Fetishism of the Literal

September 28, 2005

By Kyle Gann

I'm writing program notes for Toru Takemitsu's Fantasma/Cantos, which is being played by the Cincinnati Orchestra this season. I find the title inelegant, but it's a gorgeous work. Written in 1991 for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, it makes the orchestra sound like physical clouds of tones through which the clarinet solo sweeps, stirring up waves of subtle harmony. Crotales and harp limn the clarinet's high notes, while woodwinds, including the orchestral clarinets, respond with an ambiguating halo of echoes. What really distinguishes the piece from a large repertoire of equally subtle and complex postserialist works, though, is the tonality-suggestive chords in the lower strings, which make the rest of the texture sound almost like ephemerally flickering upper overtones. The chords are orchestrated at times like harmonic series', with the fundamental and fifth in the basses, ninth and eleventh harmonics in the violins. It makes me surprised that I've never heard Takemitsu mentioned in connection with spectral music, which makes widespread use of such sonorities; and in fact, I've never yet heard a spectralist piece as beautiful as Fantasma/Cantos.

At the same time, reacting empathically as a composer, I'm a little disturbed by a disparity of ends and means in Fantasma/Cantos, and would never be tempted to write a piece like it. Looking at this oversized and extremely complicated score, there are thousands of details I can't hear on the recording, and that would seem to me to obscure the beauty if I could hear them. Hardly any two consecutive measures share the same meter, and the tuplets and subdivisions snake circuitously within them, preventing any audible hint of meter, or even of temporal periodicity, from ever emerging. It's as though Takemitsu went to elaborate lengths to make it sound as though the music simply happened, with no human agent - which, given what little I've read about his aesthetics, is, I feel sure, precisely the case. The music is supposed to sound, and does sound, like a natural, elemental force in motion.

This is a valid and effective musical archetype, and typical of the late 20th century. Some composers feel that all music should aspire to this condition, that it should imitate elemental forces with pristine exactitude. Yet this is an archetype that I and other postminimalist composers of my generation have rejected, often to the consternation of elder composers and our teachers. For this extreme literalism, which rejoices in music's liquid ability to not only represent but embody entropic forces, we have reintroduced a frank admission of music's artificiality. We use audible meters, rhythmic grooves, melodies along a perceptible scale, all those regularities and periodicities that remind the listener that this is something human-made. For the modernist composers this looks like a regression back to the bad old days when notation had too many limitations and thus too much influence, when you could hear the quarter-notes and eighth-notes in the rhythmic grid. The whole point of musical progress, so the scenario runs, was to torture and liquefy the notation so that it was no longer audible, so that it disappeared into a sound surface that resembled pure emotion. To go back from this perfect state to, say, 5/8 meter audibly accented as 3 + 2, or back to the major scale, seems so primitive, a perverse embrace of amateurism.

Yet for me - and maybe for others of my generation, I don't know, I've never heard anyone else express it this way - the value of embracing that particular amateurism is that art has its greatest power as metaphor. Ultimately, I don't want a work of art to be the thing - I want it to be a representation of the thing. The fact that it is a representation made by another human, with marks of its humanity still evident, is part of what gives the work its power over me. The illusionistic emotive/natural verisimilitude of Takemitsu's Fantasma/Cantos is, indeed, dazzlingly impressive and enjoyable to hear - but just because of that the work doesn't exert the same kind of grasp on my emotions as do, say, Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Roy Harris's Third Symphony, John Luther Adams's In the White Silence, or any one of a thousand more stylized works that speak to me human-to-human.

The one notation that, for me, has always most clearly symbolized the fetishistically literal approach to music is the note marked decrescendo "al niente" - "to nothing." I would never, under threat of a horsewhipping, write that into a score. For a sound to gradually vanish into silence, and then reemerge from silence, seems like an attempt to make the music literally a natural phenomenon, and efface its status as a representation. The ceasing to ring of the final chord of a Beethoven sonata is a sufficient metaphor for the vanishing of sound into silence - one does not need to experience the literal slow dying away of the sound for the illusion to be complete. If I want to savor a wail disappearing into the distance, or the tentative whispering of the wind in the leaves, or the indistinguishable murmuring of a conversation on someone's porch down the road, I can walk out in my yard and hear them. But if I am going to have a meaningful exchange with another human, it is best if he or she more or less faces me and enunciates with reasonable clarity. I will not mistake his voice for the decrescendoing caws of Canada geese, nor am I looking to.

