The Agony of Influence
In What To Listen For In Music, one of the first books about music I ever read, Aaron Copland proposes that music has a stronger analogical connection to theater and dance than to the visual arts. This assertion seems, in retrospect, a little simplistic: Of course a play begins and ends, just like a piece of music, whereas a painting doesn’t. Nonetheless, so many of the great composers since the Second World War (about ten years before the publication of Copland’s book) have been inspired by the plastic arts—and not just their material, the things about them that are immediately apprehensible at first sight, but their experiential characteristics, the act of perceiving and understanding a work of art. In fact, I know a few composers—young ones, especially—who conceptualize their pieces primarily along these metaphorical terms.
Personally, I’m more inclined to take literature as a model; I’d love to write a piece that exercises a novel’s experiential capabilities (q.v. Mikhail Bakhtin, a highly recommended counterbalance to Adorno). As fascinating as the possibility of musical heteroglossia may be, however, I have to keep in mind that I’m not writing a novel—I’m writing a piece of music. The compositional analogies I might employ will be, necessarily, imperfect. Fortunately, these particular lemons lend themselves to making a variety of artistic lemonade that I relish: There’s almost nothing that fascinates me more in music than a sheared analogy, the suggestion of a broken comparison.
But no great musical response to another art form has been reducible to recess in an analogical jungle gym. Even if he or she has contented himself or herself with the flaws in a given metaphorical conceit, the composer still isn’t excused from composing—i.e., from assembling an experience that is convincing on its own terms. This is a problem that I’ve run up against more than once; I wonder if it might be endemic to my generation of composers, who have been weaned, for example, on Feldman. Then again, maybe the preceding generation has suffered from it too.
Of course, it’s also conceivable that nobody else is afflicted by this crippling neurosis, in which case I guess congratulations are in order.