music

Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

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On Writing and Music Performance

“And yes, [writing]’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.”

Do you read MJ Wright? If not, you should consider it. He’s a New Zealand historian and writer who has a lot of smart things to say about writing, history, and science (among other things). Last week, he published a post called “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing.” I have no problem with the thesis of that piece: writing requires practice and, to do it well, you must get beyond “rules.” Experience counts. There’s truth in that, but that much is true of any art. I’m less curious about why Wright compared writing to piano performance than I am with the semantic leap from “translating and transferring emotions” to “performance.”  Where does the composer fit into the equation? Where, for that matter, does a reader?

I’m in a rare position regarding this question: I’ve written lots of text, I’ve written lots of music, and I’ve put in my time performing music (and on much rarer occasions, words). A caveat, though: Wright’s post was just a springboard for this one. I’m not trying to “refute” his argument or really even comment on the post’s content. Said post makes a convincing case for the importance of practice in writing, and I wholly agree with Wright on that point. My quibble is with “performance” and just how well that idea applies to writing.

“If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid.”

This is true. It’s also true, though, that Western music notation has always been a kind of shorthand—there’s a whole branch of music scholarship devoted to studying manuscripts and decoding the actions the blobs of ink were meant to prompt. (If you’re interested in some of the uses and abuses of ‘performance practice’ studies, I’d suggest Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act, though I’d also suggesting looking directly at some of the essays he engages with. Taruskin habitually pursues his arguments…aggressively.)

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that “composer” became a job of its own. Prior to that, writing music was a part of other jobs—Kapellmeister, for example. The Kapellmeister managed all the musical activity for a church and wrote more as necessary for performance. As the patronage system broke down and professional music-making moved away from the church and the estates of the aristocracy, composers stopped having house or church ensembles to work with. Simultaneously, music came to be treated more as an art than a craft.

Notation was getting more precise, too, because composers were less likely to be in direct control of performances. Dynamic markings (for loudness) grew in importance. Composers indicated tempi, eventually with metronome markings. Articulation marks and phrasing marks and all sorts of indications telling a performer how to play a particular note became common. The more seriously composition was treated as its own distinct art, the more precisely composers worked to guide (or control) performers.

By the middle 20th Century, this had pushed some composers to abandon performers altogether. Electroacoustic music was driven by new sounds and new technology, but it also allowed the composers to create exactly what they wanted to without the necessary mediation of a performer. Some composers—famously, Igor Stravinsky—railed against performers’ “interpretation” of music, instead preferring “execution.” The ladies and gentlemen with the instruments in hand were, Stravinsky argued, just there to make his artistic vision a reality, without any input on the process.  They had acquired a history’s worth of bad performance habits that needed to be scrubbed away. (See the sixth of his Norton lectures at Harvard, published in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.)

To bring this back around to Wright, of course playing Beethoven as if the blots on the page were the whole piece sounds “plonky and stupid.” The score was never intended to be the music, only a vehicle for transmitting it.[1]

Embed from Getty Images

And here the comparison of music to writing gets fuzzy, because writing is also a vehicle for transmitting ideas. We use the written word to tell stories, to explain scientific research, to philosophize, to do a hundred hundred other tasks. The words, though, are not the stories, are not the ideas, are not the philosophy. (You can make a case for that, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.) Stories live closer to the words than music does to the score, but there’s still a significant degree of difference.

The gap between (Western) music and writing comes in the way that gap between sign and signifier is bridged. With words and ideas, it’s essentially a direct process of semiosis.[2] With traditionally-notated Western music, you need a performer and some kind of semiosis to accomplish Wright’s “translating and transferring emotions;” the semiosis is mediated by the performer. The performer translates the score into reality—that’s performance. Like translating from one language to another, though, there are necessary injections of the performer’s ideas into the final product—the difference between dumping a chunk of text into Google Translate and using a professional translator is much the same as the difference between “plonky and stupid” Beethoven and the performance by Tiffany Poon Wright uses as his counterexample.

You can make the case (as reader-response theory sometimes does) that the “translation” of words into a story or idea—into meaning—is a kind of performance by the reader rather than the writer. It is the reader who controls the pace of consumption, who consciously or unconsciously glides over the boring bits or lingers on a particularly artful turn of phrase. Readers are, at the least, participants in the construction of the meaning of a text. Communication is between the author and the reader.[3]

Musical performance—as with other performance arts—takes place in time. Scores can and do hang around for centuries. What we have on the page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 now isn’t much different than what was on the page 200 years ago, but to turn it into music we need a performance now, something to thaw Beethoven’s calcified intentions into flowing sound. By controlling the pace of production (of sound), the performer controls the pace of consumption. The performer, of course, also controls the innumerable nuances that create the music for the audience.

