Don’t Be That Guy

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.

23 thoughts on “Don’t Be That Guy

  1. EvanJohnson

    “That guy” doesn’t exist. Never has existed. Never will exist. From the few instances where I have interacted with Milton Babbitt, who I assume is the unstated referent of your “teaching at Princeton” comment, I can report that he has more passion about the visceral effects of music and sound than most composers I know.

    Now, can we please move on?

    After our friend “JKG” has his say, of course.

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  2. amc654

    “I’m willing to allow that once upon a time, at the height of postwar musical pseudoscience, this guy might have been a composer.”

    I’m just not sure about that, Colin. Who might these composers be? I suppose some of the early composers of algorithmic electronic music might qualify (Hiller, perhaps?), and someone more daring than I might suggest that Tom Johnson’s work is more dependent on numbers (though surely not mathematics) than the vast majority of composers, but I can’t think of anyone whose attraction is primarily to generative systems over the sounds those systems generate.

    And, while we’re at it, it also seems worth asserting that this idea that these composers are writing with “mathematics” is sort of laughable, or at least vastly over-exaggerated. With the notable exception of Xenkais, whose math is way the heck over my head, most of the “math” in this vague “genre” is, at best, pretty simple arithmetic, which to me doesn’t seem too far removed from any of the fundamentally mathematical concepts (proportion, rhythm/duration, frequency, etc.) in any music.

    Another interesting line of inquiry would be to track backwards and see if we can’t find historical precedents for this sort of approach (the typical argument seems to suggest that this sort of compositional methodology drops out of the blue in 1950 like frogs from the sky).

    I nominate Rodericus.

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  3. marknowakowski

    Doesn’t exist? Try telling that to theory faculty, who (at all four of my academic institutions now), seem to turn “theory” into “fact”, and bully the poor composers to follow suit with every note and chord.

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  4. Colin Holter

    Mark: Theorists aren’t composers (unless they happen to be both theorists and composers), and as far as I know they have no coercive leverage over practicing musicians. Perhaps there are indeed some theorist bullies prowling the compositional playground, but I don’t see myself being pushed around by them. Your mileage may vary.

    Aaron: Your citation of historical precedent is well-taken. As I noted, I’m not willing to go on record with the claim that there have ever really been “math composers” now, fifty years ago, or seven hundred years ago. I’m as skeptical of this archetype as you and Evan seem to be.

    Evan: You’ve been hanging around NewMusicBox long enough to know that we can never move on. Sorry. Thanks for sharing your experiences with Babbitt, though.

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  5. philmusic

    Evan, I once heard that “those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.” The posts from the last week have shown a myriad of variations on the same old theme. For some, moving on is not an option.

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  6. amc654

    Mark – would you be willing to give us some examples of the sort of pressure/expectations you’ve encountered? It might help clarify the issue, a bit.

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  7. EvanJohnson

    theorists?!
    I can only speak for myself, of course, but the only “pressure” I’ve ever gotten from a faculty theorist about anything was when the theorist on my doctoral committee told me I was talking too much about abstractions during my dissertation defense.

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  8. JKG

    Weighing in…
    *dressed as sumo wrestler*. The name which comes to mind most comfortably, sans the mathematical approach to composition, is Harry Partch. He obviously had a blast. As far as purely didactic approaches, I am certain most of those folks are psychic masochists, bereft of both talent and a will to communicate (except over a nice bottle of chianti). Xenakis probably very much enjoyed “designing” pieces, as any number of others. Ain’t my cup ‘o joe, but if it floats yer boat…

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  9. JKG

    Of ontological proportions….
    Let me also contritely add *evil giggle,* that those who design music for the sake of design do a magnificent service to those who choose said various and sundry techniques, with which to communicate more effectively with an audience. This is not true in a few cases, however, particularly those which mandate performance art as including the real or imagined venue in life-threatening flames as part of the “artistic work.” Nothing like a little excitement, eh? St. Exupery gave a very nice example in Citadelle, in which the astronomers of the caliph maintain that their star charts described “the real,” while everything else was inconsequential.

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  10. Garth Trinkl

    “The name which comes to mind most comfortably, sans the mathematical approach to composition, is Harry Partch.”

    I recall that Mr Partch’s ‘Genesis of a Music’ [1949] , which he worked on for over 25 years in London and America while supported for periods by grants, including one from the Guggenheim Foundation, is filled with the mathematics of the overtone system and variant tunings — 43 tone and other.

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  11. dalgas

    Garth wrote:I recall that Mr Partch’s ‘Genesis of a Music’ [1949] , which he worked on for over 25 years in London and America while supported for periods by grants, including one from the Guggenheim Foundation, is filled with the mathematics of the overtone system and variant tunings — 43 tone and other.

    While just about everything else in Partch’s actual music is about as traditional and far removed from any concept of “mathematics” as can be…

    Steve Layton

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  12. philmusic

    That’s an interesting point. I remember a few years back at a music festival a composer presented his precompositional matrixes and mathematical number systems for his compositions. Though the precompositional materials were almost exactly the same the works themselves were day and night apart. One was very consonant, tonal and laid back, and the other one was dissonant and wild. Yet the precompositional math charts were almost impossible to tell apart. Go figure.

