ESSAY FOR FORFEST

Theodor Wiprud /USA/ - composer, New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Theodor Wiprud /USA/ - composer, New York Philharmonic Orchestra

ESSAY FOR FORFEST

March 24, 2013

 

 

How do we simple humans cope with the endless variety and richness of experience?  By necessity, we simplify.  We codify.  We name and we describe.  We create mental maps of reality.  Our maps enable us to ask specific questions and test answers and work out ways of thinking about reality.  We develop whole systems of thought.  Some are called religions.  Some are called sciences.  Some are called art or music.  All are metaphors for reality, using their own languages.  They enable us to name and describe, to conjecture and debate about various aspects of a reality far to vast to grasp as a whole. 

 

We build our systems of thought brick by brick.  Master to disciple, generation to generation, we build new ideas on top of accepted ones.  We test their strength, and then we build higher, stronger.  We build with great skill and often with a taste for beauty.  But if we do not build windows into our beautiful structures, our towers can prove to be prisons.  If we cannot look out onto the wider world and regard the other beautiful towers nearby and far off, we risk being trapped. 

 

However sublime the achievements of any system, more of truth lies outside it than can possibly be found within it.  If we say that no one religion has a monopoly on truth, we do not debase any particular religion.  Each is a particular revelation explored in depth through generations of tradition, with unique, essential insights.  If we say that all musical expressions have value, we do not disparage any particular style or genre or theory of music.  Each speaks of human experience and social values within the frame of a particular culture or subculture. 

 

Today, we see many systems of musical thought and practice that are largely closed off from each other, and to varying degrees from the world around them.  Most musicians and composers are true specialists: they strive to excel within a specific style.  And many of them reach dizzying heights of proficiency.  But musicians whose sole allegiance is to their technique risk preciousness; composers who over-value their craft risk academicism.  Narrowly targeted work reaches a narrow audience, and can convey no more than the sliver of beauty and meaning entrusted to its particular system or practice. 

 

The same is true in all fields of human endeavor.  In religion, we see countless orthodoxies that, through faithful application of principles and historical constructs, arrive at deeply contradictory calls for hatred and violence.  In politics, we see groups pursuing agendas according to perfectly reasonable principles and assumptions, but leading to policies and actions that patently undermine the good of society.  And the sound thinking of each orthodoxy and party – each committed to its own frame of reference – ensures that battles will be waged with competing groups.  Such battles undermine religion’s ability to spread truth, understanding; and governments’ ability to provide for their people.

 

But religious leaders who transcend their own religions do more to advance the understanding of the Divine – because no one religion can contain Divinity.  And political leaders who transcend their own parties do more to advance the common good – because no one partisan platform can address all the changing conditions and needs of a nation.

 

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In music, the epitome of the self-referential system of thought is imitative counterpoint, which evolved from 15th century roots through the early 18th century.  Contrapuntal music ideally refers only to itself.  It recycles small melodic ideas through its various voices according to long-established, little-changed rules.  Its only apparent purpose is to perpetuate and to explore the possibilities inherent in a minimum of musical ideas. 

 

Counterpoint reached its apex in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Bach was a genius of counterpoint, a consummate master of the system.  But he also had one of the most restless, far-reaching intellects in the history of music.  He sought out different styles of music from Italy and France, studied them deeply, and transformed his own music in response.  He conceived and demonstrated the power of a system of equal temperament that would allow a free flow of modulation across keys, opening vast fields of expression still being explored three centuries later.

 

But even more important than his openness to other musical practices and new ideas, Bach’s whole purpose transcended music itself.   His mastery and his contributions were motivated by fervent devotion to God.  He always sought to sing a new song unto the Lord.   By dedicating himself to a purpose above and beyond music, Bach embedded profound truths in his work, far beyond the power of counterpoint to explain.  And we hear this equally in his “abstract” works like partitas and fugues, as in his overtly liturgical works.

 

Bach was concerned not only with the “how” but also with the “why,” not only with technique, but with meaning.  By embracing both the science of music and the passion of religion, he became the supreme influence and example to all Western musicians.  We do well to study Bach’s counterpoint, with its almost mystical feats of skill.  We would do still better to emulate his omnivorous openness to influence, and his passionate expression of both humanity and divinity.

 

Many other composers have had motives beyond music.  Looking above and beyond the craft can lead into expressive territory that demands innovation or even reinvention of the craft.  A century after Bach, a new orthodoxy had matured bearing rich fruits.  Classicism, as perfected by Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven, elaborated simple musical ideas into imposing structures through techniques of thematic development rather than through feats of counterpoint.  Whereas Bach’s counterpoint grew from Renaissance experimentation in equal voicing, Beethoven’s classicism grew from Enlightenment rationalism.  The style virtually closed itself off from mystical impulses: any trace of the Divine must be sought in the style’s symmetries, balances, and sophistication.