“The trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer.”

As a composer, I have to respect performers—their skills make my ideas reality (and often improve upon them in the process). I don’t agree with Stravinsky’s notion of a hierarchical, unidirectional movement from composer to performer to audience. I believe that the relationships are reciprocal and that the musical work exists somewhere in the vague middle of the performer-audience-composer triangle. Performing is creative work regardless of how much or how little the composer has written down. (Any quibble with “which was always envisaged by the composer” must be saved for a separate post.) It’s the composer, though, who takes the first step of creating something from nothing, of recording some idea or intention to give to a performer and ultimately to the audience. That stage of creation embeds Wright’s “emotions” (I would add “ideas,” too) in an artifact. Only then can the performing artist “transfer and translate” them for the audience.

Writing is creating something from nothing. Performing a score is creating something out of something else. That doesn’t mean that writing and music are wholly discrete: words are sounds. Sentences have rhythm. We can talk about pace and tempo and structure in novels in much the same way we do in symphonies. One of my favorite composers (and subject of my master’s thesis) justified his musical style and the creation of a whole new tuning system on the basis of its presumed relation to human speech and song—to embodied words.

My favorite description of what defines a story is the Kalahari proverb “it comes from a far off place and you feel it.” Music is much the same way. I’ve been thinking about and writing about both for years. They’re arts. They benefit from from practice. Sometimes you create texts or scores or performances that suck. You learn from them and you move on. That doesn’t make writing  performance, and that’s okay. [4] Go practice, go write and, as Neil Gaiman puts it, make good art.

1—It’s tangential but important to note that the majority of the world’s musical traditions lack notation altogether. We have to be careful when we talk about music to remember that there is more to it than Western “classical” music. Many Western music philosophers and music semioticians build their work entirely on the Western canon, sometimes narrowing it further to Western instrumental music. That leads to some conclusions that look truly idiotic the moment you step out of the concert hall.
2—…and semiosis is marvelously complicated even before you get neurocogs involved.
3—As somebody whose dissertation was on the presentation of music and all of the practical levels of execution that go with getting music composed and performed, that sentence was a little painful to write. The communication is never going to be perfect and, as soon as publishing enters the equation, you add all sorts of competing pulls that influence both what is said and how it is said.
4—And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that I don’t believe writing is performance does nothing to discount the other elements of Wright’s analogy. Writing is still art!

Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.

Way-Back Wednesday: Manifesto from an Angry Young Composer

As I continue to work on my novel and prepare a long-form essay about leaving academia, here’s another piece of non-blog work. I wrote this one as a master’s student in composition and music history. Looking back, I find it’s actually a pretty reasonable precursor of my doctoral research. There are all sorts of things “PhD me” would tell “new grad student me” about sociology and power structures and different kinds of capital. PhD me, though, is much less in tune with the aesthetic and creative issues that drove me back then. You could probably predict, too, that I was headed for musicology—why else would I put so many references in a manifesto?

——

How many times have you (or I) walked out of a contemporary music concert thinking “this or that piece was well-constructed, but it didn’t really do anything for me.” Craftsmanship does not equal quality. Style doesn’t equal content. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Too often, I think, composers write to show what they know, to show off this or that theory or technique that they have developed/adopted/adapted/refined. The worst cases in my experience are often serialist pieces wearing their tone rows on their sleeves. You listen to the first twenty seconds and have a fair idea of how the next twenty minutes will go. In the very worst cases, you’re actually right.

The development of music theory as an independent discipline has produced a variety of interesting new ideas about what music is and how music works. These ideas, though, are completely divorced from any sort of context. Music theory becomes a game of numbers, not of sounds. Numbers alone do not make good music.

Yet many composers insist on mastery of theory and numbers. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I ignore set theory or serial technique or even (gasp) “common practice” tonality. Composing music requires some way of understanding and structuring sound. Theory is a good way to do that. Learning music theory gives the composer tools.

It does not give the composer music.

Mastery of theory and other compositional techniques (formal balance, orchestration, et cetera) does not automatically lead to good music, let alone great music. Writing music to display one’s mastery of theory leads, at best, to mediocre music. The composer must control the tools, not be controlled by them.

