Lecture on Composing, Listening, and My Music


Lecture on Composing, Listening, and My Music

this speech was given at KoFoMi 2011, Mittersill, Austria  September 2011


I have come from a unique background where my childhood and teenage years were immodestly indulged in numerous forms of activities of arts.  I experienced beauty in every possible expressive form – visual arts, calligraphy, literature, and performing and performance arts which include every branch of Chinese and Taiwanese theatre, folk music, Chinese classical music, ballet, modern dance, modern dance slash theatre, circus theatre, European classical music, choral music, and so on.  From these experiences I understand Music, like Fiction, has the ability to ignite immersion.  It is interesting to observe that the way for a human being to experience is never tangible and fixated in one single direction; an audience’s attention and natural tendency of multiple sensory in the act of experiencing can be interchangeable between different expressive medias.  For example, I was fascinated by some of the 20th century modern dance – within a minute-long dance a full, synchronized corp dance can be deviated to a duet among the group, then somehow seamlessly interrupted by a solo dancer who breaks into the stage from offstage; it is counterpoint, and there’s no other way to describe or to experience this visual transformation other than by a musical verbalization.  Semantic transfer – between individual expressivities, between the internal contexts, or even between the individual expressivity and the internal context – had thus become the subject for my artistic exploration.  For me, I myself cannot part from the beauty the way a piece of art evokes its beauty – it can be so drastically different from piece to piece and from genre to genre.  It is my ongoing project to exploit the possibilities and methods to contextualize and to synthesize the different art forms, to create a “total experience” for the audience.

While it is an ongoing project for me to realize successful Gesamtkunstwerks, I have no trouble admit that music or any form of arts is a luxury in life; its luxuriousness does not, however, relies on any tangible shape of material and quantitative objects and possessions, instead, it is a luxury simply because it is essential in human beings’ life with its ability to transcend the mundane, elevate the soul, and transform the things we already know or have not yet known.  To experience a work of music, therefore, is not to experience your normal everyday life; it might make you experience your life in a different way or make you think of your life in another light, but it should not make you feel irresistibly and unconsciously ordinary and unchanged, or else one can just go on to live one’s own life and disregard even the mere notion of “art”.  For this reason, I mostly accept and appreciate music – especially so called art music or concert music – as a stylized form of experience; it does not have the obligation to directly “appear” or “imitate” the real life we normally perceive.

Having acknowledging this phenomenal quality of music in mind, we also need to constantly re-evaluate the meaning of being an audience of music.  Working and living as an active and professional creator or interpreter of music, we often overlook or take the many “normality” in music for granted.  For instance, it’s too easy for us to recognize a musical “style” and ruefully point out, “Ah!  Half-diminished chord – it sounds just like Debussy!” or “Ja, ja, it’s just one of those international-atonal piece…”  Without further listening with proper openness, we are often misled by our own knowledge and assumptions and ignore the most interesting character of a good piece due to our disdainful reception of a recognizable musical “surface”.  The question for us musical creators of how to be a proper audience is as great as that for the most inexperienced laymen who, in the worst case, don’t even intend to listen.

Concerning the question of listening and how to be a proper audience, I want to bring back the idea that music is luxury and that a fortunate human being is one who can be open to multiple sensory and can feel.  Despite the intellectual wonders a good piece of music inspires, I consider that the music is usually, and MUST be, approached in a sensuous way.  To approach music this way does not mean one should experience music “emotionally” and apply no intellectual process.  On the contrary, I myself as an audience, for example, often time try to stretch out an empty – or post-apocalyptic, as some might like to call it – aural canvas prior to each attentive listening which allows the music to unfold, re-inform, and happen within my mingled senses of perception through its ever-changing possibilities and directions.  May it be a defined linear rhetoric, or a pure acoustic and gestural stimulation or space, or the combination of all of the above, the growing and happening of music are therefore experienced with a highly epicurean reaction and participation of me as an audience.  However interesting or adventurous the concept “behind the music” is, I value the actual “result”, the “product” as the final say of a successful musical work.  For we know that however open and experienced an audience might be, the physical immediacy is what one receives and reacts to on the first hearing of a musical work.  Therefore, I consider it’s my responsibility as a composer to create a sufficient sensuous portico, an effective physical space to extend the invitation of immersion, and only by then I can expect the audience to be convinced of the rhetorics and the intellectual mechanism that are required of a particular musical work and its performance.

My philosophy of music and aesthetics stated above had been an evolving, developing process which was complemented by a repertoire of countless failed attempts in musical compositions.  However, taking from all of those unsuccessful student works, I pieced together the things that worked and continued to experiment in new pieces with those elements repeated or transfigured.  The compositions finished in these past two and a half years consist roughly two categories – multi-stylistic works inspired by extra-musical ideas engaging multimedia performance, and formally simple “concert” pieces with direct gestures and more complex textures which inspired the extra-musical imageries only during the process of composition.  I will now talk about the three music examples I’m to play and then play the recordings straight through at the end.

