My last Thursday at the Aspen Music Festival featured a lesson with George Tsontakis and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what he told me. The lesson was a little strange because it was only 30 minutes and we talked about my horn trio (The Brocken Spectre), which he was hearing for the first time. Having a lesson about a first-listen isn’t terribly uncommon or problematic, but George also hadn’t heard any of my other music, so, going into it, I felt like the odds were against us making a good connection. At first, George was complimentary about the piece, but then he dove pretty hard into an area of the piece I hadn’t really thought about, a musical concept whose role in the piece I disagreed with him on, a criticism that – though, it isn’t necessarily damning – I took issue with:
This is one of those “composer terms”; one of the rare quantifiable elements of a piece and something I hold rather mixed feelings about. Economy is a huge role player in how highly we musical academics regard the work of common-practice-period composers (I am the first to admit the jaw-dropping-ness of discovering the pervasiveness of simple materials in Beethoven symphonies or Mozart sonatas), and also justifies certain more recent composers’ complex pre-compositional organization. Also, there are many composers my age to whom a piece’s value is directly related to the degree to which it is “economical”, or who think the highest compliment they can give/receive is that they compose “economical” music.
I know and respect where support for musical economy comes from and – for the most part – I agree with it because many of the pieces I respect the most are extremely economical works. My favorite example is Ellsworth Milburn’s String Quartet no. 2, which develops a simple semitone motive on a journey from highly chromatic expressionism to tertian semi-tonality (the ‘lightbulb’ moment in the piece is when the motive is incorporated into a 4-3 suspension in a major triad; the remoteness of the gesture’s surroundings compared to the rest of the piece make this turn of events impossible to predict and – to my ears – infinitely more satisfying). However, the power of this piece rests in the perceptibility of its economy, something certain famously economical works don’t always possess. Take the ‘Nacht’ movement of Pierrot Lunaire, for example. It is a passacaglia, but the theme is extremely well-concealed at times, requiring – at least in the case of my first 20th-century theory class – an instructor to prove the pervasiveness of Schoenberg’s iconic three-note idea.
The reason I disagreed with George’s harping on the economy of The Brocken Spectre is that I wrote the piece very economically, this quality just isn’t always transparent. Being a young composer, I’ve written plenty of uneconomical music (see Clavdia on my music page, for one such piece) in my time, but I took particular care to create a tightly-knit musical framework with this horn trio. Confident in my compositional discipline, I countered almost every ostensibly unconnected moment George brought up, identifying the preceding place in the piece where the germ of the given idea was sewn into the piece’s fabric. Granted, there are a few moments that seem to come out of nowhere, but they are just more subtly connected to what comes before.
When George recognized the varying transparency of my material’s connectivity, he also criticized it because he believed the relationships were too abstract to generate structural meaning. He pointed to the clarity with which triplets transform their role in the piece, using the success of this economized idea to demonstrate the ostensible failure of other moments. One such obscured strategy is the intervallic consistency of my melodic material, which is subtle and potentially difficult to detect on the first listen. Along these lines, George argued when an idea (say, a brief melody in the piano) reappeared later on in a different scoring (say, violin and horn doubled at the octave), and if an idea recurred but was transformed (say, expanded by a couple beats) the connection between the two events is lost.
My consternation arose because: 1. George’s interpretation holds extremely limited criteria on how recurrence or repetition create musical meaning 2. it contradicts multiple examples of musical economy I’m familiar with in extant compositions.
Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony will be my following argument’s only evidence, but I’m sure you can think of your own similar examples. To begin, the final movement has many transparent and obscure references – internal and external – to justify the economy of its material. The most traditional of these is the way Shostakovich builds to the quintal/quartal tutti climax about two-thirds through the movement (maybe a little later, I’m not going to get all academic with bar numbers). When the climax occurs, we predominantly hear the dotted-rhythms of the melody in the winds in brass, but he has prepared our ears for the tune in the quieter preceding section using the same (or very closely related) melodic material as a bass line in the pizzicato strings. In my mind, the change in orchestration does not interfere with the listener’s ability to recognize the material connection of these two parts of the piece, although I believe conscious recognition isn’t even necessary for passage like this one to succeed.