(my) Good music has something to say. It needn’t be a profound philosophical statement. Existential angst doesn’t make for good music to any greater extent than music theory does. The composer can be saying something as simple as “this is beautiful” or “have you ever really heard cracking ice?”

“Emotional” content is not automatically something to say. Listen to good movie scores in context (with the movie). There’s your proof, if you need it, that music can be used as a tool to stir emotions. Writing emotionally loaded music of that variety is ultimately just as craftsman-like as producing a competent neo-serial work.

As Modernism took over cultural authority from Romanticism, much was made over the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Modernism praised the former and distinguished it from the latter. The sublime, by this line of thought, is vast. It is the ineffable, the brooding purple mountains glowering against the sunset. To create a sublime work of art is a form of escapism. Flee the trials of the everyday and take refuge in the delights and terrors of pure emotion. Modernist beauty, on the other hand, aspires to what T.E. Hulme poetically calls “dead crystalline forms.” It is an art of geometry, proportion, of clarity and balance. (For a more thorough description of the beautiful versus the sublime, see Richard Taruskin’s “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past” in Text and Act or Authenticity and Early Music.)

I believe that good music cannot dwell wholly in either of these camps. Life has sublime moments, but it is not made of them entirely. The excesses of Late Romanticism pretended that it was, and created towers of stacked thirds and unresolved dominants that eventually toppled under their own weight. But life is not dead. It is not still, nor is its motion wholly the precise, ordered motion of Modernist machinery. There is room and need for both the rational and irrational in music.

All this comes around eventually to showing what you know versus saying what you have to say. The modernist path has led to ever more precise, more crystalline forms (reaching their stereotypical apex in the works of Milton Babbitt). Emphasis on rational thought and structure forced more and more detached thinking into music. (It is no coincidence that when Babbitt was creating compositional machinery to control every aspect of a musical work, John Cage was turning his compositional machinery over to chance operations. “Total” control and “non”-control produced works that are, on occasion, strikingly similar.) This detached thinking accelerated the growth of music theory and its place in composition. More theory and more rationalism led to a music of display: contrapuntal technique, serial technique, you name it. To be taken seriously as a composer, you had to show that you knew your stuff. You did this by writing pieces demonstrating your mastery of “new” theories (serialism was hardly new in the 1970s). The legacy of that is composition focused on complexity, on demonstrating that one has the knowledge to produce and control that complexity.

Instead of the product of knowledge, music should be the product of thinking. Pondering, if you prefer, for pondering is not so loaded with rational modernist connotations. Think and feel your way to the sounds and through them. Don’t discard your knowledge; while craftsmanship isn’t a free pass to writing good music, it is a necessary step. The necessary balance is not inherently one of form or content. The necessary balance is one of cold construction and the unruly chaos of indulgent feeling. Somewhere in that balance, there is something to say.

That something is the serious side of music. Earlier segments of the manifesto state that music should be fun. I have hardly forgotten that, but it’s a discussion for a different moment.

Further elements in an ongoing conversation:

I don’t have some magical resolution to offer on the issue of listening versus hearing, nor on coping with opened ears…I caught myself wanting to transcribe the squeaking of a particular door in the library the other day. The point about horses and water is a good one. I want something clever to say about putting carrots in the water (or apples, because all the horses I’ve known have preferred apples to carrots), but I don’t have any substance to match the analogy to. Upon reflection, I believe that part of my argument is about leading the water to the horse. Too often, “art” music pools in the concert hall, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a horse will come along. If the horse actually stops to drink, that’s cause for celebration. Music that goes (to get back to one of my favorite terms) is water that flows or springs up someplace closer to the horse and doesn’t wait for the horse to wander by or for someone to lead the horse in.

Reflection has also led me to believe that my statement about “saving music from itself” was unnecessary hyperbole. I didn’t even mean it at the time, at least not the way that it came out. I am most interested in saving my own music from itself, from getting tangled in too much theory and too much academic scene. There are times when I just want to buy a banjo and sit on the sidewalk and play and tell stories. But I theorize a bit much for that. A product of those reflections on saving music from its academic inclinations appears above.

As this is, after a fashion, a conversation in letters, allow me to jump to a different point, the point that the last volley closed on: immediacy. “Does the immediacy, or physicality of a performer’s presence make something more musical?”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t that immediacy or lack thereof makes something musical or prevents it from being musical. It is that immediacy and uncertainty create engagement. It’s just as true for a circus act, theatre, or sports as it is for music. Not many people watch recordings of old baseball games. (I admit that some do, and that the correspondence is not exact, but this isn’t an exercise in rhetoric yet. Never mind the question of watching baseball games that are recorded and end up on your television a fraction of a second later.)

