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Thursday, February 24, 2005
meaning vs. obscurity

Not to prolong this thread, but...

With all due respect to WH Auden, he's wrong. Or maybe that is true for poetry, but certainly it should not be true for music. As Steve Reich once indicated to me in the 80's, one would have to be a very strange composer not to want to have people listen to his or her music. I've written my share of complex music; there's nothing wrong with complexity, nor is "melodic" music automatically great---far from it.

It gets back to the issue of "meaning." Unless composers write music that expresses something, and is not written for other composers at an intellectual level, their music is doomed to be relegated to obscurity. Period. Messiaen recognized this, I think. The second of his Quartes Etudes de Rythme (Mode de valeurs et d'intensitis) essentially serializes every element: pitch, attack, duration. It's a great piece, one that I've loved since I was a teenager. But I've always found it interesting that AFAIK, Messiaen never did anything like this again. The piece works because the music is well-suited for this approach, and is relatively short. I think Messiaen realized that to do such a controlled approach again and again would likely produce rigid music devoid of any meaning or emotion (which is not the case for Mode de valeurs). One problem I have with "academic" composers like Boulez and Babbitt is that they did not realize this limitation; they started serializing everything as if serialization for its own sake was a great thing. It's not.

Again, just an opinion, but I'm serious in that if composers merely write for each other (which might imply some level of trying to impress others in the same profession), they will be missing out on producing music that is more than a footnote in a musicology journal. Just as there is a difference between data and information, there is a big difference between writing notes and composing music. My 3-year-old son plays notes. Music implies arranging notes to express something, just as my son can splash paint on a piece of paper but not approach the artistry of Jackson Pollock.

There's also the other extreme-writing to please the audience. That doesn't work, and is no better than writing just for the appreciation of other composers. Composers should write for themselves---if it's genuine, and expresses something, then listeners will at least have respect for it. When composers write for the audience and not themselves, once the fad is over what's left? There is a good analogy from business: if you ignore profit margins and try to do right by the customer, the profit margins will take care of themselves and the business will succeed (at least that was Dell's approach). Similarly, if you write music for yourself and are honest in that pursuit, ultimately people will listen, and other composers will at least have some regard for your music beyond just analyzing the notes to death.

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