30 October 2006

Theory and Composition

Colin Holter of New Music Box makes an interesting point in a recent post when he writes that, "our 'instincts' may themselves be nothing more than theory internalized directly through study and indirectly through listening." As someone who often blindly asserts the superiority of "instincts" over "theory," I feel that I owe myself a closer investigation of this statement. First off, let's distinguish between instincts that are acquired unintentionally/subconsciously and those that one actively seeks to ingrain. As Colin's statement implies, you can make most anything habitual/instinctive if you choose to (this, I assume is what he means by the phrase "internalized directly through study"); conversely, some things enter your psyche without your being aware of them, or perhaps even without you wanting them there (i.e. Colin's "indirectly"). But where it is in fact a conscious choice, it is what you choose to internalize and why that are the more intriguing questions. I have never been concerned as much with the question of mechanism ("direct" versus "indirect" or conscious versus subconscious) as with the nature of the subject matter one chooses to deal with and the reasoning underlying this decision.
As raw information to be processed by the intellect, "theory" per se is intrinsically very different from sound or score. Theory contains interpolations and extrapolations from what the composers actually wrote; it embodies the biases of individual theorists; and it always eliminates more possibilities than it enables. What prevents me from writing a dodecaphonic piece is not so much the fact that I possess only a dilettante's understanding of the theory, but the fact that the music that my instincts (whatever their origin) lead me to create does not conform to this very specific criterion. Furthermore, it bears mentioning that I am statistically far less likely to compose a piece that conforms to "total serialism" than to compose a piece that conforms to Schoenberg's "method of composing with 12 tones." This is because Schoenberg's theory is less comprehensive than that of the total serialists, and hence precludes fewer possibilities (interestingly, Schoenberg was known to follow his musical "instincts" rather than his "theory" if there was a perceived conflict between the two at any given moment in the process, which is not true, I don't think, of many who later took up the various offshoots of his idea). By choosing to listen to and perform such music without dabbling in the underlying prescriptive theory, one chooses to deal with some information and not with other information. That is my choice. I don’t view it as “indirect” or “subconscious” study; to the contrary, I have a good ear and I pay close attention to what certain combinations of notes sound like, and if I have any use for them, well, there they are.
A composer who makes a conscious decision to work in a dodecaphonic idiom has also decided not to work in many other idioms. Conversely, by choosing not to be governed by "theory," one chooses to leave many more moment-to-moment sonic possibilities open. The decision not to internalize prescriptive theory is both equally valid and equally consequential as the decision to do so. Colin's statement clarifies an important point, namely that perhaps there is no such thing as not following one's instincts when composing. To be an exceptionally unique and instinctive exponent of this process is not so much a question of the learning process, but a much simpler question about the subject matter one chooses to learn about, the specific intent behind this decision, and the specific effect on one's work.

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