Inside 20th-century music

The purpose of the essays in this series is to treat some of the difficult questions frequently raised about ''modern'' music, weigh some rights and wrongs about it, possibly clear up some mysteries, as well as to look, from where we are, for signs of where we've been. The composer's art and craft

How does music get composed? How does the composer do what he does? Except for the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa or the authorship of Shakespeare, is there a more mysterious question in any of the arts than this one?

I can't think of any novelists or painters who induce as much admiring awe in laymen as their composing confreres when they are asked, ''How do you compose?'' ''Where do you get your ideas from?'' ''How can you compose for instruments you can't play?''

Every composer, I'm sure, is familiar with those frequently put questions. None of them is peculiar to this century, although it is possible that the feeling of wonder and mystery in the asking of them today is greater than in past centuries, in spite of the fact that we are supposed to know more in general about everything than our forebears. But I am afraid only the third of these questions holds out any hope to us of being answered with any ease.

A composer writing a note for an instrument he has never learned to play is like a male playwright typing lines for a female character whose angle and depth of feeling as a woman he couldn't possibly have known personally. All he can do is be as empathic, as observant, and as responsible as his reason, talent, and technique allow him to be. A composer remembers sounds as a painter remembers colors: how an instrument sounds high in its range, low in its range; how various instruments compare in tone with one another, singly and combined. What his ear doesn't supply to him directly he learns by experience, by listening for years to instrumentalists play, learning what is rational to expect from them, and what is not. And his degree of success in instrumentation is measured by his finding and writing down the sounds which are he best, most reasonable, and truest to what his inner ear tells him.

The ability to remember sounds reminds us very nicely of the other questions, because being musical is defined, in one way, as remembering sounds. And what that entails, really, is what is called ''speaking'' the musical language. Music is a language, just as palpable, supple, cogent, to those who ''speak'' it as is Japanese or Spanish to children growing up in Osaka or Seville.

Composing, especially in this century, but in all ages, really, is mysterious partly because it is a language so much more removed from our everyday lives than literature or any of the visual arts. The novelist has much more hope of connecting with us because, from the time we were two years old, the word, spoken and written, has had a telling, nonstop effect on virtually all of us. People have literally gone to war over words. And as for the visual -- even if it is only matching one's socks or watching for green and red traffic lights -- baily visual stimulation is something that goes back even further for us than speaking or writing. But alas for our aural lives: aside from listening for school bells, work bells, telephone bells, doorbells, or to talking, sounds are simply not as important to a wide swath of humanity as is the visual.

I am talking about composers in particular, because even performers, conductors included, give us a musical product that, adequate or not, is more instantly available to us. Music is an unusual language in that it depends on -- and often seems to thrive on -- the middleman: the performer. And the fashionable image of the performance of older, familiar music dominates everyone's responses to the art -- even composers'. This is partly to blame for the fact that composers have had to learn to tolerate silence as their slice of the art-music pie, while performances of Boccherini and Brahms are more than we can count.

I am reminded of a conservatory classmate of mine. He happens to have been the one who set the precedent there for the graduation recital for composers -- a program in which some of a student composers' original pieces are given performance. The expectation that singers and instru entalists would present recitals had long been a fact of life at the place, but my friend was apparently a wonder among his fellows, for he wanted his music -- all of it -- to be played and enjoyed. This meant confronting some of his academic peers who had considered composing something of a closet activity, and themselves a variety of black sheep. His precedent (the recital was brought off) puzzled them at first, later challenged them when, to their mild horror, it took hold and they too were required to ''face the footlights.''

At any rate, the language the composer speaks - the musical language -- is less common coin than virtually any of the others in the arts of words, images, or movement. For this reason alone, it is naturally more mysterious, and composing has been no exception to the way of mysteries: mysteries are compounded on it.

A common misconception about it is the matter of stylized emotions. Even in the muskc of the most histrionic-sounding composer, the emotional content of his writing rarely has much to do with his emotional makeup at the time of writing. For instance, he may be plunged for the time into the most abject despair, yet be writing happy, uplifting, or even frivolous music; he may be in quite robust, buoyant spirits while composing music filled with turbulence or anguish. There is no traceable correlation.

That is not to say that good creative work is not dependent upon a few basics. One of those is that the impulses must be relaxed and free enough from distraction or worry to allow the thought to flow. Even when troubled, the composer-at-work keeps the channels to his imagination and his technique open, because the language he speaks and works in is, as I have said, such a stylized one. All the stories we like to entertain about the fitful composer rushing to the piano and paper to record his sorrows are, I am afraid, only so many fairy tales.

That, in turn, is not to say that music is a poor reflector of the emotional content of a society, an age, or an individual composer. Music may be abstract, it may be ahead of, or catching up with, its times, compared with other arts, but it can reveal a great deal -- and teach a great deal -- if we are open enough to look for it and receive it on its own terms.

The emotional aridity of much of the music written between the early 1950s and recent times is an excellent example of an art reflecting a broad cultural trend. Much of this music, as well as a lot of painting, sculpture, and literature was born out of the reaction of horror to World War II, and came from Europe, which picked up the mantle of leader-in-the-arts perhaps too soon, while still in its collective state of shock.

Those faceless works, sounding neither joyful nor despondent, just anonymous, are identified, unfortunately, by many people as the whole of what they damningly refer to as ''Modern Music.'' (For readers who like to investigate via their turntables or their radios, composers from these years such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt produced many trend-setting examples.) But the pieces also serve as instructive tools in pointing out how music can go awry when it starts setting up, as points of departure, philosophic , theoretic, or simply pedantic credos which have only marginal connection with the sound of the music and lead one to wonder whether any of it can be picked up , even by the most trained ears.

This is especially true when music begins using these credos as a means of escape from dealing with the hunger of people everywhere to be addressed truthfully -- intelligently always, to be sure -- but as if they themselves mattered and played a part, however subliminal, in the musical phenomenon.

There are as many explanations of how composers compose and how they get their ideas as there have been commentators on the subject. But this last point remains the most eternally cogent ''why.'' And it forms a good part of the ''how'' as well. For the well-trained composer spends a major portion of his days learning a prodigious craft, developing adequate discipline, harnessing, perhaps, a pesky ego; and, with any luck, setting a genuine gift on target. But if he can also think of what he is working with as a language -- language in the broadest sense being our best communicator -- he is by that degree able to communicate something powerful.

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