February 13, 2006
Composers: What are they thinking?
Steve Everett is associate professor of music and acting director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry.
Ever since my earliest attempts at composing, I’ve
had a growing suspicion that this activity, which essentially involves
constructing patterns of sound, is far more complicated and intriguing
than I initially understood.
As a conductor and musical performer in Atlanta, I
realize the importance of understanding how musical thought becomes
how it’s perceived by listeners and how it acquires cultural
value. In order to answer these ontological questions about music
(thus helping me develop as a composer), I realized the necessity
of analyzing both sound and the contexts in which it is produced
in modern society.
This, in turn, quickly led to questions of philosophical
aesthetics, representations of culture and hybridity, mimesis, instrumentality,
the body, temporality, cognition, commodification, and even, ultimately,
The act of music composition in highly technological
and culturally diverse societies requires a new literacy of sonic
and social phenomena.
For me, the process is essentially a humanistic endeavor. Indeed,
this inquiry-driven role for Western composers dates back to the
Before that time, musical compositions in the West
were often celebratory: to praise God, to congratulate the city council
or court patrons,
to recognize important liturgical events. That purpose changed slightly
for the 19th century composer, whose aim also involved evoking a
wide array of emotional and psychological states. By the 20th century,
the purpose of composers became to think—to provide a philosophical
basis of thought and human action, with vague analogues in sound.
Richard Wagner is perhaps the earliest example of this
emerging genre of modern composer-intellectual. He commented on topics
as the origins of classical Greek drama in folk art, early Christian
asceticism, alliteration in German verse, and dreaming in the philosophy
of Schopenhauer. Indeed, Wagner became an intellectual at large.
As the century wore on, composer-intellectuals took
a much stronger interest in politics and social criticism. These
were not directly involved in political action, but rather attempted
to effect change through illustrating technical possibilities in
their work. The 20th century, modernist composer devised theories
and structures that themselves become forms of art and action. As
music became self-conscious—intricate, cerebral—the composer
became engaged with a range of intellectual activity; musical compositions
became models for problem-solving, as if music itself were a type
Many such composers emphasized the social and cultural
aspects of musical practice. Listening to music for its own sake—disinterested
contemplation in a quiet concert hall, for example—became only
one of the uses for music. This practice eventually led to the present,
in which an acute understanding of how our own physical, neurological
and cultural makeup shape musical practice. Today, music plays an
important role in how we come to terms with the world, in negotiating
the realities of our environment and relationships, and in forming
cultural and personal identities.
In the 18th century, the philosophical conception of
aesthetics was almost entirely dominated by the idea of beauty. Other
than the sublime,
the beautiful was the only aesthetic quality actively considered
by most artists and thinkers. However, during the 20th century, beauty,
with its simplistic, commercial implications, almost entirely disappeared
from artistic reality. Aesthetics, which some thought had become
too narrowly identified with beauty, was replaced in critical discourse
by formalistic descriptions.
As a young composer in the 1970s, I understood that
working with music recognized as “beautiful” was a controversial
course to pursue. Things began to change somewhat in the 1980s—attractiveness
once again became an accepted option in musical creation.
From the onset of 20th century modernism, it was clear
that something can be considered art without being beautiful, but
a new positive
interpretation of beauty was required if it was to be embraced by
the composer-intellectual. This reemergence of beauty in the musical
language of composers often was a result of compositional approaches
drawn from non-Western, non-canonic and vernacular repertories, or
from a new emphasis on spectral transformations of sound.
Last fall, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the
Institute of Liberal Arts sponsored Harvard aesthetics professor
as a distinguished visiting professor. In discussing her book, On
Beauty and Being Just, Scarry argued that beauty has a positive moral
value—that it actually intensifies our desire to correct injustice
wherever we find it. It may, as Scarry asserts, “inspire in
people the aspiration to political, social and economic equality.”
In my method of composing, each work begins as contemplation
on a set of questions, often centered on qualities of sound, the
of the body to new technologies in performance, or culturally hybrid
forms. This design process is perhaps no different than that of
individuals working in architecture, engineering or computer
of organization must be addressed at the quantitative level, considering
new aspects of temporality (vertical, static, cyclical, expanding),
new sonic progressions and new performer-instrument relationships.
But on another level are the unconscious preferences:
the imaging of dreams, memories and reveries; representations of
and ambiguous textures; darkness unfolding into light—in essence,
my personal tastes. It is the dance of these two processes that constitutes
my creative method. Each takes its turn leading, but the dance would
not be possible without both.
Many other contemporary composers freely choose the
questions, issues and aesthetic concerns they wish to explore. The “theories” they
devise may be seen as forms of action, forms of thought, or forms
of art or beauty.
A prime example of this breed of composer, and one
who embraces an array of social, political and theological concerns,
is Osvaldo Golijov.
Several of his most important works will be performed and discussed
during the Golijov Festival at Emory this month (see story, page
Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos
has been acclaimed as a fresh, new setting of the Passion narrative,
with the inclusion of diverse musical styles found in Latin America,
including Afro-Cuban drumming, samba, flamenco, conga, mambo, Gregorian
chant and contemporary concert music. The work is a unified collage
of music, drama and dance, portraying facets of life and Christianity
in Latin America. La Pasión opens the door to the traditions
of an entire continent.
Golijov is a prime example of the modern composer-intellectual
whose compositions can as easily be viewed as works of social criticism,
as expressions of personal religious conviction—or even as
works of beauty. There are many paths of access to his music and
much to be contemplated and enjoyed.
Does the compositional method of Golijov and others
require a more multilingual understanding by both composer and listener
Is the modern composer a sort of scientist, conducting research
social and cognitive behavior and the limits of aesthetic experience?
And, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others have suggested,
do artists and intellectuals in general have a social responsibility?
Increasingly for composers, the answer to all these questions seems
to be yes.
Observing the evolution of Western musical thought
over the past two centuries, the boundaries between art and the rest
experience have diminished substantially. Perhaps in these patterns
which we call music, there is much more to be learned about each
other and ourselves in the future.