As we grow up, we develop our personal tastes. Throughout adolescence, we explore the world around us and find the things towards which we gravitate. We create identities through the ideas and objects that we enjoy, distancing ourselves from our peers through our unique predilections while simultaneously finding comfort in the associations formed with others who share common interests. Most people’s tastes ossify by the time they reach maturity, and throughout their adult life they seek comfort through repeated encounters with the art of their youth. I’ve been surprised to discover that my personal musical taste has shifted considerably over the past decade or so. I didn’t notice the change while it was occurring, but my entire system of musical values is now completely different from the one I enjoyed a few years ago.
My reactions to the musical surface have changed the least. I still gravitate towards music with a nasty edge, where complex noise-based sounds prevail. I’ve become a bit more inured to this surface noise, but otherwise, this personal taste remains very much the same as always. The beautiful consonances of Renaissance polyphony have yet to move me, while the freakish chromaticism of the Ars Subtilior continue to fascinate. I’m aware that this leaves me in a very distinct minority, and will return to the question of what we seek in musical surfaces in a later column.
My changed taste has mainly affected what I seek in musical structure. While such a shift might appear to be a subtle one, for me this is a life-defining musical statement. When I began composing, it was with the idea of creating music with clear formal processes. I was most fascinated by music that felt inevitable on a single listening but that still withheld secrets in order to entice repeated hearings. My theory was that any musical material could function as the basis of a successful piece as long as the composer developed it in a way that expressed a clear dramatic arc.
Now, I’m finding more and more that this type of inevitable formal design holds limited appeal for me. Honestly, the same types of works that would have appealed most strongly to the person I was a decade ago are the works that bore the current me. I’m no longer excited by compositions with a nice and clear form. The works that really get my brain buzzing don’t always work in one hearing. They often feature fragmentation and stases. They don’t immediately tell me how they hold together. Their elusive logic excites me.
The person I was a decade ago valued pithy forms and music that never overstayed its welcome. Now, I’m much more patient and would rather listen to an epic work that seems twice again as long as it should be with one moment of brilliant beauty than to a perfectly formed five-minute piece that remains within its well-defined limits. Now, I’m excited by moments of originality instead of crafted designs. I will accept obvious flaws gladly for an exceptional payoff, while turning aside from music that works perfectly well.
Since this shift hits at the basis of everything for which my music used to stand, I am at a bit of an awkward crossroads. I don’t want to delete older pieces from my back catalog—a solution employed by many other composers—even though they no longer represent me. Instead, I want to use my energy in order to create compositions that represent my changed tastes.