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.

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12 thoughts on “The Agony of Influence

  1. pgblu

    Problem?
    In this bouillon cube of metaphorical conceit, I missed what “problem” you’re talking about in the sentence “This is a problem that I’ve run up against more than once” — maybe I’m distracted by images of a jungle of lemon trees, and am afraid of running up against them… Is the problem the same as the “crippling neurosis”?

    Speaking of analogies, what would be the musical equivalent too many pronouns and demonstrative adjectives? That’s a question you might enjoy, Colin. I don’t know. Sorry to be so dense.

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  2. Colin Holter

    Without recourse to figurative language:

    The problem is that composing a piece of music as if it were a work in any other medium is, in my experience, bound to result in an unsatisfactory piece. This is only a problem if you are particularly fond, which I am, of the appealing experiential qualities of another medium that music does not possess.

    Maybe my thicket of idioms could benefit from deforestation (perhaps even slash-and-burn), but if it’s arable enough for Molly Sheridan, it’s arable enough for me.

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  3. Colin Holter

    For example:

    The closest musical analog to a topically digressive but completely “right-feeling” passage in a novel would probably be a passage of music that many in-the-know listeners (i.e. musicians, who thus far have, for better or worse, made up a healthy portion of my audiences) might label weak, citing, perhaps, a lack of immanent, organic connection to the surrounding material. Of course, such an accusation may say more about the listener than about the piece–but the very same listener might encounter an entirely analogous chapter in Great Jones Street or Vineland without batting an eye.

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  4. philmusic

    As I remember there is a whole industry of “classical” recordings that leave out the “boring” parts of Mozart, Beethoven etc, and excerpt only the “most memorable passages.” Evidently for some even the classical mainstream is too taxing and not user friendly. As I have mentioned before and in my site music lessons, we are very accepting of intellectualism in every art form-except for music. On one level its familiarity — simply put more people can read text, than read music.

    That said, I don’t feel that music has any artisitic limitations.
    Phil’s page

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  5. davidcoll

    curious
    can you indulge me about these differences b/w the “time arts” and visual arts, and “variable time arts” (literature, poetry etc)….question: can you talk about how ideas of narrative influence you? only if this is something that concerns you, as for some reason i suspect its underlying this column.

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  6. Colin Holter

    Sure. Speaking for myself, at least, one attractive quality that narratives possess is that we become invested in them. Once something begins to constitute a narrative, the question of how it will end immediately descends on us, and we understand each new development (in part) as something that may affect the answer to that question.

    Because it’s so easy to become invested in a good story, the narrative is a great medium in which to screw with people. Once you’ve got ‘em hooked, so to speak, you can jerk the audience from side to side with the confidence that they’ll stay on the line – and the more firmly they’re hooked, the harder you can jerk. Some of my favorite moments in music or in literature are those moments where I perceive I’m being jerked around but am unable to break loose.

    Not a propos of Coll’s question, but just a general note: I want to reiterate that the “problem” I mentioned in the original post is actually a situation predicated, I suspect, on a limitation characteristic to some of the audiences I’ve encountered, not something that inheres in a piece of music or “music” as a category. So to extend the above metaphor a little further: I’m complaining about how hard fishing is, but I really should be complaining about how unresponsive the fish are.

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  7. GalenHBrown

    I’m not sure if this is what you’re talking about, but I find it quite irritating when composers claim that their piece is “about” something that it can’t possibly be about–”this piece explores the ramifications of existentialism” for instance. People claim all the time that music is a “language” which can convey specific concrete ideas or which can have a “narrative,” but it simply lacks the necessary quantity and depth of semantics to do such a thing. Even the most Mickey-Moused cartoon score doesn’t _describe_ the action, i.e. if you only heard the score you wouldn’t be able to say “now Bugs Bunny is hiding in the bushes while Elmer Fudd walks by.”

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  8. Colin Holter

    I see what you mean; however, I don’t think I agree. If I write a piece and assert that it’s about the ramifications of existentialism, it is. If the piece doesn’t address this matter in a lucid or well-considered way, that might mean it’s unsuccessful – but it doesn’t necessarily make the piece “not about” its declared subject.

    Let’s say you hear a piece that seems to have nothing to do with kittens. Maybe it’s a piece for brass quintet and 5.1 fixed-media sound, and the tape part is the sound of a waterfall and the spoken opening of “Going Back to Cali” where Puffy tells Biggie they’ll be arriving at LAX. If the piece’s title is “Kitten,” the composer (who has claimed, in so titling the piece, that it’s at least peripherally about kittens) obviously wants you to consider what the work could possibly have to do with kittens. He decides what the music is about; you can decide whether it’s effective at being about it or not. Put another way, if you were to hear the piece and then learn its title, you’d have to reevaluate your understanding of it now that this new perspective – the “kitten” perspective – has been illuminated. What if you met someone and they seemed perfectly well-adjusted and normal until you happened to catch a glimpse of his back, and he had a kitten’s head sticking out from between his shoulder blades? It would be time to reconsider this individual.

    Maybe this reveals another parallel to prose: It’s a way to understand music that could be described as “hermeneutic,” I guess.

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  9. philmusic

    “People claim all the time that music is a “language” which can convey specific concrete ideas or which can have a “narrative,” but it simply lacks the necessary quantity and depth of semantics to do such a thing. ”

    As I remember there is a whole genre of music called “Tone Poems.” I think people still compose them.

    Phil’s Page

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  10. davidcoll

    about something
    I think a piece is always about something. But when a composer says this, remember: its only one way in towards understanding the piece, coming from a very specific place: the creator of the piece. However, i’d suggest never listening to them, because its usually bullshit if its really a really clear idea. Listen to it how you want (which i’m sure you already do) and then maybe down the road give it a shot ‘their way’

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  11. GalenHBrown

    Colin– You’re right, of course, but it seems I was unclear. Let me clarify: When I said “about” something I meant in the sense that the musical language itself communicates that “aboutness” independant of external information. Maybe “about” is a poor choice of words for what I’m talking about, so how about “describes.” Your piece can be “about” existentialism or kittens (in fact I’ve heard pieces “about” both), but the fact that you need the title or the program notes to tell means the music doesn’t describe it. What music _can_ do is a sort of underscoring, to use a film-music metaphor–there’s enough semantics to approximately communicate “happy” or “sad” and that _if_ you have the additional outside information you can make a reasonable guess that the scurrying string sounds are intended to underscore the idea of kittens running around. But there’s no musical phrase that says “then the kittens romped on the livingroom floor.” That’s the only point I was trying to make, sorry I said it in a confusing way.

    Phil — Tone poems essentially work in the “underscoring” way I describe above. There’s no way to write a piece that says “Then Jack and Jill walked through the meadow holding hands” or even “Jack was happy” — but certain music works much better as underscoring for those statements than others do. Big minor-chord brass stabs, for instance, aren’t going to work.

    But people talk about music working in those ways all the time, and claim that it has great communicative power. I’m claiming that it has very little communicative power but a lot of evocative power.

    Reply

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