Extraordinary, But So Wrong
Last night our dinner guest was Paul Attinello, an extremely entertaining and brilliant American-born musicologist based at Newcastle University in the U.K. (who previously taught at Hong Kong University, hence the connection to my wife Trudy Chan) who has written in-depth musical analyses of Sylvano Bussotti and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It turns out, unbeknownst to Trudy until last night, that before Paul embarked on his academic musicological career, he was a composer. He decided to give up writing music about 25 years ago, however, because he believed he did not have the requisite discipline to pursue it. A composition professor he was studying with in the 1980s challenged him to compose a piece a day for a week. He actually did, creating a cycle of seven songs which he still believes is the strongest music he had ever composed, but as a result it also turned out that he never composed again after that. The whole matter came up because after all these years the work was finally performed for the very first time. Of course I’m extremely eager to hear it and also hope that it will ultimately get him to compose more music. After all, a compositional aesthetic that is open to both Bussotti and Buffy has got to yield some truly one-of-a-kind music.
However, in addition to piquing my curiosity to hear his music, Paul’s words hit a personal nerve. I too spend way more time writing about music than anything else and I also often worry that I lack the requisite discipline to compose music—I much prefer hanging out with people to spending time alone, I’m too easily distracted, and I’ve become less trusting of evaluative decisions as the years go by. Of course, the former makes collaboration ideal and the latter just belies my indebtedness to John Cage, although I have rarely considered composing indeterminate music. As for the middle problem, distraction—that’s a little bit more difficult to work around. I always seem to have tons of ideas for pieces, many of which never actually get composed. One of the greatest distractions I have when working on something is having ideas for other compositions vying for my attention and my extremely narrow window of actual composing time. There is definitely room for improvement in my composing process between the moment of inspiration and the long road to actual execution. Unless of course Paul’s judgment about himself proves to be equally true for myself as well. But since I’m ever an optimist and I refuse to believe that Paul should not still compose, I will plow on as well in my own way.
My own way (great for inspiration but often bad for execution) is constantly being stimulated by hearing other pieces of music, traveling, having conversations (not necessarily ones about music), and reading (again, not always about music). In fact, few things have inspired me as much compositionally this year as Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s extraordinary 1888 utopian novel about life in Boston in the year 2000. (This book had been sitting on my shelves for over a decade, but I finally decided to read it after seeing it referenced in David Cavicchi’s Listening and Longing, a book that has inspired my prose for weeks now.) To a contemporary reader, this strange account of our own times written by someone in the 19th century can no longer be perceived as futuristic but rather as an alternate reality. He was spot on about a few things—such as the use of credit cards and people listening to music on their telephones. But boy was he wrong about the mechanics of it all…
“There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day’s programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for to-day, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instrumental and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited.”
It might seem totally insane for people to listen to music at home through their telephone lines as it is being performed in real time, although in 1966 John Cage actually presented a performance called Variations VII which involves sound input from ten amplified phone lines. It’s also a pleasant change of pace to read that in Bellamy’s version of the 21st century everyone is willing to remunerate musicians for the music they hear (though he sadly gives no details on how to effectively implement such a system). It all certainly seems like amazing fodder for musical ideas—what would such music be? Imagine the sound of an alternative present that was conceived of in the past but which is as different from that past as it is from the actual present, if not more so. Now to have the discipline to actually mold a piece of music out of such a concept!