I was fortunate to attend a lecture recently by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and apparently some other books, too. In the post-lecture Q and A, Hofstadter mentioned a tendency among classical music initiates to label all Baroque works as “Bach” upon first being exposed to Bach’s music. As they learn more about Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, etc., Hofstadter noted that their concept of “Bach” became “smaller”: They acquired a more specific, increasingly conditioned understanding of “Bach” and became more able to discern Bach from Vivaldi and Handel.
Do neophyte new music listeners undergo a similar experience? Are they apt to file Boulez under Stockhausen if they’ve heard Stockhausen, or file Earle Brown under David Lang if they’ve heard Lang? I assume that, to a layperson, the immediately sensible surface difference between Bach and Mozart (or any other familiar “control test” composer) is much smaller than the difference between Mozart and Xenakis. The bigger question for us, however, is whether the difference between Bach and, say, Vivaldi is larger or smaller than the difference between, for instance, Xenakis and Ligeti—or between me and the guys in the office next door.
One way to say that we want to write distinctive, individual music is to say that we want our listeners’ perceptions of us to be as “small,” as specific, as possible. Although I hold the music of my fellow students at Illinois in high regard, my ultimate goal is obviously to write music that will not be confused with theirs. I’ve often wondered what qualitative differences nonspecialists might cite when asked what separates my piece from another student’s on the same program. In fact, next time my music is played, I think I’ll ask.