Saturday, January 9, 2010


Ah, my love of third-hand information: Someone told me once that they had learned (somehow) that Xenakis believed a particular thing--and that thing is this: that all music is one music, one song, one essential field of beauty that already exists and that composers are merely bringing to light in its particular, local aspects.

I haven't read enough Xenakis to verify this and it may be totally erroneous--but on the surface at least, it doesn't seem out of line with what I know of his views about approaching "the one", the union or totality of artistic and scientific experience.

I was thinking about that as I was working on a new piece for percussionist Peter Jarvis. Xenakis pioneered the use of highly advanced algorithms and statistical distributions to discover new music. It wasn't necessarily the computations that attracted him, but the fact that the math could lead to a new approach, a new unexplored aspect of the infinite. He had already seen this at work in his architectural designs and it made sense to apply it to music.

I don't pretend to be uncovering anything radically new in my music and my forays into the abstract are far simpler, relying on the interplay of simple proportions or short integer sequences. But these days my understanding of the spirituality of the composing experience is linked to that idea: everything we think we have to say is already said and laying there, waiting to be uncovered. More and more I feel that music writing is a question of uncovering the inevitable, no matter to what degree it jibes with or runs contrary to stylistic preconceptions.

In that way, composers are more like archeologists, uncovering and presenting the bones and artifacts of the universe itself, a contour map of the underlying unity that binds all of us, musician or otherwise.

Such ideas don't preclude the role of skill of course--some archeologists are better than others, more able to recognize and preserve both the grand design and the glistening detail. The rest of us just do the best we can. And they don't preclude the role of personality or ego--although I'm all for damping that down a bit. We are individually and inescapably conduits for the information we find and we shape that information accordingly as it passes through.

I have had that story about Xenakis in my head for years--decades in fact. But until recently, I always regarded it as an absurd belief, one of the eccentricities of a great artist. Maturity brings humility and maybe a grain of wisdom, here and there.


No comments:

Post a Comment