Material Witness

Paint Swatches

It is an uncanny experience to encounter an earlier version of yourself. I recently did a book reading at which the presenter introduced me using an old biographical blurb, obviously culled from some vintage corner of the internet. I know it was old because I had, when writing it, spent a fair portion of it advertising myself as a composer, which is something I stopped doing a while ago.

But, suddenly, there was that younger, aspiring-composer version of myself onstage with the current version of myself, the one who writes criticism and books, who talks about music more than he creates it. Obviously, I’m a different person than the one I was trying to promote with that obsolete bio. But how am I different?

It turns out there’s at least one way I’m very different, musically speaking. I’ve stopped worrying so much about material.


Lately, I’ve been reading Full of Noises, the new book of conversations between composer Thomas Adès and critic Tom Service. Among the many opinionated assessments—Adès is nothing if not deeply, thoughtfully opinionated—this exchange, about Giuseppe Verdi, caught my attention:

Verdi… is very difficult for me. It’s such poor material and it’s often badly put together. I’m talking about the operas as whole works. Simon Boccanegra is like a bad joke. It’s catastrophic from the point of view of plotting and artifice and pacing. Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well…. The drama’s very ineptness seems to force him into being inspired.

Is there a damage-limitation side to writing opera?

To doing anything. The line is very thin. Verdi does have a raw native cunning, more in the better operas. And that means that the poverty of the material is exposed, and I hate it all, and it is inessential. But I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, he can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong?

That is, I realized, a very composer-ish thing to say.

It’s fair to say that my own estimation of Verdi is several orders of magnitude higher than Adès’s—I love even the most dramatically ludicrous of his operas. But the fascination that Adès talks about: I recognized that immediately from that time I first become enamored of Verdi’s music, a time when I was still pouring all my effort into composing. Because there are plenty of passages in Verdi’s operas where the material not only seems pedestrian, but almost filler: Verdi isn’t even doing anything to the material. It churns along, a conveyor belt of basic harmonies for the libretto to ride. It does nothing except move forward in time. It just goes.

As a composer, those sections baffled me—because, as a composer, the wherewithal of musical material occupied a lot more of my headspace than it does now. But Verdi, after all, knows his best material, and the audience does, too: it’s always framed and spotlighted in total and solitary focus. As for the rest—that has a lot to do with the operatic traditions that Verdi initially mastered. Italian opera had fairly strict patterns of how things should go: the recitative-cavatina-cabaletta scene constructions, the progression of solos and ensembles and choruses. Once you stop paying attention to the actual material, you hear how Verdi is manipulating that, modifying and otherwise recombining the way the opera goes in order to alternately amplify and paper over the dramatic events into a convincing flow. If the going is what makes the dramatic effect, then the material is secondary—even a distraction. (If you’re trying to slip an outrageous plot contrivance past an audience, the last thing you want is for them to be paying too much attention.)

This is important: I’m not criticizing Adès. He’s actually demonstrating how good a composer he is. One of the most important tools for a composer to develop is an intuition about material, about its possibilities for manipulation and development. If you don’t have that, you’re just stumbling around a dark house every time you sit down to compose. Adès is right: a lot of Verdi’s material is, from that standpoint, pretty weak. But Adès is primed to notice that because he spends so much time evaluating and manipulating material. Verdi had that intuition, too, but, from the beginning, he was also working in an environment that forced him to develop a theatrical intuition as well. He knew when he could substitute in one for the other. In a way, he had an intuition for when he could get away with ignoring his intuition about material.

Critical intuition is not unlike compositional intuition, but the polarities are reversed. It’s reactive. One notices whether or not one is having a worthwhile experience, and then tries to hone in on why. It’s still a matter of analysis, of breaking down information and extrapolating from it, but more in the manner of an autopsy than a diagnosis. (This is in no way disparaging the critic’s profession. I was a huge Quincy, M.E. fan as a kid.) And, besides, I will still turn on the materialist-intuition part of my brain in a concert sometimes, often when presented with new music. It’s a convenient shorthand for a mismatch between means and ends: the piece goes on longer than the material can sustain, things like that. It’s just that, now that I’ve had enough practice turning off that intuition, I can see and hear how it’s not necessarily the material, or even the choice of material, that makes or breaks a piece of music.


