by Judith Lang Zaimont
Minnesota Listening List Competition keynote speech delivered at Augsburg College on February 8, 2002
Congratulations to the splendid student competitors, contest administrators and sponsors for stimulating music's future by enriching its present experience through this listening adventure. Bravo!
Composing is the central fact of my life. Since I'm inquisitive, and somewhat articulate about music's materials and its history, I also teach. And since I'm perennially curious about many aspects of my art, I also explore it in articles and books.
I started piano lessons at the age of five (at my own insistence). At the age of 11 I began writing music, and soon realized I was born to compose. (Winning a national composition prize at the age of 13 from the National Federation of Music Clubs was a nice extra, but I was already dedicated to being a maker of music by that time.) The notes continued to flow and I have written music ever since.
For me, being a composer means something far beyond just mining the 'inner woman': There needs to be a reason for each piece's existence. For example, a piece might serve a social, aesthetic, analytic or experimental purpose; a performer might ask for a work that features my distinct musical 'voice' in new notes for their instrument; or I may design a piece specifically to solve a certain musical puzzle. My pieces are documents both of expression (mine) and of communication (making a bridge to the listener). My music seeks to appeal both to the heart (the "AAH!" response), and to the head (the "AHA!"). When this mix is just right I can sense it, and so do the listeners.
Composers fulfill two primary functions within our Art: we are both music's Poets and music's Engineers. And we do both the art and craft side of our inspiring task simultaneously. We composers are required to go far beyond merely expressing a musical idea that idea must be put forth with personality, point and elegance, and it must mean something larger than just its own statement as the piece around it unfolds and progresses. In order for a piece to succeed as a document of expression, the composer must speak meaningfully in musical terms, and should articulate with a distinctive musical voice. This takes time: time to master one's craft, time to learn something of the world, and quite a lot of time to hone and develop that true distinct voice.
As to Music being a bridge of communication to the listener it's crucial to realize that at a single hearing listeners may only get some of what a piece is trying to convey. I personally believe that any piece which gives up ALL it has to offer on first hearing is almost certainly not destined to endure. There should be 'goodies' left to be discovered on subsequent visits such as themes or motives whose interrelationships are only hinted at at first, but upon re-acquaintance flow deliciously together. Or the satisfaction of appreciating details such as timbral combinations, and interesting background figurations that only come forward fully via repeat hearings.
So, it's important for a composer to cultivate the wisdom of taking the 'long view' of how a piece matures in the listening. . We need patience to stick with composing over the years it takes to achieve exquisite control over the materials of music, and reach our listeners reliably and knowingly on our own terms. Part of this refinement of craft comes through being an assiduous editor of one's own compositions. And all these attributes go into the 'seasoned outlook' necessary for artistic growth.
British poet W. H. Auden put the composer on a high pedestal as the purest of all makers of Art. In his poem, "The Composer", he wrote of painters and poets "all these others translate ... by painstaking adaptation". In contrast, he intimates that music is the purest, most direct of the arts, saying to the Composer: "Only your notes are pure contraption/Only your song is an absolute gift."
In my case, the act of composing is far from a pure and pristine encounter! For me, composing is a lot like wrestling with an angel: It's completely absorbing, all-consuming and immensely satisfying. It demands all my attention, and often takes place in 'time out of time' it may take many minutes even hours to get one measure 'just right'. You absolutely can't rush it. But the result always, always, warrants the time spent.
Although it's not an arrogant activity, composing is a selfish one. Psychological studies of creativity tell us that during the 'creative moment' really an extended visit between the mind, the sensibility and the matter at hand the creator completely blots out her own surroundings. When I'm composing I often forget to eat, I don't hear the phone or doorbell, and often don't realize that big swatches of time are passing.
Despite Auden's words, then, Music, altogether in itself, is not so rarefied an art, especially in its making.
As experienced listeners, we know that music is slippery as quicksilver, as well as ineffable. It speeds before the listening ear in an instant, encoded with whatever meanings we choose to load upon it at the moment of its simultaneous birth and passing. Composer Ned Rorem wrote "Music changes meaning as it recedes in time the way stars do as they approach in space. But the meaning of stars grows clearer, while that of music grows more vague at least the original meaning". Rorem means that it's not possible to hear old music the way it was first heard our ears are conditioned by intervening repertories. Guillaume de Machaut didn't know Wolfgang Mozart who didn't know us but we know them both and place them in retrospect, a context which alters continually as we ourselves alter. The purpose of a piece shifts with each generation: No matter how much we might wish to, we cannot completely and honestly experience Machaut within his churchly context, or Mozart within his courtly one.
Cultural, political and social factors affect the way we hear music across the centuries, and they impinge also inside the composer's own lifetime, affecting her interests and her work. While being a composer is central for me, that I am American is also important.
American composers today face at least three arenas of choice that require BIG DECISIONS, decisions not even on the horizon Mozart's day:DECISION 1 How to build a support network for our life's work.
