A few weeks ago I was disturbed by something which happened whilst I was sketching the music for a new series of pieces I am calling Composition I, II, III, IV………etc. The first one (Composition I) is scored for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello. It was late at night and I was making some calculations about where in the piece to place five tutti chords. The following day I looked at the sketches and saw that I had inadvertently made the calculations twice. Therefore I had ten positions for the idea instead of the five I intended. It was disconcerting. I do not like this kind of error and then the decisions that must follow about what to do in the unforeseen circumstances. I decided to leave the error as it was.
I then got the idea that the five chords would each be followed by echo versions, thereby using up all the ten positions I had worked out and as a consequence of that, a greater problem arose, because I was instantly put in mind of the ancient Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus. It is a nice myth and not wholly sentimental. I could “bend” the piece in that direction. To follow that path however would take me away from my intended goal – that is, to write some pieces inspired by paintings of Kandinsky. It is a project I have had in mind for some time and now I was at long last getting round to tackling it. But I decided that I could follow the Narcissus idea and even name the work after him.
The musical imitation of aspects of the myth occurred to me thick and fast – it would be easy to make such an Impressionist piece on the subject. I was disconcerted, as that would mean the abandoning of the Kandinsky project, as the new piece could not be both that and a bit of musical Impressionism at one and the same time. The two things cancel each other out.
Why? A Mozart symphony is not narrative music. It is not a symphonic poem. Equally it is not Nuages or La Mer. In other words a Mozart symphony is not a work wholly dedicated to conveying mood and imagery. But I refuse to describe this aristocratic style of his as abstract. There is no such thing in music as “abstract”. Music is, by its very nature, unable to be inexpressive. In Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography Chroniques de ma vie, he said “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.” This statement is not just incorrect, it is bogus. A few years previously the composer had produced Le Sacre du Printemps. A magnificent example of music’s essential powerlessness to express anything, I don’t think. I liken Kandinsky’s “geometric” style to the music that people call abstract. For sure anyway, it is more Bach fugue than it is Jardins sous la pluie.
At this early juncture in the creative process, by chance a composer friend came to dinner and I asked his permission to lay out the issues before him and get his reaction. I explained that I believe it to be a disadvantage that composers rarely discuss their creative processes with others whilst writing and that it would be better for us if we were not so isolated at these times. He countered that he found something positive in this “isolation”. Nevertheless, he consented to hear me out and so I showed him the sketchbook, even explaining the hidden aspects of the process – the chance methods, the cards I use, the coloured beads, and so forth. He shocked me by instantly taking sides with my first idea (the Kandinsky one) and urged me to remain faithful to that and not be diverted from my intended path. He said that the idea that had occurred to me (the Echo and Narcissus one) destroyed the basis of the project. He then went on to a discussion of chance itself, saying that if it were his piece, he would leave a lot of decisions to the performers. For example, he would allow them to choose the position of those five chords that got me into trouble. Now I was doubly shocked.
We finished dinner and went into the other room to watch some absorbing films he had brought with him, including some about Alexander Calder. I had never really considered the career of Calder properly. I enjoy looking at his mobiles and assume many people do, but I only own a print of his work because it was on sale in a print shop, so the artist hasn’t received much respect from me. But here, in the films, I saw all manner of things that I admired deeply – his fluency for example in making paintings. You have to understand how much I have come to detest slow, laboured methods of work in my own creations!
This was an interlude as we then went back to discussing the chance processes we had debated at the dinner table. I made the point that for me to be asked to present scores with large areas of decision making left to performers (so-called “aleatoric music”) is like asking me to do something that revolts me. I shrink from it. Now it was his turn to look a bit shocked. Did it seem to him a rather brutal dismissal of the whole idea of aleatoricism, something very dear to him? Well, we parted on good terms, as usual, so he did not take offence.
The next day, I was very pleased with everything that had happened the previous night. It had been right to open up to a trusted someone about my creative problems and the reaction I had received was very helpful. I found I agreed with my friend that a chance error cannot be allowed to lead one away from the goal one has set for a work. If there had been no goal in view, I could have followed the unexpected path that presented itself. But no, on this occasion, I shouldn’t. As to the issue of aleatoricism, in the John Cage sense, I would defer dealing with that until another day, as peace negotiators do when confronted by some core disagreement.