I must confess that imagining stuff in the abstract is not one of my strong suits. Looking at recipes in cookbooks rarely gives me a firm idea of what the eventual meal will taste like and my reading of books about perfumery—e.g. Mandy Aftel’s Essence and Alchemy—has frequently left me completely baffled. Recently I’ve been in the process of contemplating moves, both for my office and for my mother, and it has frankly been extremely difficult to wrap my brain around details: e.g. I can’t really visualize what things will look like from a diagram. Today I visited the new office space for AMC which helped a bit on that front, but without furniture etc. it was still a bit of a leap for me.
Paradoxically, though, as a composer I’m constantly put in the position of having to imagine sounds before I can ever hear them in the corporeal world. Basically that’s what composers do. Whereas most recipes, aromatic formulas, and SmartDraw diagrams are as comprehensible to me as Ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, I can usually decipher a musical score and have no problem creating scores of my own.
This discrepancy between my senses puzzles me somewhat. Shouldn’t the mental ability to fathom any of these ciphers be roughly the same? Admittedly the chemistry required to understand perfume making would probably throw most people off, but the others are not rocket science, or even Labanotation (the elaborate notation system for dance first proposed by Rudolf von Laban back in 1928 which few choreographers understand to this day). In fact, musical scores are way more cryptic than food recipes, which after all just use words, or SmartDraw diagrams, which present reasonable two-dimensional simulacra of physical layouts. Music notation often does not look all that much like what it is supposed to be representing, so it requires even more imagination to ferret out meanings from it. But perhaps, ironically, the extra layers of abstraction in music notation are what make it more coherent to me. Music notation coheres in much the same way as the abstract letter configurations you are currently reading in order to form syntactical coherence in your mind, which are generally way more malleable and universal than pictographic communication. Why is it then that so many people find music notation completely unfathomable? And are folks who can’t read music better able process floor plans or to taste complete meals in their minds just by reading through a cookbook? Oh, to be able to equally make sense of all of these things!
Of course, even if all of these codes made equal sense, ultimately they’re all inexact. Great chefs can make a so-so recipe into an amazing meal. Adept interior designers can similarly take abstruse makeshift diagrams and work wonders; other people on AMC’s staff are taking on that role with gusto, not me. And every composer knows that an interpreter can take a score and go somewhere with it that can be completely different from what the composer originally intended. It’s something that gives many composers—myself included—quite a bit of anxiety, although sometimes composers can also be overjoyed when something sounds great even if it was not quite what they had originally imagined.