 

Beethoven turned his creative forces upon profound questions of being and of man’s relationship with the Divine – questions so urgent to him, and so poorly addressed by the musical system he inherited, that they shattered the very forms he himself had perfected.  He extended and unbalanced Classical forms until in his late works, he broke through into expressive terrain that baffled his contemporaries, but now ring with profound meaning.  Beethoven’s creative struggles and victories, no less than the power of his music, left a lasting prototype of the artistic genius that has probably never been realized again.  And his strictly technical innovations occupied composers for at least a century beyond his death.   

 

Beethoven’s ways of thinking and style of expression were far removed from Bach’s.  But this only reminds us that spiritual truth is so vast as to permit an infinite variety of expressions in life and in music.

 

Another century on, Charles Ives mastered the Romantic tradition he inherited, and then broke all its forms and rules as he insisted on the spiritual urgency of music, on an expression that could not be bounded by mere prettiness, nor even by mere emotion.  “But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man,” Ives wrote.  “Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.”

 

A generation further on, Olivier Messiaen absorbed everything the French tradition had to offer, and then completely skirted post-war conventions by seeking spiritual expressions in other cultures (especially Hindu) and even other species (birds of all continents).   Combining rhythmic elements from India with avian melodic elements and his own experimental harmonic system, Messiaen created a sound world unlike anything heard before.  And yet its fervent, sensual expressions of spiritual experience bridged the tastes of avant-gardistes and more conservative audiences.  And as striking as Messiaen’s music was in its time, it only grows in stature with the passage of time, because he was less concerned with music itself than with what he needed to say through it.  The title of Messiaen’s last completed work conveys his life’s purpose: “Eclairs sur l‘au-dela” - “Illuminations of the beyond.”

 

The point here is not the superiority of program music: seeking a higher purpose can generate abstract music just as well. The point is that these composers’ chief concern was not in advancing their craft.  The object of their creations was not the system of thought itself.  With the Divine as their subject – the Divine perceived in myriad ways, all of them aspects of the vast truth – these composers were forced to transform their craft, to rethink their system of thought, and in some cases only with tremendous struggle.

 

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My own experience as a composer bears out the importance of looking beyond one’s craft.  Perhaps other composers have experienced, as I have, a very particular breakthrough that shapes their work forever after.  For me, it was composing my first string quartet during a year’s study at Cambridge University.  Robin Holloway was my composition teacher, and he contributed much to my musical thought.  But it was reading Dante’s La Divina Commedia that enabled me, after years of struggle, to find myself as a composer, “in the middle of life’s journey,” as Dante has it.  I was deeply impressed that Dante essayed such a monumental work in the first place, and that he created for it a poetic form, terza rima, that is as bold and vibrant as it is virtuosic.  His masterpiece summed up both Renaissance poetry and religious thought, and indeed transformed both.  His subject matter enabled and ennobled his craft.

 

Like many of my generation, I had been struggling with the dilemma between tonal and atonal music.  Of course the matter had been settled long before – by the 1950s, all serious music was expected to be atonal, and all popular music tonal.  But by the 1980s the question was open again in the United States, because of the iconoclastic work of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and other minimalists; and David Del Tredici, George Rochberg, and other neo-romantics.  Coming up in the next generation, I faced each new work with a sort of crisis of technical faith.

 

Reading Dante enabled me to look higher, beyond the technical questions.  I decided to pattern a string quartet directly on a gripping passage in Purgatorio, just as an experiment.  I translated terza rima into musical language, and then I was off, composing with all the urgency the poem conveys.  And suddenly I was not aware of questions of tonality.   All my craft came into play as my passion for the subject of my work overpowered the old questions about what is allowed or not allowed.  At times, the struggle to find musical form for what was in the poetry nearly broke my resolve.  But in the end, that experiment changed my life.  Refining Fire became my most important work to that point, and my most performed piece of chamber music through the years.  And the experience molded my whole approach to composition.  I adapt my technique to my subject in works rooted in anything from the Italian Renaissance to the New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

 

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Must composers then look to the Divine in order to create meaningful music?  That is a matter of taste.  But surely we composers must look someplace beyond the closed system of our craft.  There is not really any other reason to devote the many years required for mastery.  And in those years of study, how enamored we can become of our craft and delighted by our own skill!  It can be hard not to believe it is sufficient. 

 

When Dante approaches Paradiso and at long last greets his beloved Beatrice (the embodiment of Divine Grace), his guide Virgil (the embodiment of Reason and Art) vanishes, leaving Dante bereft.  But a far greater truth lies ahead, containing and subsuming what has gone before.  Dante would never have reached the gates of Paradise without Virgil.  Our dear craft enables us to reach the point where we can make the leap. 

 

How, then, do we simple humans express the endless variety and richness of spiritual experience?   Today, as in all times, too few composers are courageous enough to engage in a creative spiritual struggle.  Too many approach a new work with reference to the latest achievements in their very particular style; or if they set out to compose spiritually oriented music, they fall back on stereotype.  But let us consider those whose music has changed the world – not because they were the greatest masters, although they were that; but because their art had purpose.

 

 

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