Cloth Swatches

I’ve also started to notice how much that compositional selection bias favoring material has shaped the past century’s worth of new music and attitudes toward it. For instance, I don’t think it’s accidental, or contradictory, that I am a fan of both Verdi and hardcore serialism. In terms of material, they both exist in a provocative gray area, very often deliberately de-emphasizing the material: Verdi by diluting it, serialism by making it so ubiquitous, in the form of the rows that permeate every aspect of the music, that it becomes a neutral ground for other musical events. I was reminded of the musical critique that, somewhat disorientingly, turns up in the prologue of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked:

In the case of serial music, however, such rootedness in nature is uncertain and perhaps nonexistent…. It is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain, who has grown tired of its being used only as a pontoon, and who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination…. It is not a question of sailing to other lands, the whereabouts of which may be unknown and their very existence hypothetical. The proposed revolution is much more radical: the journey alone is real, not the landfall, and sea routes are replaced by the rules of navigation.

This is interesting because it is both too materialist, in the musical sense, and not materialist enough. It ignores the increasing care with which serialist composers chose their base materials, constructing rows based on their potential for varying levels of perceptual absorption into the experiential whole. (See: late Schoenberg.) But it’s also one of those criticisms that’s largely true, but only pejorative because of a particular set of assumptions: in this case, assumptions about the necessity for musical material to be in and of itself musically communicative. Serialist music is, at least on a basic level, all about the journey. But, then again, existing and unfolding in real time, isn’t all music?

Last week, pianist R. Andrew Lee, a specialist in minimalist and post-minimalist music, had an article with the nicely contrarian title “Minimalism is Boring (and That’s OK).” In it, he talked about the experience of performing Jürg Frey’s Klavierstück 2:

The bulk of the piece consists of 468 repetitions of a perfect fourth, E4-A4, which takes nearly 7.5 minutes to complete. This, by all accounts, is boring, but practicing this piece and working so very hard to maintain a steady tempo and dynamic has rewired my ears. In playing 468 fourths (with the pedal held down), a swirl of overtones becomes audible. The immediacy of the attack fades out of consciousness and overtones become steady drones, fading in and out with the subtlest changes in my playing.

Suddenly, I can no longer avoid the complexity of sound that surrounds me. Before, I was able to focus and listen this way when desired, but now sounds seem to leap into my awareness. The portable air compressor I own produces a shocking number of pitches, and when I’m upstairs and the house is quiet, I can hear a rather low hum, the source of which I have yet to discover. I am surrounded by complex, beautiful sounds, and while that has always been the case, I couldn’t avoid them now if I tried.

I like this because it encapsulates how minimalism and other process-music is inextricably linked to serialism, even as much of it was posited as a direct reaction against it. It’s getting at the same effect serialism was getting at: shifting your attention away from the communicative content and potential of the material to all those other parameters of music. Serialism does it by constructing the material into a self-effacingly complex canvas, minimalism by stripping away everything but the material, to the point that it disappears in plain sight. (And, yes, I think there’s compositional intuition behind Frey’s choices, as basic as they might seem: Why that interval? Why that octave? Why that many repetitions?)

The comparison also hints at the strange nature of compositional intuition about material. Neither serialism nor minimalism comes about without some type of intuition on the part of the composer, yet that same intuition would find fault with the opposite style: a minimalist might criticize serialism for burying the material under so much permutation, a serialist might criticize minimalism for not recognizing the material’s developmental potential. And yet, from outside such intuition, both styles, when realized with well-developed intuition, arrive at oddly similar perceptual landings.


Wood Swatches

The long dialogue between composer Adrian Leverkühn and the Devil at the heart of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus is much concerned with compositional intuition. The Devil, noting that the advent of modernism has created a context in which traditional musical harmonies are as shocking as any dissonance, posits that, in terms of material and intuition, the tail is now wagging the dog: “[T]he right of command over all the tone-combinations ever applied by no means belongs to you.” Leverkühn sticks up for intuition, “the theoretic possibility of spontaneous harmony between a man’s own needs and the moment, the possibility of ‘rightness,’ of a natural harmony, out of which one might create without a thought or any compulsion.” The Devil will have none of it: “It is all up with it.”

