Postmodernism, as it flourished in my salad days, had many characteristics, but the most telling was the employment of a new kind of dissonance: the dissonance of incongruent styles. Postmodern music reveled in sequences of unrelated ideas, jolting the listener from any sense of meaningful continuity. Following the single-mindedness of much post-tonal and minimalist music, it was a breath of fresh air.
After a while, though, the jolt, like any esthetic jolt, had less and less of an impact. By the time we got to the end of the XX century, these juxtapositions felt merely like life as we lived it — no more jarring than the daily, surreal shifts of international banking or political polls.
At that point, some of us abandoned the idea of using irrational juxtapositions for their shock value. The challenge, rather, was in finding a way to give these disconnections some kind of formal coherence. After all, if this is merely how life is, then we needed to stop complaining and build something beautiful from it.
Over the course of the 1990s, I felt a growing urge to work with bigger canvases, formally speaking. I could have gone the path of some minimalists, stretching small ideas out into mind-bending proportions, but that would have been a rejection of the truth I had found in postmodern art.
(We all have to find our own truths, and the minimalist truth – no less true in an objective sense – wasn’t the one that moved me.)
After a little bit of experimentation, I became convinced that stylistic dissonance could be used as a basis for large forms, in the same way that harmonic dissonance was used to build large forms in the late 18th century.
And here is an excellent place for you to scoff at a foolish sounding idea. I did so myself at first. But then I realized that until harmonic dissonance was used to build large forms, there was no reason to believe it would work. There is nothing inherent in the V-I resolution to suggest it could provide the impetus to design a coherent, ten-to-twenty-minute composition. But Classical composers tuned themselves so precisely to the implications of these harmonies, experimented so thoroughly with ways to play out these forms, they were able to find a manner of proceeding that has served as a model for composers ever since.
So, could stylistic dissonance have the same potential? Could composers dig into these cognitive clashes and find ways to create large forms? The answer came to me through the works of Mozart, who was playing with stylistic conflicts quite a long time before postmodernism existed. Just take a look at the first theme from the last movement of the C Major Symphony, K. 551, where four bars of dry academic fugal material is followed by four bars of opera buffa:
And if that wasn’t enough to cue the thumb to the nose, later in the same movement this silly little flourish is given a full fugal treatment usually reserved for only the loftiest of themes:
But the Jupiter Symphony Finale is justly celebrated for contrapuntal dexterity in the guise of fun and games. I was more interested in Mozart’s use of contrasting styles in his formal organization. And examples abound. Take the first page of the K. 332 Piano Sonata:
For the first 12 bars, we get an accompanied aria. Cadence, then we’re in hunting-horn land. At least that’s what we hear in the left hand – the right hand plays little tinkly music box flourishes up top. Music boxes on a hunt? Talk about making something beautiful out of clashing materials. WAM sticks with this mashup for a full 10 measures – nothing but I and V — before we’re suddenly thrown into a Sturm und Drang chromatic hell.
Forty measures, four vastly different musics. At this historical distance, it all sounds like Mozart to our ears. I suspect it sounded just this side of deliriously insane at the time. But the stylistic madness is kept in check by a brilliant sense of timing, the balances that gradually emerge over the course of the movement.
With this and other examples in mind, I embarked on a sustained effort to use postmodern techniques in the service of formal coherence. The Classicists kept their wildest forays focused through a network of clear-cut phrasing and a hierarchical tonal language. That didn’t feel like the right approach for our times. Rather, in many of my works, I’ve balanced incongruous stylistic jumps with an obsessive focus on specific formal principles. Example: in my fourth string quartet (The Infinite Sphere), an unrelenting approach to circular design – wheels within wheels within wheels – allows me to bounce through widely varying styles and vocabularies without (figuratively speaking) the wheels flying off.
My approach to form has never been architectural, or at least not primarily architectural, but more like free narrative: characters are developed and interact in ways that I feel are convincing. Narrative, compared to any visual counterpart, seems like a more appropriate parallel for the way music occupies time. The mistake, for me, is when we, as composers, proceed in a plot-driven manner – this follows this follows this – as opposed to listening closely to the material and letting it occupy the temporal space it requires.
I treat my musical ideas the way I treat human beings – not as puppets in a puppet show – they have lives, needs, aspirations of their own, and my job is to help them realize their potential.
I follow no rules, as such, in these compositions. Principles, yes. Techniques, yes. But the bottom line, as I’ve alluded to above, is to become so intimately acquainted with the material that I can let it speak for itself.
Although it often seems as if I’m letting the material become so intimately acquainted with me that it feels comfortable using my brain cells.
A few weeks ago, a reader suggested I post an excerpt from a piece I was working on in which the hands of the pianist were playing in two very different styles. I said at the time that I was having trouble posting musical examples, but as the Mozart samples above indicate, I’ve solved the issue. So here are 8 bars of the piece I was describing.
Quick and dirty facts: Clarinet and piano. Tempo is 108. As I said before, each hand is relatively easy; I’m just having a tough time getting them to work together in my hands. I’m sure any real pianist would have no problem. In any case, the top staff is metronomic, the bottom staff is languorous.