Lecture on Composition, My Relationship with Composition, and the Development of My Recent (2010-14) Compositions

Lecture on Composition, My Relationship with Composition, and the Development of My Recent (2010-14) Compositions
given on May 22nd, 2014 at la Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, France

People often asked me when I told them I am a concert music composer, “What kind of music do you write?” Most of the time I was at the loss and could not provide a well-rehearsed, well-thought-out answer. My predicament when facing this question accounts to several reasons, besides the obvious one that the “kinds” of music composers write nowadays – if one really has to label them – are of a diverse body thousand times bigger than what one imagines if (and yes, if,) our musical environment is moderately healthy. The other rationale on which I will soon be elaborating, is mostly about my attitude towards writing music, and about my relationship with my own music.

I understand that most of the time when people asked this question they simply did not think too much of what it means, and they probably just wanted to get an idea of how my music sounds like, but the question of “what kind of music do you write?” implies several things. First, it implies music as craft of no innovative substance. It implies that music has pre-existing prototypes and these prototypes are sorted and labeled; all I have to do is to simply take one off its rack and reproduce another with just the same or similar cuts and materials. The notion of musical creation does not exist in this case, and composers and musicians are mere slaves who have no artistic freedom in the act of musical production. Second, this question implies commodity. This notion of music came from the influences of tides and hordes of some bad pop music over-flooding everywhere which embody very little artistic values – the kind of music that can only function as an accessory or an aphrodisiac of one’s desired lifestyle. It humbly serves to feed one’s own narcissistic image just like what an expensive purse or a pair of artificially ripped jeans does. The idea that I can just produce a music by duplicating, or worse, by simply taking it out of a display window and wear it – (this idea) completely horrifies me. This is as if someone tells me that she only likes music she can dance to, or that he only enjoys the kinds of music he can eat with – when I heard such self-assured confessions, I want to vomit.

Now, back to the question you might ask if I tell you I am a composer. If, instead of “What kind of music do you write?” you ask me, “How would you describe your relationship with composing?” I would have plenty to say. I would tell you that, as a composer, I am one that holds a conviction and necessary romanticism towards an idea that one can create works capable of transcending the very mundane and of elevating human experience in the most unique ways. I would also tell you that, my relationship with my music resembles that of a mother and her child, in the most biological sense. This might sound cliché, but in fact, this analogy signifies that the relationship between me and my music changes constantly over time, and this condition starts from the point of my conception of the music, through my composition process, then through the realization of the music via rehearsals and performances, and all the way through my listening to the music as an audience, as a second-time audience, and eventually as someone who is in turn affected by the music. A piece of music is little by little discovered by me in my ears, then it is translated into notation, cultivated and educated by my interference of intellects, and then it is performed, with hardly detectable yet nonetheless existing personal interpretation of the performers. And once it finally stands by itself in front of the audience I come to hear how much agency it has asserted for itself. Along with multiple performances or listenings, I realize that it has taken on a life of its own and has become foreign again in my ears. I am affected; I find the music familiar, yet at the same time strange, unexpected. Facing my own piece I feel engulfed, just like a mother is often time surprised by her own adult child, who has eventually become an individual she finds mysterious and beautiful.

