Tuesday, June 29, 2004

On the Philosophy of Music

Searching for Meaning in Music

Music is empowered to express the ineffable, that which the composer could not simply write as a poem or otherwise say in a few short words, should they so desire. If we allow ourselves to examine a musical composition with the same sense of weight that we scrutinize other forms of art it is possible to see the substance behind the "notes on a page" which are given a life of their own when entrusted to the hands of interpreters: performers who desire to seek out the true intentions of the composer and attempt to represent those intentions through their performances.

As a composer of contemporary classical music, one way that I conceptualize a composition is as a sculpture of sound. As music is performed the sound takes up a physical space: it is real, tangible, and has a substance for the duration of the performance. It could be argued that as the sound waves travel through space the "sound sculpture" exists in a real sense until the ultimate dissipation of the harmonic vibrations which can take eons (if extended to the extreme). Taking the extra step and imagining that the music actually is a representation of a physical presence brings the listener closer to the reality of the process behind the creation of music.

When a composer faces a blank page with only the feeling that they need to compose, and perhaps the vaguest idea of what instruments they want to write for, they look into their heart to find something that needs to be expressed. The conglomeration of notes upon which a composition is made may well be a representation of the deepest aspect of the composer's psyche — or it may be something far less serious: a lighthearted work, conceived for the pure joy of expression. Whatever the case, the music and its creator are inexorably connected. It is also something that can elicit pain at the thought of sharing out of the trepidation and anxiety that it causes — yet through that sharing the composer is uniquely positioned to give, both to the performers and to the audience, with the hope that each would be enriched through the experience.

The power of music is further extended through its eternal capacity to transcend every aspect of the human condition, rising above the mundane, enabling us to see light in the darkest of times. On the surface it is relatively easy to seek some enjoyment from the performance of a piece of music, finding whatever treasures there are at any given time in the composition. There is often, however, so much more behind the music than the obvious: something that the composer may have given a significant amount of thought to represent within the framework of the composition. Contemporary classical music is often much more than the clever arrangement of tones and rhythmic motifs: it is possible through this medium to have works imbued with a philosophy or an ideology. This is not to imply that all music must express a specific idea, but the idea that music is capable as a vehicle for the expression of a particular idea or ideal is certainly nothing new.

Throughout history there are examples of composers using their music to make comments, both overt and hidden. Programme music, being the most obvious example, allows the composer to attach a specific message or story to their composition — either coming before, as an aid to the composer in the conception of the piece or added after the work is complete, as something that was made to fit the finished composition. Anytime a composer attaches a title to a work that departs from "Sonata", "Symphony" or some other non-traditional "classical" appellation and decides to use a descriptive term a door is opened to outside interpretation as to their intentions. We have a natural desire to want to know what something means: it offends our sense of propriety to think that a title has no significance, or if it does, that it's meaning is hidden from us.

As we search for meaning in contemporary classical music we can be aided by one general premise: composers have an unequivocal need to be understood. Obviously there are some composers for which the concept of understanding is not important, but the composers using music as a means of emotional expression or as an attempt at the communication of a particular idea or ideal are, by reason of what they are trying to do, seeking understanding from listeners. We must do more than just listen to the music to fully appreciate what is expressed in the art: today many of the composers are available as living guides to their art, and they are a resource available to any who are willing to take that extra step.

On a Jewish voice in contemporary music:
I have been asked many times about the connection between what I compose and the fact that my ancestors are Jewish. Is there a connection? Am I a Jewish composer, or am I a composer who happens to be Jewish? While it would be easiest to dismiss the question by pointing those interested to certain works of mine which are, certainly, imbued with an overt "Jewishness", whether it be on a musical level or merely at the level of an "intellectual nod" towards the culture, it is not a question that can be easily answered either way. But even then, after looking at the music, there are some things that may not be satisfactorily answered.

The works that I have written, and am writing, which fall into a category that I call memorial pieces represent my effort to keep the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust alive through music. I can say that there isn't any one particular compositional technique, or musical element represented, to symbolize what transpired during that horrendous time in history that saw so much suffering, but it is my enduring hope that the compositions have something that is able to communicate what I felt while composing them.

Each of the memorial pieces was inspired by a very specific event or thing that came across my path (or the other way around, depending on the circumstances): It isn't every day that something can move you enough to feel compelled to compose a new work as a result of it. Thus, when I was so impressed by the various things that led to these memorial pieces, the inspiration stayed with me throughout the creative process, confirming, in my mind, that this was what I needed to be doing at that time.

Perhaps, once we look at the variety of people who are creating music in this day and age, we will recognize that it is impossible to say that in this new millennium there is a single distinctive Jewish voice represented in contemporary music. At the same time, however, it is similarly impossible to dismiss or forget our past: Nor should we. The history of the world is replete with the tragedies caused by those who had forgotten, or ignored, the lessons of the past. It isn't my role as a composer to preach lessons of history, but at the same time, I feel a responsibility to not allow the past to be forgotten.

This is part of being a member of the human race: being connected to people around the world and the cultures that influence the world. As far as "being Jewish", and being a composer, this also means that there are times when my music does have something to do with my cultural background as well as with the history of the people. However, there are more times when the music is just that: Music. The essence of being becomes a part of the message.

For as long as the music is performed, the composer lives.

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