I may burn the toast. Oh, well

Over the weekend, Kyle Gann was complaining about the tradition of kittenish obscurantism in serialist analysis:

In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well,… it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself.

On a related note, I was at Harvard last night for the last of the public lectures given as part of the School of Engineering’s “Science and Cooking” class, with guest lecturer David Chang, of Momofuku fame. There was some science content: Chang did neat stuff with methyl cellulose and eggs, and there was a wildly entertaining exposition on the microbiology of Chang’s attempt to make a pork version of katsuobushi. But what was most interesting was the framework of Chang’s talk—constantly coming back to the idea of the role of limitations and mistakes in creativity. A big theme was the effect of restrictions: restrictions on physical space, restrictions on the availability of ingredients, restrictions imposed by the need to make money, &c., and how the staff came to embrace and use those restrictions as spurs to innovative thinking. (Chang passed around samples of what he called Momofuku’s “ingredient of the year,” a dried shiitake mushroom chip that came about as a byproduct of pulverizing dried shiitakes into powder, so that they would take up less storage space.)

What the restrictions originally meant was that Chang and his staff were constantly forced to go off-recipe in order to get the food out of the kitchen, but now that combination of self-imposed limitations and non-stop tinkering is ingrained in the restaurants’ culture, to the point where success and newly expanded resources actually seem to scare Chang a little bit. “If we’re given the full color palette to work with,” he joked, “we’re just going to make something disgusting and nasty.” Chang recounted numerous instances of setting up seemingly arbitrary challenges in order to provide, essentially, opportunities for controlled screw-ups. He described his creative process thus: “Make a mistake; make a calculated mistake; make another mistake.” In other words, give yourself permission to get every step of the process wrong, in order to really know what’s going on at every step of the process—and that’s where the creativity starts, not where it ends.

What both Gann and Chang were talking about was the difference between information and understanding, and how you get from one to the other—and where in the transfer creativity originates. Gann wants to “take away the mystery” of compositional processes: “Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices.” But for Chang, it’s the exercise of those creative devices that’s empowering, coming up with a way to solve the mystery, rather than having the mystery solved for you.

There was a time when I would have sided with Gann on this one. When I was getting my education, even information that was out there was still hard to come by; I remember having to go across town to find a copy of Ligeti’s Die Reihe article on Boulez’s Structures, and Koblyakov’s code-cracking of the pitch multiplication in Le marteau sans maître was a tantalizing rumor for a year or two before the book finally turned up in the library. There was still enough effort in acquiring the information that one felt some responsibility to understand the information rather than just acknowledge and repeat it. But now, I think, information is simply too cheap—and, as a result, the focus has shifted from understanding why you’re wrong to confirming whether you’re right.

This is a constant dilemma in musical training (or at least I hope it is): you have to give a student enough tools and information to get started, but you also have to, at some point, ensure that they go in and get their own hands dirty, wrestling with the material—contemplating the mysteries, as it were. (I learned a lot having a professor explain Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel to me; I learned a lot more—about Stockhausen’s musical proclivities, and my own—trying to get to the bottom of his Klavierstück IX by myself.) This is particularly crucial for atonal and serialist music, music that for far too long was taught as if the row forms were the music, that calculating the row derivations was equivalent to plumbing its depths. (Gann mentions David Osmond-Smith’s book on Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which he lauds for having “charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece”—a perhaps inadvertent but interesting equating of description with explanation.) What’s closer to my experience is that, like all technical analysis, row analysis explains everything and nothing about a serialist piece, in a way that it’s impossible to get a feel for unless you actually get into a piece and explore it yourself, trying to decide which row form is prime, trying to keep track of all the segmentation, running up blind alleys, figuring out whether an anomaly is a deliberate interpolation, a quirk of serialist technique that you hadn’t considered, or an oversight—or none of the above. Reading an analysis tells you how; doing an analysis forces you to think about why.

I think Schoenberg, who was never shy about talking about his technical processes, nevertheless knew the paradoxical worth of the row—of any technical explanation. At the very beginning of his masterpiece, Moses und Aron, six solo singers—representing the voice of God—wordlessly intone a series of chords:

It’s only after you sort through another couple of pages’ worth of pitches that you realize that what you hear at the beginning is, in fact, only the trichord outlines of the row, the first three and last three pitches of P-0 (the women) and RI-3 (the men). They’re combinatorial row forms (that is to say, P-0 and I-3 are), but Schoenberg, right at the start, partitions them such that the combinatoriality is frustrated. Instead, he gets a near-echo: the outer voice-leading, the parallel 7ths, is repeated in both groups.

It’s like an inexact translation—which is fitting, since Moses und Aron is an opera about just that, about incomplete explanations, about the distance between information (Aron) and understanding (Moses). And the further you dig into analysis of the opera, the more you find Schoenberg manipulating the vocabulary in order to produce that effect, over and over again, rows layered and juxtaposed and reassembled into almost-but-not-quite repetitions, the musical equivalent of the philosophical gap between what something is and what we can say about it. Even when the information seems clear, Schoenberg undercuts it. One of my favorite of these moments is when Moses and Aron make their entrance in Act I, Scene 3. Moses preaches; Aron interprets. “He has chosen you above all peoples,” Aron sings, on a straight 12-tone row (P-2, with the first trichord moved to the end):

But that’s not what Moses is saying at all. While Aron sings, Moses, in sprechstimme, is offering a variation on his very first line in the opera, addressing God:

Der einzige, Ewige, Allmächtige, Allgegenwärtige, Unsichtbare, Unvorstellbare…
The only, infinite, all-powerful, omnipresent, invisible, inconceivable…

When he gets to “invisible” and “inconceivable,” Schoenberg instructs: The speaker will take a ritard here in order to heighten the significance of the words. The row tells you everything; but in this case, the row is also telling you nothing. The meaning is still invisible.

And it’s also somehow appropriate that this is Moses und Aron, Schoenberg’s greatest mistake, great in all senses of the word—a David-Chang-style reconsideration of operatic form and serialist construction that was simultaneously Schoenberg’s most magnificent failure and his most magnificent achievement. As Chang noted: “It takes discipline to write down your mistakes.”

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