Set Aside The Audible Math, And Start Writing Some Music

I’ll admit it. I’m jaded. I hear tons of music but like very little of it, yet my cavalier attitude doesn’t impede or handicap—I remain wide open to new ideas, still eager to listen to music of every persuasion.

As I type, I can’t help overhearing Frank on the phone talking about 36-tone equal temperament… something about four symmetrical subsets of nine seems particularly exciting to him. I confess that some of those classes on Schenkerian analysis and set theory were pretty cool, but most of the music we dissected wasn’t ever conceived formulaically. And in the end, after all the hidden relationships are revealed, the music doesn’t actually sound any different.

To all the composers out there with number fetishes, it’s time to ditch your precious crutch. Yeah, there was a time—over 30 years ago—when math surfaced in the visual arts, and it was short lived. Mel Bochner, Barry LeVa, Sol LeWitt, et al. eventually moved on to explore other issues. Yet music composition’s century-long math fixation still continues today. Okay, minimalism eradicated serialism, sort of, but so what? Minimalist music literally sounded like arithmetic. In the composer’s quest for formal unity, or whatever reason that calculator is turned on, absolutely nothing profound is instilled in the music. If anything, all those silly formulas are probably making music bland to the ears. Thankfully, there are signs that music, sans mathématiques, is thriving deep inside the trenches of contemporary music.

Look no further than the newly released recording of Alvin Curran’s Inner Cities piano cycle. This is music that was created with a blatant disregard for math, balance, and symmetry, but everything sounds utterly right. Notes and chords follow one another without any obligation to an underlying grand scheme—it’s music in a constant state of pure self-realization. And shouldn’t music reflect this sort of personal reality, rather than a set of numbers and calculations? Hmm, maybe I’m just jaded…

13 thoughts on “Set Aside The Audible Math, And Start Writing Some Music

  1. JohnClare

    Throw out the math, and throw out the piano (re: previously posted piano manifesto!)…
    I find it very interesting that the discussion lately is what not to do, or how to do it…which I think is very good, actually – it’s how “rules” are made and styles defined…often NOT by what things are, but what they are not.
    I also say throw out alliteration! Overused! (that’s just me, though!) But keep the exclamation point!

  2. Frank J. Oteri

    While there is obviously room for a wide range of opinions (even ones like the above that are so clearly antithetical to my own), I have to point out one of the things that has made many non-initiates to new music so suspicious of new music over the years is the Robespierre-esque disdain for anything that is not new. The above rallying cry against mathematically-derived musical systems seems to take the next step by saying the only way to newer music is to eschew last century’s new music. Such a position ironically dooms that newer music as well to an extremely short shelf life since inevitably tomorrow’s new music becomes yesterday’s old music as soon as the day after tomorrow.

    It’s a bit of a bogey man to rag on the serialists or the minimalists, just like it is to rag on the neo-romantics, because what they’re doing has all been done before. You can find a precedent for just about everything anyone is doing right now as well as what anyone will do forever.

    Don’t take this as a rallying cry for stasis; it is not. James Tenney rightly pointed out when I asked him if he thought everything has been done before that every cloud in the sky is different. This is true, but they are all still clouds. There is still room for new ideas, but new ideas will inevitably always contain older ideas within them. Last night from the stage of the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, Meredith Monk said it more succinctly and directly than I possibly can: “The past is part of the present.”

    Rather than worrying about whether or not something has been done before, composers are at their best when they are writing music they personally believe in. And, if they are successful at it, they’ll hopefully convey that belief onto their listeners, regardless of their music’s stylistic or historically bound trappings: indeterminacy, plunderphonics, repetition, you name it. In my case, this month it happens to be symmetrical 36-tone rows. Two years ago it was Medieval modes. Not sure what it will be next year, but I’m sure I’ll find some math in it somewhere (as well as, hopefully, a tune I can hum). That’s part of what makes creating music so exciting for me.

    Ironically, what opened me up to the past was embracing the philosophy of John Cage who is so often wrongly accused of eschewing it. Not only did he treasure the music of Mozart and Satie in all their mathematical glory, but Cage, by fully emancipating music, did much more than Schoenberg’s emancipation of dissonance: he emancipated consonance as well and ultimately he emancipated us from the whole Hegelian view of progress. Ultimately, the most important thing Cage did was make me wary of any aesthetic argument that contains the word “should.”

