To Tell the Truth

For me, achieving aesthetic satisfaction at contemporary music concerts requires shifting points of view, especially during an era in which there is a sort of polyglot aesthetic at work, in which one often cannot know what style or styles will be encountered. Usually within the first few seconds of listening to a new piece it is possible to tell which perspective a composer comes from, whether it is spectral, or of the new-complexity, or noise-based, to name just a few.

Beyond this initial positioning, however, lately I have been listening especially for those works and performances I have labeled, for want of a better term, “honest.” These compositions are well-crafted, so that they carry and express a stylistic position, but also have marked idiosyncrasies that seem as though they come directly from the composer; some gestures or formal shapings that, if used by another composer, would clearly be imitative. An “honest” performance displays similar characteristics: well-rehearsed, enabling an interpretation that is in tune with the work itself.

I found two such examples of “honest” music while attending Saturday’s offerings at the 14th annual Festival Musica Vivia in Lisbon, Portugal. One was by Patrícia Sucena de Almeida with video by Daniel Antero titled Aranea, Insidis Noctis Serenae, in an exquisite performance by the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble directed by Pedro Amaral. With intermittent video of the composer’s back, often on partial screen, the accompanying musical gestures referenced lyricism and interlocked to create an overall flow, which was then chopped into bits, repeated, recycled in ways that seemed entirely personal. Later that day, in a concert by the Orquestra Gulbenkian, directed by Lorraine Villancourt and with Gareguin Aroutiounian as soloist, Bruno Gabirro premiered his violin concerto vai falter sempre um dia. Shimmering layers of dense gestures were interrupted by passages as simple as 18 (I think I counted this correctly!) solo repeated plucked notes on the harp. The violin was intermittent, used less than one would expect from a violin concerto, but the hunger this created in me to hear more felt refreshing, and the violin solos were especially uncompromising.

I challenge myself to be “honest” as a composer, and I find it is one of the most difficult tasks, as not simply imitating in a world filled with music requires intense focus and discipline. But maybe not. Sometimes I find myself thinking that a more intuitive approach might be equally successful, a better way to get at the idiosyncratic. Any thoughts related to listening or composing in this way?

9 thoughts on “To Tell the Truth

  1. philmusic

    Linda, I know that it is difficult to discuss music that one has not heard but it has always been my preference to like works that are the most
    straightforward of their type.

    “Over composing,” that is, adding
    unnecessary or unmotivated musical details is a problem for me. Perhaps this is similar to idea of “truth”.

    So
    how can a professional composer learn to make better choices when everything works?

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  2. William Osborne

    (The preview button isn’t working, but I will try this anyway.)

    When I studied with George Crumb he often spoke of composers leaving their “finger prints” on their compositions — musical characteristics that made their work unique and identifiable. What creates these finger prints? Where do they come from?

    I wonder if the origins of stylistic uniqueness and authenticity might be extra-musical. Does the development of an artistic identity have something to do with the depth of commitment the composer has to his or her material or subject matter? Can composers be “honest” even if their style is not extremely unique? Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvorak, Chopin, and Brahms all used mid 19th century languages that were by today’s standards fairly similar (a “common practice”), but they are all completely unique. They all had specific technical characteristics and musical mannerisms, but somehow their voices seemed more determined by their relationships to life as a whole rather than specific kinds of musical gestures.

    This hypothesis raises impossible questions. What creates a kind of commitment to life (even though it is hard to say what that actually means) that gives an artist a unique and honest voice?

    If there is a relationship between artistic identity and worldview, how can one teach in a way that a student’s commitment to their own worldview is not weakened? Or put another way, when is it appropriate to try to enhance or mature a student’s worldview for the sake of their artistry? Or should a teacher only concern themselves with technical matters? Is that even possible? Is the best student one with the most musical skill, or the one with a strong, unique, and colorful way of living – and who might also be a bit of a pain in the neck?

    So often it seems like the grayest, most adaptive composers best work “the system,” while those strongly committed to their own kind of living or visions or personalities are pushed aside. Shall students get a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches, go to an Ivy school, say all the right things, and write sight-readable 15 minute neo-romantic or cleverly pomo pieces for orchestras? If that seems inauthentic (dishonest?), why does it seem so common?

    An “honest” performance displays similar characteristics: well-rehearsed, enabling an interpretation that is in tune with the work itself.

    Sometimes the honesty among performers seems even more problematic. For example, consider the conductors who have led the Vienna Philharmonic, even though they knew it excluded women and people of color. Or even better, try to get those esteemed musicians to make a public statement about the orchestra’s employment practices.

    Or we might consider famous soloists and try to find one who has taken a controversial stand on some issue of importance. Who are they? Is there something about the industry that might preclude that from happening?

    Was there some point, perhaps during the McCarthy era, that honesty in American art was almost permanently weakened? What effect has our plutocratic funding system had on artistic honesty? How does the tenure system in academia affect artistic honesty?

    Put in a colorful and perhaps hyperbolic way, do we live in an artistic world where only a fool would tell the truth?

    William Osborne

    Reply
  3. Chris Becker

    I don’t feel qualified to determine the level of a composers honesty or level of artistic integrity based upon the music they create – be it contemporary chamber music or popular commercial music or what have you.

    Or maybe it’s just I don’t feel a need to carry with me a checklist of criteria to determine my own emotional and intellectual responses to sound and performance?

    Sometimes, it is through direct imitation that we find our own voice. Sometimes a lack of technique (or craftsmanship?) will produce a unique and heartfelt result. Sometimes what we produce will explicitly refer to the work of artists we admire. Is doing so being derivative or is it a form of dialogue?

    Is that how you spell “dialogue”?

