Music: Temporary Art?

I was riding the bus through LA the other day watching their Transit TV. While the concept of having something to watch while you take one of these horrendously long bus rides is a great idea, there are also occasionally interesting tidbits that pop up. For me, it was watching an artist paint faces. It looked like the "canvass" was warm concrete and the artist was using water and a brush. The problem with this media is the heated concrete causes the water to evaporate and eventually what the artist has drawn has faded away. So, while the artist is sketching one part of the face, another part is slowly disappearing. Eventually, the artist has to go back to the evaporated section and re-draw it, which allows him/her to change what it was into something else. The process was fascinating and beautiful --rather like watching the faces morph from one into another without the high tech wizardry of computers.

This got me thinking about temporary art. Is music temporary art? Certainly we can record it, which means we can hear the same (nearly exact [as no recording is exactly like live]) performance over and over again. But music itself still requires the process of time to journey through the experience. The performer plays a note and then moves onto the next note. It is the relationship of these notes moving from one to the other that creates the experience of music. Therefore music is a moving art form. Even in the case of a sustained note, we feel differently about the note when it started than we do after it's been playing for a while. A really lengthy note might become monotonous, but still a journey is present in the passing of time.

All of this pondering over time and music is a continuation of an article a composer/performer friend wrote about her trials in preparing for a recital - Recital in Two Weeks. Her own examination is in the process of learning to perform a piece, and how long it takes. But that's temporary too. When rehearsing a new work performers struggle with parts they have to work over and over to get them "right." Even then, are any two performances of a work really the same? Certainly, professional performers try to obtain that sense of consistency with each performance. Still, the music flows from one point to the next, the audience is different from one night to the next. The music we experienced last night is gone except for our memory of it - and memories (certainly in the case of mine) are hardly accurate.

So, as a composer, how do I approach music knowing it's temporary?

Again, going back to other conversations: This week on Twitter I had several conversations about revisiting old works --music that either took a while before it received the performance or recognition it was due (if any piece ever really receives that - but a wholly different topic) -- and in going back to a previously composed work and "fixing" some of the problems originally composed into the work. Certainly most composers suffer with timely recognition. While Bach was consistently employed during his lifetime, his music wasn't really popular until Mendelssohn's time when it gained a resurgence. Mahler was performed in his lifetime, but it wasn't until post WWII that his works really became famous, and today we look at his works with a different eye than we did 50 years ago. Whether my music is or is not recognized as great works of art in my lifetime isn't something I have much control over, nor is it something I think really contributes to me as an artist. If I spend too much time thinking about how one piece or another is getting passed over, I don't think about the music I should be writing. So, while I certainly devote some of my time to publicizing myself and my music, I want to focus on creating music.

Probably the best example of the latter is my Symphony No. 1 -Figuratively Speaking. The third movement has been performed several times and is quite popular. But the rest of the work tends to lie dormant. Looking back over the work the other day I realized there are a number of things I could do to "fix" the music, techniques I know now I didn't when the piece was first written (back in 2007-8). So, do I? Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler certainly have variations of their works. Maybe learning and changing is part of the process. Although, I also believe it is possible to continually go back and back and never be quite satisfied with a piece. Plus, I'm in a different head-space now than when I wrote the original work. Will this new space write something completely foreign to the piece and have I forgotten the original impetus to what I was writing? When I finished the Symphony No. 1 I promised myself I wouldn't go back to it. I would move on. I broke that promised as I have edited the 3rd movement, You Can't Catch Rabbits with Drums and feel the work is stronger because of it. It still have the same original drive, but is a cleaner work now than when it was performed in June of 2008.

Having said all this about not changing the music of my Symphony No. 1, I'm not sure I feel the same "hands-off" toward my Violin Concerto or my Trumpet Concerto. While portions of these concerti have been performed, the complete works are still awaiting a premiere and as such, when such a time comes that a performer wants to take on these works, I expect there will be edits needed to really capture what the artist is looking for for their moment in time. All of this speaks about composing a work and returning back to do edits.

What about the temporary nature of the music performance itself?

Currently I am working on a string quartet for Rinaldi String Quartet. The working title is Atmospheres and the first movement entitled "Genus Cumulominbus." You might think there is a reference to Ligeti as he has an orchestral piece of the same title, and you'd be right. Ligeti spoke of two types of music, Clocks and Clouds. With this string quartet I am looking at writing about clouds with a clock like conception. To explain, in the first movement, I want to re-create the sensation of a cumulonimbus cloud, expanding over the sky is all its glory, through a sense of passing time. While it is possible to take a picture of a cloud, to really understand the majesty of these clouds you need to see them in action --one moment effects how you feel about the next as you watch the clouds move through the sky. The music should have that same effect, moving though space as we experience the way it grows, shifts, moves and alters our perception of time and rhythm.

"Genus Cumulonimbus" is written in 19/16 dividing up the irregular rhythm in a variety of different ways. Initially the 16th notes are grouped into 5-5-5-4, so the last beat is just slightly shorter than the first three. The fives are divided into 3-2 also creating a sense of propelling forward. The next section of 16th notes are divided into 6-6-7 or 3-3-3-3-2-2-3 so the final beat has a sense of hesitation to it. The music returns to the 5-5-5-4 to relieve tension, then moves into 4-4-4-4-3 creating both a sense of hesitation (5 beats to the bar rather than the more common 4 or 3) but anticipation with the shorter last beat.

Keeping with the cloud theme, another movement (probably the 2nd) will be "Genus Nimbostratus." The instruments will play in their lower registers long sustained tones. Rather like trance music, the shifting from one moment to the next will be nearly imperceptible. The entire work will be an examination of time and space, movement through them as only music can do. The experience will be temporary, moving from moment to moment. Sometimes, like in "Genus Cumulonimbus" the movement will be punctuated with repetitive notes, while in other's it will have a timeless sense of shift. Still, it is only through the actual passing of time that either of these effects take place.

There are probably LOTS of jumping off points from this post into other discussions. Only time will tell!

A midi realization of "Genus Cumulonimbus is here:


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