Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Quality of Music

Let me misquote Shakespeare:
The quality of mercy music is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
A professor I had in university quoted that to us just before saying that extensions to deadlines on papers were NOT going to be given. It is a quote that has always stuck with me. I'm adapting it today because it reflects, somewhat obliquely, on the question of quality in music. Perhaps I am just a monomaniac, but to me the question of quality underlies just about everything in music. It comes out in different fashions and contexts, but the origin is the same. There is a great anecdote about Schoenberg. He was teaching composition and, pointing to the eraser end of the pencil said, "this end is more important than the other end". Why is that? Because what makes good music (and good prose) is often what you eliminate, what you edit out, the fluff, fat and fatuousness that you remove on second thought. As a composer you must be your own gatekeeper, censor, quality-control inspector. This is why I found the recent story about the "re-discovery" and performance of a movement from a Beethoven quartet troubling. He had thrown away a movement from a quartet and replaced it with another. But these guys had dug up the one he threw away and insisted on putting it back in. You'll be getting a letter from Beethoven's lawyer in the morning, I wanted to say.

Another story? From 2008 to 2010 I wrote a big cycle of twelve songs for voice and guitar. I hope very much that they stand up to some of the other sets of songs for guitar. In most cases, as soon as I stumbled across a suitable poem (they are all settings of poems by great poets such as Victor Hugo, Rilke, Roethke, Li Po and Aristophanes) the music almost wrote itself. So for the next project, I decided to write something for solo guitar, something I had always found very difficult. In order to make it playable, the texture has to be very limited. I have always found it easier to write for multiple guitars or for guitar with other instruments. But I was determined, so... At first I thought, why not a sonata? So I tried parodying a Beethoven sonata. I use 'parody' in the old sense of the word--a composition based on another composition. But that didn't work out. I decided that I just didn't have the compositional skills to write that kind of piece. So I decided to work in a smaller form and write a set of six bagatelles. Lots of freedom there as 'bagatelle' isn't a defined form. I did manage to turn out a few, but kept getting bogged down and ended up sketching several pieces that I threw away. Then, last Sunday, as I was getting out of the shower, the whole first phrase of a piece popped into my head and I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a couple of hours. It was a pretty good finale. So I looked at the other pieces and realized I didn't have six bagatelles, what I had was a suite for guitar in five movements:

  1. Bagatelle
  2. Elegy
  3. Air
  4. Chant
  5. Finale
My point is that sometimes music, like mercy, droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.

You just have to be ready to catch it. And a very important corollary to this is that you have to be able to recognize when you are sketching out crappy music and be willing to throw it away.

Here is a particularly nice song for voice and guitar by Benjamin Britten from the Songs from the Chinese:

No comments: