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…