Notations: The Blog of Composer Malcolm Caluori

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Unlimited Possibilities are Ours for the Choosing
A tremendous influence on my musical education has come from Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures "The Unanswered Question" from the early 1970s. Indeed much (if not most) of my compositional aesthetic comes from what I learn from this series of lectures. Through more recent sources of study, I have been able to glean a bearing on musical history and musical development from additional perspectives, including not only on how music itself developed through time, but also some more (in addition to the Bernstein) on how individual composers developed their own theories, principles and approaches to music, its composition, its function and purpose, its possibilities, etc. All of this has brought me to contemplate my own artistic principles as a composer. Not to say what is right or wrong about what other composers have done. What they chose was right for them and it is not for me to judge, but to understand their concepts and to refine my own.

Now after these studies, I have once again sat down to the Bernstein with "fresher" ears. Already at the beginning of Lecture one, I am inspired with thought -- even after so many years of studying and listening to these Norton Lectures. Does music express to our ears the human emotions which we universally share? My thinking is "no". It is, rather, that our emotions can, through our creativity (and musicianship) be expressed musically. I agree that music does not carry literal semantic meaning, nor does it convey specifically defined emotional content. It can be interpreted this way, but how it is intended when it is first conceived is the question. When we listen to music, are we experiencing a virtual reality equivalent to the composer's when it was written? No. we are getting only his musical expression of what he felt, and this could mean different things to our ears, through our own experience.

But emotionalism is only one mode of approach. Not all music is inspired by a desire to express "emotion." But, in terms of opera -- or more specifically, vocal music -- when words are accompanied by music, the emotional content can be more specifically percieved and the words therefore made more powerful. In considering recitative, this is often a "non-emotional" style of composition, but it is also joined with words. How does this affect those words? My suspicion is that neither an emotional OR non-emotional approach is the better choice, but as according to and directed by the composer's intended interpretation of the text (or dramatic flow). It becomes, rather, a question NOT of which is the best choice for one's compositional style, but which is more appropriate at any given point [in the text/drama].

The reason that this is my suspicion is because I was reaching very similar conclusions with regard to a number of other musical aspects during the course of my more recent studies. That is, "this way or that way? This compositional approach / aesthetic principle / dramatic ideology / etc., or that one?" The answer usually seemed to be that all methods have their virtues, it is more a matter of using the one which is most suitable for any given segment of one's creation.

Therefore, to make a VERY general sort of example, with a question like: Tonal, modal or serial? In light of the progressing evolution of music, which should a composer choose for writing music for today (and for the ages)? Should one continue in the Romantic line, one would be accused of lack of innovation or of being "old-news" and risk obscurity, if not be ignored entirely. Is that true? If being "modern" means atonality, dissonance, and the like, then one risks equal neglect for lack of listeners. Is that true? How to write music that is pleasing and wants to be heard, and not be old-hat? It seems to me that the collective history and development of music should not stump us for where to go next, but should instead be considered the largest culmination of choices available to the composer to date! The real idea, it seems to me, is to know all of these various options, and to know that the right one to use is whichever one best suits your intent for any given moment of music.

So, Tonality or Modality? Serialism? Polyrhythmic & Bi-tonal; contrapuntal, homophonic, mixed- or even-metered? In fact, all possible compositional options... The answer is "Yes." In this respect, Bernstein would seem to be right when, in his ultimate summation, he foresees "an eclecticism in the highest sense."

In considering dramatic works specifically, as a current preoccupation of mine, this approach seems logical, as if it should have been obvious all along. Don't fret and bother over breaking new ground. If you walk into that, then congratulations. But the point is to be able to create in a "natural" way -- that is, not to fight one's instincts (unless forced art is the particular point you may happen to be making). Create for yourself first.

Choice permeates all aspects of creativity, and so it is with dramatic composition: recitative or none?, arias or not?, "musikdrama"!? Follow Verdi's evolution and where are we going by extension? Ah, there we're caught in the trap again. No. Keep a full toolbox and choose your tool as best fits the expression you seek. What about libretti? Again, arias? Why not, if it feels appropriate? To rhyme or not to rhyme? Which metrical structures, or none at all? Same thing: there will be times for all types of application; which one is right for this particular moment?

The joy of the creative process involves drawing from all applications at one's disposal, as one pleases. The best way to confront the greatest number of possible expressions, is to command a great number of modes of expression. That this seems all so obvious enough, merely reinforces my feeling that it's ok to write music naturally, instinctively, rather than stewing over the intellectualized aspects of music making -- not that naturally composed music should not exude intelligence. In fact, I think that the music I most enjoy has an intellectual quality. Intellect is nature too, you know.
11:41 pm edt          Comments

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