Composers in shackles?

“A composer’s creation might seem like the embodiment of freedom: the author can call forth anything he wants from out of nowhere, give it the form he desires, think up a continuation for it which suits him, and finally, when he thinks the time is right, complete the piece’s development. Unlike, say, an architect, a composer is not constrained by the practicality of his conception – no one is going to live in his musical ‘castle’; and unlike an artist, a composer is not bound by notions of verisimilitude, as his musical picture does not have to resemble anything or anyone. And unlike a poet, further, the composer is not restrained by the accepted meanings of words and the rules of grammar. And yet the composer is less free than any of these colleagues in creativity. A musical work derives all its logic internally; it has no direct or visible correspondence with the real world; the degree of its internal coherence and the extent to which its form proves organic define its quality.” (Kirnarskaya, 2009)

Having just discovered the OUP “The Natural Musician” (translation of Kirnarskaya’s work) I was drawn immediately to the passage about composers. Her musico-psychological approach could be compelling and she certainly does present the idea that her perspective is unique-ish. I can see there is something worth careful reading and when I return from Scotland next month I will explore the rest hopefully.

I like how she describes the composer and how she extols what I tell all of my pupils that composition is not about ‘freedom’ but choice; a composer makes choices, and selections that set the variables through which the composer can create. For me it is the play of these variables – the interaction, alternation and synthesis of the selected variables that create the “play” Whittall writes that the analyst can detect when conducting a postmortem of a piece. She does suggest that composers’ creations should develop and ‘when the time is right’ complete that development process. That is but one way a composer could work – not all pieces should present a trajectory of development or progress, and such an approach is closer to writers of words than what she suggests.

I rather like the idea that composers are like architects – composing ‘rooms’ that the listener can occupy and ‘live’ in, albeit for the length of the piece. I think I’d want my listener to inhabit my piece, believe in it and be compelled to follow it – or should my piece inhabit the listener? I think a new work could be considered a castle – that requires us as the composer to walk our listeners through the various rooms and give them time to take in the ambience but not too much time that they ‘get ahead of us’ and crave the next room.

I don’t agree that artists today are governed by verisimilitude; composers may be expected to create works that do represent something or indeed someone. As such there may be particular ‘grammars’ of style that need to be appropriated to capture the image and as such composers could be considered ‘tone-poets’ as sounds, instruments and musical gestures do carry a burden of meaning through appropriation. Listening after all is nostalgia I think – we hear our memories when we listen to music and draw connections between our present musical engagement and those of our past. We will undoubtedly connect certain musical ideas with feelings or other ideas and as such composers remain governed by a grammar of musical creation.

I would not think composers are the most shackled artist, as Kirnarskaya suggests. Yes I do agree that a musical work should create it’s own internal logic but I do think this logic should articulate with the external world – such an interaction with the world that is occupied by our listeners is essential for the work to ‘exist’. Denying an external world denies the existence of our works in those we want to inhabit our musical castles. The idea the quality of a musical work is defined by its organic form is questionable; to speak of ‘quality’ is dubious. Popularity of a work should also not be a measure of popularity – though this sets up the idea that there is a hierarchy of musical judges and the vast majority of them are not skilled enough to identify music of quality. I would like to music ‘quality’ music speaks to its intended audience with directness and immediacy, whoever that intended audience might be. Complexity should not be a measure of quality, or ‘art’. Perhaps a sense of completeness is a real measure of quality – that a work feels ‘whole’ and without need for change. The listener is compelled to be part of it, and most of all retains something of the experience.

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