The Dangers of Being the Decider

When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers would sometimes observe that the work I brought in for my lesson was evidence that I’d made “aesthetic decisions.” I considered this comment high praise; at the time, my head was swimming with the staggering possibilities of new music, a world I’d been introduced to only a year or so before, and I was so bedazzled by the 20th century’s wealth of sounds, forms, and notations that I often forgot to think critically about whatever shiny new compositional technique caught my eye.

My teacher’s remark came back to me recently as I was hammering away at a new piece. I’ve been making aesthetic decisions at every turn, although I deliberate longer on some than on others. It’s comforting to remember this, because the question of whether the decisions are good ones or not is terrible to behold.

Last night I visited an old friend of mine who works at a local recording studio. Studios, which are basically just rooms full of buttons and wires and breakable things, are easy places to make mistakes. My friend told me, however, that he boils all studio problems down to one of two sources: false assumptions and incompetence. Knowing the difference is important, he said, because you can fire people for one of them.

The aesthetic decisions I’ve been making over the past several months are predicated on heaps and heaps of assumptions about how the piece will be perceived. I don’t mean the piece’s reception upon first performance (I have absolutely no assumptions about that), but rather how the piece will be understood by its audience, whether the veritable Jenga tower of dialogic strata and counterpoised vectors will stand firm or collapse.

I have a master’s degree now. If my music is incompetent, two large public universities are at least somewhat complicit. If my music labors under false or unrealistic assumptions, on the other hand, all the blame belongs with me, because you choose your assumptions. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy in this context: Expecting one’s audience to contort its perceptual apparatus into a balloon animal in order to make sense of one’s piece may itself be a form of ineptitude. Who cares if it’s false assumptions or incompetence? Composers can be fired for either one.

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7 thoughts on “The Dangers of Being the Decider

  1. davidcoll

    As this column’s posts will inevitably turn into a subjective free-for-all on how to compose, i’d like to make a pre-emptive strike, cuz as we know its always justified

    i think that even the perceptual concerns you have could be found simply just by analysis of your piece as part of your compositional process. i think we all do it though we might not call it that. Trying to get your piece to inform you of the next decision is the best bet, because if it doesn’t help you along you can figure out why not by introducing different material which, in turn, helps you define the original stuff ..this should include as many aspects of the performance as you can control, so particularly the visual.

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  2. kmanlove

    Maybe I am reacting to this because there is some implication of “getting it right” in your discussion of assumptions, but I really feel that it is in the assuming and the execution of that assumption, not that assumptions correspondence with some reality. Yes, we are all making different assumptions about this game, and that may be expression. I think the failure really comes from failing to musically execute that assumption. This is probably a bit half baked, but I think a lot of failed assumptions have made a lot of wonderful and groundbreaking music.

    I may be missing your point because I feel like you know the great music that has come from failed assumptions.

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  3. Colin Holter

    And of course some assumptions that were demonstrably “incorrect” in the 50s, for instance, can now be relied upon to be true, so it’s a moving target.

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  4. pgblu

    And of course some assumptions that were demonstrably “incorrect” in the 50s, for instance, can now be relied upon to be true, so it’s a moving target.

    I feel like I’ve heard you say this before, but it’s still cryptic to me. Explain what assumptions from the 50′s are now true.

    Also, I’m worried that this thread may be so abstract as to allow just about any contribution to seem relevant… I’m bracing myself already.

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  5. dalgas

    Provided you’re doing art, there are no false assumptions. Anything can be true in its own world. And competence shows in getting the work itself to justify those assumptions.

    Steve Layton

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  6. Colin Holter

    Explain what assumptions from the 50′s are now true.

    My point was that an audience’s perceptual framework is liable to change over time, gradually admitting more new experiential phenomena (and of course abandoning others) over the years. I’m finding it difficult to think of a piece from the 20th century written under “false” assumptions that wasn’t made with the aim of advocating the truth of such assumptions at least peripherally in mind. “Hay Que Caminar” soñando and For John Cage strike me as pieces that take such false assumptions as their starting premises, and even though these pieces are only from the ’80s, I think those assumptions (about form, texture, memory, etc.) don’t seem as outlandish now as they did then.

    Admittedly this is sort of a cop-out. I swear, though, I didn’t intend to set forth something so abstract that it could be extrapolated in any direction, as you anticipate.

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  7. jbunch

    You know, I keep reading articles / books / interviews by the artists I dig, and listening to the music of composers I really dig in order to rub my brain against some of the ideas. The thing I’ve discovered is that there exists in me a hope that I will misunderstand their thoughts enough to come up with a few of my own. I think that may be the only way it’s going to happen. In the end, I hope I write music that sounds totally different from such composers – that is that I don’t simply replicate another persons technique / language.

    I agree that there are such things as false assumptions (though they could only be a matter of theoretical or historical import – not of aesthetic), and certainly I believe that incompetence exists. But I don’t agree that the two should be yoked together as the yang of some good compositional yin. I think Feldman – for instance – new quite well when a piece didn’t work, and quite well how to fix it – that is, though perhaps his sonic thinking was more intuitive than some, it was no less skillful. The proof is in the sounds, not his ability to categorize them. I suppose it is a kind of “aesthetic agnosticism.”

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