    If everything I say is a lie, and I tell you I’m lying…then am I telling the truth?

    Just questions I have…

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    Isn’t music the language we use to speak about issues of importance?

    I don’t think I or any other musician should feel obligated to speak to issues anyone in (or outside) our field considers “important.” Just as I don’t think a criteria of “honesty” as it is perceived by my audience can or should determine whether or not they are – in performance or via recording – experiencing a valuable musical experience.

    Aren’t each of us capable of dishonesty? Of imitation? Of propping ourselves up as being more “honest” than another person?

    What the initial essay is talking about (I think) is a composers unique “funk” which I too feel I can recognize and definitely respond to. And like William, I wonder if this “funk” gets beaten out of us in school or in other ways. My only issue is measuring my work against another’s in terms of “honesty” – I think that’s tricky. And a waste of time.

    Reply
  5. andrewscole

    Honesty?
    I’ve always had a problem with the idea of labeling something as “honest” or even “having a voice,” especially if it is the only piece that you’ve heard by a particular composer and you’ve only heard it once. I feel that it takes multiple listens to several pieces by a composer to really get a feel for his/her sound and identity. Without, or maybe even with doing so, it seems as though honesty is more a description of the listeners taste. If we like something, we grasp for a more concrete way of expressing that musical enjoyment, and tend to come up with these descriptors. If we do not like it, assuming it was well written, we describe is as having “good technique but unauthentic” or some variant of that. Situation also has a lot to do with it. I’ve been to concerts full of post-minimalist music with a single maximalist piece on it, I liked this piece the most, it seemed original and honest because it was different. I’ve been in the opposite situation. I think it comes down to this: a composer can and will sound similar to others who write similar music. I cannot think of a single composer who is so unique that their music has no resemblance to anything else. This is inevitable, we don’t live in a bubble, and there are many examples of this out there from history. With enough practice, a person’s voice will emerge provided the composer isn’t deliberately trying to sound like someone else. In my opinion, if a composer writes what feels good to them, that makes their music honest. So the real question is, does the composer enjoy their own piece? Would they listen to it on their mp3 player even if they had not written it? If the answer is yes, than the piece is honest and authentic.

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  6. rtanaka

    My experience tells me that a piece of music cannot be anything but honest, since the act of putting on a performance in itself already reveals a lot about the composer’s intensions and ideas. You figure that out of all the things they could be doing in the world and in your life, the artist decides to write this kind of thing in this kind of way — that in itself already says a lot about them.

    If the composer is befuddled or unsure about themselves, that’s bound to show up in their work. If they’re frustrated or angry, that will too. If they’re naive, that too. There’s very little you can hide from experienced listeners, which is probably where all the anxiety of putting on a work comes from. But I think part of the process for the artist is how to learn to overcome these obstacles.

    Reply
  7. jchang4

    I think I had an “honesty” moment also, just this past summer. I went to a two concert series of “student” compositions and was struck by the distinctness of one particular piece. I don’t know if it was because my impressions were colored by the composer’s pre-performance talk, and/or if they were effected by the company in which the piece was placed, but I definitely sensed that there was something striking about it–that it couldn’t possibly have been written by anyone else–which is not something I could have said about any of the other pieces. In character, it was refreshing to hear something so vulnerable, so peaceful, and so I wasn’t ga-ga about the way it ended, but it was my favorite out of the line-up by far, and certainly the most memorable.

    Reply
  8. dusman

    “honesty”
    I truly appreciate the thoughtfulness of all these comments—the idea of over composing as a block to an “honest” expression, and of a unique “funk” as a composer’s stamp. I also want to make clear that I put “honest” in quotes for a reason–because it is of course impossible to determine anyone’s honesty–I am using “honest” for want of a term that actually expresses what I am trying to say!

    Composing from your own experience–I actually think that is beginning to be possible for the first time in history–this is why we have so very many styles at work now. So in the 19th century, it was possible for Fanny Mendelssohn to publish under her brother’s name because she had effectively learned the language of the dominant culture. She did not have access to a language, I don’t think, that accurately could have expressed her own experience.

    Whether this is completely necessary (to express one’s own experience), or whether it eliminates the possibility of any sort of imitation (which I think is rarely possible in today’s world), are other questions worth pondering.

    Reply
  9. Ryan Manchester

    I agree with many points here and I think everyone has great insights to musical honesty. Last year, Sam Adler came to do a residency at my school for a few days, and on his last day there was a forum for one teacher’s studio class. I had to sneak in and I’m glad I did because he told stories about his student life and coming of age as a composer. One of the most striking things was while Adler was studying with Paul Hindemith, Adler was one of his top students at the time. This was because Adler told us he was writing what he thought Hindemith wanted to hear, and came of as “bad Hindemith.” After several failed attempts to study with Aaron Copland, Adler finally got in Copland’s studio and he criticized Adler’s music very much and called it “bad Hindemith.” And now the point of this story: Adler told us the revelation came when Copland said the reason Adler didn’t sound convincing was that he didn’t love every note. To compose honest, personal music, a composer should love every note. That advice was way better than any masterclass I could have had. To know that an insanely successful composer went through all the things we all go through now is reassuring. It also showed me that no matter what level I perceive myself at, as long as I compose what I feel and hear and use my formal training as a more effective means to an artistic end, I am composing honestly. That single bit of advice gave me a new outlook on composing and I am now able to write without fear. As Frank Zappa said, “If it sounds good to you, it’s bitchin. If it sounds bad, it’s shitty.” (something like that more or less.)
    In a world where some composers write things and don’t know why they write them, I find that, just as all of you do, I enjoy pieces that sound personal and not just photocopies of great composers.

    Reply

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