The Unimaginable Otherwise

Every so often—sometimes in lessons, sometimes in the classroom, sometimes in casual conversations about classical music—somebody will remark that this or that characteristic of a musical work “had to be” the way that it appears in the score: in other words, that internal, immanent musical criteria necessitated certain compositional decisions down the line. This is a cool thing to say because it suggests that a piece of music behaves like an integral system, a proposition that satisfies our old epistemological obligation to conceive of the “work” as a thing, an object that seems to contain a subjectivity. (To complement Adorno with Bourdieu: The claim that a musical event “has to be” is also an assertion about the claimant, specifically about his or her discrimination and faith in the doxa of Western musical thought.)

It’s a cool thing to say, but it’s not a particularly true thing to say. Even though its premise is so widely accepted that it represented bona fide news when Maynard Solomon identified a “noninevitability” in Beethoven’s late catalog, we all know that at any time you (and I do mean you) could write whatever note you want whenever you want, however you want to write it. Certainly some practices are normative and therefore privileged—we can usually assume that a piece of 18th-century music will end in the same key it started in, and no doubt there are comparable normativities in effect today, however abstract and whether or not we have the critical distance to recognize them—but that limitation is really coterminous with the boundary of our historically specific imaginations.

The only sense in which something “has to be” in a piece of music is the sense in which to do otherwise would have been unimaginable, which allows for a great deal of latitude. Could the triad at the end of the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte been something besides an E-flat major triad? Maybe the “rules” of the piece—those explicitly constructed by Schoenberg or those brought into relief by later analysis—demand it (and it would be reassuring to think so), but Schoenberg was a person; the piece, really, is paper. Is it fair to say that he couldn’t have written an E-flat minor triad, or a major triad in a different voicing or at a different dynamic level? To me, it’s a bracing reminder that the “unimaginable otherwise” has always been the only real frontier of new music.

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5 thoughts on “The Unimaginable Otherwise

  1. Jacob G

    The word “necessity,”as you point out, is pretty hyperbolic, particularly when in an after-the-fact analysis of a work by someone other than the composer. But do you think that that word, “necessity,” or that phrase, “unimaginable otherwise,” may come from a real feeling that a composer has during the creative process?

    If our goal is to create works that function (theoretically) within their own self-contained, self-constructed sets of parameters and syntax, then we spend much of our creative process first understanding the world that we’re creating, and then a lot more time living in it. When we’re living inside the world of our piece and have to make decisions based on the possibilities we’ve created for that world, it’s easy to see how some decisions can really feel like imperatives or necessities, and many other options are “unimaginable.”

    If your process requires you to fully envelop yourself in the world that you’re creating in order to make decisions, and you can’t survey the field if you’re standing in the middle of it, then maybe the idea of imperatives and unimaginables only truly becomes an exaggeration after the piece is done and you can stand back from it.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    Thanks for your comment, Jacob.

    But do you think that that word, “necessity,” or that phrase, “unimaginable otherwise,” may come from a real feeling that a composer has during the creative process?

    Oh yes, absolutely – but I also think that even in the moment of composition it’s an illusion, one that enables us to entertain the notion of the “work[] that function[s] (theoretically) within [its] own self-contained, self-constructed set[] of parameters and syntax”. A musical immanence is not a real thing, in other words, is my argument: We always impose the “parameters and syntax” from without; while pretending that they govern the imagined world of the piece may be a useful strategy for writing the music one wants to write, it may also narrow the possibility-space of the piece considerably and leave core assumptions about the nature of musical time, material, etc. unquestioned.

    I guess it comes down to what “your process requires” – something that, after all, each of us gets to adjudicate for ourselves and on a case-by-case basis.

    Again, great comment – thanks.

    Reply
  3. Philipp Blume

    OMG we’re like totally talking about this on the Smooke thread right now. The ‘illusion’ as you put it, of the composer being a proxy for all listeners, is useful to many, necessary to some, but still an illusion. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could actually reflect upon this illusion’s illusory status in and through musical means?

    Reply
  4. Phil Fried

    “..To me, it’s a bracing reminder that the “unimaginable otherwise” has always been the only real frontier of new music…”

    True, yet why only interpret this to mean opening up closed forms and completed compositions? Do I really want to spend my all time recomposing the works of others? One might argue that that is what composers do anyway. Sure. Then again it depends on how, if, or what, you model.

    Reply
  5. Colin Holter

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could actually reflect upon this illusion’s illusory status in and through musical means?

    Yeah.

    Do I really want to spend my all time recomposing the works of others?

    No, probably not – on the other hand, people have made great music by recomposing the works of others!

    Reply

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