Reading, Structure and the Creative Process

Needless to say, I didn’t have the time or energy to finish my report from the VISI Art Song Lab. But the results of the week’s collaborative process can be found here.  Since then I’ve mostly been doing a great deal of reading while battling my own lethargy and uncertainties.  The fact that I’m leaving the country in 10 days is slowly becoming more and more daunting, and the many tasks I have yet to do before I leave are on the verge of becoming overwhelming.  Despite all of these sources of anxiety, I find great solace in reading; I’ve consumed about 8000 pages since the beginning of June, and I invariably feel more confidant and inspired while in the thick of relevant reading material.

Two sources I’ve read recently have made obvious to me the importance of structural concepts in the music I write (and even more so in the music I want to write).  First there is an exhaustive summary by Robert Wason of a structural scheme devised by Frederic Rzewski:

According to Rzewski (in personal conversation), these six “textures” grew out of a scheme which he had developed as a plan for improvisation while working with Musica Elettronica Viva. In essence, the scheme is based upon six relationships which two musical events may assume in time: in the first, the two events are completely separated and distant from one another (no relationship); in the second, they begin to move closer and to influence one another; in the third, they are contiguous (Rzewski draws an analogy to the traditional texture of “melody”); in the fourth, they overlap (Rzewski’s idea here is “counterpoint”); in the fifth they are coincident, or nearly so (here Rzewski’s thinks of “harmony”), while in the sixth, they pass one another in time, and bring the whole nature of temporal succession into question.

Robert W. Wason, “Tonality and Atonality in Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ ” in Perspectives of New Music , Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 108-143

This scheme has been particularly important to the composition of my clarinet trio, and so has Chapter Two of Victoria Adamenko’s Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, “The Prime Structuring ‘Molds’ of Myth and Music.”  Here, Adamenko gives an exhaustive treatment of two important structural concepts that I embrace in my work: binary opposition, including the use of synthesis or a “mediator” (this was the main concept of Neither/Nor and continues to be basis of much of my personal philosophy, musical or otherwise); as well as variability and combinatoriality, which manifest most obviously in my music as thematic variation (in Six Popular Songs After Lawrence Durrell) and the creation of a contiguous structure from small combinatorially arranged cells (in Loops from Broken Lies and the shuffled file card pieces).  This chapter from the Adamenko definitely deserves a fuller summary and a closer critique, which I hope to accomplish in the near future.

In the midst of  what was, to me, a much less convincing chapter from Neo-Mythologism in Music, “Perception and Critique: Myth as a Figure of Speech in Musicological Discourse,” Adamenko shares a gem with us on the subject of Schnittke’s creative process:

Schnittke’s notes and sketches reveal that in his picture of the creative process, the composer placed the collective above everything.  Schnittke’s archive in London contains a little handwritten diagram, which represents a layered structure.  The top layer Schnittke marks as “super-music” (nadmuzyka), from where one descends through the layers of “hyper-idea” (giperzamysel), “the idea of a work” (zamysel proizvedeniya), to a “rational concept” (razionalnaya konzepziya) and, finally, to the musical text using notation (notnyi tekst).  “The collective” (kollekt[ivnoe]) occupies the highest level in this diagram, while Schnittke separates the stages that lead to the musical text with a line marking all of the lower  categories as “individual” (indiv[idual’noe]).

Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, p. 249

My own conception of music and composition, which I’d largely developed before I was familiar with any of Schnittke’s work, is remarkably similar.  I also think of music in the highly abstract, hierarchical way that Schnittke does, which in some ways has been a barrier of sorts: I often have to spend months thinking about “the idea of a work” and the “rational concept” before I can commit anything to paper, and I think it will be years, if not decades, before I’ve learned nearly enough about music to have an even somewhat complete notion of “super-music,” which I interpret as being the composer’s philosophical outlook on music, sort of a meta-generalization of the ideological trends in their oeuvre (which I would suppose would be the “hyper-idea”).  Not only that, but I also share Schnittke’s Platonic conception of composition, and, like him, I feel as though I am merely the medium through which compositions, which are inherent from the structure of music as we conceive it and exist in an abstract plane, flow.  I will definitely be discussing that topic in the near future as well.

The ideas I’ve been exposed to through reading in the past few months have raised more questions for me than they’ve answered, but that is undoubtedly a good thing. Merely considering these topics on a day-to-day basis has me feeling closer to my work, despite being in a fairly artistically sterile environment until I move to the US.  Also, since Wesleyan’s MA program uses a portfolio-style thesis, and since I want all the compositions and essays I produce over the next two years to be relevant, I feel as though I need to come up with a plan for the topics I’ll be working on now, instead of a year from now, when I would be beginning a traditional thesis.  The readings I’ve been doing have cemented my desire to further develop my ideas in the areas of style, structure and morphology, and to continue to study the works of Alfred Schnittke, especially those from the end of his life.



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