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Ruminations on an Undescribable Art by Judith Lang Zaimont

Address at Millsaps College -- October 2002

Good afternoon.

I thank the talented and inspired conference coordinator(s) Cheryl Coker and Lester Senter for the invitation to be here for this very special conference, and especially for their wish that I speak with you about my method and my art.

Composing is the central fact of my life. Since I'm inquisitive, and somewhat articulate about music's materials and its history, I also teach. And since I'm perennially curious about many aspects of my art, I also explore it in articles and books.

I started piano lessons at the age of five (at my own insistence). At the age of 11 I began writing music, and soon realized I was born to compose. (Winning a national composition prize at the age of 12 from the National Federation of Music Clubs was a nice extra, but I was already dedicated to being a maker of music by that time.) The notes continued to flow and I have written music ever since.

Distinct from my first attempts to create new music, my awakening as a composer came from signals from three composers whom I’d never met, two of whom were already dead. The composers were Chopin, Prokofiev and Copland. Every Saturday, my dad drove my sister and myself back and forth to Juilliard Prep for a day of lessons; during these long car trips we used to listen to radio (WPAT from Patterson, NJ, specializing in light classics). At about age 12 I heard two pieces during these trips that really woke me up. One was the last movement of Rodeo (the Hoedown). When I heard that, I said to myself: “Gee I like that music; I’d like to write that.” Then, when I heard the great waltz from Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet -- with its crushed chromatic tune, spiraling inwards, and dark brooding quality -- I said to myself “I want to write that”. Meanwhile, at this same time, I’d already had 6+ years of piano lessons -- and I didn’t like practicing. (For the 30- 50 repetitions of a passage, I’d prop up a book on the piano desk and put my attention to reading while my fingers worked independently!) And I’d sight-read like crazy -- for example all the Chopin mazurkas, all the Nocturnes. I’d start at the front of the book, and finish at the back, playing everything. In doing this, I realized that Chopin was also impatient: He never comes back to restate his material exactly, precisely the same way -- every repetition gets adjusted somehow, which to me was a signal to say it’s OK to mess around with the notes: You don’t have to do it the way you did it at first -- tweak it, re-imagine it, re-compose it. So very different from practicing a passage precisely as written until you get it cold. Chopin seemed to be saying that it’s OK to do it (and re-do it), your way -- an invitation to compose if there ever was one.

Even though my formal instruction in composition took place only in graduate school (at Columbia), the life lessons of those three early encounters remained with me, ever fresh and ever encouraging.

For me, being a composer means something far beyond just mining the 'inner woman': Every piece needs its own reason for being. For example, a piece might serve a social, aesthetic, analytic or experimental purpose; a performer might ask for a work that features my distinct musical 'voice' in new notes for their instrument; or I may design a piece specifically to solve a particular musical puzzle. Indeed, Composers by definition fulfill two primary functions within our Art: we are both music's Poets and music's Engineers. And we juggle both the art and craft side of our inspiring task simultaneously.

We composers require of ourselves to go far beyond just expressing a musical idea -- we impose upon ourselves two ‘crucible’ requirements every time we sit down to write: that the idea be put forth with personality, point and elegance; and that it resonate with increasing meaning as the piece around it unfolds and progresses, eventually encompassing something larger than just its own statement. So it’s understandable that learning to compose effectively takes time: time to master one's craft, time to learn something of the world, and quite a lot of time to hone and develop that true distinct voice. I think of my pieces as both documents of expression (mine) and of communication (making a bridge to the listener). And my music seeks to appeal both to the heart (the "AAH!" response), and to the head (the "AHA!"). When this mix is just right I can sense it, and so do the listeners.

In order for a piece to succeed as a document of expression, the composer must speak meaningfully -- in musical terms --, and should articulate with a distinctive musical voice. As to Music being a bridge of communication to the listener -- it's crucial to realize that at a single hearing listeners may only get some of what a piece is trying to convey. I personally believe that any piece which gives up ALL it has to offer on first hearing is almost certainly not destined to endure. There should be 'goodies' left to be discovered on subsequent visits -- such as themes or motives whose interrelationships are only hinted at at first, but upon re-acquaintance flow deliciously together. Or the satisfaction of appreciating details -- such as timbral combinations, and interesting background figurations -- that only come forward fully via repeat hearings.

So, it's important for a composer to cultivate the wisdom of taking the 'long view' of how a piece matures in the listening. We need patience to stick with composing over the years it takes to achieve exquisite control over the materials of music, and over the span of acquaintanceship that it takes to reach our listeners reliably and knowingly on our own terms. Part of this refinement of craft comes through being an assiduous editor of one's own compositions -- going over and over a piece before you let it leave your desk, to be sure it’s as perfect and complete as any human creation can aspire to be. All these elements come together in the experienced composer’s 'seasoned outlook', so necessary for artistic growth.

