The purpose of this experiment is to determine to what extent we - the persons in this room at this moment - share the same or similar ideas about music, in which we all presumably have a common interest. At the end of the lecture the lists will be collected and their contents read. The results may serve as a point of departure for the ensuing discussion. You may identify yourself, or not, as the author of your list. Please refrain from jokes, irrelevant remarks, or comments which do not reveal your true thoughts on the subject. Please also refrain from looking at your neighbor's list, and keep your own list out of sight.
The object of this lecture is not so much to make statements as to ask questions which may or may not be discussed afterwards. The theme of the lecture is "Inner Voices." This expression may have two senses:
1. As a general figure of speech, the "inner voice" is that of the mind or conscience. It may be identified with a personal guardian spirit, as in the case of Socrates' "daemon" or the "genius" of Roman religion. It usually speaks in words; but it may also make its presence known through a kind of feeling or emotion, or as music.(1) There may be more than one inner voice; for example, in Genesis 4:10, Yahweh, presumably an inner voice himself, says to Cain: "Listen to the voice of your brother's blood crying out to me from the ground." Inner voices may also be in conflict with one another. They may be a grey area between conscious and unconscious, a way through which these parts of the mind communicate with each other: presymbolic, not yet language, but no longer dream.
2. As a technical term in music, the inner voices are those situated between the highest and lowest in polyphonic writing: the tenor and alto voices, for example, in a four-part chorale. They may be heard less clearly than the soprano and bass parts, and in their melodic profile may be less interesting than these, their function often limited to that of harmonic support for the principal line. This hierarchical ranking of voices varies greatly throughout the history of polyphony. The style of the Renaissance, in which all voices receive more or less equal treatment, could be said to be more democratic than that of the Classical period, in which the outer voices, and especially the highest one, are favored. But on the other hand, the partly hidden quality of the inner voices in later styles could be considered as adding a dimension of depth to music which earlier strict polyphony did not have. The fact that we do not hear everything clearly in the inner lines of a composition does not mean that these are less important; on the contrary, the semiconcealed motion of a line may express a sense of shadow and mystery central to the music. There are many examples of this technique in the Romantic period.
The sense in which I wish to use the term is more specific than either of these two. When I speak of "inner voices," I refer to those unconscious or semiconscious impulses which compete with one another in steering a composer's mind, in both positive and negative directions: those that excite or reinforce a train of thought on one side, those that inhibit or interrupt it on the other. These floating mental states, dreamlike shapes, and presymbolic utterances of the soul are the raw material from which a fully formed musical idea is distilled. Such impulses, insofar as they can be described at all, whether musically or verbally, may be subject to distortion, much as dreams, when they are remembered, may contain elements which have been juggled in the process of retrieval, as in the reversal of time sequences or the substitution of personal identities.
The very first act of writing is already a rewriting, of impulses and emotions not yet present in symbolic form. The decision to write this, and not that, is guided by a mostly unconscious system of self-censorship. A writer or composer may be aware of the existence of such mechanisms of censorship, without knowing anything about how they work. This is my case. I shall try, therefore, to limit myself to a subjective account of my own personal experience in writing music.
Within myself I hear voices that echo from the past, resonate in the present, or call from the future, sometimes as words, sometimes as musical sounds, sometimes as vague feelings or impulses only. What are these inner voices? To what extent can I express them, translating them into symbolic language? How, when, and why do I suppress them? What governs my choice of what I listen to in my soul? Without knowing the answer to these questions, I can nonetheless play with these dreamlike shapes, using them as elements of a game. The rules of the game are both rational and intuitive. They may be predefined, or made up while playing. In this game there is not merely one player. In writing the self is divided, and not into two parts only, but into countless numbers of voices. They may be here or there, close by or coming from the next room or from some distant place, present, past, or future, a confused and confusing noise.
When I observe the inside of my head, I am struck both by its resemblance and its lack of resemblance to the outside world. In both worlds there is noise. In this noise I try to find a silent space, from which I can quietly observe, like Maxwell's demon, the turmoil of the inner universe. But I am distracted by other demons. My thoughts are a sequence of unpredictable interruptions, each moment a surprise in a continuous adventure whose beginning I have forgotten and whose end I cannot guess. I scan this inner and outer noise for meaningful patterns, jumping from one to another. There are resemblances between the disorder of my mind and that of the outer world. The rhythm is similar: for a while following one path, then jumping to another, which may or may not have some relation to the first. Both in my active dealing with the outside world and in contemplation of the inner one, I am constantly diverted and interrupted. Forces beyond my control drive me at first through old channels, which then burst, creating new ones.
