Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Apparently Abstract

A painter doesn't necessarily begin at the left edge; a writer doesn't necessarily write chapter one first. They rely on an overall design, a plan or an outline that only they know. Typically, nothing is set in stone during the creative process. Once the material is more or less complete--or at any point for that matter--the artist can go back and rework the entire form or touch up the details.

Music is the same way. It can be composed in a freewheeling straight line, beginning to end. Or it can be designed from outside of time, as it were, to fit a predetermined shape. Either one can appear improvisatory. And either one can appear to be self-referential, assuming the composer has a memory and can plan on the fly.

Writing serious classical music, I often set up an abstract form in advance, based on a certain quality of material--an interval set, a polyrhythm, a numerical series that influences several domains simultaneously. My drum set solo that Peter Jarvis premiered spring of '09, Jungle 5-7675 works this way. At other times I'll choose a simpler form that can be more easily elaborated and tweaked as I move through the composition process, as, for example, in the prelude Certain Dark Things that I orchestrated for the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra last fall.

When working in pop song styles, the same thing happens, even if the designs are more rudimentary. Each pop song represents a preexisting form chosen from a fairly limited universe. Within each, there is a nearly infinite amount of variation possible. Listen to the similarities and differences in the verse-chorus structures of any two Beatles songs. Or compare "Happiness is a Warm Gun," one of the more abstract song forms in the Beatles' recordings, to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"--both use a juxtaposition of contrasting sections, but that's about all they have in common.

Nobody would argue with a songwriter who said he saw a creative opportunity in a particular form. Few would argue with Mozart or Brahms for choosing a sonata over a fantasia on any given day. But the choice of a more abstract form seems to raise hackles, precisely because the form isn't necessarily apparent to the listener. This even happens when fans of jazz or pop music try to engage with classical music for the first time--they think they need to be able to follow the intricacies of sonata form or fugue structure. They know just enough about it to know they are missing something, so they feel shut out from full appreciation. The more complex the form, the more likely we are to run into that kind of misunderstanding.

And it is a misunderstanding. Form should command the listener's attention only when the composer wants it to. Let's say I'm writing a piece that has a prelude-type form--that is, one idea extended from the beginning to end. As a composer, I may choose to divide up that music into much smaller bits of varying lengths to make the composition process more manageable and the overall shape more balanced. I may need that outline, but it doesn't need to be apparent to the listener. Then again, maybe I want the listener to hear those divisions, or some of them. Then it's up to me to mark them in some way--a dramatic change of harmony, an accent, a contrast of rhythm or timbre or dynamics. The notion that something changes at that point should be apparent. If the listener isn't hearing what the composer intends, the composer hasn't done his job.

Probably the most well-known example of this disconnect between formal design and the listening experience is Stravinsky's Symphony in C. This work was described by Stravinsky himself as a throwback to traditional form, "so unmysterious and so easy to hear on every level". But in 1962, Edward T. Cone's analysis of the first movement (from Musical Quarterly 48) found a detailed symmetrical map of phrase lengths that create syncopations against the constant unchanging time signature. This structure is highly remarkable because the work sounds, even to the most educated ears, like a perfect example of sonata form. But Cone's analysis revealed a hidden form that is arbitrarily sculpted to resemble sonata form: A wolf in sheep's clothing. This is one of the ways that Stravinsky always managed to sound like Stravinsky, regardless of the superficial details of style he chose to adopt. Would it matter to him that listeners typically don't hear the symmetrical march of integers guiding the phrase structure? No. The opposite in fact. As is evident from quote above, also from 1962, he intended the work to be heard in an open-faced sonata form; he could only have been magnificently pleased with the result.

Some composers--notably Charles Wuorinen, who knew Stravinsky and was one of my teachers--have chosen to draw elaborate details of form directly into the score. I have twice lectured on this subject, the relation between the written score and abstract forms--once at Rutgers University Graduate Composers Forum and at Kendall Kennison's composition seminar at Goucher. The value of these more eccentric scores relative to the final musical experience is debatable on a case-by-case basis. But composers continue to find them necessary. As such, they handily show off the split between the creative process and the listening experience.

Ultimately, when talking about abstract forms, it helps simply to be aware not only that the perceived form may be different from the composer's outline, but that the composer has already taken this into account. This was probably as true of Mozart as Messiaen.

Likewise, tracking the creative process can reveal many interesting things about a piece, but it may not be necessary for the enjoyment of the piece. Most composers are aware of this--although too many times I have heard composers in pre-concert talks launch into a "how it was made" lecture that makes the music sound about as interesting as a slide rule.

Performers, on the other hand, need to be constantly reminded: the score doesn't play itself. A successful interpretation depends on seeking out every detail you can find about the composer's intentions and then choosing how best to integrate those findings into a performance. The average crowd of listeners has it easier. They are the beneficiaries of all this work--if they don't get all of it, that's OK. As long as they know they don't have to. The music should speak for itself.


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