I can’t say that electroacoustic music or symphonic music or any other kind of big/boxy music is unmusical. There are incredible electroacoustic pieces and there are incredible orchestral pieces that take full advantage of their respective media. Immediacy is not a criterion of musicality per se. I believe, though, that it can be an important advantage for music.

Much of music exists in the space between people: the space between the composer and the performers, the space between one performer and another, the space between the performers and the audience. Music lives in those spaces, not on a printed score or on a recording. [I point out as an aside that pure electroacoustic music changes these spaces considerably, virtually eliminating the space between composer and performer and, as mentioned elsewhere, transforming the space between the perform(ance) and the listener. This is by no means an automatically bad thing.] Scores and recordings are useful. The best recordings capture some of the lightning of those spaces (although the slicker the production, the cleaner and more thoroughly edited the recording, the smaller and less meaningful the spaces become).

Music that goes aims at revitalizing spaces. For the space between performer and listener, immediacy and a dose of the unexpected can be vitalizing agents.

Mood, Music

I don’t really understand why the question is so common, but writers are repeatedly asked what (if any) music they listen to while writing. It comes up in the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversations. It comes up in blog posts (like this one yesterday from Austin local and WordPress/NaNo stalwart Jackie Dana), in author interviews, and almost any occasion a writer fields questions.

Generally, I’m in the “sometimes listen to music before writing, but rarely while writing” camp. I spent most of my adult life studying music, and even the wallpaper Baroque and early classical performances that so many people use as writing or study music can distract me. (Or just annoy me. There’s a reason I specialized in 20th-century avant-garde music.) There are exceptions, though. When working on a scene from Ghosts of the Old City that I’ve since discarded, I put on György Ligeti’s Atmospheres. It’s dissonant atonal stuff, heavy on strings and built around texture. It was the right music for the scene in question.

And that’s my cue to pivot. I’ve spent the first part of Camp NaNoWriMo cleaning up my outline. (I’ve historically been a pantser, but the middle chunk of Ghosts was a horrible soup until I set aside the time to give it structure.) I was surprised to find myself mentally scoring the scenes to help pin down their content. My thoughts about the scenes’ moods were more musical than verbal.

I started grad school as a composer. I started as a composer because I dug music. And largely, I dug non-pop music because of film scores. I spent a lot of my undergraduate years composing pieces with explicit or implicit narratives. I also spent a lot of time thinking about music and text and how they worked differently for telling stories.

The upshot of this is that my ideas of textual structure are thoroughly tangled with my ideas of musical structure. When I think about pacing, I imagine a conductor’s gestures. I think about conflict in terms of crescendoes and cadences and shifts in orchestration. Back when I composed long pieces, I’d get one or two pieces of 11″x17″ paper and sketch out the shape of the piece. Sometimes I’d do that with a carefully-measured timeline across the top of the pages, others I’d just be roughing it out—“trumpet solo here,” “percussion cacophony,” “pianissimo strings…”. I’d draw shapes and small pictures on the page. I don’t do that with my stories, but my longhand outlines sometimes get close as visualization exercises.

Music plays out in time. In a live performance, at least, you can’t flip back to check if the theme you’re hearing now is related to the one you heard two minutes in. (You can do it with recordings, but unless you’re a music student, I think it’s pretty rare.) It’s the composer’s and performer’s job to make those connections clear, to hold the listener’s attention. You get one shot at structure, start to finish. You can use inherited forms, many of which are based on returning material and/or harmonic progressions, or you can make your own structure. Either way, the structure is experienced linearly.

Books don’t have that limitation. You can read them by flipping around. You can read the end first. You can go back and remind yourself what happened in the first chapter. Despite that difference in the medium, structure in fiction works an awful lot like musical structure. Even if you break up your plot, reveal it in out of sequence bits and pieces, it has to be compelling as it unfolds for the reader. You have to bring them with you through the story. The crescendoes have to get them excited. If you change keys for the bridge, you’d better have a good reason (and probably ought to consider bringing some of the bridge material back to prove its relevance).

A novel isn’t a symphony. The concepts and themes to balance are different. The techniques are different. For me, though, it seems more and more like the principles are the same. Whether you’re writing a story or a string quartet, you’re giving shape to chaos. You’re making the inchoate intelligible. Words or notes, you’re paving a path for your audience.

Long story short, there’s a lot of music involved with my writing even when my speakers aren’t making a sound.