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A Space for Music: The Creative Process

1. Heart and Brain

The musicologist Joseph Auner, chair and professor of music at Tufts, studies some of the world’s most difficult music. Arnold Schoenberg and his protégés ditched conventional harmony and form, constructing their own intricate musical world. But as Auner explains, even the ultra-intellectual Schoenberg regarded music as a contest between emotion and thought.

Composers have always been obsessed by the challenge of harnessing music’s mysterious ability to communicate emotion. Determining the right balance between spontaneity and calculation—between heart and brain—has, for many, been a driving force. Even the hyper-expressive Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878: “Sometimes inspiration takes off for some time. Very often a completely cold and calculating technical procedure must come to the rescue. But there is no escaping it. If that state of the artist’s soul which is called inspiration would continue without interruption, one wouldn’t be able to get through a single day. The strings would all break, and the instrument would be shattered into smithereens.”

It is one of the great ironies of music history that Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), whose name has come to evoke a kind of musical mathematics, was the composer who confronted most directly what it would mean for music to be an expression of emotions. He wrestled with the problem throughout his life; indeed, one of his last essays was titled “Heart and Brain in Music.” There he argued that “everything of supreme value in art must show heart as well as brain,” but four decades earlier, he had staked out a very different position. In a remarkable series of works from 1909, including the opera Erwartung (Expectation), he pursued an ideal of composition as the direct representation of the unconscious. He wrote to the composer Busoni about a music that would dispense with “conscious logic”:

It is impossible for a person to have only one sensation at a time.

One has thousands simultaneously. And these thousands can no more readily be added together than an apple and a pear. They go their own ways.

And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality which our senses demonstrate, the illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reactions of the senses or the nerves, this I should like to have in my music.

Such an interest in breaking through to deeper layers of consciousness was of course shared by many of Schoenberg’s Viennese contemporaries, including Freud, the writer Schnitzler, and the painters Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, all of whom were trying to get at the unconscious forces that determine our behavior. But how would one go about composing—actually putting notes down on the page—with the intention, as he wrote to Busoni, of having “no intentions”?

Part of his solution was to compose as quickly as possible, without sketching ideas in advance or changing things when he was done. Erwartung, based on a libretto by the Viennese physician Marie Pappenheim, was completed in 14 days. Music history is full of amazing stories of comparable feats, but Schoenberg’s achievement is particularly astonishing because he did this at the same time he sought to purge his music of all traditional compositional techniques. It is fitting that the subject of this psychological opera is a distraught woman who is searching through a forest at night for her absent lover. Listeners, too, are made to feel as if they are lost in a dark wood, confronted by this deliberately “illogical” music with its constantly shifting colors and without themes or conventional form to hold on to.

While initially liberating, this utopian ideal of creation proved enormously difficult to live up to. For two years after Erwartung, Schoenberg completed very little; those works he did finish shrunk to tiny dimensions, some lasting only a few seconds. It is no coincidence that precisely at this time Schoenberg became passionately interested in painting—specializing in visionary self-portraits such as his Blue Self-Portrait from 1910. In painting he was able to capture an immediacy of expression that eluded him in composition.

Gradually he began to doubt himself and the path his music had taken, embarking on a decade-long process of finding a new method of composition and reconciling himself to a reliance on the intellect, technique, and tradition. He begins his essay on “Composition with Twelve Tones” by comparing divine creation, where “there are no details to be carried out later,” with human creativity and the “long path between vision and accomplishment” where “driven out of Paradise even geniuses must reap their harvest in the sweat in their brows.”

And yet, remarkably and against all odds, musicians and audiences have been drawn increasingly to the mysterious, difficult, and strangely beautiful music from before World War I. Those who hear Erwartung with an open heart and mind may be persuaded by Schoenberg’s response to Busoni’s accusation that he had forgotten the audience in his emphasis on the unconscious and intuition:

It is only this unconscious creative strength that has persuasive power. There are no errors of judgment here, because there is no calculation. It has an impact; the receptive circles may be limited; but it has an impact; on those who are like-minded. On those who possess a receiving organ which corresponds to our transmitting organ. As with wireless telegraphy. Therefore, I think every art created without “calculation of optimum effect” must eventually and finally find those for whom it is valid.

