Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

A New Romanticism?

DALE WARLAND: Do you think we are facing a new kind of romantic period in music, and if that is the case, do you have any thoughts or explanation about why this is so?

DOMINICK ARGENTO: I don’t think there was ever a period when music was not romantic, but I am not speaking about a style. What we hear today doesn’t seem that much different to me as a mode of expression than what I hear in Beethoven, Schumann, going back to Mozart, to the Bach family, and on back to Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Every piece of music I have ever heard—and I include Schoenberg, Babbitt, Stockhausen, and everything else—to me, is romantic. Because composing itself is a romantic activity. Just putting notes together to make music is a romantic idea. The whole concept of making something and hoping to make that something beautiful or meaningful, hoping to make something that communicates with a fellow being, that is a romantic notion. You may not like certain kinds of music; they may have qualities about them that you wouldn’t consider very romantic, but I would argue that the fact that they exist, were made, and made for a purpose, makes them, ipso facto, romantic. I think that the labeling of periods of music is pointless anyway. To call one period Romantic, another one Baroque, another one Rococo, and so forth is just obscuring the fact that this is all beauty of a kind and all on a single continuum.

R. MURRAY SCHAFER: I think there are two theories, two myths, about the origin of music. One of them says that music came into existence when it was discovered that a turtle shell with some strings across it creates sound. That sound is from an exterior source. The other is one which suggests that music comes from inside the human being. That is, in fact, the romantic concept of the origin of music that music comes from inside us. But both of these theories had certain periods in which they became more accepted. For instance, in the Middle Ages, music was not thought of as something that was romantic. Music was then considered to be part of an array of subjects which included mathematics and astronomy and so forth. And as we know, in the Middle Ages they talked about the music of the spheres being the ultimate form of music, totally outside of human invention. So these ideas did come back at times, and I think in parts of the Twentieth Century when we got into music that was created mathematically, music that was created out of a twelve-tone method, and other kinds, perhaps we were moving closer to that older concept of music being more remote from the emotional drive of individuals. Perhaps we are moving back and are closer to the romantic concept of music coming from within us. But I have no doubt that at some point again we will probably shift the other direction and consider that form of music which is totally beyond us, almost beyond our comprehension.

CHEN YI: I think more than these, there was more variety in terms of styles. So, I don’t think that would go for the whole direction at a time. I think that since the Cold War, many countries and many styles have been explored. So I don’t think that it will go in one direction.

ERNANI AGUIAR: I also feel the same way as Maestro Argento, and I want to say a few words, not as a composer, but as an interpreter. I have lots of problems when I have to conduct the music of my friends, who write over mathematical equations or something similar, because this music does not say anything to me. And it does not say too much to the musicians who are playing this music. And then, the audience comes and asks, “Well, why did you do this?” To answer your question, we are returning to Romanticism. Man has always been a romantic creature because he has always felt love.

DALE WARLAND: I know from my own experience, you hear the word twelve-tone, and you think anything but romantic. And yet I have done a lot of Argent’s twelve-tone music, and it is the most romantic music you can do. First of all, I would like to say don’t be afraid of Mr. Argento. I have sung with him many times and have heard him sing, he just doesn’t want to admit to us that he can sing! Would you talk about the process of beginning a composition, particularly as it relates to the text? How do you begin?

ERNANI AGUIAR: It is a hard question. You start to write…. May I say something to you? I am not a composer for orchestra, but an orchestra conductor. I think the compositions base themselves on two points: technique and inspiration. If we don’t have the technique, we cannot write. And if we have only the inspiration, we cannot do anything because we don’t have the technique to write. So inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, comes together with the technique, and that is how we start.