These two worlds are at the same time totally different. I cannot observe my own mind in the same way that I perceive what is outside. Familiar shapes are replaced by unfamiliar ones. Fantasies cling for an instant, then vanish. They accumulate in an oceanic noise from which I try to keep a safe distance. From this ocean I hope to catch something rare and beautiful. It is a murky current in which turds and diamonds appear and disappear in an instant. I search for some method that will improve my chances of catching something. The wheel of fortune may come around, but only if I give it a shove.
In this operation skill is not enough; but with skill I may be able to plunge, or to fly, deep or high enough to be touched by grace. I need some kind of rational structure upon which to hang my thoughts as they appear; but it must be ready to collapse at any moment, giving way to a new one. In this way I may be able to express truthfully the chaos which I perceive everywhere, both within and without. I impose arbitrary limits upon myself as I go along; like a rock-climber, I try to use gravity to escape its awful control.
I observe the endless chain of my perceptions, my cloudy thoughts. Although all of these things may have some rational explanation, to me they appear anything but rational. Reflecting on any one of them, I might find some reason for its being there. But in the moment in which it appears, it is senseless. All of these moments are a microcosm of history, an endless sequence of wrong notes. Things seem to happen for no reason at all. Some things, like the motions of billiard balls, have causes; others not. Those that do not simply are.(2) Even my most rational thoughts are, for a moment, epiphanies, without active or passive relation to other things. How can I express this "is-ness" of things, this basic unpredictability of each moment, as music?
In the game going on inside my head I am more like a reporter than an actual player. I try to observe what is happening, and to describe it truthfully. The game is more like a marketplace than a sports encounter, since there are not two, but many sides. One object of the game is to get behind the everyday meaning of things, so that I can perceive them from a different perspective. To do this I must distract the gatekeeper's attention. Behind the most common and familiar phenomenon there is mystery. The most certain facts are the most mysterious. Mind casts veils and builds walls to survive. To open them all indiscriminately would lead to insanity. I navigate alone, with no compass, and only an unreliable map and my own observations to guide me. I must have a tool to pry open the barriers of perception. I cannot know exactly what I am looking for, but I must have some idea. I need some conceptual framework for exploration.
My mind skates, as if on broken ice, leaping from one momentary platform to another. I use a rational framework as a skating, jumping, or flying tool; or as a lure, net, or container with which to attract, filter out, or collect what I desire. If I play only with my intuitive self, or only with my rational self, then I lose. But if I can use one to influence the other, I can hope to skip through to something beyond. Shapes, phantoms, half-formed ideas tumble about, but I see them only peripherally; if I try to look directly at them, they disappear. I try to follow a lunar rhythm, like that of planetary satellites, falling towards and away from an idea at the same time; confronting it, but not head-on. Without moving, and without looking at it, I allow it to hang in semidarkness. If it does not emerge, I leave it alone.
I choose patterns, ranging from totally predictable to apparently random sequences. The transitions may be logical or illogical. I let them happen as they happen. I impose an arbitrary time-frame within which to take snapshots of the soul in motion (like: 105 times 10 seconds). A static order may prevail through several frames, or there may be many changes within a single frame. Although the sequence is given, forming a larger pattern, each frame is a world in itself.
Instead of deducing the content rationally from the formal concept, I proceed inductively, allowing my thoughts to pour into the structure as if into an empty container, without concern for whatever rational or irrational relation they may bear to it, or to each other. Instead of imposing rationality at an atomic level, I expand my unformed thoughts to large molecular units. Rather than imposing an abstract rhetorical model upon my thoughts, I try to observe their uninhibited rhythm, and to reproduce this rhythm in some way. I let myself be distracted, intentionally outwitting the devil by imitating his devices. If an idea vanishes before I can notate it, I forget about it. I read a magazine. What interests me is not how ideas should develop, but how they actually do develop. In this way I hope to paint a truthful, if disorderly picture of what my mind actually perceives. Composition becomes something like gold-panning. Countless impulses go by, most of which are immediately suppressed. It may be desirable to suppress the suppressors. Rather than suppressing impulses, I try to liberate them, to consider them for a short while, long enough to permit them to express themselves in symbolic form. How to find the interesting ideas, separating them from the garbage? How to find the nuggets in the surrounding muck? The good ideas may be the very first that fall, as if by a temporal force of gravity, out of nothing. How do I catch them, before they are forgotten? For this I need a trick, to distract momentarily the attention of the watchful censor. What is the trick?