Yet an absolute and unquestioned faith in literalism has made it difficult for artists in some fields to use, in good conscience, anything suggestive of artificiality. There was talk on Sequenza 21 recently that the academic poetry world looks down their noses at poets who still use rhyme - rhyme being an artificial aspect of poetry that separates it from actual conversation, and whose disciplined interplay is often responsible for a great deal of its charm. Likewise, it was mentioned that extreme realism in painting is frowned upon today. Now, from the way I described it one might think that detailed realism in painting is the visual-art equivalent of the Takemitsu piece above, but actually it is the recognition of a "realistic" painting being a representation that takes our breath away; the painting equivalent of Takemitsu's emotive verisimilitude would be abstract expressionism, which sometimes tried to make the painting look like a naturally-occuring object untouched by human hand. Likewise, repetition and tonality and recurrent meter - let alone tunes - have encountered considerable objection from the older generation of composers because, I think, they reintroduce frank artificiality, and thus vulnerability. But it's the fact that a composer has used his or her imagination to create a stylized representation of a natural force or emotion, to transform it from the natural realm into something that can speak with a human voice, that makes me want to hear it again and again.

Besides, music that is completely liquified into fluidity can only represent one thing - feeling, or perhaps the natural processes of liquids which, to us, symbolize feeling. Undifferentiated feeling is not the only thing I want to hear in music. Usually I want to hear emotional life not in its id-controlled momentary fluidity, as though I were yearning to regress into pre-verbal infantility, but organized into something more stable and enduring. And usually, what is expressed by this extremely fluid "al niente" music is not really emotion, as in noble or sad or resigned, but a kind of sub-verbal tension and release, the vicissitudes of a violent, anguished reaction. To find a music that explores a particular emotion, as we usually define it, at a sustained length, we would have to go to Baroque music - or pop music, or postminimalist music. And postminimalist music does often attempt to ontologically approximate pop music, in which context the tentative whispering of "al niente" gestures would appear a trifle precious. As Richard Wilbur said in a fine poem,

...Let us have music again when the light dies,
(Sullenly or in glory), and we will give it
Something to organize.

As metaphor, music can indeed organize our collected emotions - it does little good to merely mimic their volatile ebb and flow.

All this is not at all to diminish Takemitsu. In fact, what makes Fantasma/Cantos so remarkably impressive is precisely its one aspect that shows evidence of human organization: those harmonic-series chords underlying the texture, or rather the contrast between those chords and the quasi-disorganized lines that sweep through them, giving the piece its wonderful tension. What's irksome is the common prejudice that such detailed, literal music is somehow more "intellectual" than postminimalist music, with its artificial repetitive and grid-based features. By employing a formidable level of technique to expunge the appearance of human agency, the fluid, orchestrally detailed, anguished, precious, "al niente," style purports to achieve a basic realistic naturalness that is self-evident and non-contingent; in reality, the music simply moves outside the range of criticism by restricting its expressive range to a single dimension. And a music that places itself beyond criticism also places itself beyond being much cared about, though it is deemed impolite to notice this. Like so many hypercomplex modernist works, Fantasma/Cantos is a kind of invulnerable piece, more impressive than lovable. Postminimalist music, wearing its artificiality on its surface, is far more vulnerable to criticism's grasp, and in return more likely to exert a grasp on the listener.

More important to me at the moment, postminimalist music is not the result of a lesser, or less well thought-out, philosophical position. "All art is artificial," said Stravinsky, which applies to both postminimalism and the "al niente" style, however much the latter tries to obscure the fact. In fact, I would argue that the "al niente" style isn't the result of any philosophical position at all, but of a fanaticism about technique which was allowed to run away with the music. It's a shame that composers don't talk aesthetics much any more, and I mean aesthetics in the broadest philosophical sense. When I was young I studied every book on the subject I could lay my hands on, and the one that had most impact on me was Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art. "That a picture looks like nature," Goodman wrote, "often means only that it looks like the way nature is usually painted." He goes on to demonstrate that the artist cannot escape interpreting reality, since "there is no such thing as the way the world is." We think that the detailed, gestural style represents some kind of bedrock reality because it's the way nature has been painted for much of the 20th century. In reality, though, it's the postminimalists who have moved beyond a specious literalism to embrace the inevitable artificiality of all artistic representation.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

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