British poet W. H. Auden put the composer on a high pedestal as the purest of all makers of Art. In his poem, "The Composer", Auden wrote of painters and poets that "all these others translate... by painstaking adaption". Meaning that these other art forms somehow translate the artistic impulse impurely, through a medium which in some manner compromises expression. In contrast, Auden describes Music as the purest, most direct of the arts, personified in the Composer. He then says to the Composer: "Only your notes are pure contraption/Only your song is an absolute gift."

In my case, the act of composing is far from a pure and pristine encounter! For me, composing is a lot like wrestling with an angel: It's completely absorbing, all-consuming and immensely satisfying. It demands all my attention, and often takes place in 'time out of time' -- it may take many minutes -- even hours -- to get one measure 'just right'. You absolutely can't rush it. But the result always, always, warrants the time spent.

Although it's not an arrogant activity, composing is a selfish one. It requires large blocks of dedicated time in which my attention concentrates down and deepens in density to something akin to the gravity within a black hole = TOTAL! John Corigliano has written that for him composing is the most intense activity he knows, and I agree. Psychological studies of creativity tell us that during the 'creative moment' -- really an extended visit between the mind, the sensibility and the matter at hand -- the creator completely blots out her own surroundings. When I'm composing I often forget to eat, I don't hear the phone or doorbell, and often don't realize that big swatches of time are passing. -- Despite Auden's words, then, Music, altogether in itself, is not so rarefied an art, especially in its making.

We, the experienced listeners, know that music is slippery as quicksilver, as well as ineffable. It speeds before the listening ear in an instant, encoded with whatever meanings we choose to load upon it at the moment of its simultaneous birth and passing. Composer Ned Rorem wrote "Music changes meaning as it recedes in time the way stars do as they approach in space. But the meaning of stars grows clearer, while that of music grows more vague -- at least the original meaning". Rorem means that it's not possible to hear old music the way it was first heard -- our ears are conditioned by intervening repertories. Guillaume de Machaut didn't know Wolfgang Mozart who didn't know us -- but we know them both and place them in a retrospect, a context which alters continually as we ourselves alter. The purpose of a piece shifts with each generation: No matter how much we might wish to, we cannot completely and honestly experience Machaut within his churchly context, or Mozart within his courtly one.

Cultural, political and social factors affect the way we hear music across the centuries, and they impinge also inside the composer's own lifetime, affecting her interests and her work. While being a composer is central for me, that I am American is also important.

Critically important in that certain aspects of our national modalities and national character fit uneasily with the work mandates art imposes upon the artist.

Especially in America, Musician is a fluid term. 200 years ago it often designated a performer - composer -- someone who could fulfill several functions, including the creative. To be musical was to embody music in all its aspects. 120 years ago in post- Civil-War Boston, when the concept of the ‘American musician’ was being re-thought, the model we wound up with was that of the combined composer - performer - teacher. Witness Amy Beach, George Chadwick, and Arthur Foote -- the ‘compleat musician’ as public presence. However, this combination didn’t survive World War I.

Over the past 100+ years things have changed so much that the enlightened generalist is unfortunately now something of a suspect creature; ours is an era of the narrow-band Specialist, and of the Collaborative Enterprise. Undertakings have become so mammoth, so complex, that any single contributor can only handle a component of the whole. From the Internet to the Channel Tunnel, from movies to operas -- all are collective enterprises. Yes, indeed, we’re still producing people of vision -- the Richard Wagners, the Ethel Smyths; it’s just that the scale and intricacy of vision now more often than not requires collaboration in order to be realized...

At 226 years of age, the USA is now in early adult-hood, relatively speaking. Commentators of the past (such as the perceptive Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville) identified the prime American characteristics as energy, optimism and enterprise. And a good part of our resilience and energy is thanks to the cultural variety we have fostered via an open immigration policy. Open immigration has enriched our culture immeasurably, though complicating the social matrix. Since we are an adaptable, innovative people, and our national temperament favors taking action, we are the quintessential “Let’s do it!” folks -- and we tend to prefer to “do it” NOW.

Social historian Robert Samuelson observed (in a 1996 Newsweek essay): “[We tend to see] most national situations and problems as the equivalent of miniature wars. Just as in [the case of WW II, we believe] almost any problem [can] be solved, any situation dealt with, with ample resources and the proper strategy. In this sense, problem-solving [is] our dominant postwar ideology.... And this confidence has naturally spawned a vision of society in which most serious problems [are to] be relentlessly eliminated. “[2] Thus, we Americans become impatient when awkward or nuanced situations persist over time, seeming immune to a relatively ‘quick fix’ -- something that ill-fits artistic curiosity, which often requires a long simmer-time.

