On Serendipity and Inventing Music

According to a Facebook post I wrote on December 9, 2012, the composer John Eaton once said, "Some composers write what they hear. Some composers write in order to hear." (I didn't cite it, and a quick Google search tuned up 0 results.)

I noticed a pattern early in my master's program that sometimes things would happen in performances of my music that I wasn't expecting but that were ten times better than I imagined. I'd been working with some really good performers who had brought things to my music pleasantly surprised me. I asked a professor something like, "Do good composers ever have happy accidents?" or "Can a composer rely on serendipity?" The answer was a swift "no." I was taken aback at the swiftness of the response because my own music had definitely surprised me.

I've thought about that exchange probably weekly for more than ten years. I don't think my professor understood what I was asking, and I don't think I really did either. Of course, as a composition teacher, you don't want your students to think they can fake their way through composing. And you don't want to give the impression that great composers didn't know exactly what they were doing. But I was thinking along the lines of chance music--music that the composer can't anticipate or hear, at least not with great detail, before the performance. I was asking if it were possible to cultivate a style of composition that would foster as many of these moments of serendipity as possible. I think it is, and I'm still in the middle of figuring it out.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the label "composer" because original music doesn't usually flow spontaneously through my mind as is the common perception. (Likewise, I've noticed when my wife and I talk about decorating a room in our house, that she seems to be able to see in her mind what everything will look like, while I have no idea.)  I like building and design metaphors because I need to prototype a thing before I can comprehend it. So much of my music is an experiment of some kind--not that it aspires to be highly original necessarily, but that it tests a concept to see if it would work. (Maybe inventive is better than experimental since inventors seem more fundamentally creative than experimenters, though also more flighty...) For example, most pieces I write are modeled on visual art, text, a mathematical function, or some other process that I find interesting and wonder what it would sound like. So, as Eaton said, I write in order to hear some soundless phenomenon.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels overly burdened by the 19-century idea of the composer-genius, a conduit of the divine, and really just wants to tinker with sounds.

I was thinking about Legos this morning. You can make some cool stuff with Legos (though nothing cooler than the Millennium Falcon), but ultimately the play impulse seems to be keep seeing what else you can build--the process of discovery and building. That was my impulse in my first semester of music theory. When I realized there were component building blocks to the Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy that I loved to play, my instinct was to play with those block to build something myself. I've been tinkering around with sounds for most of my life now, and it still feels like play. And it still feels like serendipity whenever I hear my compositions.

Is Music Grading a Bad Thing?

Here's a blog post from composer Daniel Wolf regarding the Texas Board of Education's University Interscholastic League.  This is an organization that controls athletics and music in Texas schools.  For those of us in music education, the UIL governs a lot of what we do.  The North Carolina Bandmasters Association uses some of the UIL structure in its own concert festivals regulations.  Now, it may seem strange to combine scholastic sports with music.  Goodness knows the two seem to be in constant competition with one another.  I think there is something utilitarian and super-efficient about this Texan bureaucracy, and I think that's part of what has appalled Wolf.  We artists shun the notion of categorization (at least explicitly), and the idea that some group of jocks in Texas might somehow influence music education around the country is intensely offensive.  I'll leave it to the linked article above to explain the details of the UIL and how this influence is wielded.  I will say, however, that the North Carolina system does not govern marching band festivals, nor is it governed directly by the North Carolina Board of Education. I think there are obvious benefits to grading music for adjudicated festivals--mainly, it is necessary to divide bands by their levels of proficiency.  Comparing bands of greatly differing abilities isn't very useful.  Thus, the bands choose their music from a list that arranges a finite number of compositions by difficulty.  My middle school band is playing Grade I, the easiest because we're a small band with mostly beginners.  It wouldn't make sense to be compared with larger bands with more experience.

However, where I am most interested in Wolf's point is the idea that this set-up introduces bias into music education.  I agree wholeheartedly that it does.  The list is finite.  There is a procedure for adding other pieces, but I haven't looked into it.  The system makes it too easy to buy from the publishers and composers on the list.  I can't see why the list can't be evolutionary and infinitely expandable.  Sure, have a panel of conductors to review new music for difficulty, but not for anything else. There's no reason to exclude any new music; let the individual teachers decide what they want to play.

Not only is there an exclusionary bias inherent in having a list, there is also a bias in the band world against new music, and that doesn't help our students.  I am rehearsing Terry Riley's In C this semester in honor of the groundbreaking piece's 50th anniversary.  The piece has no meter, no key, no phrasing indicated, no dynamics, no parts, and not even any instruments indicated.  A typical adjudicator wouldn't have anything to judge.  But, the notion that music must have all these elements was discarded decades ago--at least outside the band world.  Inside the band world, these are the foundational elements of music.  I'm not suggesting we stop teaching students these concepts, but let's keep going.  Let's show them aleatory music, improvisatory, atonal, music.  That extended techniques and experimental timbres in the music of George Crumb are powerful.  And most importantly, that these new music concepts aren't novel or weird--that you can phrase Schoenberg just like you would Brahms... or Swearingen.

©2017 Joshua Harris