Schoenberg’s achievement in works like Erwartung may point to some still-untapped human potential for a kind of direct communication from soul to soul, a kind of inspiration where the instrument, in Tchaikovsky’s terms, would not be shattered into smithereens.

2. A Cappella—What’s the Big Deal?

Deke Sharon, A91 (a double degree with the New England Conservatory), directed the men’s vocal group the Beelzebubs at Tufts and went on to lead the House Jacks, a San Francisco–based “rock band without instruments.” A tireless promoter of a cappella, he has answers for those who wonder about the medium’s appeal.

Each year, hundreds of students audition for Tufts’ a cappella groups, the number of which has doubled in the past decade. Singers spend hundreds or thousands of hours each year rehearsing, traveling, recording, and performing. At college?!? When there’s so much to do?!? What’s the big deal with a cappella?

Music. This isn’t your grandfather’s barbershop quartet or glee club. With a contemporary repertoire and sound (vocal guitars, vocal drums), these groups are often performing their own versions of tunes at the top of the Billboard charts. Mix in a smattering of different styles and classic rock, and you have a repertoire that reflects your average student’s iPod playlist.

Prestige. The groups at Tufts are known as some of the most accomplished and creative groups in the United States. The Beelzebubs (male), Jackson Jills (female), Amalgamates (mixed), and Shir Appeal (Jewish) are all leaders in their fields, winning awards and competitions every year. The newer groups, Essence (African diaspora) and SQ! (mixed), are rapidly making a name for themselves as well.

Travel. From October through April, it’s road trip season, with invitations to schools as far away as North Carolina. Every weekend is a chance to sing for a new audience, hear new groups, make new friends, and see the country. It’s not unusual for a group to visit 25 different colleges in a year. In addition, many groups take a tour during spring break to locations as far away as Europe and Hawaii.

Experience. Every detail, from arranging to recording to accounting to logistics, is handled by students. With as many as 100 gigs a year and 5,000 copies of each album sold, these experiences prepare the group’s leaders for jobs that demand management skills.

Community. As singing ambassadors for Tufts, the groups perform for alumni, prospective students, and faculty. They also serve the community, performing at schools and nursing facilities. The Beelzebubs even have a scholarship fund and a foundation for teaching harmony in public schools.

Friendship. Not unlike a fraternity or sorority, an a cappella group provides the hard work and common goals that are the basis for lifelong friendships. Plus, you often become friends with people you meet on the road. Or more than friends: that’s how I met my wife (she sang in an all-female group at Duke).

Fun. Imagine the thrill of a standing ovation, or knowing your recordings are being listened to around the world. Only a small percentage of the singers will go on to have a career in music, so these groups give students a chance to be rock stars: traveling the country, performing for audiences of thousands, recording and selling CDs. And every road trip brings with it a new campus full of parties.

In short, collegiate a cappella is incredibly rewarding. That’s why the number of groups nationwide has grown from 300 to almost 1,500 in the past decade. Visit their websites, pick up an album, or best of all: see them live. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a new favorite song.

3. Composers on Composing

Recently, two old friends got together online to discuss their favorite subject: composing. T.J. Anderson, a legendary figure around Tufts even after he became Austin Fletcher Professor of Music Emeritus in 1990, is a leading composer of his generation. A ceaseless experimenter, he has written a work for piano and orchestra—Fragments, premiered in October by the University of Iowa Symphony—in which the keyboard part is entirely improvised. His colleague John McDonald, an associate professor of music, doesn’t shrink from innovation either. He favors quirky combinations of instruments, has set the end of the universe to music in a piece called Big Crunch, and intends to compose a work before a live audience to help inaugurate the Granoff Music Center.

Naturally, the two composers had a lot to talk about. They agreed to share highlights of their conversation.

Anderson: I’ve always found composition easy—the difficulties are the issues of detail. My teacher at the University of Iowa, Philip Bezanson, used to say that anyone in the bathtub could sing a tune. The difference is that the composer knows what to do with the materials.