  3. randy

    Today is yesterday’s tomorrow again….
    My point wasn’t about eschewing the past or whether or not something has been done before, etc. I certainly don’t care if something is new or old, as long as it has an impact. I’m simply wondering if a fixation on math is stifling music’s impact. We’re taught to believe that all these purposeful relationships actually reinforce the music’s impact, but I’m not totally convinced…

  4. EvanJohnson

    Randy, nothing you’re talking about is “math” – at best it’s arithmetic, but really it’s about proportion, symmetry, balance, weight – all aesthetic concepts, not (merely) mathematical ones.

    Using numerical vocabulary in talking about music is entirely natural (intervals anyone?); the labeling of this sort of discourse “math” is not a neutral act, of course, and I think that positing some sort of conflict between “musical” (emotive? expressive? what?) and “mathematical” (read “aesthetic”) values is reductive and futile.

  5. randy

    Sure, I’m being reductive, but I’m not interested in the semantics—wait, actually I am… Yes, it’s natural that we talk about music in mathematical terms because that’s the way we’re schooled. But imagine if there were some other sort of linguistic tool in which to refer to musical phenomena. Would composers finally transcend the time-honored need to inject their music with conceits concerning proportion, symmetry—you know, the numbers—before even considering the sound of whatever construct. Why does that melodic line have to be a fugue? I’m all for systems, especially breaking them. Just wondering if it might be more freeing to forgo any system in the first place…

  6. Chris Becker

    Randy, it sounds to me like you are describing a very narrow range of music and composers here in this critique. Would you agree? Is your critique directed at composers who try to prop up themselves and their music with detailed explanations as to how the music was constructed when they have in fact ended up creating a piece with no soul?

    That said, isn’t much of the world’s spiritual / ritualistic music a hybrid of the two composition strains you and Frank are sort of backing up i.e. ragas, pygmy chants, Mardi Gras Indian songs, gamelan, etc.?

  7. EvanJohnson

    I’m afraid I don’t believe it’s possible to “forgo any system.” Even unfettered intuition, insofar as it works at all, works on principles that can be systematized ex post facto – that is, they are ascribable to a system… After all, it’s impossible to write music that does not express some proportional vocabulary, whether that was a fundamental element of precompositional thought or not. Operating “without a system” is simply operating in ignorance of the system one is using – that’s the nature of, well, everything.

    And I simply don’t believe that any competent composer uses any construct, “mathematical” (numeric?) or otherwise, without considering how it sounds or, alternately, considering the fact that they may intentionally not want to know how it sounds – and that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.

  8. randy

    Good point Chris. Indeed I am describing a narrow range of music and composers, the kind we usually find in concert halls. I know there’s so much more to life out there, but I actually enjoy working inside of this sort of traditional context. Yeah, the position I’m taking here calls into question, as you say, “composers who try to prop up themselves and their music with detailed explanations as to how the music was constructed when they have in fact ended up creating a piece with no soul.” In this scenario, Composer X’s allegiance to formal concerns works to their disadvantage.

    As you suggest, almost all music other uses a hybrid approach. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been? Well, right now it seems we only have one vocabulary in place—mathematics—and so we use it to “teach” music. Personally, I think it’s ludicrous that universities offer PhDs in music composition. What does Dr. Composer X really know about music besides what I’ve been calling the math? Maybe they have a few tricks on how to quickly churn out chuncks of musical filler using some highfalutin formula—nothing at all valuable to a composer. I’ll place my bets on the composers who have a highly personal relationship with their materials which they somehow manage to direct inside the listener. Isn’t it at least possible that new music’s lack of immediate relevancy these days might have something to do with a widespread inability to let go of the only way composers know how to talk about music? We’re actually teaching ourselves to hear music as intervals, harmonic progressions, and various other relationships. Isn’t that a little antithetical? What good is music if we truly understand it?

    Evan says that “operating ‘without a system’ is simply operating in ignorance of the system one is using.” If that’s true, what’s to be gained by analyzing whatever unconscious system that somehow emerged after the fact? So we can recreate something similar? What does this say about the nature of everything?