DOMINICK ARGENTO: I start every new piece the same way, that is, by rummaging through all the unhappy pieces I have never finished to see if I can find anything of value to salvage!  I don’t think most composers throw anything away! You start something and get fourteen pages into it, and decide it’s junk. But you don’t throw it out! It’s good junk. I tell myself that if an idea doesn’t work for the specific piece I’m writing at the time, it might work just fine in a different piece. But I have never found that to be true; it’s an illusion that I’m stuck with. I do begin by browsing through older things that might be useable, and it takes about a week for me to realize that it’s hopeless and I’d better do it the hard way: just put a blank piece of paper in front of myself and start anew. That is when the action really starts. We are talking about choral music, and I think it starts from the text. I mean, I like to read a poem, a text—frequently prose—whatever the text happens to be, read it long enough, often enough, to where I discover what the weights of the words are, the significance of them, the durations to stress, the quality of the syllables, whether it is high, low, what I can do to those words that will enhance their meaning as I understand it. To give you a very simple example, somewhere in the Sonnet that I set for the Symposium, Shakespeare speaks about the lofty towers down-razed. Lofty is one of those words that has got to be up here, it cannot be down there, at least not without getting a laugh. Enough of those considerations come together and begin to form a profile, and that profile is simply another word for melody. And I think that is how the piece finally starts. What happens after that is hard to discuss. Again, I refer to a composer whose choral music I admire, Britten, who when asked how he composes said: “I pick a note and everything else just sort of follows.” I understand exactly what that means but can’t articulate it. This is the way it feels: once a note is set down, there is a kind of obligation for that note to go to this note, and not to go to that note. And so you stand there like a censor or border guard, saying, “Okay you can pass…. no, you can’t pass…. okay…. next!”

CHEN YI: For me, usually the process goes both ways: from choosing the text and getting the image. There are many times in my life I have read a text hundreds of times, and gotten into the mood. And the most important thing is to get an image and the idea. The idea means the unique sounding, the structure, the design of the timing, and a good beginning and an impressive ending. And then the texture comes to mind. And my job is to arrange that, to write that out.

R. MURRAY SCHAFER: Well, sometimes if there is a text, the text creates the substance of the music. If there is a given text, I would take it and just sit down and maybe just scribble some features that would suggest what is going to be a lengthy vocal curve, or what is going to be very quick, rhythmic. These would be nothing more than scribbles on paper. And I’d do this maybe two or three times as I dream my way through the text, sing it to myself, and then perhaps the next day I would get a pen and start doodling some lines. I always draw my own lines. I write all scores by hand, and I find that the best way to work because it slows me down. I rule all the pentagrams myself too, so I would rule 5 lines, and then start ruling 6 and then 7, then 8, then 9, then 10 lines if I feel like it, and then I say, “Well, I guess the piece is going to have a soprano and bass part, it sort of goes from there.”

DALE WARLAND: How do you decide on your harmonic language? Is it developed at the same time as the melody or is it something that happens?

ERNANI AGUIAR: I do not have a special choice; no choice is made. Just a melody, the harmony, and the counterpoint that unite the work, kind of flow together.

DOMINICK ARGENTO: I don’t think I have ever really thought about it. It just seems to be there of its own accord, no pun intended. There are some words where a certain harmonic combination will be the best that I can think of to express what that word means to me or to give that word the emphasis that I want it to have. I think all of us probably have a working vocabulary of sounds that we are fond of, and sounds that we don’t particularly like, dissonances or consonants of all sorts. And we try to find the ones most appropriate for whatever the text happens to be. I really cannot describe it with any more clarity than that. It is something that I have never really thought about. It’s as if you were to ask a centipede how it knows which foot follows the previous foot: if they had to think about it, they would become paralyzed.

CHEN YI: If you consider all vertical sounding harmony, then you have many kinds of harmonic progressions. And sometimes I take clusters, but they are brought in one after another in order to make it easier for the singers to join in. Sometimes if there is a row form, you have to follow the twelve-tone rule. And if it is counterpoint writing, the vertical sounding is also a harmonic progression. So I always have a combination. I donít separate them as harmonic progressions strictly. My cluster may be chromatic, or it may be pentatonic.

R. MURRAY SCHAFER: Well, in a sense the question is inappropriate, because all vocal music is linear. All periods of choral music have been conceived as moving in linear fashion, and it was only after Rameau wrote his book on harmony that we began to think in terms of harmonic structure. And that gave rise to another form of music, which was the single voice accompanied by harmonies. But most choral music in the Western world and most choral music worldwide is something that is thought of in terms of linear progression rather than harmonic invention.