What to do? Cut a deal with the Devil. His bait? A new, fully formed intuition, one with the immediacy and power of madness:

This is what I think: that an untruth of a kind that enhances power holds its own against any ineffectively virtuous truth. And I mean too that creative, genius-giving disease, disease that rides on high horse over all hindrances, and springs with drunken daring from peak to peak, is a thousand times dearer to life than plodding healthiness.

Is the Devil’s pitch only a sophistic ruse? Even the most mathematical of musical developments would still require that the composer make a fit between the material and the method. But I think that Leverkühn and the Devil are also dancing around something else: the fetishization of compositional prerogative, the notion that compositional choices come from a privileged place. Might composers put faith in their intuition about material as a bulwark against obsolescence, or even commodification? Would they even know that they were doing it? I admit that, even to me, the idea is counter-intuitive, but maybe, at its core, all that focus on material, on its evaluation and winnowing, quietly intersects with another, more basic intuition: survival.

3 thoughts on “Material Witness

  1. Mark N. Grant

    I find your argument—viz. that there is a common thread expressively and compositionally between serialism and minimalism–extremely persuasive.

    I would also note that both serialism and minimalism, in their elevation of process over other musical parameters, have devalued, if not destroyed, the role of melody— melody (!), that age-old cornerstone of the world’s music both legitimate and popular. Where are the melodies in contemporary minimalist (and other “downtown” process-music) operas, for instance? How many new operas today are notable for good tunes? Are there any at all? Why has catchy melody become obsolete at practically the same time in both art and popular music? Because we find grooves and waves melodic? Grooves and waves are not melodies.

    Verdi was the ultimate melodist and thus he is a ready-made whipping-boy for the contemporary opera composer. Mr. Adès is no doubt a superb composer (I haven’t heard his work yet), but regarding his comment on Verdi’s obviousness and banality (to him), some very estimable intellectuals have argued au contraire. (Though on Verdi even I at times agree with Adès.) The late Charles Rosen, for one, lauded Verdi’s seeming artlessness as an achievement of high artfulness. And Garry Wills’s recent book “Verdi’s Shakespeare” depicts how canny, deliberate, and hands-on was Verdi in exploiting every last resource of theater – not just in composing the fabric of his music but in his micro-managing of the libretto, the casting, and the stage direction — no less so than that other fellow better known for gesamtkunstwerk.

    You mention Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus.” Did you happen to catch its new translation’s contribution to the Dumbing Down of Culture? The new English version by John E. Woods of this most musically astute of all novels mistranslates some basic musical terms. Page 25: “It might happen that for no special reasons she would reach for the old guitar decorating the living-room wall and strum a few cords….” Page 27: “we forced our vocal chords to mimic the oink-oink of their underground language….” The opposite spelling should have been used in each instance. Shouldn’t the translation of such a serious book about a composer be copyedited by someone who knows the difference between cords and chords? Adorno rolls in his grave. (The original English translation by Helen Lowe-Porter gets it half right, spelling both terms “chords.”)

    Yet the real howler is on page 529 of Woods’s translation of Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”: “Frau Stöhr wept with enthusiasm at the sight of what had once been Joachim. “A hero! A hero!” she cried several times and demanded that they play Beethoven’s “Erotica” at his graveside.”

    Incidentally, the correct English idiom is “home in,” not “hone in.”

  2. Phil Fried

    “…have devalued, if not destroyed, the role of melody…”

    As a composer of serial music for over 30 years that, at least in my and my listeners estimation, features melody this is news.

    Of course one could argue that I am mistaken as to the content and the style of my own work. Sigh. Music, including serial music,is a living thing that is constantly changing.

  3. Andy Lee

    I usually try to read most everything here at NewMusicBox, but somehow missed this one. I’m glad you enjoyed my post about Minimalism, and I very much enjoyed your article. You comment on Frey’s intuitive compositional approach is particularly spot on. One of the reasons I love his music is the very intuitive compositional approach. I tend to think like a theorist sometimes, and his music drives me crazy from that perspective. Every note seems so meticulously chosen, and yet, the logic behind it is elusive. It reminds me of a quote from Kyle Gann’s blog: “In our creative experience we know that achieving the result we want involves some measure of logic, but must invariably be completed by an irrational act of will.” (

    Anyway, great post. It’s given me a lot to think about.


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