It is useful to have an identity when I am crossing the street in traffic. It is better to have one program of action, and not to get lost in questions like: Who am I? What am I doing here? The censoring parts of the mind here play a useful function. But there are times when a lifting of censorship, a kind of controlled insanity, can be even more useful. For better or for worse, in making works of art it is useful to be free of the censoring mechanisms of mind. Sometimes this freedom may result in the production of great works of art, even at the expense of the physical life of the artist.
The censor tries to keep me from remembering my ideas, so that they will not interfere with some preimposed plan. How do I grab the thing I am trying to remember? Instead of trying to remember it, I think of something else. Instead of trying to retain ideas, I let them float or sink, and merely try to grab the one that momentarily appears at the surface. The attention of the censor will be distracted momentarily, and I will be able to retrieve what was momentarily suppressed.(3)
The problem is an old one: How to write improvisation? Improvisation is the redemption of accident, a magical process in which the unintended is perceived as part of a design. The improviser justifies a wrong note by following it immediately with another one. The two wrong notes together suddenly form a new world in which the errors of the past are reconciled. The same technique can be applied to writing. Writing is not merely a question of notation or recording. It is mainly a mental process in which data are transferred, or not, from shorter to longer memories. This process is largely beyond my conscious control; but I can use improvisational techniques to reveal momentarily what might otherwise be immediately forgotten. The reality that I wish to describe, the reality that I live, is a constant stream of interruptions. How can I express this reality as music? I can use a variety of mechanical systems to simulate it - but all of them involve a turning away from the inner experience to something outside. The result will never be an accurate description of the inner world, but only a machine-made simulation. What I need for this kind of composition is not a system to dictate what I write, but a method that allows me to write what I hear.
Everything can be rationalized. There are techniques for dealing with the material, social, and inner worlds which can be learned, taught, and reproduced. Nothing escapes the ordering mind, except for its own craziness, for which it is deaf and blind, and against which it is powerless. The inner voice is both seductive and threatening, like the mother's voice for the infant, and the voice of God for Abraham. Both good and evil are mixed up in it. It is constantly present, but nearly always suppressed. Is there a technique for filtering out the good voice, while keeping the evil one at a distance?
In writing music, as in any creative process, one is constantly confronted with the necessity of making choices. These are usually intuitive, made not by conscious evaluation of all of the available paths, but by a more or less instantaneous judgment based on a kind of feeling for what is likely to produce desirable results, similar to the decision to cross the street when the light is red, but no traffic is coming. In music, the classic technique for learning to make such judgments is counterpoint. In the most basic kind of counterpoint exercise, one must make a choice among three or four possible steps which is esthetically satisfying, and which at the same time will not lead to an impasse three or four steps later. The difference between a counterpoint exercise and free composition is that in one case one is bound by strict rules, while in the other all options are open. In one case the risks and rewards are limited, while in the other they can be incalculable.
Artists, like scientists, have a responsibility for presenting a case such as it is. Unlike scientists, artists do not have to present rational arguments. A work of art can make sense without being rational. In fact the success of a work of art may depend on its defiance of rules of syntax. Rational and intuitive approaches to composition are not incompatible. They may not be able to live with each Other, but neither can they live without each other. Music is a fluid medium in which incompatibles join. The inside of the mind is a jungle in which order and disorder coexist in playful struggle. Although difficult to comprehend, it is not for this reason "irrational." The fugitive shapes, phantoms, and feelings that populate the mind are as worthy of study as the well-formed ideas that emerge from them. Just as the erratic behavior of one part of the mind cannot be understood without the ordering function of another, so this order itself must be understood as a product of chaos. In musical composition, just as in everyday life, we must be able to combine these two polarities in ways that are uniquely appropriate to each new situation, in a stumbling compromise of wakefulness and dream. The composer is a kind of politician, devising ways for established patterns to coexist with the unforeseen.