In 2009 and early 2010, I was composing with an experiment of musical linear narrativity by applying multi-stylistic methods.  This experiment resulted in the form of two multi-media pieces: “A room of French windows and limestone sculptures” (for soprano, flute, viola, double bass, and piano), and “Little Blue Dot” (for violin, clarinet, and piano).  There are many contemporary composers out there writing with the same rigor with this kind of multi-stylistic method, but most of them have applied multi-styles with designed contrasts and contradictions and serve the music with a wonderful brilliancy of cynicism, irony, and parody.  I, on the other hand, handled the multi-styles with a rather honest adoration and an unmistakable vulnerability.  I treated the musical references in these two pieces with respect of their original power of immersion; I did not mean to make fun of them or use them to make political or aesthetic statement, instead, I use the particular perspective a particular type of music triggers to imply a particular listening space.  For example, a chant-like vocal line with static bass suggests an invocation, while a faux-folksong embodies a second-person perspective with naïve indifference, and a more textural passage with the voice in recitative and murmurs sets up an unfocused yet intimate cinema-like space where the listener encounters a first-person identification.  However, the pieces invite adventurous listening for that its “normal”, traditional, and rather comfortable orchestration and sonority, along with a carefully designed, seamless, linear transitions by harmony or rhythm from section to section, are creating a continuous, theatrical narrative that is in constant shifts of perspectives which can be upsetting at first for western classical-music trained ears.  This trait is particularly pronounced in “A room of French windows and limestone sculptures”.  More likened to the rhetoric of traditional Beijing opera, instead of the Western European aesthetic of economy of materials and thematic unity, “A room of French windows and limestone sculptures” was written as a musical-drama generated with a multitude of narratives, intended for a space for chamber music.

A room of French windows and limestone sculptures” was initiated by a series of translations of an actual dream of mine in different artistic medias.  I first integrated my dream experience into a fiction, a long story I was writing at the time (coached by Patrick Keppel, http://patrickeppel.wordpress.com/), then later I composed the music, which eventually was premiered with a solo dancer and an abstract video all of which were created by me (with choreography assistance by Rachel Gillete).  In my program note to the premier I wrote, “Sometimes when you dream, you experience the event as the first-person while you watch yourself experiencing the event as the third-person – you are the victim, yet you are the observer, or worse, the conductor of the suffering.”  I will play the live audio recording of this piece (https://muxuanlin.wordpress.com/music/).  The second excerpt I will play is a YouTube video of the premier of “Little Blue Dot” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOuB4R-K9ss).  It was a commission piece by a Boston-based young modern dance company Urbanity Dance (http://www.urbanitydance.com/Urbanity_Dance/Bostons_Contemporary_Dance_Company.html).  The idea of this collaborative project was that the choreographer Betsi Ackerstein would create a multi-movement dance with or without an existing music, then I would compose a chamber piece by taking the cues, forms, expressions, and other artistic parameters from the silent video of the dance.  The dance along the live performance of the music and an abstract video was premiered early last year (2010) as a whole.

Starting last year (2010), I decided to work on the more pure, basic aspects of music and believed that by polishing and extending these “technical” properties of music I will be able to push the boundaries of my “total art” experiments and projects.  You will hear the complete piece of my saxophone quartet “The Sea, the Sea” which was titled after Iris Murdoch’s novel.  However, the process of writing this piece was a reverse to my other former music; it did not take its form and narrativity from an extra-musical work or idea, instead, it was first constructed by several simple yet extremely direct musical gestures, sketched out on papers with drawings.  The shifts between verticality and linearity are in here much more pronounced; the musical language, on the other hand, is more abstract.  But of course, my instinct and learned instinct of associating with multiple sensory and narratives naturally made this simple piece a parody of my idea.  I wrote in my program note of this piece, “on my way ‘finishing’ the piece, the ghosts of my vision and imagination one by one crept back to the surface of my conscious, therefore the visual colors, the sight of events, and the sensual yearning for space shifting started to make affinity with my listening device to create a fictional logic throughout the piece.  Upon completion of the music an entourage of extra-musical meanings was subconsciously formed which gave the title to the piece.  By the end my willful intention of taming my hyperreal creative instinct only resulted in making ‘The Sea, the Sea’ a cognitive repercussion of Iris Murdock’s sea monsters and poltergeists.” (https://muxuanlin.wordpress.com/music/)

(Mu-Xuan Lin, September 2011, Mittersill, Austria)

(Ⓒ Copyright Mu-Xuan Lin 2011)


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