This post comes to you courtesy of Alex Gardner, whose thoughts last week on the fleeting nature of musical time (and, in particular, its urgency for compositional clarity) got my brain-motor running. Per Adorno, time is the problem of music: The way we choose to fill that time—nay, e’en to conceive of it—will necessarily define, to a great extent, who we are as composers.
Baltimore composer William Kleinsasser remarked once that it’s within a composer’s capability only to set up certain possible aesthetic encounters for an audience within a given period of time. Naturally there’s no shortage of strategies when it comes to constructing and deploying these possible aesthetic encounters: In the comments area of
Alex’s post, we identified just one axis along which these strategies might be situated—clarity versus ambiguity. One composer’s approach is to minimize noise, so to speak, by sharpening and refining the piece’s content; another’s is to maximize signal by cramming the piece’s attic full of junk.
We could have a lengthy conversation about these two contrasting means to lay a musical minefield—or about any other contrasting means framed by some other imagined dimension of music besides the one I mentioned above. The possibilities really are endless, which to me is a bit daunting: The more I think about what can happen in a piece of music, and about how many different ways there are to formulate and rationalize and structure and challenge and critique and embrace and magnify and problematize and thematize and reify these things, the less sure I can be that anyone else is liable to apprehend music the same way I do—or, for that matter, that I’ll apprehend a piece the same way one day as I do the next. As I’ve said before, I think that the actual substance of a piece of music (itself a construction) accounts for a much-overestimated slice of a listener’s experience when hearing it. There’s an infinity of ways to listen to music, sure—but this is just a simplified way of saying that there’s an infinity of ways to talk about listening to music, and to think about the infinity of ways of talking about music, and to talk about the infinity of those ways of thinking about the infinity of those ways of talking about music.