Please Pass the Placebo
I threw my back out last week. I wish I could tell you the damage was done while rock climbing or trekking up Machu Picchu. Nope. Apparently schlepping a camera bag in Park Slope is enough to do me in these days. During my lunch break, I hobbled over to a pharmacy in search of something, anything, to ease the pain. I read all the purported benefits and adverse side effects listed on a bunch of pain medications, but nothing struck me as capable of relieving my discomfort. Then I spied a box labeled “Backaid.” The packaging had bold graphics replete with the words “maximum strength” and a depiction of a guy with a glowing red orb pinpointing the exact same spot where I, too, was aching. I might have bought the stuff, if it hadn’t been stocked on the bottom shelf just inches off the ground. I couldn’t even bend down to put on shoes and socks that morning, and wearing flip-flops in October was enough of an embarrassing fashion statement. I couldn’t imagine hunkering down only to end up stuck on Duane Reade’s floor, unable to get myself back up again.
Of course all of this has nothing to do with music—although yes, there’s a lot of painful music out there and the drug companies aren’t doing anything about it. Guys, how about a morning after pill for disastrous premieres suffered the previous evening. But all this got me thinking: Are we composers of so-called new music unwittingly giving too much premium shelf space to our beloved theories at the expense of sound? With so many hurdles already—self-important venues, program notes, the emotional baggage of a thousand-year canonical history—I think it might be time to loosen up a bit on all the relational thinking. No need to firebomb any opera houses folks, I’m just asking for a little more sonic consideration whenever you feel the urge to insert, say, an intervallic aggregate simply because it bears a connection to another structural element. This isn’t the way to achieve beauty—if indeed that is your goal. Speaking for my own work, I’d hate to think that someone more literate or better versed on the theoretical side of the fence would “get” something more than a casual listener. I’ve always felt that music has little to offer intellectually, and really, there’s nothing to get. Who care if you can hear the set theory? If that’s all you’re searching for, then I’m sure you’ll easily find it, even if the composer never consciously placed it there.
Most people, on the other hand, look for something more general: Am I enjoying this? Is this hitting me on an emotional level? Do I want to keep listening? If you have to think in order to “feel” music, my bet is that you own one of those weird carts, the kind with a horse rigged onto the back of it. There’s no escaping the fact that music has an immediately visceral impact. It might not be as strong as the sharp jolt of a muscle spasm in the lower back, but it’s undeniably all-access. Music is only profound when we share it and even the un-profound exalts during this process. So instead of locking yourself in the studio to work out all those heady structures, maybe you should take a walk outside, drink a beer with a friend, or do whatever cultivates your sense of inner-beauty—parking yourself in front of Finale all day doesn’t count. Take a break, let everything wash over you. Now take a deep breath, and write something you never dreamed you would. Follow it up with something that reinforces its implications. Repeat. And for christsakes, would it hurt you too much to compose something that your mom would actually like to hear?