Elements of Style
Last week, I tried to get into the matter of truth in music; this week, I’d like to look more closely at a similar issue, one perhaps more tightly connected to the actual craft of composition. When asked to define music, Schoenberg noted that it has the power to send us to “a dreamland of fulfilled desires, or…a dreamed hell.” Ignoring for the moment whether a piece of music sounds dreamy or hellish by comparison to other pieces, I think it’s reasonable to assert that the piece’s position on this axis of fulfillment or punishment depends on the extent to which the “goods” of the piece are “delivered,” whatever those goods may be. In other words, a large part of whether music provides an experience that is heavenly or hellish has to do with form, with the “verbs” of the piece, and not with its material, its “nouns.” The question now isn’t whether music is true or false, then, but whether it’s gratifying or tantalizing, in the old-school Tantalus sense of the word. Again, this is a question that stands apart from the question of whether the music is good or bad—there are pieces of very high experiential quality in both camps.
Now let’s reexamine the materials, the nouns, earlier set aside. What if the composer fulfills our formal needs but delivers hellish goods? Conversely, what if he or she leaves us stranded with no formal relief in a paradise of beautiful music? These, for me, are some of the most fascinating moments in music—moments in which the contrast between form and material is at its most striking. (It’s only marginally appropriate for me to be writing about this phenomenon on a website devoted to new music because it’s been around for hundreds of years.)
But we’re talking about musical circumstances predicated on the coevality of a) a form of sufficient rationality and gravity that we can reasonably impute things like “forming an expectation,” “fulfilling an expectation,” and “subverting an expectation” to it and b) affect-laden (or at least highly characteristic) material capable of exerting its own gravity on our interest or emotions. One of the most exciting things about new music today is that we possess a vast plurality of compositional means—I don’t mean sounds, but instead hundreds of years’ worth of experiential shapes and a nascent awareness of how to synthesize new ones—to pursue goals like this one. To live simultaneously in Schoenberg’s heaven and his hell sounds like a worthy project to me.