A few days ago on his excellent blog, Lane Harder brought up the interesting habit of contemporary composers listing the technical devices used in composition as a means of “introducing” their works to audiences. You can read the post here. Lane rightly criticizes this habit, and I suggested in my comment on his post that this tendency is a means of justifying something that is often sonically uninteresting. As I further reflect on this practice (and I’ve been guilty of it at times), it seems that there are several other issues at work.
1. A retrogression to a pre-Romantic aesthetic that would suggest that music needs to justify itself by resorting to another discipline (often mathematics but sometimes literature) to make a claim for legitimacy.
2. The practice of equating complexity with beauty. Very specifically here, the issue is not whether a work is complex in and of itself, but the idea that the composer needs to let the audience know just how clever he/she is. (Imagine Bach including a note in his church bulletin that says, “Be sure to catch the bit where I invert the fugue subject in the third movement of the cantata this morning.”)
3. The post-structuralist tendency to analyze the unique gestalt of an art object by giving an autopsy to its component parts and then adding them up to re-establish the whole. This gets into complicated epistemological questions, and I’m working on a forthcoming paper to untie the Gordian knot. For now, let’s just say that I think this approach provides us with a series of reductionistic images that can never reach the sum of the original object.
4. A profound lack of a sense of humor which almost all the great composers of the past maintained – even the petulant ones like Richard Wagner.
5. A lack of honesty and courage to simply write something because it’s what you have to write. Sometimes that’s a complex thing and sometimes it’s a simple thing.
I once had a friend that got some sort of mathematical sequence from a lab for the AIDS virus. He created a tone row from the sequence and wrote a piece based it. He got a Fulbright. I tried to hear it at a concert once, but I honestly fell sound asleep when he started playing and never heard the thing. The music was uninteresting, but it received national attention because of the non-musical aspects. All of which is to say, if Uncle Milton really didn’t care if we listened or not, why did he bother to write the article?