Roots of My Aesthetics
Some people need to grow in soil that is carefully guarded and protected by a personal sense of turf, Emily Dickinsons way I call it. There is certainly a heroic kind of nobility in that. I prefer a more reckless way. The risk is greater, and I often lose my balance in the torrent of influences I juggle ... but the payoff is sweeter because the end product, when I succeed, is so densely packed with converging patterns of significance, as Northrop Frye would say.
It is 1945. I am three years old. I am seated on my fathers lap at the piano. His big hand holds my little hand tightly moving it one note to another while he accompanies me with his left hand. Three times the width of my finger, these white keys! 1957. It is a warm afternoon in Montclair, New Jersey. I am lying in our hammock reading a biography of Liszt, and looking above me into the flickering light of the warm summer sun between the leaves of the tree, What a grand thing to give ones life to Music to struggle bravely to join the ranks of the Immortals!!
The profound impact of the music of Sergei Rachmaninov, and the critical perspective I acquired from Jacques Barzuns Berlioz and his Century, gave boundary, scope, and sometimes conflict to my own artistic vision. Ives, Varese, Webern, Carter, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, and Boulez influenced the music I wrote at the Manhattan School of Music. I was captive to the emotional depth and power of this so-called cerebral music. Stockhausens Momente and Boulez Marteau sans Maitre were obvious continuations and expansions of the same highly-charged properties of expression found, say, in Schoenbergs Ewartung, Debussys piano works, and many works of Scriabin, Mahler, even Hindemith. I was aware that certain post-WW2 European composers were introducing new things. I embraced these developments enthusiastically. The connections and the similarities between Stockhausens Momente, Wagners Tristan and Beethovens Ninth Symphony, were very obvious
My interest in music led to an equally lively interest in history and the other art forms (particularly painting and literature). I wanted to know what the artists said about themselves, their art, and their times. I believe that what we in the West have called masterworks are works that combine a kind of datelessness (the immortal classic) with an intensely personal, cultural, historically fixed identity. It is difficult to make such works. This is why, I am sure, there are so few of them.
My music is fashioned from the whole space of modern musical history ... imagining all the music I know, I leave out everything I dont like. (Debussy) Or, as Flaubert and Joyce understood it, Everywhere present, yet nowhere visible ... like Michaelangelo and his marble block from the pits of Carerra, smashing through all that holds in bondage the image trapped in the stone ...What is this new music of mine about? Yes, Program music but the program is All the music of modern history ... how it behaves, and what it says and does to those whose spirits are aroused by it.
I hold a mirror up to music itself (this idea is rooted in Cézanne) showing it through the sensibility of a thoroughly disciplined free and fearless craft. I have Rauschenbergs curiosity. What work is coming to life here? (I ask myself in my studio). I myself work from behind the mirror I raise to music ... selecting who-knows-how from the vast palette ... multiplicity, variety, inclusiveness ... but it is not personal, I am aiming to portray music not me ... set, as it were, as a picture sits in the frame of all the music which is left out. I am afraid of nothing ... not even the beautiful as Rauschenberg has said. And so everything is, then, really possible ... and following Chopins advice I help myself abundantly to the laws of freedom.
A Little Manifesto
Feeling as he did about systems and pedantry and knowing history, Berlioz naturally refused to limit the scope of either music or modern music.
As for my own confession of faith, is it not in my works? In what I have done and what I have not done? What music is today, you know as well as I do; what it will be, neither you nor I can tell.......Music is....like the antique Andromeda, divinely naked and beautiful, whose burning glances break into many colored rays by shining through her tears. Chained to a rock on the edge of a boundless sea, she awaits the conquering Perseus who will break her chains and destroy the Chimera named Routine.....I believe that by now the monster is getting old: his motions are not so energetic as of yore, his heavy paws slip on the edge of Andromedas Rock. And when the devoted lover of the sublime captive has restored her to Greece, at the risk of seeing his passion repaid with cold indifference, it will be vain for neighboring satyrs to laugh at his ardor and cry: Leave her in chains! How do you know that once freed she will be yours? In bondage she is easier to possess.... The loving lover wants not to wrest but to receive. He will save Andromeda chastely, and would even give her wings to augment her liberty.
Berlioz declined to bind himself by a program and assume the role of leader of a school. His faith was clear from his deeds and parables and strong without the buttressing of a cosmic philosophy. Berlioz decision to stand on his accomplishments rather than on a platform appears as sound judgment now that the theorizing of the Wagnerian Futurists appears in all its inconsistencies.....How could he, arguing for freedom, be a party to boxing up his art within a creed?
I believe with Berlioz that it is a composers business to write true and beautiful music, music remarkable by its expression, by its melody, by its harmony, by its rhythm, and by its instrumentation ... BUT if you try to establish a doctrine of absolute beauty. I give up....
Music: Transfixing, elaborating, giving enduring form and self-renewing vigor to ... movements of the human spirit.
The Music of the Future cult set Wagner atop a pyramid of musical dinosaurs that it declared extinct. Among them ... Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and ... Berlioz! To Princess Carolyne (Liszts companion, and no friend to Wagner!) Berlioz replies,
You propound in regard to music a paradoxical theory of ancestors and descendants which, if you will allow me to say so, is at once palpably absurd and a libel against me. It is as if you accused me with philosophical calm of being a liar and a thief. This made me indignant. I admire with passion many works by the descendants and I heartily detest many illustrious ancestors given over to what is false and ugly.... Times, periods, and nationalities are all one to me, and nothing would be easier for me than to prove it ... let us drop these arbitrary systems designed to forward a special cause.
You see, Berlioz was free. And as Barzun tells us, we may be sure that Berlioz grasped the relation between his thirty years of singlehanded innovation to this recent burst of so-called futurists.
Music is a free art: Its beauty depends upon no system or methodology apart from laws intrinsic to itself.