As it was with many of my peers who came of age musically in the late 1960s or early ’70s, I discovered the music within myself through an obsession with popular music. Unsurprisingly, my musical youth was spent holding a guitar. And even as I learned more about music, and finally (and belatedly) began to study the piano, the steel string folk guitar remained a constant musical companion, something of a known and trusted collaborator.
George Crumb once wrote that the sound memories of one’s youth (in his case, the hollows of West Virginia) leave an imprint on a musician’s sonic imagination, something I have thought about for many years. I wonder to what extent the fact that my first creative musical thoughts were articulated on a guitar shaped my perception of the musical world? Certainly my high school discovery of the string quartets of Bela Bartok, particularly the ineffably beautiful slow movements of Quartets Nos. 4 and 5, were powered by hearing them as chords. The powerful opening movements could be heard as riffs. I didn’t think of this at the time, but it seems clear to me now that the thrill and euphoria of discovering this music was fuelled by hearing them through the prism of the guitar.
This musical worldview did have its limits: as I began the serious study of composition, I would dutifully work out hexachord permutations on my guitar, but you can imagine how interesting that proved to be, at least with my guitar technique (Mississippi John Hurt meets Milton Babbitt).
The question of the moment is this: what is the equivalent for composers coming into their own now? Like the vast majority of people composing today, I am immersed in a world of computers, soft synths, and esoteric digital musical tools. In many ways, though, my musical imagination remains informed by making music with a guitar. What about those whose first fully formed musical thoughts were realized in Logic or Max? Those whose collaborative music making involved turntables and steel cases of white label vinyl?
I remember talking to Charles Wuorinen (whose music I deeply admire) in the late 1980s as we discussed the rapidly growing power of software sequencers. At that point in time, at least, he was struck by the fact that these sequencers referred to the “song” as their basic unit. In his view, this was a fatal flaw that rendered software that could be used with popular music useless to a serious minded composer.
Times have changed.
It makes me wonder: Do young composers travel with their PowerBooks as musical companions, both metaphorically and literally? How does this experience make itself know through their music? More speculatively, where will it lead in future compositional paths? What existing musical work reveals new facets when heard through these new ears? How does the primacy of dance music as a genre within electronic music affect all music made electronically?