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.