Congratulations! You’re Wrong
In a lesson I had with the master composer David Rakowski, he pointed to a cadence in a new piece of mine, stated, “This gesture occurs exactly where it should,” and paused. I waited for him to continue, beaming internally at my success. As a student composer, correcting the timing of cadences was one of my biggest struggles, and therefore I was thrilled to finally nail one perfectly. When he continued, Uncle Davy expounded at length as to why he found this meeting of expectations to be dissatisfying. In short, I had done something perfectly to standards. And that made my piece much poorer.
In classroom situations, developing student’s expectations for the musical styles being covered often serves as the foundation for their study. Students need to understand what the musicians who were contemporaries of the composer considered acceptable at the time, because otherwise they will never be able to appreciate the odd choices made by our favorite composers.
The list of anomalous compositions that were lambasted by their peers and yet eventually found their way into the canon is a large and illustrious list, including some of my favorite works by Monteverdi (Cruda Amarilli), Mozart (“Dissonance” Quartet, K. 465), and Beethoven (Op. 59, No. 1 and the Grosse Fuge stand out in this regard), among many others. (Some of these discussions are included in Slominky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective—a fascinating compendium.) In nearly every case, the composers who ideally exemplify any style create music that I find boring and insipid. Rules for composition and analysis can comfort a beginning student, but any exploration of masterpieces that we find moving and enjoyable will quickly encounter works that disregard these processes—to great effect. In my opinion, the best classroom teachers help pupils to understand the underlying basis for art within context, while inculcating an appreciation for individual deviations from the rules of the day.
Two recent books discuss wrongness as a concept, and whether or not to embrace this state of being. According to the New York Times review, Kathryn Schulz argues in Being Wrong for error as “a humane, courageous and extremely desirable human trait” that is essential to human cognition and is the basis of research. I find this characterization to be highly comforting.
The main difficulty is figuring out how to be wrong in exactly the right way. While neophytes might create original solutions through their ignorance, as they gain knowledge many artists lose the energy that characterized their early work. One solution is to remain blissfully unaware of the rules (or what advertisers are calling “stupid”). The problems with this proposed path are twofold: first, when we refuse to improve our skill set, we don’t develop as composers and we are forced to accept simple replications of our initial successful forays; second, when we lack awareness within our field, we are unable to recognize the difference between our greatest achievements and our worst failures.
As artists, we should constantly seek to improve ourselves and to increase our range of expression. Ideally, we can reach a state where our firm foundation of hard-won and prodigious knowledge provides us with the freedom to tweak systems, to challenge rules, to be deliciously, humanely, courageously, and satisfyingly wrong.
And so I find myself working very strenuously in order to create something incorrect, something that engenders expectations and then thwarts them, something that defies its own internal logic. Because the moments that I truly adore in the works of others are those moments that shock, astonish and—ultimately—delight me. Songs, instrumental music, photographs, paintings, sculptures, novels, stories, and poems compel me to return many times to experience their wonders when they are gloriously wrong. The visceral joy of their illogical logic and their beautiful ugliness rarely fades.