McDonald: I value fluency. It means you have practiced enough that you have ideas and methods at your disposal. There is no correlation between how long it takes to write a piece and how “good” it is in the end. I’ve slaved over things that turned out both well and badly, and I’ve written wonderful successes and real bummers in less than a day.

Anderson: My role as a composer is that of a musical anthropologist—that is, a documenter, interpreter, and re-creator of culture. Fragments is a cross-cultural piece. It brings together the classical concerto, Baroque, and bebop. All creative artists are engaged in the process of recreation, documenting the culture. Too much emphasis has been placed on creativity. At this point in the 21st century, there are no new sounds to be invented, only rearrangements of what nature and humanity have already provided.

All artists recreate and rearrange ideas. Philip Levine’s poetry is a riff on the sonnets of Petrarch. The sculpture of Richard Hunt is an extension of nature. Environmental art is a rearrangement of everything that exists. All of us are indebted to the past and present.

My “musical ancestors,” which all composers are free to choose, I discovered through the influence of Philip Bezanson. Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, Haydn, Delius, Stravinsky, Joplin, Ellington, Monk, Prince, and composers I have known: Milhaud, Tippett, Dawson, Still, Berio. Ulysses Kay, George Russell, and Olly Wilson were personal friends.

Other ancestors in my music are the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia, ragas of India, Brazilian music, and African drumming. My ear is attracted to a variety of musical concepts.

McDonald: My music reflects, not surprisingly, the things I like: Two-note phrases that weep downward, as in Bach’s Passions. Athletic pianism—big crashing chords, extreme dynamic contrasts, dissonant attacks that resonate astonishingly. Piquant harmony—otherwise pedestrian chords that have one or two things “wrong” with them. Poetry by Paul Celan (German and English), Delmore Schwartz, Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Yves Bonnefoy (French and English), Carmen Bernos de Gasztold (as translated by Rumer Godden), Paul Laraque (Haitian exiled poet), Velimir Khlebnikov, and others. Painting, drawing, sculpture. Other music, including early English and Italian keyboard works, circa 1520 to 1720; Mozart’s piano miniatures; Bruckner symphonies; Grieg lyric pieces; Berg’s piano sonata; works by Carl Ruggles, Roger Sessions, Hans Werner Henze, T.J. Anderson, Frederic Rzewski, Yehudi Wyner, Lewis Spratlan, Martin Bresnick (a former teacher), Wolfgang Rihm, and pieces by many, many wonderful colleagues.

Anderson: At Tufts my students always kept me informed of their listening habits, and I would accept the challenge of listening to their choices of music. Some of it was rewarding, some fruitless. Explaining why certain music did not get my attention was as important as praising a particular genre. To the young composer I would underscore the importance of keeping an open mind. Listen to all types of music, and choose your musical ancestors well.

McDonald: Keeping an open mind seems to lead young composers where they need to go. For every person the destination is different, but the same basic elements seem to work for every path, goal, or musical aspiration. What makes composers sound different is the unique attributes they carry with them on the trip. Every composer has these things; they just need methods with which to notice their strengths and feature them in their work. I see it as my job to bring out the personal, inimitable qualities (i.e., “style”) in each composer who comes to work with me. If we succeed, everyone starts to speak in an original voice, and they rarely sound like their teachers.

Anderson: My techniques, even at this stage in life, are never fully developed. Recently, I became fascinated with the bass lines of Olly Wilson. His use of filigree appears in my Slavery Documents II. While I possess craft, I am always working on a greater degree of sophistication. Like others, I work through trial-and-error to achieve greater clarity.

McDonald: You never completely know yourself as a composer. I like going to my spinet every day and trying things. Today might be different. For instance, I gravitate to harmony, not rhythm or melody. So if I make myself start with a striking rhythmic idea, I hope to depart from how the music might normally go. It is good to approach new pieces with a few things that one knows how to do, and a few that are completely untried—some grounding and some mystery.

Illustration by Darren Hopes

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