October 14, 2005

Music as an Aesthetic Object

Composers often get asked about how they write. Most recorded answers are as ridiculous as the question itself is. Debussy said something like “I start with all the notes, get rid of the ones I don't want, and keep what's left.” Works of art are such peculiar beasts because they show so much, yet they always show it in such odd and oblique ways. The question of compositional process pokes not at the truths themselves, but why they needed to take on unfamiliar shapes. The causes aren't gossipy tales of past lovers and family turmoil, but whatever lies at the center of one's self. To explain these things would almost be to destroy them. Or as Pinter said to an actor who inquired about his character's past life: “None of your fucking business.”

Nevertheless, these causes can become quite an obsession. When I first see a score to a well-loved piece, it's as if all its secrets will finally be revealed. I half-expect angels to descend from the heavens (harps in hand) to provide proper accompaniment as I turn to the first page. I really should get over the anti-climax of it. The plain appearance of the notes in print makes them seem even more out of reach.

As I see it, there are two (admittedly exaggerated) stances to take at this point. The first is that one can come to know music by way of thorough analysis. If I tear those notes apart, I will understand how they relate, and this understanding is the music. The other point of view is that art is fundamentally non-understandable, and is at best a tool for expanding one's various comfort zones (emotional, ideological, etc.). Interestingly, these two tacks engage separate senses. Analysis is primarily a visual activity, while you throw the score aside to more fully use your ears. Of course, the reality is that you hover between these two absolutes whenever engaging music.

Try as I might, though, there are some pieces that just resist being read into. I feel deadlocked in my efforts to penetrate Stravinsky's Apollo. The writing is just so of a piece. It feels like it was conceived all at once. Its architecture can be elusive, though it does open after persistent examination. The emotional content is surprisingly generous for Stravinsky (the Pas de Deux verges on being sentimental).

Nonetheless, there seems to be an upper limit to the level of intimacy I can reach with this piece. Even when I feel secure in my intellectual understanding of any of its remarkable features, the listening experience seems to exist in ignorance to what I know about the notes. That knowledge only seems to provide a comfort (a false one maybe), a way of not being completely overwhelmed by the sounds.

What meaning this piece has seems most accessible by denying contact with these causes of construction. It has the most life for me as a purely aesthetic experience. I can marvel at its assembly or use its emotional peaks to get a better grip on my own, but the piece's only unified statement seems to be in its attitude towards music. I don't mean that Apollo should be read as a ballet “about” the major triad; I mean that it has in it a way of looking at the function of music. Stravinsky often writes with a mystical attitude, suggesting that music is as fundamentally unknowable as a religious higher being. This stance can be hard to reconcile with the concrete nature of sound and notation, but the resulting music begs to differ.

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