject in order from low to high. However, the distinctively polyphonic nature of the fugal process, as opposed to the more diffuse, almost sound-mass textures of the previous movements, suggests the “teeming” nature of the animal kingdom highlighted in the creation account: many different instruments are doing essentially the same things, not clashing against each other, but not totally in harmony with each other either.

The piece ends with a brief “Contemplation” representing the seventh day, one of rest. However, Adès has one last secret of structure to reveal: the ending of the piece seems to fade back into the beginning, so that the last two chords of the piece are the same as the first two. Thus, the entire piece is itself a circular process which ends where it began. Indeed, the piece can be seen as a self-encapsulating fractal as well: the melodic motive which gradually coalesces out of the opening “Chaos” section underlies each of the movements, like a giant kaleidoscopic theme and variations. Yet this is itself a marvelous metaphor for our natural world, in which the same patterns (again, often fractals) often recur on vastly different levels of structure, from molecules to mountains, cells to cyclones.

In Seven Days is also a multidisciplinary collaboration between Adès and Israeli video artist Tal Rosner, creating what they call a “visual ballet.” Rosner overlaid video and still shots of the two venues which hosted the premieres of the work (London’s Royal Festival Hall and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall) into an abstract montage which spawns a healthy dose of fractals of its own (visible at times in the recording linked above). The film seems to represent Rosner’s visual interpretation of the patterns of the music in architectural terms, both in the sense that his subject matter is strictly buildings, and that he is translating the structure of an intricate work in one medium into another medium, purely through symbols, without the aid of verbal signifiers. Which is, of course, exactly what Adès has done in the music.

[1] Actually, the pattern transposes up a perfect fourth with each cycle of 8 chords, creating a sort of circle progression. However, each of the three voice-leading strands (the prevailing texture since this is the third movement) skips down to the next lower voice at some point during each cycle in a sort of three-way voice exchange, so that the net ascent in register is only a semitone per cycle. In addition, the three voice-leading strands are often interwoven in the orchestration and difficult to distinguish aurally.

[2] In a manner strongly reminiscent, I think, of another work by a British wunderkind—The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Schizophrenia and Schumann: The Possibility of a Split Musical Personality

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.

The Trouble with Autobiography

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by Nathan Cornelius

One of my biggest motivations for writing music is my desire to express feelings or images I’ve experienced in my life and share them with others. Until recently, I had thought the best way to communicate this to people listening to my music was to include a program note along with it mentioning the events that inspired the piece. Thus, I would write tantalizingly vague statements like, “As I was reminiscing about a conversation I had with some friends years ago…” or “Several years later, I had a dream about that trip, in which the details had been muddled…” However, I’ve begun to question whether this is an effective method of sharing the feelings behind my music with listeners. As I’ve been working this summer on another piece inspired by experiences from my life, I’m trying to think through how—or even whether—to speak about the music’s relationship to those experiences.

Thanks to some thought-provoking discussions in a seminar I attended, I’ve realized that specificity in program notes can actually hinder listeners’ appreciation of the work, in several ways. First of all, what moves us emotionally varies from one individual to another. Explaining the emotional impetus behind a piece could cause listeners to relate to it more closely, or they might be just as likely to dismiss it as quaint or irrelevant. Composers seem to be notoriously bad at predicting which way audiences will react to their disclosures.

More importantly, too much specificity in explaining the music limits the richness of meaning it may take on. While recent musicology has done much valuable work in undermining the intentional fallacy in music, most performers and conductors still seem to assume that the composer’s word is a reliable and complete source for determining the meaning of a piece of music. I don’t deny that the composer’s intentions are relevant to interpreting a piece, but I also believe that, as one of mentors liked to say, “Any great artwork will mean more than the artist could have intended.” Telling the audience in advance what I, the composer, was thinking robs them of the chance to discover their own connections, insights, and reactions to the music, which could ultimately endow it with many more layers of meaning than I initially envisioned.

In addition, many people seem to assume that any piece reflects to some extent the circumstances of the composer’s life or emotions at the time of composition. However, this assumption is simply not justifiable, even if the piece is genuinely autobiographical. Most of my pieces are based on events that happened weeks, months, or even years before I actually sat down to compose the music. The poet Wordsworth famously said that art comes from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but I tend to draw on a lot of recollection with little spontaneity. In fact, I believe that the deeper the emotion associated with an event, the longer it takes my mind to process it, and therefore the longer until I am free to draw from it in my creative work. But the time spent ruminating on these experiences, even the unsatisfying or disturbing ones, is a worthwhile investment, since after I have worked through them on a personal level, I can harness them into a powerful impetus for creativity.

Furthermore, what is to stop me from lying to my audience in the program notes? How could they possibly judge whether or not my explanation of the work is true? After all, I was the only person there when I wrote it. Music history is full of instances of composers strategically revising their account of their music’s genesis to tell a more dramatic story to the crowds. While not intending to stoop to such mercenary calculations, I am now more hesitant to simply blurt out the whole truth to the audience, knowing that the more they read into it, the less they can read out of it. So in striving to be authentic as a composer (and as a human being), how do I tell my future listeners something that resonates with what’s in my heart without limiting their freedom to experience the music?

I’ve recently been pondering this question in relation to one of my favorite composers, Gustav Mahler. Mahler prepared elaborate programs for most of his symphonies, complete with titles, subtitles, literary allusions, heroic narratives, and descriptions of nature. However, when the time came for his works to be performed, he didn’t necessarily release these programs to the public, in some cases only divulging them privately in letters to friends. In other cases, he was somewhat indecisive, premiering a work without a program and then adding one later, or publishing a program only to withdraw it. Much ink has been subsequently spilled over relating these programmatic narratives to the events of Mahler’s life, and scholars have identified purported programs for each of the symphonies in Mahler’s correspondence. These associated tropes, such as “the hero’s funeral,” “the three blows of fate,” “the farewell to life,” etc., are well known to Mahler aficionados today.

The moral of the story seems to advise composers to be circumspect in writing about their own music. If anyone still cares enough about your work to be reading about it in 50 or 100 years, anything you write about it can and will be found out. Every word you speak instantly escapes out into the world as from Pandora’s box, impossible to recapture. Even if you only disclose the secret meaning of a piece to your closest friend, and that person keeps it in confidence, you can be sure that after you are dead, future scholars (or ravenous program writers) will rifle through your letters and emails for any clues they can find. As the line from the musical Hamilton goes, “History has its eyes on you… You can’t control who tells your story.” While I hope I’m not as consumed with my own legacy as the character Hamilton is, I don’t want to prevent future listeners from enjoying my music for its own sake by saying something stupid about it now.

Thus, I’ve decided to stop going into much autobiographical detail in describing my music. I now write my program notes with an aim to stimulating listeners’ own emotions rather than fixating them onto specific ones of mine. In particular, I try to reserve first-person pronouns for basic facts of when and how I wrote the piece. For hinting at deeper questions like what the piece is “about,” I prefer to address the audience in the second person or just to leave pronouns out of it altogether and try to paint a picture without explicitly telling anyone to look at it. In fact, giving audiences images or impressions (in the sense of Monet or Debussy) as a point of departure seems more helpful than talking about my compositional techniques (which needlessly abstract things) or mentioning the allusions or influences I draw from (which are necessarily specific and therefore narrow the range of meaning).

I still intend to write music that comes from the deepest parts of who I am; I’m not sure I can do otherwise. But the music also needs space to speak for itself; after all, it can’t do otherwise either. I just have to learn how to not drown it out with my own babbling.