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  13. Garth Trinkl

    I recall Earle Brown speaking most highly of the influence of Joseph Schillinger and his method. Schillinger was a brilliant Russian/Ukrainian futurist/constructivist who was born in Kharkov, Russian-occupied Ukraine, and who was reported to be a brilliant student at the [Saint] Petersburg Imperial Conservatory/Petrograd Conservatory. In the 1920s, his hometown of Kharkov (now Kharkiv, Ukraine — Ukraine’s second largest city) became the first capital of the new Soviet Union and a hotbed for Ultra-Modern art, music, and especially public architecture.

    Pretty soon after he emigrated to the U.S. in 1928, he collaborated with composer-theorist Henry Cowell to introduce the Rhythmicon, the first electronic drum machine, which Cowell had worked on earlier with Leon Theremin, who was one year younger than Schillinger (and who was born in [Saint] Petersburg).

    There is much about him on the Web [like there is about Schenker], and others here may be able to speak more about his futurist/abstractionist influences on Cage, Brown, Feldman, Wolff, and Birtwistle [and Boulez and Stockhausen as well?].

    He was so highly regarded as a teacher that George Gershwin, Glenn Miller, Carmine Coppola, and several other famous music figures are reported to have studied with him, as others here might already know.

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  14. Frank J. Oteri

    Well, as far as I’m concerned, the infectious music of Partch is yet another proof that you can create a completely meaningful artistic experience and still be fascinated by numbers. But so is just about anything else. Even if we don’t choose to acknowledge it, numerical computations lie behind almost everything conceivable by mankind. Math is, of course, just a shorthand, but it’s a ubiquitous one in all kinds of music: tonal, serial, minimal, microtonal, indeterminate, Indian classical, Chinese traditional, jazz, the “12-bar” blues, bluegrass, you name it.

    Since yesterday, a couple of friends and colleagues have jokingly posited that I might be “that guy”. I certainly listen to music, all music, with an analytical bent. But I don’t see anything wrong with this. In fact, it’s rather pleasurable to me. Then again (and if I open a can of worms here so be it), the degree of shallowness or profundity perceived in any musical composition is ultimately more a function of the listener than the composer or the performers.

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  15. JKG

    Sorry to burst ya’ll’s bubble…
    But whether Frank is the guy or not doesn’t diminish our absolute need for one another as both artists and people. My artistic adversaries define me and my work much better than any of my friends – you know the ones, with the starry gleams in their eyes as they listen with astonishment to the first ever hearing of a new piece. As a fairly subjective, populist composer, I am all about the “mythology” that audiences read into art, particularly music. And analytical minds help me to firther define for myself the limits I choose to define my own art for myself. Thus freed from the socialist domination of professors with quasi-Marxist agendas (*smirk*), I can honestly vouch that “all music is equal – but some music is more equal than others.”

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  16. Colin Holter

    Depends on whether he has the slacks and the slide rule. A ham radio operator’s license would be indisputable proof.

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  17. Frank J. Oteri

    Slacks, slide rule, ham radio
    Well, I haven’t worn polyester slacks since I started buying my own clothing and I’ve never known how to use a ham radio. As for the slide rule, I confess, I fetishized them since I was in elementary school. Although, truth be told, the two that I’d had for many years disappeared when I moved from midtown Manhattan to beyond uptown to Inwood five years ago and I haven’t missed them very much. (How’s that for symbolism?)

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  18. swellsort

    Xenakis!! He was a math man, to the nth degree (pun intended).

    I apologize for the bad pun but it was fairly irresistable.

    Anyway, Xenakis used math and computers quite extensively. Perhaps he was that guy. Maybe not. I don’t really know, but certainly he would be closest, since music was sort of a secondary career to his being a revolutionary and mathematician.

    Anyone ever read Partch’s manifesto, Genesis of a Music? He may have been into alternate tuning and numbers in that sense, but that really has nothing to do with how he wrote music. It has to do with how he built his instruments and tuned them. I don’t think of Partch as a math based composer. He was a math based carpenter!

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  19. marknowakowski

    I enjoyed how much my somewhat-vague comment lent to the conversation. I should remember to be less pointedly-opinionated in the future…

    To clarify my comment: numerous times during presentations, I’ve been hammered for not presenting enough “theoretical” background to my piece. I’ve had entire juries spent on the best way to notate only one measure. Every theory course I’ve taken might as well have been called “music FACT”, because “theorizing” has hardly ever been an option. I’ve heard composers scoff at any music not stricly programatic, and have even been told that I spend too much time in the “philosophical bullshit” part of the creative process… (reading Stravinsky, I’d love to hear his comments on all of this.) It also seems standard to assume that composers must be good theorists, while theorists are never required to be good composers. I guess I am simply expressing a long-held frustration with how the subject is taught, and how it leads composers to become specialists, ultimately alienating audiences along the way.

    From here I can divulge on the danger of making ourselves too specialized in the ever-fragmenting University environment, the naivety of our approaches to both theory and history teaching, and how none of this even BEGINS to help new music move forward. I’m guessing I’d be preaching to the choir in most cases, as many of you have likely shared this experience…

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  20. philmusic

    “The irony of recent theoretical approaches is that they are not about theory at all but about certainty. The accurate retelling of a works precompositional material is a fine thing but it is not an analysis of a work any more than a blueprint is an analysis of a building. A blueprint does not describe the experience of a structure in time and space only its dimensions. Many works which use rows and or serial techniques have very similar blueprints, but their compositional effect is completely different.”

    phil’s page

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