Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Sounding Plunge

As composers, we are supposed to construct worlds in sound, finding our own way through this evanescent art form, following no rules except the not-often-enough-written truth that [ahem] a sound may occur in any combination with any other sound preceded by and followed by any other sound or combination of sounds. As composers, we see ourselves primarily as architects, as sculptors, making objects not of clay and metal and wood, rather out of the ephemera of sound itself. But sometimes we see ourselves as writers and, like writers to the printed page, to the glue of the binding, to the musty smell of the reading room, we are attracted to the object of the score itself, a beautiful thing, expressed through a beautiful symbology. The making of a score is a private pleasure for me, one of the things that most attracted me to being a classical music composer, that music could exist as a quasi book, a book written especially for instruments played by performers who can actually read the instructions contained therein. 


But composers are not writers. Our medium is not the word. We are artists who have chosen sound as our medium, and who revel in sound short-lived nature and, as such an artist, I had little patience for in my youth for words.  I was angered by requests for words to explain what I did in words. I care not for words.  I spit.  The music is my art, the art is sound, the art is music, why should I have to translate my beautiful sets of sounds into the coarseness and baseness of language, convincing others of its goodness so? Language is about communication, and maybe music isn't even about communication. Someone who is interested in the possibility of giving money to composers should just listen to a piece or two, they should come to a performance and sit there and listen. Maybe a recording is acceptable as at least an ersatz facsimile of that experience, but words have no relation to it.

You have been to an art gallery, yes?, and you have noticed how the eager-to-learn supplicants attending the art spend more time reading the title cards that are placed next to the painting than looking at the painting itself? I find myself doing it, I find myself ensnared by those words. I understand that it makes me feel that I am learning something about the work, but that's not really true. I am merely learning something about the curator. I've seen many cards with descriptions that are outrageous, consisting of turgid, pompous nonsense. Unfortunately, the prostrated communion of the art goer to those descriptions, and the weight given to narrative expressed by them, is something that seduces artists themselves. Artists begin to create pieces of art that lend themselves to descriptions that will impress. Such seduction is rife in the new music world as well. Before I became a jaded old man, I would read the program notes and think: my, this is so interesting, I'm so looking forward to hearing this, and then I would once again be disappointed, left at the altar, wondering where that piece had disappeared to that was promised to me. Had it slipped past without my noticing? Had I missed the glorious audible representation of the lovely ideas which were so lovingly presented in the program notes? 

So - can we simply take all the labels off the paintings?  Giacinto Scelsi, that wonderful swindler and possible composer would send, when asked for program notes, a drawing of circle.  I can't say that I really know what he meant by that circle, or whether it had a meaning at all, but I hope that it read as something to the effect of shut up and listen, shut up and write music, and stop describing.

* * * * *

That all being said, can I now say that I love words, that I love to read them and write them and feel the way they feel passing by my lips? A few days ago, I had a visceral reaction, literally deep in my guts, upon hearing Michael Krasny say the word confabulate, and this is a common experience for me. I love my friend Jim Bisso's blog on words and grammar and language, the wonderfully punctilious EPEA PTEROENTA. And I've wanted to be a writer since I was a precocious child, the one who carried around the complete works of James Joyce in his briefcase, letting himself be seen kissing them in public.


Given this, maybe it's not so strange that words have stolen away my heart from my chosen art form of the construction of sound.  I am surrounded by English, and I myself am a carrier of it. It is one's duty as a speaker of a language to be part of the mix, to eject those bits that no longer express what you wish to express and to create new language that expresses what you do wish to express.  Like a composer, this should come from the sound up.  We should each be inventing new phones and phonemes, new words, new phrases and new architectures of speaking and writing and expressing.  I am happy with misunderestimate.  It's a great word that expresses something that can't be expressed without it.  Although at first my fellow liberalists used it only to make fun of George and his malapropisms, I've noticed that, now that some time has past and it's not so funny anymore, it is still being used, a jestful usage that has become real usage as people realize the word really might have what it takes to join its fellows, journeying up the ladder from the Urban Dictionary to the OED.  We artists know that mistakes are a great generative tool across all creative endeavors. [Ed: this particular verb may be a bad example, as according to wiktionary it can trace its lineage back:
1897 ...is almost sure to misunderstand and misunderestimate the significance of the question at hand. — The Outlook, American Diplomacy on the Bosphorous April 17, 1897]
Another malapropic and fellow target of my fellow liberals' ire, the late governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, tells us we should all invent words, and on this one point I agree.  We overeducated folk are too nervous about our speech, we should allow for mistake. I know this is hard. It is hard for me personally. When I commit a verbal gaucherie, the embarrassment lingers.  I wish I had the Oxford-or-equivalent background that is given to the Brits when they are born, allowing their even the most casual sentences to be constructed perfectly. My first wife once told me a story of how, in England, she saw two very young British Children standing outside a country house gazing across the grounds. As she watched, one said to the other: "Oh, what a marvelous garden, let us go get lost in it."  If I could speak like that, I would die happy. But I fear that, when one hasn't learned a language when one is three years old, and I mean really learned it, one can never catch up, and real mastery shall always elude. But I soldier on anyway, doing my bit, correct and uncorrecting here and thre as I see fit. 
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