The American composer of classical / or concert music has no avenue of articulated public support to tap. We work within a society which lacks a composers' guild or union to address job issues, the question of fees, etc., and we work in a country where there exists no state-awarded prize for composers. In present-day America the notion that our culture needs living concert music-makers in order to be a complete society is disputable let alone the issue of how many musicians our country may require. At this time, concert music itself is under attack from the right as a luxury of the "Žlite", and the general debate centers on attempts to re-balance public perceptions of "High Art" vs. "Low Art/ Popular Art". So the composer has to be brave enough to continue as creative musician, knowing well our field of endeavor is not considered socially equal in valuation or investment to that, say, of computer programmer, and that composers should be prepared for life-long scrounging for a firm, continuing financial base.
Nowadays music is in the air all around us. Mostly it's disembodied, flattened for electronic transmission, but nevertheless all-pervasive. There is music in grocery stores, elevators, restaurants and public restrooms. There is music in banks, in law offices, doctors' waiting rooms, and photocopy shops. At the airport there is music AND television. What kind of music is this? And how does such a saturation such a bombardment of sound alter how we hear and cheapen the experience of listening?
As never before, music has become a partnering art.
Recent item: In the post 9/11 climate of mind, the New York Times ran a feature on a very special establishment providing a wonderful service for the NY metropolitan area: A huge warehouse filled with donated supplies and devices from all kinds of business where public-school arts teachers can go for free to find materials for their classes' visual arts projects. Buried within this article was a mention that the job description for the manager of this wonderful facility includes the task of programming the music to be piped in to get the visiting teachers 'in the mood' to do their search for supplies.
I do not believe that every human activity needs musical 'accompaniment'. I think that, over the long run, this cheapens the 'magic' of music, relegating it to the status of a secondary form of expression. And it also has real, perceivable consequences in younger listeners' disconnect with the formalized aspects of a traditional concert experience.
Many younger listeners no longer know how to listen to an extended musical statement without some music-video type element provided to keep their attention. This is especially true for music that evolves in ways similar to an essay, enfolding within itself special curves of form, and statements exquisite on its *own* terms though it may contain no catchy tunes or catchy beats, . So many younger listeners are lost if there no dance-frame, no back-beat! This makes me sad, because the most sublime music I know has no back-beat, and rarely a whistlable tune just naked, raw exposure of great feeling, and the stuff of self, laid bare by a gifted composer. This is music as a high, and complete, form of artistic expression, fulfilling all by itself, with no 'extras'.DECISION 3 Where and how to find my Own Voice Part B.
Thanks to sophisticated documentation technology, in the present moment more music than ever before is available for access crossing all borders of history and geography. That these musics exist and are available at a moment's notice to anyone virtually immediately is exciting. It's also confusing.
For example, the simultaneous presence of so many musics can suggest visions of fresh art simply by fusing together styles or manners that already exist: Let's cross Tibetan throat singing with Gregorian chant and western minimalism and voila! Or combine whale songs with taped ping-pong ball sounds, all supporting an Appalachian folk-style melody, and voila! again.
Polonius' advice to his son Laertes (in Hamlet) is still good: "This above all to thine own self be true." In order to be honest, then, a composer has to shove aside all external static, and look to discover and hone the essence of a PERSONAL COMPOSITIONAL voice. Ideally, this voice is stylistically distinct, well-inflected, complete, and true. And it may well take a lifetime's worth of musical statements through which to present, refine and perfect that voice.
After some experience in bringing my music to the public, I recognized that composing is really 'down and dirty' that a composer is by no means a 'divine messenger' delivering a text both sacred and sacrosanct. Music is eminently a living medium it will change, even just a bit, in the performance of every player. (So, for example, Für Elise, is not merely the sum total of three pages of Beethoven, but the Gestalt of every rendition of this lovely piece, from the beginning pianist who lives on the corner, to Artur Rubinstein's fluid and lovely version to its use as sinister background sound in the movie "Rosemary's Baby", and beyond!)
And, just as a specific piece changes in the hands of every performer, the music itself is changeable, mutable. Fundamentally, Art is both a lens and a mirror. By this I mean that, though composers may wish to think of their works as distillations of personal conceptions and idiosyncratic display of craft ( a lens focusing what they want to say), what the listener grasps is precisely those aspects of the piece which, at the time, the listener is personally ready to take in (the Mirror). This humbling, humanizing realization is an important step in any composer's maturation.
As for me: I'm in my artistic middle years, still growing, still exploring, still listening avidly. I greet each new piece with expectation, as a 'road not taken' an adventure for maker, player and listener, just waiting to unfold. And I definitely agree with Ned Rorem's sensible words: "What artists say about their work has always been less urgent than what their work says about itself". So, to conclude, let's set slightly, slightly to the side all I've just said, and simply come together purely to listen with open ears.