The art of composing: between autonomy and heteronomy
Copyright (c) 2021 Cristina Frosini
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
«Music conveys different meanings to everyone, and sometimes, it can even communicate different things at different times to the same person», Daniel Barenboim once said. This is tantamount to saying that music is influenced by the context in which it is played, whilst at the same time influencing the context of those who are listening to it. As such, music exists within a system of relationships. From this, it follows that music can be interpreted as a public art – when it is performed in front of an audience – when it is played by one or more musicians in the presence of a listener or listeners who witness the performance. This premise sparks an initial reflection: music, the most ephemeral of all the arts, excepting the work of composers (the technicians who “create” music), is born, grows, develops and dies in the moment of the performance, in which its entire existential cycle resides. And the proof of its existence can only be found in that moment of contact between the artist and their audience. That is the moment in which music exists.
The period of history that we are currently living through – the social context of the pandemic, with theatres and concert halls shuttered – has relegated the existence of music to the medium that plays it. In this specific moment, music exists only if it is “recorded” on a medium – in other words, deprived of the vital force of the act of “live” public performance, which is the very proof of its existence. Although there have always been forms and genres of music that have evolved specifically for private settings (chamber music, for example), it is nonetheless a feature of our time to give even those forms and genres a public dimension; indeed, since the 19th century, chamber music has been performed in public settings – concert halls, auditoriums, theatres. That very same private dimension that defines chamber or home concerts instead takes on a public nature: as such, we find home concerts being played as part of major festivals (think of the “Piano City” model, which has now spread worldwide), bringing the public into private homes, giving the masses a taste of a type of musical creation designed for a reserved, elegant, unique setting; a type of musical creation that requires an attentive ear, but that is no longer the preserve of the few.
From this starting point, it becomes clear how music, in its ephemerality, is nonetheless conditioned by the historical and social context of the time in which it is played, and not only the historical context in which it is created.
Here again is the theme of creation: it is at this level that the material factors – namely the writing techniques adopted by individual composers to create their music, the music of each specific moment in history, the music of each specific geographical place – become intertwined with the cultural factors. Since the time when music transitioned from the dimension of oral transmission, as it originated, to the dimension of written transmission, the techniques of writing music have undergone a process of constant evolution by which they have ultimately created a structure within a system that has long been recognised – at least to the ear of Western listeners – as the koiné, the only possible musical language: the tonal system. This includes the majority of what is commonly referred to as the “classical” repertoire – the body of work studied in music schools, according to general consensus, despite the fact that it is also very much a feature of the “pop” repertoire, which is somehow perceived as an element that exists in contrast with the former. So much so that the introduction of courses of study dedicated to pop music in conservatories has truly shocked and bewildered some, as if the existence of two concepts of making music – which have always been considered distant from one another – within the same educational system were entirely inconceivable.
Art music and pop music: two opposing faces that form a double-sided mirror reflecting the ways in which music is conceived today. And yet, there are forms and genres of what we now consider to be art music – forms and genres that have been incorporated into a “classical” musical repertoire, the preserve of specific audiences in specific venues – that were once the pop of yesteryear. Because pop is not merely the “song” genre (the canzone, the lieder, the chanson, etc.): pop is also – as we have been reminded on many occasions, even recently – opera, for example, not because “pop” is simply short for “popular”, and the word therefore comes with an implied meaning of “common” or “simple”, but because it forms an integral part of the cultural and social fabric, both in Italy and beyond.
The same language and the same writing technique can therefore be adapted to two incredibly different ways of making music (art music and pop music); the technique is the same, yet it is used in different ways, some being more complex, others somewhat simpler; what changes is the context in which the music is made – the cultural position that we intend to attribute to the music itself.
The idea of giving music a certain cultural position has had a clear influence on public consciousness and tastes: indeed, the very fact that our idea of “art” music is defined by its origins in a repertoire tradition, built up and stratified over time, within which there is actually hidden a “pop” dimension – as defined above, with reference to the example of opera – has resulted in that specific musical model being pigeonholed into a sector, contrasting it with a broader social dimension that recognises as music what we now conceive as commercial music, “pop” music in the pejorative sense of the term, divorced from its nobler roots.