Along these lines, let’s discuss the Wagner quote that appears multiple times in this final movement. The symbolism of the quotation (it is the leitmotif that appears in the horns/trombones just prior to ‘Siegfriedstrauermarsch’ in Götterdämmerung) is clear – the Fifteenth Symphony was written as Shostakovich lay dying in the hospital and this reference is obviously the composer’s personal reflection on his imminent passing on – and identifiable to connoisseurs of classic music, but the passage feels organic to the entire symphony for a different reason. The symphony’s second movement begins with a similarly scored brass chorale whose harmonic progression and counterpoint is very similar to the Wagner quote, yet not at all identical. He is preparing us for the Wagner quote by familiarizing his audience with this certain orchestral sound. In other words, it is possible to build a connection between disparate passages in a large (or small) work simply by uniting their ensemble textures or orchestration – in this case, the notes don’t play a role of these moments’ economy-of-means.
Finally, there is a very profound percussion sectional at the end of the piece. It is meaningful in a programmatic context because it is Shostakovich’s musical representation of the medical equipment keeping him alive and monitoring his vital signs. Simply put, it is a bizarre and dramatic moment, which Shostakovich prepares by very briefly including the music in the jaunty third movement. Not only does this music’s initial emotional/musical context differ extremely from its reappearance in the symphony’s closing minutes, Shostakovich transforms the idea with injecting string melodies and new percussion passages. Nevertheless, the impact of the ticking percussion part is strengthened by the audience’s aural preparedness for the effect. In other words, transforming an idea upon its reoccurrence doesn’t necessarily tarnish its economic validity.
According to the logic George applied to my piece last Thursday, the connectivity between these three moments and the music that prepares them should be impalpable. Obviously, that is not the case. Furthermore, it probably isn’t even necessary to be able to point to two passage’s material connections while you listen to a piece for the first time. Our brain attempts to distinguish patterns in the music we hear, which leads me to believe we can subconsciously identify extremely subtle and ostensibly imperceptible material connections and relationships every time we listen to music. After all, isn’t this kind of ability at the heart of most musical analysis? Don’t we feel a level of economy and interconnectedness before we identify it?
A completely different counterargument to the asserted necessity of musical economy involves music that makes no attempt to be economical. Chance music, sound mass music and improvised music eschew the editorial facets of traditional composition (the ability to revise that allows the composer control enough to design highly complicated relationships between his/her music’s material) and, by design, do not have the same economy of means as their written-out counterpart. Even many through-composed works – like Ligeti’s Requiem – challenge the rigid definition of musical economy enforced by many composers. Clearly, it would be absurd to invalidate all these musics and pieces of music because they lack tight-knit economy-of-means. So, should composers value it as much as they do?
I think it would be both flippant and dangerous to rebel against such a classic principle of music composition on account of one lesson that rubbed me the wrong way. George is a very smart man and a very good teacher. His sensitivity to economy is personal – as he repeatedly acknowledged – and important because closely controlling a piece’s economy-of-means can often lead to good things and powerful musical events. If anything, the Shostakovich I mentioned to refute George’s philosophy is a great proof for the flexibility and effectiveness of this compositional axiom. Yet, I also think it is important to accept it is possible to create beautiful, successful music that lacks a strong musical economy (just listen to John Cage’s Some of ‘Harmonie of Maine if you don’t believe me).
In the end, I suppose it is up to me – and every other composer – to choose the degree to which I want to regulate my piece’s material and be true to that decision.
(The penultimate sentence connects to something I’ll discuss in my next ‘Observation’: character. By which I mean personal character, not musical character. So check in later to read about