09 April 2007

My Composition Lessons with Bartòk (Part 2)

Without going back on what I wrote in Part 1, I also must say that I've discovered some pitfalls of getting to know a piece primarily or only by playing it yourself, although these mainly relate to being a listener/audience member rather than a composer. To state the obvious, playing a piece is typically more fun than listening to it. (the obvious exception, I think, is when the piece is of mediocre quality and exceptional difficulty) Otherwise, it's fair to say that being in the band sometimes allows for the development not only of a false impression of a piece, but also a false affinity based on this impression. I occasionally listen back to Bartòk's Concerto for Orchestra and am not nearly as taken with it as when I was a member of the orchestra. This then begs the question: what exactly did I learn from it anyway? The pitfall here would seem to the same as taking the piece in from too great a distance, namely a false impression or otherwise skewed or incomplete understanding leading to some analgous outcome in one's own work.

Upon listening to the piece recently, I was struck by a phenomenon which I have to myself always called "obviousness" for lack of a better term. "Obviousness" could be defined as "the gratuitous restatement of primary thematic material seemingly without sufficient variation or elapsed time since the last statement, or in unsuccessful 'forced' stretto with other material." I suffer from it myself on occasion, as do countless other "young" composers and quite a few overrated media darlings. The third movement of Hindemith's Symphony in B-flat has one of these moments towards the end, slightly tainting for me what I otherwise find to be a brilliant and underrated symphonic work (likely unknown to much of the "establishment" because it was written for band). Being another piece that I first got to know only by playing it, it is significant that in neither case did the "obviousness" bother me until I undertook repeated listenings from the peanut gallery rather than the stage. I still think that the advantages for a composer in playing rather than listening or score reading far outweigh this potential booby trap as long as one is acutely aware of it. I'd like to think that rather than leaving the experience holding a false affinity for certain compositional tricks, one simply gains a unique and valuable perspective on the piece whereby the advice is positive ("do this") rather than negative ("don't do this"). One would be poorly advised not to fill in the blanks by listening to a recording later.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that teaching by way of negative advice is a bad idea. Nonetheless, I have found it crucial to have "negative influences" (i.e. experiences that turn you against something rather than in favor of something). There was another piece I once played in wind ensemble that I formed an inaccurate judgement of as a player; it was incredibly densely orchestrated and technically challenging, and hearing it from the inside, I was enthralled with it. Upon hearing our recording, however, I literally did not recognize it. There was so much going on that one simply could not hear it all from any one location (what I heard from my chair was about 50% of the piece, and what I heard as an audience member was the other 50%). I still couldn't tell you how I really feel about that music because the shock was great enough to preclude accurate judgement for the time being. Obviously, there's quite a composition lesson to be learned here as well, even though the mechanism is aversion rather than assimilation.

It's merely a symptom of my personality that many of my most important influences are indeed negative ones rather than positive ones; such was the case for me with this piece. Thinking "I want to be like that" is often less powerful than those moments where you think "I never want to be like that!" Maybe it's not a good way to teach, but it's still a good way to learn. Having completed the circle by experiencing the music from the inside, I have a better understanding of what I think went wrong than I would coming at it from most any other perspective, where the density would simply have been blinding.

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