Diminishing Returns

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 9.38.04 AMOk, so the concert was a few nights ago, I’ve had some time to reflect, and honestly I still don’t know what I think about this piece.

But I do know a few things.

I know that my performers did an amazing job playing it gorgeously.

Through the first two movements, I know that I was pleasantly surprised to feel that the piece – as a composition – was actually pretty good and that my fears about it (as expressed in the previous post on this blog) seemed to be unfounded.

I know that in the third movement, I started to feel bad about the piece, and that I spent the last movement actively strategizing about how I would handle seeing people after the concert, how I would avoid talking about the piece and especially how I would restrain myself from making excuses and/or pouring out my shame and fury at myself for subjecting the audience to this piece.

I know that this was my experience listening to a very good, very musical performance of the piece.

I know that by the end of the piece my degree of mental and emotional discomfort was extreme, and I remember thinking that acute psychological distress and near-panic probably make it very hard to really know what’s going on around you.

I know that this piece still makes me uncomfortable.

I know that the main reason the piece makes me uncomfortable is not (as I wrote last week) that the piece is atypically simple or that it isn’t like other contemporary music pieces or that it’s rough and was written quickly (though it may be those things, too).

Now, I know that what bothers me is the strong suspicion that the piece is fatally flawed.

Here is my assessment of the flaw. The first three movements end with very slow sections, and then the final movement is also very slow. In my experience of listening to the piece, the effectiveness of suddenly dropping into these extremely slow and spare sections seemed to diminish on some extreme exponential curve, so that the first time was effective, the second time was interesting, the third time was disappointing, and the fourth time was exasperating (see the graph above).

If I’m right about that, then that kind of musical clumsiness is bad enough; but what is really horrifying for me to think about is that the combined effect of the four sudden slow sections ends up being not only tedious, but it ends up expressing something very nearly opposite to anything I would ever want to express.

I wrote in my last post about “trying or lying,” and the idea that a piece of instrumental music of this kind is either trying to tell the truth or it is lying. This piece, in its individual elements, is actually pretty disciplined (after the concert, one of my teachers even used the word “ascetic” in describing it).

In its slowness, roughness, and in the simplicity of the last movement, I know that it is not lying about what Alaska was like for me. It is not romanticizing the experience. Unfortunately, the repeated slowdowns came across to me as if they were meant to be somehow romantic, and because of that, they seemed to color the piece overall, and to make a single false piece out of its four true (or at least not-false) sections.

In those last two movements, the piece started to feel both precious – in its complacency and comfort with taking up listeners’ time – and boring – in the sense that it just seemed to be belaboring the same fairly obvious idea over and over again (nature is slow, I had a profound experience, blah blah blah).

I consider either one of those qualities as being, to put it simply, bad qualities in general and as complete non-starters in one of my pieces. So, to the extent that people may have experienced not just one but both of those things in my piece, I am mortified (after the performance, in an idle moment of self-loathing, I imagined a devastating one-sentence review of the piece: “How You Found It took the composer eight days to write and seemed to take eight days for the musicians to play”).

Ok, so, back to things I know.

I know that after the concert, people said nice things.

I know that I felt sure that most were just being polite, but I now know that’s not the case and that some people genuinely liked the piece. For example, the full phrase my teacher used, in an unsolicited message about the concert, was “a beautiful (albeit ascetic) piece.”

I know that I freaked out.

I know that I have serious doubts about whether the piece is good or not, and even more serious doubts about whether I like it or not (I know that I liked it in rehearsals).

So I’m left with my own experience, which was probably 70-80% distorted by my fears and imagined criticisms of the piece and was 20-30% simply disappointing; and objective evidence that no one else in the audience, whether they liked the piece or not, seemed to feel that the piece was especially self-indulgent or anything (in fact, I think it might have come across as the opposite – that is, in its insistent returns to slow, dark and static music, it might have come across as kind of courageously ascetic and hard-edged and disciplined).

I don’t really know what people experienced or what they thought, and I won’t ever know that. And here’s where I’m really having the central questions. I don’t write my music for myself. I want it to do a certain thing in the world (something having to do with truth, not lying, and some other things that I will probably write about soon). I want it to do that thing not for me, but for the people listening. And because of that, I need to have some idea of what it’s really like to listen to the music.

I need that perspective to compose the music I want to compose, but in this case, I feel like my fears about the piece and my freakout ended up combining with my genuine gut feelings about possible flaws in the piece in such a way that I cannot be sure what the piece really did for the people listening.

It’s so weird to write something and then to feel that you don’t know what it says. That feels like a total failure as an artist – it feels blind.

So there it is. That’s how things stand.

A question takes on more substance.

Michael

 

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