The relationship between technical and cultural factors has always marked the history of music, with the various historical periods – each with their own social context – ultimately deciding whether it is the former or the latter that prevail in the relationship between the two. Moreover, the relationship between material factors (compositional and writing technique) and immaterial factors (the cultural context of those who make and listen to music) intersects with the products of another key relationship, namely that between creativity and technique, the unique combination of which gives rise to any given piece of music. Indeed, much as is the case for the relationship between technique and culture, the relationship between creativity and technique also shifts and transforms depending on the historical period. This even holds true within the same “musical type”: just think of the technique/creativity relationship as applied to the classical repertoire and the technique/creativity relationship as applied to art music, be it classical or contemporary. Although we are in the same cultural context – what is, as a gross oversimplification, commonly considered the context to which art or classical music belongs – but the balance of power between the two factors is entirely subverted. This leads us to the conclusion that the relationship between creativity and technique does not necessarily involve an equation.
Just think of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and, in particular, his instrumental chamber music (which, as previously mentioned, we have made into a public form by inserting it into contexts with a public audience) or his symphonic music. How many times have we heard it defined as simple, melodic, catchy, pleasant? This is the general consensus; it is the social dimension of Mozart’s music that makes it a largely accessible listening experience even to the “untrained ears” of those who do not have a musical background. What lies behind this way of thinking about and considering music – specifically Mozart’s music, in this case – is an enormous misconception: the idea that music that is easy to listen to and enjoy is music written easily, or in other words, that what underpins this ease of listening is technical simplicity. Mozart’s writing absorbs into itself all its technical complexities, which are rendered imperceptible to the listener, as if disguised by the final audible product, and yet present within it: in short, Mozart did not write “simple” music. He was wholly familiar with technique, particularly instrumental technique, and thus demanded the maximum possible performance from each individual instrument in terms of sonority, timbre, colour; he did this in a new way compared to his contemporaries, ultimately producing a catalogue whose longevity and usability over time is destined to last eternally.
Let us return to the intersection between our two relationships: technique/culture and technique/creativity. Mozart wrote differently from the other composers of his time: whilst nowadays, we listen to his music without any difficulty, his contemporaries struggled to understand him and his work. In terms of technique vs. creativity, when it comes to Mozart’s output, we could be forgiven for believing that it is the creative dimension that “wins”. And yet, Mozart’s music is anything but simple: it is not the result of a spur-of-the-moment burst of creativity, but rather the result of a creative act that is the culmination of his technical mastery and deeply intimate knowledge of instruments. Staying with the technique/creativity dichotomy for a moment, let us instead consider the effect that The Rite of Spring had on its listeners in Paris on 29 May 1913, but let us also consider how we feel today when we listen to a piece of contemporary art music. The relationship between that very same pair of qualities seems to be subverted: the creative act seems to be transformed into a show of pure technique. So what has changed? First of all, the koiné, as mentioned previously, has changed: from the Short Century onwards, composers started working and continue to work not only in an effort to create new forms of art, but also to create new forms of linguistic expression. This has served to distance art music from the listener (a distancing which has only further driven a wedge between the worlds of “classical” music and “pop” music, as touched upon previously) as a result of feeling betrayed, having lost their ability to understand. It is once again the immaterial factor, as represented by the cultural context, that conditions how the public receives the work of musical art and influences whether that same musical object will exist only in the moment of its creation and first performance or whether it will stand the test of time.
