I had an enjoyable conversation the other day about the challenge of writing music that’s about triviality and superficiality, but is neither trivial nor superficial. Unfortunately, the court of last resort for deciding whether a piece really is the thing it purports to address seems too often to be the composer’s biography. If I want to know whether the Diane Warren quote I just heard is an earnest tribute to the master or a merciless skewering of assembly-line songcraft, all I have to do is see if, where, and with whom the composer studied, which awards he or she has or has not received, etc., and I feel I can render my judgment with smug confidence. Obviously this is grossly unfair, but be honest: When you learn that whoever wrote the jaunty rag you just heard apprenticed under Clarence Barlow or Cornelius Cardew, you have to consider the possibility of irony a bit more seriously. Debussy broadcasts pretty clearly that his Wagner reference in “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” is satire, but would we know that if we weren’t familiar with the ponderous prominence of Tristan und Isolde in the musical culture that socialized him?
Although I’m not dealing in Diane Warren quotes per se, the piece I’m hip-deep in right now is sort of ridiculous. But does that mean that it will be ridiculed? I have to accept that it might, and I don’t want to rely on my bio for the wink and nudge that assure listeners I don’t really mean what my music seems to be saying. So how, materially, do you make your intentions clear? I have a few ideas, but it’s impossible to know whether they’ll work. I suppose that’s why they call it experimental music.