I remember when I was a teenager I wrote a silly essay called “I Compose” for my school applications to several music conservatories in the United States. The essay recounts my natural inclination of creating arts and of taking the role of an art creator, and is choked full of artistic ardors, naïveté, and all that romantic foolishness. Of course when I look back at that essay now I noticed all of its silliness and, somehow weak, reasoning and arguments, however, I have to give my young-self credits and say that, my artistic idealism has not been changed over the past twelve years since the first time I picked up music composition; or, dare I say, it has never changed ever since when I first wanted to create something. This idealism, I later realized, affects greatly how one creates one’s own art. I started creating arts since I was 2. My extensive, sixteen years of visual art education started when I was 3, and later I created with words, having receiving training of creative writing in both the Chinese and English languages. Since young I have had been exposed to various forms of expressive arts – be it contemporary dance, modern theatre, Beijing opera, folk music, and hybrids of the sort, I took them all; I devoured them all. I was a regular at the concert halls and theatres in Taipei when I was a high school student; my record was six days in consequence during one week seeing different performances. I practically lived in the theatres. This explains why I would have had taken on a profession like music composition. My romantic idea that I might one day create a masterpiece which will outlive my mortal being has been the main initiative, more or less subconsciously engaged, for approaching composition. Now, this (romantic idea) might sound utterly pretentious and unrealistic to any sensible person, especially if one rationalizes the matter in a pragmatic way. And in fact, this idealism of mine had become such laughingstock amidst my surroundings during a specific period of my early career that at one point, when I was tender and young as a student composer some years back, I even started to question the validity of my approach. Fortunately this doubt did not last long. The general consensus of the creativity in music commonly exercised in certain societies nowadays is one that points out that “all artistic expressions and innovations have already been exploited in the past” and “everything was already done before”. This exclamation might have a sounding ring to it that just might appear to be the charm of a pseudo-Postmodernism, however, for me it only conveniently provides composers an excuse for being anti-progressive, and decapitates a composer’s artistic dignity and integrity until he or she is meekly bent to submission in a society which caters to a hedonistic indulgence in consumerism. The belief that no contemporary composer can ever produce something really new and intrinsically original murders a composer’s mental will to do exactly thus; a composer is then reduced to imitate what has already been done before without the creative process of exploring and rethinking the materials/ideas he or she has taken as models. The things past were taken as mere objects within a limited context, and the way they are again put together was the way that has been ventured before. No wonder this “new” creation of music sounds no different at all from one of its predecessors, a pale imitation eventually. It is this approach tightly embedded in the passivity of imitation that kills the potential of a unique piece being realized. On the other hand, when one composes with the opposite mindset – the naïve, romantic, idealistic mindset – one is therefore able to use materials, stolen or not, in the most free and mobile fashion. Hence, a truly unique new creation of music is born, even if it has taken its genes from its forebears. Artistic creativities can never be conducted with pragmatism and submissive acceptance of the “reality”; on the contrary, I remind myself constantly that I have to be steadfast in my conviction and romantic artistic idealism, however pretentious I might appear to others with such ideas.

When I talk about my relationship with my music, I often cannot avoid mentioning the morphology of my recent music. As in a lecture I gave few years ago in Austria, I persistently asserted that Music is an expressive art requisite of sensuous experience; in short, the primacy of perception is of utmost importance in creating music and in listening to music. No matter how sophisticated the idea “behind” the music was, or how complex the intellectual mechanism was in construction of the piece, if the music is not delivered in all its juice and curves and temperatures, there is nothing more to say. For me, the idea of an art work, and the analysis or reduction of an art work, are NOT the artwork itself. It is precisely for this reason that I sometimes cannot appreciate certain conceptual musical works. If your idea or your analysis of your music is much more interesting than your music-proper, then I would rather read about your music and not to listen to it at all. You might as well become an author and publish philosophical writings about “the music that doesn’t have to be listened to”. This problem also exists in certain pseudo-Minimalism works which owe their artistic value to the bare skeleton of one single central structure, without any morsels and tissues of layers and elements functioning as impetus or divergent in the work. I have no patience for such music, for many great musical pieces share the same background structure; if I have to endure a twenty-minute utterance of a naked structural spine, I might as well go read a Schenkarian analysis, an Adorno essay, or a treatise on the Golden ratio and Fibonacci sequence.

Now, back to the discussion of music as a sensuous experience. The particular beauty of music and, dare we say, the slippery condition of music, is that music is perceived “in time”. It cannot be retrieved from visual memory in a later time so one can perceive it in any other way with any other thought process. The immediacy of music is intimidating; it affects the audience directly and viscerally, yet evokes in the audience a psycho-physical narrative unknown to the audience prior to the experience. Therefore the experience of music can be highly condensed and exciting, if one has the good grace of leaving his/her own habitual expectation behind. The sensory beauty of music rests in its potential of being born out of any physical movements which are then exaggerated, stylized, molded, transformed, and critiqued. As an audience and practitioner of other forms of expressive arts, I understand that every ephemeral movement to be used in an art work by itself is within and outside the context, and has the intrinsic quality of being semantically transferable. Hence, every gesture imaginable, whether it is induced and created by vision, or sound, or smell, or taste, or touch, or dream-like consciousness, (it) is possible to be realized in or outside of context in a piece of music. Once taken outside its originating semantic context, a gesture can then be transferred, manipulated, enlarged, or distorted to create multiple meanings. The essence of the gesture in its most abstract and figurative form allows the physical, multiple realizations of it in music to be born of organic complexity and layers, ergo a sonic result by which the audience are fascinated, entranced, and blissfully confused. For me the power of music is its undecipherable, almost mythical appearance and body; it has the power to communicate yet it applies the means of immersion instead of pure empirical persuasion. The treatment of an applied gesture becomes extremely important as, I believe, how one utilizes a material, however miniscule, manifests how one understands this material and its potentials.