[pause, somewhat longer than the first]
Two peculiarities of "contemporary music" deserve attention. The first is its tendency to emulate science. The second is a lack of agreement on what this quasi-science is about.
"Serious" music, like philosophy and science, is the secular heir of an older religious tradition, and like them has inherited some of this tradition's fundamental concepts. Although music cannot be equated with philosophy, having evolved independently and with different interests, its evolution has nonetheless followed a parallel path, with occasional momentary conjunctions? The thinking of writers on music, who also contribute to the formation of composers' ideas, has been conditioned by historicist views which come directly from philosophy, and from German idealist philosophy in particular. Most composers cannot escape the notion that the history of music leads to and ends with themselves. Such historicism is not only encouraged by the composer's education, but is also reinforced by isolation in the workplace, as well as in the world.(5)
Although other art forms may be accompanied by theory, it is rare for artists to make significant contributions to the theoretical interpretation of their work (there are of course exceptions).(6) Composers are expected to justify their work and their methods of producing it by theoretical arguments. Such arguments may have a mathematical, philosophical, sociological, or even political character. Common, however, to all of them is their avoidance of ideas of interiority, transcending words, expressible only through music, with its unique ability to speak directly from and to the soul. Other arts, as well as science itself, have been profoundly affected by such ideas, responding to the discovery of the unconscious with new forms and techniques. But musical composition has remained by and large unaffected by them.(7) Since Schonberg composers have adhered to rules engraved upon stone; or they have rebelled against them, but always invoking some rational system. A composer may not simply sing a tune. There are no Beatnik composers and no hippies. There are Fluxus, conceptualist, and "graphic" composers, but only on the fringes of "contemporary music," concerned as it is with rational numbers. All the major movements in composition in this century have one thing in common: They all rely on some system external to the mind. Twelve-tone, serial, chance, minimalist "composing machines" have told us what to do. We have not yet entered into communication with ourselves.(8)
The historicist trend of music in the twentieth century has been toward progressive rationalization and systematic rejection of the interiority of Romanticism. Is this trend itself "progressive"?
"Progress" cannot have the same meaning in the arts as in science or politics, because the objective criteria for measuring it do not remain stable, but change as a variable function along with the thing to be measured. One could say that serialism, minimalism, chance music, and so on, have all contributed to a kind of progress in the sense that they have expanded the vocabulary of music, adding with each new step another key to its instrumentarium. This would amount to a tautological description of history as a simple process of accumulation. One could also say that each step towards rationalization is a step away from the irrational, inner mind. But this would be a simplification as well. Interesting results in art come from the combination of both of these processes, in the struggle of imagination with reality, using both acquired rational tools and innate emotional responses. The outcome of this struggle cannot be foreseen; if that were possible, it would be devoid of interest. The excitement of an effective work of art, its relevance to the human condition, and its ability to communicate lie in its ability to reveal some basic truth about reality that is both rational and irrational at the same time. Will the car start this morning? Will I get to my job on time? Will I quarrel with my boss? Will I win something or lose something? Poetry alone can provide an existentially truthful answer, whatever the factual outcome. The truthfulness of music lies in its ability to reveal the precariousness of existence, beyond all of the apparent certainties with which this existence is cluttered. A system worth hanging onto must be ready to disintegrate at any time; the only really rational way of making music is to forget what you have done the moment you have done it.
Rational and systematic procedures are an essential part of the craft of composition. Without them no music could be written at all. But it is also clear that they cannot be the whole story. Without some deviation from the rules there would be no point in writing music; it would be enough merely to play the music which is already there, over and over again. The same ideas, the same emotions would constantly return, in the same sequence and with the same familiar inflections. In such a completely rationalized state, time and history would stop. No further evolution of the art would take place, and all further communication would be redundant. Music would be reduced to ritual.(9)
The second peculiarity to which I would like to draw your attention in this field of so-called "serious" music, or perhaps better "nonfield" - existing as it does on the margins, not only of other disciplines, but of what is commonly regarded as music - is a lack of consensus concerning its own identity, its fundamental nature, its boundaries, and its function within society. Confusion exists as to what this music is, for whom it is written, what it is good for, and what it is all about.