Unquestionably America’s greatest gift to the rest of the world is Democracy. It constitutes at one and the same time the goal of political evolution for all oppressed nations, and the best mechanism by which to achieve that goal. Economic freedom and intellectual creativity thrive most richly in a democratic environment. And democracy, in its purest form, epitomizes the notion of egalitarianism.

Egalitarianism is also thoroughly American. It runs through our history as an irresistible impulse, refreshing society’s quality through broader participation by all segments, and enriching its caliber through the contributions of many groups in all functions. We have taken pains to extend the legal notion that ‘all are created equal’ to apply not only to equality of justice in the courts, but to equality of access -- in education, in the voting process, and in the workplace, with respect to every type of system of support: social, financial, institutional, collegial, professional. Indisputably, Egalitarianism has done inestimable good for American society, underlining the concept of equal access to process in every area of life.

But we must take care to distinguish between the two concepts, Democracy and Egalitarianism. In the words of social critic William A. Henry, “Democracy demands that all of its citizens begin the race even. Egalitarianism insists that they all finish even.” And, when it is caught within the divide between these two, something essential to all art -- the concept of Excellence -- begins to erode.

The simple fact that some people have gifts and abilities in greater abundance goes down hard. Yes, some of us are smarter, harder working, more learned, more productive, harder to replace. Also not comfortable to acknowledge is the companion truth that some ideas have more merit than others, some values are more enduring, some works of art are understood to be more universal in speaking meaningfully to several societies and many generations over time.

While we jealously guard our self-determinism both as individuals and as members of various collectives, in fact there exists an ideological and artistic tug-of-war between the ethic/dynamic of group identity and that of individual independence, not unlike the political dilemmas inherent in a democracy.. We wrestle continually with fitting artistic, subtle, individual understandings into a viable group result which can then fold itself with minimum friction into a place within an interdependent environment/ world / society.

For this reason (along with the historical American model of compleat musician I’ve already mentioned) we’ve ennobled Group Endeavor as the accepted norm for how enterprise proceeds. The 20th century marks the pinnacle of Group Endeavor, whether we think of adventurers in space, the development of the atom bomb, the proliferation of advances in the current telecommunications industry, or even putting on-board a new Broadway musical extravaganza. The solace and support embedded in Group Endeavor are tailor-made for America. Our country, despite positive lip-service, does tend to look askance at the so-called “rugged individualist”. We distrust the individual impulse, even though we do admire what inspired individuals achieve. Art Critic Robert Hughes wrote some years ago in Time Magazine of “America’s unappeasable terror of loneliness, a fear that overflows into a mistrust of one of life’s most precious assets, optional solitude.” [Spring 1996 special issue, p. 76] (Yes, the tale of Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) is a very American story.) Yet it is from just such a great solitude that come the creative insights, and fantastical hypotheses which ignite Art and can meaningfully affect the course of humankind.

American artists have suffered from our nation’s traditional distrust of individual enterprise. Being loners by definition, we are disadvantaged unless we join in as members of some stylistic or philosophical group. But, to make distinct statements, we as artists must take chances -- must dare to deviate consciously from “the norm” -- from group consensus -- again and again. It takes energy and sense of self, plus conviction, to discover what psychologist Rolla May termed the “Courage to Create”. Maintaining that courage, and particularity of vision over time is one of Art’s prime challenges.

All this is preface to my delving into the three arenas of choice that face American composers of today. These three arenas of choice require BIG DECISIONS for me and my colleagues, decisions not even on the horizon in Mozart’s day:

DECISION 1 -- How to build a support network for our life's work.

The American composer of abstract or concert music has few, and dwindling avenues of articulated public support to tap. We work within a society which lacks a composers' guild or union to address job issues -- for example, the question of fees -- and we work in a country where there exists no state-awarded prize for composers. In present-day America the notion that our culture needs living concert music-makers in order to be a complete society is disputable -- let alone the issue of how many musicians our country may require. At this time, concert music itself is under attack from the right as a luxury of the "élite"; it has been side-tracked somewhat within the general debate attempting to re-balance public perceptions of "High Art" vs. "Low Art/ Popular Art"; and is critically wounding itself by being increasingly equated in public thinking as primarily a ‘museum art’ rather than a vital, living, evolving form of expression. The composer has to be brave enough to continue as creative musician, knowing well our field of endeavor is not considered socially equal -- in valuation or investment -- to that, say, of a computer programmer, and that composers should be prepared for life-long scrounging for a firm, continuing financial base.

DECISION 2 -- Where and how to find my OWN ARTISTIC VOICE -- Part 1.