In recent years, I started to explore in the realm of gestural morphology, which directly corresponds to my desire of creating music that is absolutely visceral yet embracing the ability to intrinsically shaping audience’s perception of itself. This compositional pursuit did not immediately surface when I dipped my feet in such experimentation in year 2010, and I was not aware of its direction and potential until a couple of years later. Now I am going to play a six-minute clip of a saxophone quartet I wrote in 2010, called The Sea, the Sea (2010).
As you might have noticed, the beginning section of the piece – the loud, brassy, extremely impolite multiphonic sound on all four saxophones – (this sonic gesture) resembles the loud horn blasts one hears at a port when ships are sailing out. There is this slightly contextual, extra-musical association between this sound and the title of the piece. However, one blast is not enough, neither is two blasts, three blasts, and it is so exaggerated, prolonged, and distorted that it carries on to pin the audience down for a good two-and-a-half-minute. It provides a sonic, gestural magnitude in which audience started to be led to hear internal beatings and frictions of the sound mass. In terms of the structure of the piece, I use a kind of “rock-climbing” technique to link together different sections. Imagine you are rock-climbing, and the rule of it would be that you only move one arm or one leg at a time while the other three limbs secure the stability of your body by staying put on the rocks. This is what happens here – I displaced one parameter of the present music while keeping the other parameters, therefore the music progresses with coherence within a great breadth of freedom. However, in The Sea, the Sea I only had managed to invest in the basic – magnification — of my materials, and had not yet explored further into their other morphological possibilities. In terms of formal design, I was still restricted in the traditional commitment to verbalize sections, and the materials I used had not necessarily influenced much of the larger form of the music.

Later in year 2011 until early 2012, I composed a percussion quartet, Melancholia. This was the first piece in which I experimented the most on form, and at the same time, the gestural morphology was observed in a macroscopic way. The inspiration of the piece came from a fifteen-minute long bell choir I heard in Salzburg when I was there for a short residency in 2011. I was fascinated by how a seemingly monotonous, unchanging bell sound lasting for fifteen minutes has such power to distort the sense of time in my ears. The fact that I could hear every single fission of an imperfect synchrony caused by the algorithm of multiple bells, while at the same time completely immersed in a unabatedly static and long sonic mass was making me think. I thought perhaps I could compose a piece that is like a meta- sound architecture that houses a complex unfolding of the time – so to speak, a large sound envelop, let’s say, like the inside of a monster’s belly, in which many details are interacting in a way that draws the audience’s attention, so at the end the audience hears both the large sonic gesture of the piece and the fore- and mid-ground narratives which are really quite different from their grand exterior. Therefore, the audience notices what has happened only after it has happened. Now, please listen to Melancholia (2011-12).

In 2012 I was honing my techniques of orchestration and working closely with the juxtaposition of irregular gestures. The first movement of my string quartet Petits Quatuors is one good example of my works during that time. From that point on the idea of music a priori started to interest me. In short, I started to be interested in the idea that there are more than one musics going on simultaneously, and that the layers of music create cognitive displacements and confusions. You can hear such layers in this short, two-and-a-half minute long string quartet movement, Petits Quatuors : I.petite chambre (2012).

After several attempts of the above-mentioned treatment of materials, I arrived at a meditation of the notion of Silence. It was a meditation subconsciously conducted in my head over almost a half-year period. By the time I was working on a ten-minute long octet piece for the Ensemble Proton Bern in Switzerland, and the idea of irregular gestures returned with new possibilities. In my investigation into Silence, I found out that the conception of silence is incredibly powerful, as it is impregnated with energies that might deluge towards multiple directions. Therefore, in Double Jeopardy (2013), my piece for Proton, I exercised such blurring and crossing between the boundaries of silence and sound, sound and sound, one gesture and the other. I expanded and distorted the smallest gestural idea so it became the dramaturgical structure of the piece. At the end I produced a music which even I myself cannot describe properly with words. It is a piece attesting to what I had been trying to do in the past four years, an accumulation of ideas perceived and tempered with through numerous experimentations. It makes me think even more, about what will be the next event sprouting out of such personal compositional evolution.     Double Jeopardy (2013) for octet


(Copyright © Mu-Xuan Lin 2014. All rights reserved.)

One Response to Lecture on Composition, My Relationship with Composition, and the Development of My Recent (2010-14) Compositions

  1. Pingback: POSTED : my lecture given in May at la Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France | Mu-Xuan Lin, composer

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