A Piece of Music is Only a Piece of Music

I’ve always thought of music as more analogous to painting than sculpture. The processes of painting and sculpting are diametrically opposed from a conceptual point of view. On a very basic physical level, painting has traditionally been an art form that resulted from adding something to a tabula rasa, e.g. applying oils or acrylics to a blank surface such as a wall or a canvas—ultimately a process of addition. Sculpture, on the other hand, evolved from chiseling away at something until it became an aesthetically satisfying object—a process of subtraction.

Of course, in the 20th century, these roles got rather jumbled, as did just about everything else anyone ever took for granted, and we realized that “tabulas rasa” are never completely “rasa” and that things could not only be added to or subtracted from but multiplied, divided, and manipulated an infinite number of other ways. But for me, composing music—whether putting notes on a page or dropping them from a pull down menu on a computer screen—has remained primarily an act of adding something to nothing.

Now I’m beginning to think the opposite might be true. In my own music I’ve realized that it is only when I am able to apply specific limit-inducing parameters to sound—e.g. remove all the extraneous ideas that are inevitably always there—that something I am proud of can emerge. And in fact when you ask listeners to pay attention specifically to your own music aren’t you asking them to turn off all other potential sonic stimulation? In essence you’re actually limiting their sonic landscape, at least to some degree, which reveals the act of making music to be akin to the subtractive process of traditional sculpture.

It is semantically revelatory that works of music have so long been called “pieces of music.” Despite the late romantic composers professing that they were creating a universe through their music, music is already itself a universe unto itself and no piece of music could ever contain all of it. When we engage in acts of creating music we are only ever able to carve out an extremely small slice of what music ultimately is, even if that slice is Wagner’s Ring. (This is yet another reason this term is much better than the ubiquitous malapropistic use of the word “song”.)

Perhaps if we started thinking of our “pieces of music” as small parts of a much larger ongoing sonic cosmos, we’d finally recover from the masterpiece syndrome. Not only does masterpiece reverence hinder the reception of new music among audiences longing for the approved tried and true, masterpiece anxiety stifles the urge to create for fear that what we are creating isn’t the best and biggest thing ever to come down the highway.

5 thoughts on “A Piece of Music is Only a Piece of Music

  1. Kyle Gann

    Hey, Debussy said that composing was easy – you just write down all the notes and then erase the ones you don’t need.

    Reply
  2. Matthew Peterson

    Thanks for your thoughts Frank.

    I read through this in the midst of my obligatory 5 minute afternoon internet procrastination session, where, every day, I seem to open the browser and randomly click on bookmarks in my browser bar – facebook, NFL.com, Weather.com, Newmusicbox, etc.

    Normally I feel guilty for wasting the time, but not today. I’m inspired as I resume fleshing out a tiny piece of our musical universe. Thanks again.

    Reply
  3. rtanaka

    Music is a performance art, isn’t it? It’s not an object nor can it considered to be one, since it disappears as soon as the piece comes to an end. Notation is only a means to an end. Recordings come close but they really are just illusions.

    If you’re serious about wanting to abandon the “masterpiece syndrome” (as you call it) then learn to improvise. There is nothing more ethereal than making music on the fly. You do, however, have to abandon the comfort and stability that notation provides, which unfortunately most classical musicians seem unwilling to do.

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    “we’d finally recover from the masterpiece syndrome… “

    Frank I’m not sure about this idea–in this way. For example, Beethoven wasn’t trying to corner the market, just doing the best he could–we all are.

    Rather it’s the; associates, the hangers on, the followers, the invested, the self interested, the power hungry, the gate keepers, the axe grinders, the know nothings, the smug, the self proclaimed, the Ad men, the Ad women, the profiteers, the teachers, the college professors, and the publicists, who draw a line in the sand and say art stops here.

    Phil Fried, already included, but thanks for asking.

    One of Phil’s many pages

    Reply
  5. Leos

    Phil: thank you, thank you, thank you …

    By the way, I still believe there are masterpieces (and in many styles), and am damned glad there are, otherwise the mediocrity would be unbearable.
    I’m not saying it’s necessary to desirable to paralyze oneself by trying too hard to create a masterwork, but what’s wrong with striving to do something really well, something that might bear repeated hearings?

    Reply

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