10 November 2008

Never Steal from Yourself

The musicologists are so happy, in a self-indulgent way, when they can point out the influences. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that the composer transforms those influences, and makes them his own. Which reminds me of a wonderful Stravinsky statement. He once said, “You must always steal, but never from yourself.” What he meant by that is quite obvious. When you steal from yourself you learn nothing. When you steal from others, you enrich your vocabulary. — Lukas Foss

My listening lately (over the past couple of weeks, say) has included two pieces by Buffalo fixture and Minimalist icon Morton Feldman: Why Patterns? and Coptic Light. Of some seven or so discs of Feldman’s music (pretty much all of which I enjoy from time to time), these two pieces remain consistent favorites.

I think of musical time in some different way, when listening to Feldman, than most other music requires; nor can I quite explain the nature of that difference. Another thing I cannot explain, is why it is that I have ‘taken’ to Feldman’s music now (in the past three years), where my ears had very little patience with it back when I was actually in Buffalo.

Just how it is I am thinking Time differently, I don’t ‘know’; but there is some way in which I am making application of that mode of thinking, in some of my own composition. Which is not to say that any of my music sounds particularly like Feldman’s (probably, it does not).

Inspiration comes from many sources, and the relation of artistic inspiration to the source is not always much the same. One can look at an exquisitely beautiful work of art, and find inspiration for one’s own work. Or, again, one might see (or hear) something to which his response is a kind of artistic revulsion; and the inspiration one feels is something on the order of No, let’s try it this other way.

There’s a story of Harpo Marx listening to a harpist, and saying, “I’m going to lie down over here and listen, and if I fall asleep while you are playing, believe me, that is the greatest compliment I can pay you.” And a friend who is a great fan of Feldman’s music, composer and pianist Chris Forbes, admires the Second String Quartet, particularly – and Chris feels perfectly comfortable with napping while listening to the quartet. There is a ‘non-rhetoric’ to Feldman’s music which is relaxing, meditative (and yet, much of his music employs ‘dissonant’ intervals and chords which, removed from the musical syntax and structure of Common Practice, actually acquire a ‘consonant’ aspect . . . Hamlet might have said, There is no consonant or dissonant but thinking makes it so).

My enjoyment of Feldman, then, is on at least two levels: my ears simply enjoy the listening; and, reflecting upon the experience of the music enlarges my idea of the art, and of the practice of composition.

One fellow composer to whom I showed one of my scores (I believe it may have been the Overture to White Nights) responded curiously. My piece did not seem to make a favorable impression; but the reply was diplomatic on that head. I was given the advice that I should listen to more new music.

One unexpected aspect of this advice is, that in fact, my listening regularly includes music new to me, music off my own beaten sonic paths, music which requires me to seek it out, and indeed a great deal of music which falls outside my ‘preference’ (broadly considered). A composer makes his own choices in the art he makes, and necessarily listens to (and, one hopes, genuinely likes) a good deal of music which is rather otherwise than the music he himself makes. (Which, in turn, is not quite the same thing as liking everything.)

Was the advice offered, as a suggestion that there was some degree of shortcoming in this piece of mine, and on the assumption that, with exposure to ‘the right sort of music’, my music will result somehow in another and a better way? One score, too, is not always a reliable indicator of the breadth of a composer’s palette; I wonder if this advice would have been offered, if I had sent a work of quite a different character (yet no less characteristic of my work).

In all events, maybe I have already listened, or am already listening, to the music which my colleague has in mind; but I am doing my own work, my creative reaction to the ‘feed’ is my own, and unique. No one can predetermine, when you introduce sonic input to a composer, the nature of the ‘output’. The artist’s intelligence acts upon the stimuli in (ideally) unpredictable ways.

A new acquaintance, Frank Warren kindly attended yesterday when Paul Cienniwa performed some organ pieces of mine for the Prelude at First Church in Boston. Frank recognized the tune from the Scottish Psalter which was the foundation of the third piece in the set; and he told me that he enjoyed hearing the unexpected manner in which someone else made use of already well-known musical material.

This week, too, finds me revisiting (after a couple of decades plus) the Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life. This was a new release (and became my class’s musical property, you might say) my senior year in high school; so, listening to it again, there is that tangle of aesthetics, personal history and sentiment with which many of us are well acquainted.

There’s a joke which goes: Knowledge is awareness that the tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is omitting tomato from a fruit salad.

Amid my unalloyed enjoyment of the Key of Life, I smile at the thought that Knowledge is perceiving the parallel octaves in “Always”; and perhaps, Wisdom is not minding much.

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