  9. flanders

    i am a regular reader of the new musicbox texts,but feel now compelled to react,since I fully understand why you say what you’re saying ,but on the other hand think you pick out the wrong target.
    An enquiry into 36tone equal temperament is ultimately a quest for finding ‘sound’,and therefore philosophically not different than placing ebows on a piano and checking out what happens,both are experimental actions,(which i love to hear)

    What I think you mean is that you are against what I call normative formalism (fe statements such as ‘all music that is not serial is bad music; or not minimal or whatever’)People who compose according to such a priori rules,have often gone to schools where they we’re instructed to compose in a certain way,and than blindly follow it,without questioning why they are doing this.This has always been the case (read the charles rosen comments about how classical sonata form was formulated after the form itself had lost interest for innovative composers etc)
    Now about IC: Alvin Curran (mr not-math) and Tom Johnson (mr Math) have great respect for each other’s work.
    Things are not about maths or not. A lot of the greatest music (mozart,cage,scarlatti,scelsi) uses apriori established time structures,some of the greatest music doesn’t (scelsi,strawinsky,schubert) Strawinsky even claimed having just heard the rite of spring,and then worked hard to write it down… just as Feldman,but then Webern was calculating etc etc

    The Inner Cities are all about balance,about how long things should be before they change,and they are about the ‘omnipresent past’.They show indeed a blatant disrespect ,but more for hierarchy than maths. The method itself is a big denial of the idea of the ‘opus’ as a fixed given,but celebrate music as an everchanging possibility,(sometimes literally showing that through gradual changes).Therefore the whole thing is a paradox: a bigger-than-life work,that pretends to be not a ‘work’ but a mere possibility…important to know maybe is that it was never set out to be a big work,the fact that it is is entirely accidental,by coincidence.

    Personally btw I have a great respect for some ‘mad scientists’ who make music Clarence Barlowe being one of them…

    To B or to B flat,that’s…


  10. EvanJohnson

    Evan says that “operating ‘without a system’ is simply operating in ignorance of the system one is using.” If that’s true, what’s to be gained by analyzing whatever unconscious system that somehow emerged after the fact?

    I never suggested analyzing unconscious systems; I’m just suggesting that whether there is an overt “system” or not is not necessarily a terribly revealing comment about the workings of a music.

  11. randy

    For those who don’t know him, Daan Vandewalle is the pianist who recorded Alvin Curran’s complete Inner Cities cycle. Thanks for responding Daan! I agree with what you say. Yes, inquiry into 36-tone equal is about finding new sounds. However, when a composer becomes more fixated on the symmetrical subsets available inside whatever tuning system rather than the actual sounds for which they are seeking… well, I think it can cause a little bit of problem. I very much respect Tom Johnson, but when I listen to his music—which literally is audible process (sometimes mathematical, sometimes not)—I sense a hermetical completeness, and I hit a wall. I’m no longer hungry to transcend. And maybe this is a desired or appropriate response. Maybe not? I’m sure Tom Johnson purposely seeks this sort of soulless compositional model (not meant derogatorily) as his own means to transcendence—but I’m not suggesting that there should only be one road, or that transcendence is even a goal to begin with. Like life, what works for one, doesn’t always work for everyone. I just see a lot of composers today using lots of different approaches only to arrive at the same place. I thought that maybe by removing the language of how we speak about music from our collective unconscious, a new breed of music might emerge which could leave one profoundly speechless. Yeah, it’s impossible to ignore mathematics… Just thought it might be worth a try. Maybe it still is, for me anyway.

  12. Scott

    It appears that discussion on this topic has died down a bit and being true to form I am a little late in chiming in.

    It seems to me that the focus of this is two fold. One aspect is dealing with music that lacks something interesting to say…and there is plenty of music that does that. Randy is particularly pointing to music that uses mathematical (or number) ideas.

    I’m not really sure Randy is saying this, but someone usually does, and that is to equate music that uses math or numbers to music which has nothing really to “say.”

    This is of course simplistic and sweeping. I remember from my time in NYC hearing lots of so-called “up and coming” composers who write in more traditionally tonal laguages and remembering just how lifeless their music was. There were lots of bells and wistles, the climaxes were all in the right place and the orchestration was flawless, but there was something missing. That something for me was a purpose for existing. There simply was no soul. Orchestral exercises touted as great new pieces of art. Of course there is a lot of music that uses math, etc. that has no purpose as well and that brings me to my second thought; that is to the use of tools.

    There are a lot of tools out there and mathematical forms, set theory, etc. are just some of them (as is functional harmony). This discussion to me really boils down to the use of tools. Is the tool the art or was the tool used to create the art? It is pretty obvious when a composer places the tool as the center of the art. This can be very interesting if intentional, but more often it is not. This is most often criticized in pieces that use formulas, processes, math, etc., but it does happen often enough in some of the more traditionally tonal new pieces. It just happens and happens across the board.

    The focus of this discussion (if there really needs to be a discussion) in my mind really is about how well the tools were used. Ideally you don’t notice the tools at all (such as with Mozart, Bach, Schoenberg, Carter, etc.) and the music speaks for itself. It is often when we start to notice the tools that the problems start arriving aesthetically. But hey, that’s me.


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