Out of the mouths of babes

(Originally published 12/21/2011)

Long time away!  Been incredibly busy; too busy with composing, teaching, and conducting to blog.  In a nutshell: 2011 saw my traveling with the Cornell University Glee Club in California as they performed my Sudden Light during their concert tour, the completion of a 20-minute woodwind quintet, attendance for all of July at the summer program of EAMA in Paris, a choral commission from Whitman College, a publication and presentation at a national conference, a residency with a choir in New York City resulting in two new pieces, the founding of a fantastic new choir that I conduct, and two semesters’ worth of teaching at Temple University.  In addition, and I thank my stars for this, there were numerous performances of my music, both in the US and abroad.

All of this while trying to be a decent husband and father.

2012 promises to be no less busy.  But I’m getting a jump on one of my new year’s resolutions, which is to blog a little more, even if only in small chunks.  I got mentally held up this past year on a huge post I was writing about counterpoint in composition, and because I didn’t have time to finish it, I stopped blogging altogether.  It’s still simmering on the back burner of my mind.

Yesterday, during a rainy drive home with my daughter in the back seat, I turned on the winshield wipers.  “Wipers!” she exclaimed.  “Yes, that’s right,” I said.  “What do the windshield wipers do?” I asked her.
As she is a fastidious little girl who likes when things have tidy explanations, I was expecting her to say, “Clean the water,” or something like that, thinking she’d latch onto the fact that the wipers clean the windshield.  I figured she’d say something to explain the purpose of the system.

What she said, though, was “Swish, swish, swish!”

I had to laugh.  Any parent will of course recognize this as the authoritative definition of the wipers’ function as laid down in the immortal (zombie?) tune, “The Wheels on the Bus.”  It’s one of my daughter’s longtime favorites.

It was a colossal “duh” moment for me.  How could I have thought that she’d see past her own experience, memory, and emotional reaction, through to the left-brained, scientific answer I was expecting?

The exchange somehow got me thinking about writing music, and the relationship between composers and listeners.  Composers–young ones, especially–too often put the left-brained cart before the right-brained horse, and, even if subconsciously, expect listeners to apprehend first whatever concepts, systems, or structures composers build into their pieces.  Composers too frequently forget the huge truth that the experience of music is foremost a visceral, emotional one that listeners reckon instinctively against the backdrop of their own memories and feelings.  New music that generally results from such forgetfulness is dry, aesthetically unappealing stuff that evaporates after its first performance.

Why might composers have this problem?  One reason might be that composers, early in their careers, are too often wrongfully laden with the burden of writing music that is, above all, interesting to analyze.  Most young composers’ classes in school train them to examine the underlying construction of music, and implicitly or explicitly place value on compositions that are analytically complex.  These same classes say little or nothing about the specific emotional effects music has on listeners or about the causes of those emotional effects.  Indeed, in the twentieth century, which most composition students spend a lot of time studying, much art music composition focused on underlying constructs to the nearly complete neglect of what emotional reaction that music might elicit.

I don’t mean to say here that composers only ought to write what they think listeners want to hear.  That’s a business model.  Nor do I advocate a purely intuitive, willy-nilly approach to composing that doesn’t at all concern itself with technique.  That’s self-indulgent.  The best solution I’ve found to this dilemma is to try and take the tack that Mozart wrote that he was taking with his piano concerti: go straight down the middle and write music with a high level of craft that has facets appealing both to amateur and expert listeners.  And if I do my job right, my music creates a rewarding emotional response inside listeners that keeps them coming back for more, or that might even make them want to look under the hood and see what makes the music work.

Most importantly, I try never to forget that listeners’ first reactions to music are emotional and instinctual.  The emotions come first.  Matters of analysis, underlying construction, and theoretical understanding are important too, but they come second.

After I finished laughing, I said to my daughter, “Yes, dear, that’s right.  They go swish, swish, swish.”  She nodded, and after a brief silence, said, “Why?”


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