I’ve been thinking recently—spurred, no doubt, by Randy Nordschow’s interesting piece last week—about the role of theory in the compositional process. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about the extent to which the fun of “gee-whiz” theoretical constructions—and for some of us, they really are fun—can occlude our instincts and distract us from the experiential and sonic qualities of the piece at hand. This is a problematic question, in part because our “instincts” may themselves be nothing more than theory internalized directly through study and indirectly through listening. For some composers, however, it may be that the conscious application of theory and the gut-level, painterly construction of sound are entirely disconnected. Maybe some of these hypothetical composers choose the aesthetic math problem over the big sheet of newsprint on which to finger-paint.
I’m not sure any such composers actually exist. If they do, however, I bet they have an absolute blast. Released of the obligation to negotiate among more than one musical criterion, all they have to do is come up with the math problem, solve it, and they’re home free. But even if this composer (I envision him sitting beside a ham radio and wearing polyester slacks, slide rule in hand) is truly out there, I find it hard to believe that he would write music at all if he didn’t care about how it sounded.
I’m willing to allow that once upon a time, at the height of postwar musical pseudoscience, this guy might have been a composer. He might even have taught at Princeton. But now? I don’t think so. I’m not this guy. None of my friends are this guy. None of my professors have been this guy. There are composers who employ algorithms, mine data, and painstakingly construct charts to write music, but none of them, in my experience, are this guy. In fact, the only composers who even come close are, quite frankly, pretty old.
Do any of you know this guy? If so, what’s his problem? Why is he a musician rather than a rocket scientist? If not, why does this guy haunt our dreams? Is he just a straw man? Is he a manifestation of some gruesome facet of ourselves? If you’ve seen him, let us know. It’s for his own good.