How (not) to become a composer (Part I of II)
How (not) to become a composer (Part I of II)

How (not) to become a composer (Part I of II)

In the music marketplace, whatever sells, becomes good. In the face of such conditions, how does one become a composer?

March 20 th 2008

(A)rt must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.
—Alain Badiou, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art

This is a small selection of works by living artists (non-entertainers) that have inspired my journey to become a composer:

  • "Attention," a 74-minute work available for free download, by Mattin and Taku Unami takes the form of an interrogation of the listener, probing why he listens to music as a commodity;

  • The Wandelweiser group explores the intersection between sound and silence in search of a music without pathos;

  • Helmut Lachenmann and Salvatore Sciarrino transform Western classical instruments into sound- and noise-producing-bodies, extending the possibilities of what an instrument and performer is capable;

  • The mature works of Morton Feldman deal with the impossibility of abstracting a 'big picture' of the work, relegating memory and attention to a local level, to be understood "in the moment" as sounds unfold, generating a music without directionality and goal;

  • Keith Rowe evokes "a non-action sound world" with minute intuitive movements, producing a universe of complex and non-reductive sounds;

  • Sachiko M engages the audience in the stratosphere of our audible range;

  • Toshiya Tsunoda sculpts and filters environmental sounds to make us aware of the city's eternal "muzak"—a constant hum; and

  • A fragile sound world in disappearance: the sound works of mamoru.

In the early 20th century, Edgard Varese proposed an understanding of music as "organized sound." Nearly a century has passed since, and we have witnessed the explosion of ideas, technology, and methods in all aspects of music. Control and precision in serial music, fluidity and unpredictability in chance music, new sonorities of traditional instruments, silence, computer-assisted analysis of sounds and synthesis, exploration of the multiplicity of time—these are but a small selection from the gamut of 20th-century innovations. It is an exciting time to live as a composer. Never before has such an abundance of resources awaited the open-minded researcher and maker of sound to recombine, synthesize, develop, create new meanings, and enrich ways of listening.

On the other hand, the power play between different ideologies that strive to guarantee authority and meaning is in constant motion. The progressively rapid change and proliferation of styles in each decade of the 20th century is the history of a (failed?) search for that which would last and stand. The belief in an overarching system that could differentiate the good from the bad and the right from the wrong has slowly but surely lost its centrality. Instead, the marketplace has turned into the lowest common denominator of authority: whatever sells, becomes good. In the face of such conditions, how does one become a composer?

In search for ways to make good work, the early stages of becoming a composer is an ideological field of landmines. Nostalgically bowing to the authority of "Tradition as the Master" (the guarantor of our craft's value) destroys genuine curiosity. One begins with insecurity and becomes secure by enslaving the mind to rules and dogmas. The consequent work is not a discovery in creativity but an exercise of rules with guaranteed results in view. Such composers produce an abundance of various "neo" or "post" XYZ trends, and the beauty paraded in such circles is nothing but a commonplace and familiar tinkling sensation of pleasure, commented upon with phrases: "It's nice; it's sweet; it's lovely." The worst of these efforts produces a complacent music made for a complacent audience.

Another possible landmine is the reliance on systems to achieve pseudo-objectivity, mathematical and logic-based systems in particular, by controlling the various quantifiable dimensions of musical sound. This belief in objectivity, manifested as serialism and its various forms, plagued music institutes of higher learning around the world for three decades between the 1960s and the late 1980s. Some reactionaries took to themselves the task of recovering tonality and the romantic sensibility in hopes of reviving the good old days of classical music, a Mahlerian "music is time made emotional" epoch.

The oppositional approach, the change of trends, and various aesthetic beliefs have a political dimension that is seldom articulated by composers. In The Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière calls the shaping of community based on and delimited by shared experiences "the distribution of the sensible." As a communal territory is marked by beliefs formulated external to oneself, the will to exert the authority of a group over others makes conflict inevitable. Thomas Merton articulated this eloquently in The Way of Chuang Tzu:

He whose law is within himself walks in hiddenness. His acts are not influenced by approval or disapproval. He whose law is outside himself directs his will to what is beyond his control and seeks to extend his power over objects . . . when he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him.

What is this law? It is the fear-and-obey-rules of the Old Testament; the life-giving faith of the New Testament; the direct intuition of the ground of being in Zen. The law is what one chooses to worship in order to centre his being to gain freedom to act within that system of beliefs. The work of a composer embodies the expression of his Self, the core values of his being, an image of his becoming. The Sage exhorted, "guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." What we make reflects what we are (becoming).

To walk in hiddenness according to the law within—could this be the life of faith in God? The way to God is hidden from us, for it is God's way into us. When his singular reality breaks into us, it is an unspeakable disaster. Reason is bound to fail and we grope in darkness until we learn to be still in his sufficient grace, the ground of our being (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation). This is a similar process in creating new work: full of uncertainty, unsure of the results, yet a serene joy encouraging free exploration. One merely needs to be in a mode of attention to look and listen.

Simone Weil understood that to give "attention" is perhaps the greatest of all effort, for it consists of "suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object" (Waiting for God). In the act of creating, one must resist vigilantly the temptation to judge before the work is completed.

(Part II will appear November 21st, 2008).

Aenon Loo
Aenon Loo

Aenon Jia-en LOO (b. 1979) is currently a doctoral candidate in composition and electronic music at Columbia University. He received his Bachelor of Music at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2002.


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