Writers On Music
This is a series of short essays about music from the perspectives of young writers. Several members of The Corresponding Society have been asked to address the subject. The participants have academic backgrounds in fields such as literature, poetics, and history; they are enthusiasts, but claim no formal musical qualifications whatever.
by Lonely Christopher
Poetry and music are composition. The difference is in modality (in the general definition). Sound is the substratum and form is the anatomy of both arts. Some binarisms for poetry and music: the latter is explicit/exoteric, the former is implicit/esoteric. A popular separation between sound in daily communication and musical composition is culturally supported; the technical distinction between semantic language and poetic composition is apparently more problematic. A young writer is likelier to receive unsolicited advice on his craft from his dentist (or his relatives) than a young composer. (The dentist can confidently belittle the former subject because she writes in the patient’s file, she doesn’t sing into it.) Yet, a modal similarity is found in formal qualities of composition: poetry and music are not gleaned magically from the ether but wrought/constructed using methodical grammars. Correlatives between the modes are articulated through a structural perspective. The importance of form in writing is disordered through common attachments to the result over the process (the signified over the signifier) in the use of semantic language; poetic resonance has been misattributed to the tumid gestures of realism. The criticality of poetic form isn’t realized by mimesis; beyond retarding postures, when the referent miscarries (ruining the parlor trick), there remains textual architecture. Nondenotative music is a construction site of compositional arrangement. Consequently, a clearer relationship between the makeup of a poem and processes of musical composition becomes evident. The technique of repetition and variation used by Gertrude Stein in “Many Many Women” (1910) can be read as ancestor to the additive and subtractive processes a musical line is subjected to in Philip Glass’ Two Pages (1968). Unlike writing, music exists at a remove from referential functions of semantic language; therefore compositional formalism is readily available for the musical (whereas it is sociopolitically problematized for the poet). The minimalists articulated this understanding while eschewing the strictures of academic serialism and et cetera. Steve Reich developed a process that he called gradual phase shifting: two operators (either tape machines or musicians) commenced to play an identical pattern in unison repeatedly as the tempo slowly increased on one side, moving through unsynchronized combinations until reestablishing simultaneity. According to this method he composed It’s Gonna Rain (1965), wherein two identical tape loops of a recording of a street preacher were lined up and played on separate machines until they shifted out of synch with each other and created pulsing sound patterns, and Piano Phase (1967), an application of mechanic phasing to a score for two pianists. Reich treats units of aural data in a way that articulates systematic construction and process as a presence of the piece instead of something opaquely behind it. In Reich’s seminal essay, “Music as a Gradual Process” (1968), he writes, “I am interested in perceptible process. I want to be able to hear the process happening.” Equivalently, the structural poet can spell the architecture of his work across the page. Examples of the machinery of the piece being the piece can be found in the early writing of Vito Acconci: “READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW […]” (from an untitled poem, circa 1975). Musical and poetic modes converge in the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976), written by Philip Glass, with a libretto including writing by Christopher Knowles. The totalized shape was constructed by Glass and director Robert Wilson; the music, frenzied or ruminative, is rhythmic and articulate (cyclic and additive processes build complex structures). An extract of the spoken text, written by Knowles: “This love could be some one / Into love / It could be some one that has been somewhere like them / Tis one like into where that one has been like them / Well, it could be some like them / Those like into where like that into this […] The ones are / The ones are / The ones are are / The ones are like / The ones are like into where the ones are the ones / The ones / The ones are like into this / The ones are like that / it[.]” Knowles’ pieces are always compositions of syllabic units and repeated shards of language, formally accumulated with an autistic focus on structuring/processing data. Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) has a comparative relationship with its libretto by Gertrude Stein. It seems like Thomson is often dismissed as a tonal modernist of lesser importance than his highly canonized colleague Aaron Copland, and this specific work makes contemporary critics nervous because of its radically bizarre Broadway run with an all-black cast (the concept tends to make some these days uncomfortable enough to scorn it as a deeply racist spectacle and an antiquated embarrassment not fit to consider seriously), but here is something that presents a structurally advanced/sensitive understanding between the language and music, wrought by both talents, which also pushes a theatricality so bold it remains misunderstood these many decades later. The black Catholic saints from Spain singing, “pigeons on the grass alas[,]” apparently decorated in cellophane and grouped in tableaus, and the absence of conventional narrative are elements that accumulate into an idiomatic renegotiation representative of Stein’s compositional tendencies. Thomson isn’t overwhelmed by the novelty of Stein’s challenging project (for which she was internationally notorious then) --- rather, he undertakes to read the mechanics of it and create music that constantly demonstrates, in his own mode, a systematic solidarity. In an investigation into American tonal composers in the first half of the 20th century, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound (2004), theorist Nadine Hubbs analyzes the musical setting of Stein’s linguistic abstractions. Of a duet in act two she writes, “The accompaniment is a sustained, arrhythmic F#-major triad, its voicing immobile throughout this scene. […] Thomson offers up ardency and gorgeousness in this score. But he is always careful to do so dissociatively --- that is, apart from […] the staged scenario, and never in moments wherein [it] would conventionally call for such effects. It is in this regard that his music surely can be called abstract and a perfect compliment to Stein’s text: Where ‘something is about to happen’ for one, the other adopts the counterbalancing pose that ‘nothing is ever going to happen’ --- and what is ‘about to happen’ in any case never does.” The music now, as with the language, sounds like it operates using elements of a familiar paradigm, but the grammar becomes insidiously reshaped. Thomson’s score is beautiful in fits and starts --- it is confidently rude in earnest, articulating a designed renegotiation of a codified mode through processes of abstraction. A Stein sentence might not offer syntactic handles to stabilize the casual reader (who can absorb information with ease if only it is presented normatively); in this opera, what the music is doing technically reaches to settle down conservatively for brief sequences, but definitely possesses a prevailing slippery charge that results from how what the score does and how it does it render the details of rhythm, melody, harmony, and et cetera weirdly unfamiliar within a rubric of received compositional logic. In this, the music and the libretto support each other. Indications of scene changes are sung: “Scene eight / To wait / Scene one / And begun / Scene two / To and to / Scene three / Happily be / Scene four / Attached or / Scene five / Sent to derive[.]” These occasions arrive repeatedly, sometimes unordered, and impractically --- the result is structural dissociation, as signifiers are arranged according to an order other than their prescribed functions and paired with rhyming fragments. Elsewhere, Thomson emphasizes some basic circular language with an epiphanic tone of triumph using horns, cymbals, and exultant bel canto style: “Once in a while / And where and where / Around around is a sound / And around is a sound / And around is a sound / And around / Around is a sound / Around is a sound / Around is a sound and around[.]” The result is the shining awkwardness of new architecture that reflects Stein’s writing; withal, it provides compositional balance between textual and musical modes in a singular fashion not replicated in Thomson’s operatic setting of Stein’s libretto for The Mother of Us All (1946) --- which is comparatively well behaved. Poetics and music also meet, differently, with John Cage. His work sometimes feels like an interface between the aural and the conceptual. Reich criticized Cage for using compositional processes that are imperceptible in performance; nevertheless, Cage’s piece 4’33’’ (1952) could conceivably be argued as a foundational work of minimalism. I recently watched it performed in California, where it has become a museum piece at the SFMOMA. While aural experiences likely to result from 4’33’’ could be recreated, after a fashion, at any time by any individual, the ceremonious framework of listening to and watching it performed makes the piece. The composition is a structured “silence” lasting four minutes and thirty-three seconds; when I witnessed it the musician worked from a score consisting of blank pages, but an alternate version featuring empty staves was displayed in facsimile. 4’33’’ is not a formal erasure of content, but an absence of content supplemented by a formal process that reframes the silence, or lack thereof, as the text’s performance. The musician is prescribed functions that constitute the mechanics of the performance: he sits down in front of the piano, opens the score, utilizes a stopwatch that times his actions, twice opens and closes the keyboard, turns pages, bows at the end, et cetera. The function of the audience is likewise emphasized, as they must process the lack of musical content and the actual lack of silence within silence as it is performatively framed. 4’33’’ is a hybrid (or a mutant) of music and poetics --- it uses neither written words or musical notation directly, but articulates the substratum and anatomy of both arts (insofar as it is about sound and is formally structured). Poetics is quite musical. These two compositional modalities are perhaps the closest related of any of the distinct branches of the arts. The relationship is found in the composition --- both in structural conceptualism and in formally considerate praxis. Different modes, but maybe, as Hamlet said, “two dishes to one table.”