Nowadays music is in the air all around us. Mostly it's disembodied, and flattened for electronic transmission, but nevertheless all-pervasive. There is music in grocery stores, elevators, restaurants and public restrooms. There is music in banks, in law offices, doctors' waiting rooms, and photocopy shops. At the airport there is music AND television. What kind of music is this? And how does such a saturation -- such a bombardment -- of sound alter how we hear -- and cheapen the experience of listening?

As never before, music has become the partnering, supporting art -- and not the sole main-stage offering.

Recent item: In the fall of 2001, just post 9/11, the New York Times ran a feature spotlighting a unique establishment which provides a truly wonderful service for the NY metropolitan area: A huge warehouse is filled with donated supplies and devices from all kinds of business, and public-school arts teachers can go there — for free — to find materials for their classes' visual arts projects. Buried within this article was a mention that the job description for the manager of this wonderful facility includes the task of programming the music to be piped in to get the visiting teachers 'in the mood' to do their search for supplies (!!).

I do not believe that every human activity needs musical 'accompaniment'. I think that, over the long run, funneling music into the role of underscoring cheapens the 'magic' of music, relegating it to the status of a secondary form of expression. And it also has real, perceivable consequences in younger listeners' disconnect with the formalized aspects of a traditional concert experience.

Many younger listeners no longer know how to listen to an extended musical statement without some visual or kinetic element provided to keep their attention. This is especially true for music that evolves in ways similar to an essay, enfolding within itself special curves of form, and statements -- exquisite on its *own* terms -- though it may contain no catchy tunes or catchy beats. So many younger listeners are lost if there no dance-frame, no back-beat! This makes me sad, because the most sublime music I know has no back-beat, and rarely a whistlable tune -- just naked, raw exposure of great feeling, and the stuff of self, laid bare by a gifted composer. This is music as a high, and complete, form of artistic expression, fulfilling all by itself, with no 'extras'.

DECISION 3 -- Where and how to find my Own Voice -- Part 2.

Thanks to sophisticated documentation technology, in the present moment more music than ever before is available for access -- crossing all borders of history and geography. That these musics exist and are available at a moment's notice to anyone virtually immediately is exciting. It's also confusing.

For example, the simultaneous presence of so many musics can suggest visions of fresh art simply by fusing together styles or manners that already exist: Let's cross Tibetan throat singing with Gregorian chant and western minimalism and voila! Or combine whale songs with taped ping-pong ball sounds, all supporting an Appalachian folk-style melody, and voila! again.

Polonius' advice to his son Laertes (in Hamlet) is still good: "This above all -- to thine own self be true." In order to be honest, then, a composer has to shove aside all such external static, and look to discover and hone the essence of a PERSONAL COMPOSITIONAL voice. Ideally, this voice is stylistically distinct, well-inflected, complete, and true. And it could well take a lifetime's worth of musical statements to present, refine and perfect that voice. -- Given the lure, the contrasting sets of signals and ubiquitous distraction of so many multitudes of available musics, our task in discovering and nurturing this distinct voice is made many times more complex.

After some experience in bringing my music to the public, I recognized that composing is truly 'down and dirty' -- in every piece there is a hidden, yet quantifiable quotient of sweat equity. All of us who compose know that the composer is no ‘divine messenger' delivering a text both sacred and sacrosanct, but someone who wrestles that inspiration angel every day, hopefully to glorious result. Why, music itself is an eminently living medium -- it will change, even just a bit, in the performance of every player. (So, for example, Für Elise, is not merely the sum total of three pages of Beethoven, but the Gestalt of every rendition of this lovely piece, from the beginning pianist who lives on the corner, to Artur Rubinstein's fluid and lovely version -- to its use as sinister background sound in the movie "Rosemary's Baby", and beyond!)

And, just as a specific piece changes in the hands of every performer, Music itself is changeable, mutable. Fundamentally, Art is both a lens and a mirror. By this I mean that, though composers may wish to think of their works as distillations of personal conceptions and idiosyncratic display of craft (a focusing Lens for what we want to say), what the listener grasps is precisely those aspects of the piece which, at the time, the listener is personally ready to take in (the Mirror). This humbling, humanizing realization is an important step in any composer's maturation.

As for me: I'm in my artistic middle years, still growing, still exploring, still listening avidly. I greet each new piece with expectation, as a 'road not yet taken' -- an adventure for maker, player and listener together, just waiting to unfold. And I definitely agree with Ned Rorem's sensible words: "What artists say about their work has always been less urgent than what their work says about itself". So, to conclude, let's set slightly, slightly to the side all I've just said, and simply come together purely to listen -- with open ears.

© Copyright 2002, Judith Lang Zaimont


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