Leon Bloy said that the supposed tendency of art toward religion is that of a parabolic curve toward its asymptote.(10) The same could be said of music's relation to science. Music may be carried into theory and disappear there without ever ending. It is drawn to science, but cannot identify with it. When some new advance has been made in, for example, open heart surgery, the new technique is applied within months, or even weeks, in every major hospital all over the world. Competing teams of biologists rush to publish articles in international journals, arriving within days of each other at the deadline. But in "contemporary music," information travels at a snail's pace. Although there are "experts" in this nonfield, who decide what should and should not be heard, they mostly belong to the category of those who were called, in the days of the German student movement of the seventies, "Fachidioten": professional idiots. Most of this music takes years to appear, if it appears at all, in recording; most of it does not get beyond the borders of the country in which it is produced; and the average time that it takes to cross the Atlantic Ocean, in one or the other direction, is roughly twenty-five years. Information about new music probably circulated faster in the eighteenth century, when Bach travelled on foot to hear Buxtehude.(11)
There is no consensus on what is important in music. It is an area of culture governed by subjective taste. At the same time, through its links with rational disciplines, it reflects a continuous historical development. It is known that three million deaths will occur this year as a result of diseases caused by tobacco. Similar effects of music are unknown. The good and bad effects of music are not known because they are not immediately and physically observable. Unlike science, music seems to navigate between order and disorder, between simple cry and symbolic utterance. It follows that music may be (among other things) a kind of science the object of which is partly unknown. It is difficult to say anything about it except on its own terms. It insists upon its freedom from the grasping mind. At the same time, it is everywhere and at every time partly contained by this mind. Music tries to be like science, but does not succeed, because there is no agreement about what music is. It both accepts and defies rationalization.
Since the essence of music escapes the rationalizing mind, why talk about it at all? Why not just do it? Why not just listen?
Composition is a constant search for reproducible patterns in the sound-universe and for rational symbols to describe them. It is a mystery how deep unconscious processes can somehow be expressed in a symbolic form which makes them comprehensible to other minds. Almost nothing is known about how this takes place. Writing is still in its infancy. Meanwhile, writing about music is always comedy: One can write around music, but not about it.
If we could drop the notion that everything must have a cause, then we might be able to live the fullness of each moment. But if there were no causes or reasons, if things merely happened, all we could say about any historical event would be that it was the result of a missed appointment. We would learn nothing from the past, would not be able to solve the problems of the present, nor to plan for the future. "At every moment, begin again. Let each moment be itself": If followed rigorously, this rule would lead to insanity. You cannot escape causality without getting lost in a sea of meaningless data. But you can try to describe the experience of getting lost, even if you have not actually had it, by reconstructing it as you imagine it. An accurate musical description of this state of temporary insanity can actually be useful. Music is one of the few areas in which it is possible to perform wild experiments without running the risk of hurting people: something that is not possible for architects, aeronautical engineers, or doctors. It can provide us with a momentary glimpse of possible worlds lurking behind the limited field of habitual perception. Composers have a special role to play in the present confusion. If every ordinary sinner has an inner voice which can be heard in times of crisis, composers are professional listeners, who tune in to these voices during most of the working day. Like actors, who give away their souls while borrowing for a while those of others, composers occupy an ambiguous or transitional area; transmitters of angelic messages, they can be transporters of souls, accompanying them in times of critical transition. Everyone has deep experiences which yearn for symbolic expression (for example, in dreams). Composers and poets merely find techniques of remembering these experiences long enough to translate them into some common symbolic language that makes them recognizable to others. If music can communicate some kind of interior discourse, it can do so only because it translates this discourse into symbolic form. If a cry may elicit a response from those nearby, a song may travel further. The innate cry must become objective language. "Expression is all," says Oscar Wilde.
