So often, it is through the prism of another’s art that we see our own most clearly. At least, that was my experience with a master class Jessye Norman led at the University of Michigan a little over a week ago. I went out of curiosity and courtesy to a soprano I know who asked me to go with her, and left the hall amazed by Ms. Norman’s insights, and how her wisdom related to my life as a composer.
Although Ms. Norman dispensed manifold nuggets of vocal advice, there was one overarching theme to her criticism: clarity. Singers’ attentiveness to lucid diction is obvious because they are the only performers who have to deal with texts, yet the afternoon’s lessons were not limited to vowel-sound production. Ms. Norman’s sense of clarity is more holistic and extends from tedious pronunciation to the singers’ emotional understanding of their texts and, most importantly, the way they interface and relate to their own physiology. Ms. Norman advocated intrapersonal clarity, focusing a singer’s physical/emotional understanding of their voice and how it responds to any situation from too much mucous to a tricky ‘schwa’ at the end of a line of Apollinaire. I immediately began to look for parallels in my own pursuits, and didn’t have to look far because I also work with texts – writing them, that is – much of the time.
For a singer, and a writer, it is imperative to recognize and distill what the text is trying to communicate. Unfortunately, it isn’t too difficult to lose sight of a piece of writing’s message – especially when you are the author, producing an original text for a blog, web publication or class. Because composers are often called on to explain their music, the illusory nature of this literary clarity is important for all of us to bear in mind, so much so that Kristin Kuster spent an entire Graduate Composition Seminar discussing how not to be clear when writing prose.
The subject for our discussion was David Smooke’s recent NewMusicBox article titled, The Audience Does Not Exist. We read it before class and then collectively broke it down line-by-line, examining what each word revealed about Smooke’s point-of-view. We discovered mixed messages and confusing implications – basically, we couldn’t find a focused point for the piece. The article begins discussing ‘The Audience’, why a composer shouldn’t write for ‘The Audience’, and wraps up with a whirlwind soliloquy on musical meaning, the ethics of being a composer and finally asserts, “Write the music that you love and that’s honest to you.” I admit our obsessively microscopic analysis of the article narrowed our perspective on Smooke’s message. Nevertheless, I stand by class’ agreement that the piece’s aim was muddy and unclear.
This doesn’t mean Smooke’s final argument isn’t the his most important; it simply comes out of nowhere seeing that the article’s object up to that point is ‘The Audience’. Seen broadly like this, there is a lot of evidence that Smooke communicated his ideas unclearly. However, looking at the article with the detailed method about which Professor Kuster was so adamant suggests, with more certainty, that ‘doing what one loves’ is not always at the forefront of this article’s message. The first paragraph, with its use of, “insidious” and “People”, is evidence enough that the author has taken a defensive position. Smooke has drawn a line in the sand separating him from these “People”, who he goes on to explain are composers who “appease” their listeners and, by doing so, have turned ‘The Audience’ away from the music he composes and cherishes.
I actually sympathize with Smooke – not because I also feel threatened by an “Audience-pleasing orthodoxy” – insofar as I detect a fragile and personal undercurrent to his sense of vulnerability. One of the sentences Professor Kuster pointed out implies where I think Smooke is coming from, “concepts like infinite yearning can be embarrassingly difficult to express through words.” These words are a window into what Smooke feels is at stake: his ability to express his most sensitive thoughts. Unwittingly, the delayed thesis of his article – that is, ‘do what you love’ – comes to the surface: Smooke loves his music because it is absolutely honest to himself and allows him to convey his most ineffable, fleeting thoughts and feelings. If everyone did the same, there wouldn’t be any pressure to conform to a mythical, non-existent “Audience”.
Sadly, the continuity of this message is only detectable through a very thorough and close reading of the article, something much more common in a literature classroom than the blogosphere. Of course, that was precisely Professor Kuster’s reason for sharing and examining Smooke’s post with us. Yet, clarity shouldn’t only be on a composer’s mind when he or she blogs or writes program notes. Like what Jessye Norman expressed to the singers in her master class, composers should look for deep, personal and musical clarity, at least from piece to piece, if not on a larger scale. It is like the title of this post, which I borrowed by John Cage’s 1958 essay Composition as Process: whether writing words or music, composers need to ask themselves, “is what’s clear to me clear to you?”.
Like a written text, a piece of music should have a clear meaning – I like to say a piece is “about” something – and it is important the communication of said message is not undermined by the surface and/or inner workings of the music. I’ve recently run into issues of communicative ‘interference’ with the orchestra piece I finished in August, Throes of Love. The point of the piece is complicated and requires a sophisticated form that must prepare and subvert certain expectations held by the listener in order to succeed. What I lost – and need to now find – as I worked on the piece was the music’s precise message and rhetorical tone. When I presented Throes of Love to Evan Chambers, my private instructor, he was confused as to what the piece is “about”, and I couldn’t clarify in anything more than general terms.
Although Throes of Love is flawed by its lack of clarity, I can fix the piece and maintain the complexity I desire. One of the most amazing things about music is that it can be extremely abstract and complicated and still convey an unambiguous message. I felt as much was confirmed to me during a performance of John Cage’s Credo in US I attended the night before I went to the Jessye Norman master class. The piece is a fairly early work (1942), but abounds with the same elements of chance, noise and realism Cage advocated throughout his life. For example, one of the parts is for phonograph and radios, which are ostensibly set to any working station the player can find. At one point in the piece, the radios came on for a couple seconds, but long enough for the speaker on-air to say, “these things are all perfectly good.” The audience giggled and the players grinned knowing Cage’s indeterminate techniques had yielded a resplendently beautiful moment. It was pure chance that the talking head would involuntarily bless the noises and rhythms filling the hall with that aphorism, but isn’t that the kind of real-world coincidence Cage sought to explore in his music?
I had previously been skeptical Cage’s reputation as a composer, but that performance of Credo in US revealed the beauty and power of his music with ineradicable clarity. Though I am no expert on Cage’s philosophy, I get the sense his willingness to give up compositional control arose from his understanding that the musical message he desired to communicate could not be synthesized deterministically. Like David Smooke, Cage obviously loved the way he created his compositions, but I believe his sense of artistic clarity is much more profound and holistic, not unlike the intrapersonal clarity I mentioned in the same breath as Jessye Norman’s master class.
I desire an artistic vision as unencumbered and pellucid as Cage’s as much as I know it will manifest itself much differently in me. Right now, I need to refine the clarity of what is in front of me – Throes of Love – but I will also remember to expand it from the most transient and local situations I come across to long-term, persistent aspects of my life. Like singing a line of text, my sense of compositional clarity is as much reliant on the details of my work as it is on the larger themes of my artistic ambitions. The key to balancing these levels of detail is uniting them with my sense of self, with the values I cherish. If I can do that, clarity with come easily in all areas of my work because I will be doing what I love, doing what is natural to my body, mind and artistic spirit.