Monday, April 30, 2012

The Detail That Makes The Whole

Sometimes a piece should be finished, all done, but something — and it's usually something very small — still irritates, calling attention to itself as not quite, or not yet, right.  My recent set of Compositions 2012 #s 1 - 7 on this blog provides a good example.  These are prose scores, written in text rather than a conventional staff and note graphic notation, and they are a parody (in the musical sense) of some famous pieces by one of my teachers, La Monte Young, which use the text "Draw a straight line and follow it."  I admire La Monte's straight line, which is a consistent element in his very consistent music, but I've never quite been able to stick to straight lines myself. For better or worse, I tend to meander, and my first Composition 2012 was simply a one-off, lightly affirming this. And then — for better or worse — I realized that I had to make a set of these, and in the Youngian spirit it had to be a set of seven, which I completed over the next week or so, gradually realizing that however lightly, even whimsically, the exercise began, it did have a useful, even serious function for me, making an attitude toward working, my own, a bit more clear.  So useful, but still whimsical.  When La Monte works, he tends to the thorough-going, even complete, examining all the possibilities of a set of conditions, and like his straight-line-edness, I treasure but have considerable personal distance from that approach.  And my set of seven  is a minor exploration of wandering, crooked or broken lines, composerly but by no means complete, like a 12-tone aggregate. When I was done with seven, I stopped, for the task was complete.*  But one of the seven continued to irritate. Something was not quite right. I had written, in Composition 2012 #6: "Plant a straight row of black tulip bulbs. Wait."  La Monte's structure was clearly echoed there: instructions for a performance with two tasks, and the suggestion of these tasks taking some amount of time with the adjective "straight" preserved. The black tulips were entirely my own responsibility because this was written right in the middle of an excellent tulip season and I happen to like "black" ones, those deep maroon beauties which always suggest — to me at least — that there's something wrong with the color on your mental TV set and does so in the sexiest possible way.  But "black tulips", in this context, this set of prose scores, irritated because they didn't fit at all. There was no straight line connecting them to this context.  It irritated, until a few days later, an improvement suggested suddenly itself in the middle of a morning walk with terrier mutt Lucky, the composer's best friend.  What I was after were not black but broken tulips, tulips which carry the tulip breaking virus, which makes the flowers multi-colored rather than locked onto a single color.  These are often startling plants and that word "broken" created a resonance with other texts in this set, a straight-but-broken line, patiently attended to among other kinds of not-straight and straightforwardly followed lines.  Now this may sound, for some of you, as something more like writing poetry than composing music, indeed you may not recognize any music at all in my doggerel, and that's okay, but trust me, my impulse here is entirely musical and this text articulates something I happen to find important about the way music proceeds from one moment to the next.  In any case, be assured that resolving this little irritation, moving from black to broken, or black broken, was a musical line I found worth following.
* If there were an eighth piece, it would have gone like this: "Composition 2012 #8: Don't draw a straight line, draw a bunny and follow that."  But there are only seven pieces, so this composition does not exist.

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