I realize that I have said nothing in this lecture that has not been said before. But this all-too-familiar subject matter can be seen in a new light. We are living through an extraordinary turn in the evolution of the species, in which forms of order and disorder compete for dominance. We need new forms; but little can be said about them, except that they are everywhere. They can be found by fishing around in the garbage. We can find new forms if we simply listen to the world as it is, without trying to force it to conform to abstract models. The disorderliness of the world, and that of our own minds, will give us these forms, if we allow them to flow through our pens. To do this we must find ways of momentarily blocking the mechanisms of mind which normally impede this flow. Rational systems of the kind used in most composed music of this century, although they may be necessary in other contexts, are not useful here. A more spontaneous form of writing, more receptive to the nonsequiturs of everyday life, more like this life in its structure, is needed. By liberating the inner voices, by giving them the same value as the outer ones, music could vastly expand the resources of its language.
We will now collect the lists of all the important things that have happened in music in the last twenty-five years and compare them. I have an idea of what they will be like, but they should contain some surprises as well.
1. In the traditional culture of the Sioux, the young initiate warrior spends a few weeks alone in the wilderness, during which time he learns his own private chant, which may not be revealed to others, and which may be sung only in times of danger, when his guardian spirit will come to his assistance.
2. Adult hypertension, auto-immune disorders, and many cases of sudden death are examples. When something goes wrong, we may find a cause, such as witchcraft; or we say that it just happened, it was just "one of those things." Our expectations were confounded; we may find a rational explanation, or not.
3. Seducing one part of the mind away from its repressive effect upon another is a part of common experience - reading on the toilet - and a technique in various kinds of therapy.
4. Conjunctions which have borne fruit on both sides; the Nietzsche-Wagner nexus, as well as the influence of Adorno, the Schonberg student, on many composers, are examples.
5. In the absence of reliable feedback concerning the real value of one's work, it is easy to succumb to fantasies of dominance of a pathological and even paranoid character. In an ideal world, the psychotic disturbances which typically affect composers might be recognized as legitimate work-related diseases for which the victim is entitled to compensation. Under present conditions, such ideas are merely amusing.
6. The predilection for theory has been mostly restricted to "serious" written music. Jazz musicians are exempt; for them, the principal function of critics and theorists has been, in the words of Duke Ellington, merely "to stink up the place."
7. There are Surrealist writers, painters, filmmakers, but no composers to speak of. There are a few in whose work a certain affinity to Surrealist thinking may be discerned, like Satie and Milhaud, and in more recent times, the composers of "musique concrete"; John Cage and, even more, Morton Feldman; Kagel and Schnebel; but none of these ever abandoned systems entirely. The obvious candidate for a musical equivalent of "ecriture automatique," stream-of-consciousness writing, and similar methods would be jazz improvisation; but despite Stravinsky's definition of composition as "improvising with a pen," such techniques of artistic creation are absent from written music in our time.
8. Composers can be messengers between science and art, because they can find ways of communication between these two things within themselves. But unlike writers, composers do not seem to venture into the darkness of their inner minds. A prohibition seems to prevent them from following Kleist's suggestion to eat once again from the Tree of Knowledge. Henri Pousseur, the first "postmodern" composer, devised a fascinating and elaborate system for transforming twelve-tone rows into folk-tunes. Cornelius Cardew could not simply write in the style of Beethoven just because it pleased him, because it represented a language that belonged to him as well as others; he had to invoke the theories of Zhdanov to justify his creative impulse. Even John Cage, who did more than anyone to liberate music from orthodoxy, remained faithful to the end to such systematic thinking.
9. That this notion of music is not merely a literary fantasy, as in Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel, but an already present reality, is evident both in recording and in live performance as a reproduction of recording with added value. But such a state of affairs would be not only useless but absurd. It is obvious that time does not stop. Music does not cease to appear as vibrations in the air, merely because most people perceive it as a piece of plastic. The world does not conform to reason. The ordering mind is constantly confounded by the unpredictable. If this were not the case, this ordering mind, having no further function, would itself shrivel up and die. Sooner or later it does so; but in the meantime, it is forced to recreate itself, to stumble, correct its mistakes, and rewrite its own rules.
10. This statement, if true, would provide some kind of certainty regarding the unattainability of perfection.
11. It is true that the Europeans know more about what the Americans are doing than conversely: This is a natural function of the imperialist system, in which information flows from the center outwards. But the Europeans pick and choose according to their image of what American music should be: alternative exotica to the savante culture of the Old World. Cage and LaMonte Young are acceptable, Charles Wuorinen not. Those Americans whose music is too "European" are imitators.
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|Publication:||Perspectives of New Music|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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