Music’s relationship with time – a factor that affects the technique/culture duality, if it is indeed true that the passage of time and historical eras, with all the resultant changes, see the former of the two material and immaterial factors prevail over the latter at times, and vice versa at others, making music a heteronomous art – develops in complex directions. Time is one of the essential components of music, together with pitch, intensity and timbre: time, understood as the duration of each individual sound, within the “musical discourse”, structured into periods and phrases, organised within a system of measurement that recognises in each beat, measure or bar the set of values (notes of a specific duration) encompassed between two vertical lines placed on the stave. Time is thus understood to be one of the fundamental components of musical structure. And amongst the arts, this particular definition of time is only found in music. In much the same vein, the temporal dimension that underpins the concept of performance is unique to music (and the non-plastic arts): indeed, music only exists as public art for as long as it is being performed by a performer. To add a further layer, each performer has their own internal sense of time, their own way of experiencing and conceiving of time, which in turn affects the timing of their performance. This is what makes each performance – even of the same piece – different from the others in terms of both its total duration and the duration of each individual musical gesture made by each individual performer. Then there is the need for music – though the same can be said of architecture as well as any other form of artistic expression – to last over time. A need which, in the case of music, is satisfied on the one hand by merely overcoming the hurdle of the very first performance, following which there is X number of subsequent performances, demonstrating the longevity of a specific piece over time, thanks to performative actions repeated by different performers; on the other, by the identification and use of media which allow for the reproduction of specific performative actions, making them available to listen to ab aeterno, albeit with the loss of the public dimension of the music. Played back, these performances become a source of inspiration and imitation for other performers: a piece of music that stands the test of time due to being performed and played back multiple times will become part of the repertoire. The definition we are referring to here is a collection of sheets, pieces, works that time does not tarnish, but rather cements and preserves, reviving the audience’s need to listen to them again, because the audience recognises themselves in them, feels comforted and satisfied, despite acknowledging that each performance has characteristics that differ from previous ones and that will differ from subsequent ones. This demonstrates how the figure of the performer becomes part of music itself, playing a rather significant role in the redefinition of the creative process: if the piece being played is the same (i.e. written by a specific composer or group of composers), what makes each rendition unique is the co-creative action of the performer or performers.
The performer(s)’ being involved in the creation of the work does not always necessarily presume the existence of a systemic or choral logic which establishes links between the creator of the work (i.e. the composer), the performer(s) and the audience. This type of three-way relationship is possible in a context in which the three participants in the system act “simultaneously”, so to speak. In other words, whilst this was possible in Mozart’s day, when the composer himself wrote specific sheets of music earmarked for specific performers – consider, for example, his Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622, the last sheet composed by Mozart and allocated to his friend and brother Mason, an extraordinary virtuoso of the instrument, Anton Stadler – it is obviously no longer possible to achieve this today, with the same Concerto entrusted to a performer who not only has no way of hearing Stadler’s original performance, but also has no way of establishing a dialogue or relationship with the composer. Not to mention the public dimension of the performance, with its contemporary rituality, so far removed from that of Mozart’s era. The “circuit” of the systemic logic laid out above therefore “breaks” when the “maker” of the work eventually dies, but this ultimately lends any connection added value as compared with the context of “simultaneous” creation: for the performers, this relationship with the composer is a plus. Being able to co-create a piece by playing it in the presence of the person who composed it not only allows the performer to fully capture the essence of the written music, but also gives the composer an opportunity to determine that when performed, their work does in fact correspond to what they committed to paper. Here, the duality of technique/creativity crops up once again: creativity, which forms the foundation of the act and process of composition, is finally faced with the technical capabilities of the instrument(s), whose repositories are the performers themselves, capable of playing their part in the simultaneous creation by offering the composer guidance in terms of technical and performance-related issues, even though this may impact upon the composer’s creative freedom.
Nevertheless, the systemic-choral logic can also be applied in music coloured by other nuances of meaning, in reference to specific musical genres, be it chamber music, symphonic music, choral music, etc. These are all genres which live and die on cooperation between groups of people, interaction between peers – such as the members of a quartet, for example – or complementary interaction between performers of different “ranks” in a hierarchy, where within individual groups (the sections of an orchestra being a prime model), certain specific instrumentalists are given a primary role as compared with others. In all these cases, the co-creative action which links together composer and performer is complemented by the co-creative action that consists of multiple performers coming together to play and, in doing so, collaboratively bring to life a specific musical object.
