Emory Report
February 13, 2006
Volume 58, Number 19


Emory Report homepage  

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 physically expressed, 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, theology.

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 mid-1800s.

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 diverse 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 individuals usually 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 of thinking.

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 Elaine Scarry 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 relationship 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 science. Problems 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 stillness; sensuous 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 4).

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 today? Is the modern composer a sort of scientist, conducting research into 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 of human experience have diminished substantially. Perhaps in these patterns of sound, which we call music, there is much more to be learned about each other and ourselves in the future.