Off Limits

After reading Colin Holter’s weekly musings yesterday, I was left with the memory of finishing my first stand-alone composition. Having studied and practiced the creation of film music until my early twenties, I found it kind of rough to compose something that wasn’t tethered to picture and dialogue. The act of creating music with its own raison d’être built right in was rather daunting, and the only way I could figure out how to surmount such a task was by severely limiting my compositional pallet.

Thankfully at the time of this first undertaking, there was a Sol LeWitt retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. If I hadn’t encountered the conceptual artist’s wall drawings at this crucial time in my own artistic development, I might still be toiling away on my “Opus One” at this very moment. Looking back, I think my hesitation to compose absolute music had something to do with form. To this day I’m skeptical of sectional forms, and so I constantly try to create work that is more monolithic—everything tends to happen all at once, at all times. In retrospect, my younger self was more in search of creating something with a sense of “solidness,” a hermetic object that coalesced temporally—although I thought of time as an unfortunate reality in which music must occur. Given my temporal prejudices, I obviously wasn’t very interested in rhythm, but had to find ways to incorporate it into the bigger picture of pitch relationships and what have you. My Sol LeWitt-inspired methodology for this first composition was simple: create a piece utilizing all one- two- three- four- five- and six-part combinations of six pitches.

Even if the piece, titled for Sol LeWitt, isn’t perceived by listeners as a single self-contained entity, the young artist in me seemed satisfied having found a tangible solution to creating a 12-minute piece without relying on sectional form. Now that I’m older and have shed any reliance on such tightly controlled systematic approaches—more fluid systems turn my crank now—I still find musical sectionalism a tad bit crass. Perhaps it’s the chronological confines of “this” followed by “that”, but there’s no escaping sectional compositions unless you follow down the well-trodden paths forged by the likes of Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Folke Rabe, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, and the like. While working with severe limitations can be incredibly liberating, it can also ensure that you wind up reinventing, say, the drone many times over. On the other hand, composition devoid of limitations tends to collapse into self-absorbed gobblygook. As always, the trick is to strike the right balance.

One thought on “Off Limits

  1. EvanJohnson

    there’s no escaping sectional compositions unless you follow down the well-trodden paths forged by the likes of Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Folke Rabe, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, and the like.

    or Boulez’s Structures Ia! or Peter Ablinger. Or these guys and gals.

    There is an awful lot of non-sectionalized music out there, and relatively little of it has to do with drones!

    Reply

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