As the result of the composer’s primal act of creation, subsequently co-created by the performer(s), every type of music ultimately “exists” only at the moment when it encounters the audience. This encounter, this meeting, takes the form of a ritual of sorts in performance venues, theatres, concert halls and auditoriums, but it is by no means limited to these places. Music aspires to escape from those environments, as if to invade society. In other words, music is not just a public art: it is also a social art, in that it establishes relationships between artists and audiences, as well as between members of these audiences themselves; the latter phenomenon occurs not only at the moment of shared listening, but also after the fact, at the moment of reflection on what they have heard. That it is a social art, in the sense of being able to bring together different components of society, does not necessarily mean that it is an art that engages with social issues. The subjective dimension of the primordial creative act may very well derive from a wholly pure and extremely personal creative urge, an impulse, a need, entirely divorced from any kind of socio-political involvement. Music is pure art par excellence, especially instrumental music. Hence even today, it is possible to choose to make “music for music’s sake”, according to an agenda that has echoes of Parnassianism: “l’art pour l’art”, as famously proclaimed by Théophile Gautier, has no social, moral, educational or utilitarian purpose - rather, it is an end in itself.
On the contemporary music scene, however, it is nonetheless true that an increasing proportion of composers are drawing their creative drive from the world around them. Social engagement has entered the world of “pop” music - it can be found in sheets of contemporary art music. It was in the 1960s that Luigi Nono brought music into workrooms and factories. Indeed, his thoughts on the matter are well known: «For me personally, making music is about having an effect on contemporary life, on the contemporary situation, on the contemporary class struggle [...]». Nowadays, it is no longer a question of the class struggle, nor do we feel a pressing need to bring contemporary music to the masses – after all, that is the purpose of “pop”. Art music interprets the reality around it by placing an emphasis on issues of gender – the theme of equal opportunities being a mainstay of contemporary music – of integration – with contemporary Western music being played on ethnic instruments, instruments from the cultures of people who have immigrated to the West, or even contemporary art music interacting with styles from other musical cultures – of the needs of young people, both performers and composers, to whom specific projects, calls and competitions are dedicated.
The musical language of contemporary society, in all its many and varied forms, allows the younger composers in particular to enjoy an expressive and creative freedom that simply has no equal in any other context or at any other time in history. Having dismantled the common koiné, contemporary art music – as a combinatorial art – opens up a world of multifaceted and incredibly diverse possibilities for the synthesis of technique and creativity. This does not mean leaving the composer free to create without a formal education; on the contrary, it means structuring the educational path of a student/composer in a way that allows them to discover how music can come into contact with other languages, mix with other artistic forms, go beyond its own boundaries to absorb and draw upon what contemporary culture and society can offer, in terms of inspiration, to the trained ear of the musician. In order to be a musician nowadays, it is no longer sufficient to simply have a knowledge of the more material factors, the techniques (of both composition and performance) referred to at the start of this text: the performer and the composer are at the heart of an “extended” educational system that offers them professional development that does not become apparent in the mere act of creation or performance, but instead nourishes their relationship with the world of the production, reproduction, distribution and marketing of music.
And yet, all this is still not enough to guarantee a future for music. In order to spark a social transformation that would make music a part of people’s lives – and not simply for the pleasure of listening to it, as a soundtrack in the background of other activities, but as a discipline with the power to actually improve people’s lives, which music is, to all intents and purposes, in view of the studies demonstrating that a knowledge of it bolsters the intellectual faculties of the individual – it is necessary for music to grow in step with the individual, in the context of educational courses shared by all students, not just those who intend to enter the world of music professionally. A step in this direction has already been taken – albeit with a top-down approach, at the level of higher musical and university education – with the development of study programmes that establish links between music and the scientific disciplines (for example, the agreement between the Milan Conservatory and the Politecnico di Milano) as well as the humanities (for example, the agreement between the Milan Conservatory and the University of Milan). The future of music lies in its ability to resume its central position in the world of higher education. Indeed, this role had been attributed to it since the Middle Ages: a fundamental aspect of higher education, music took pride of place amongst the liberal arts, a part of the Quadrivium together with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, and alongside grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the Trivium.
Heteronomy is therefore a consubstantial characteristic of music from and throughout every age, and is now pushing it towards a more free, open and constant dialogue with other disciplines than some other arts manage, especially in its relationship with new technologies, ultimately with a view to creating brand-new professional profiles.