Monday, December 10, 2018

Composing music and exercising free will

I enjoyed listening to the November 16th edition of the This American Life podcast called "Where There is a Will". In the last segment producer David Kestenbaum and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky discuss the question of whether or not any of us actually has free will, and that got me thinking about the idea of exercising free will when writing music.

Speaking as a composer of music, I really have no idea how anybody writes a piece of music. Even me. All I know is that, whether I like it or not, I rely on a lot of subconscious activity when I find myself writing something.

It's not that the music writes itself, but once I string a few notes together, either horizontally or vertically, they set the tone (no pun intended), the feeling, and the vocabulary of what will come after. They also lay the groundwork for material that will be written later and inserted into the piece.

As soon as I have the thematic material in hand, it becomes the leader. It tells me what must be done, and lets me know what doesn't work. I can try expanding or contracting the material. I can fit the material into this or that meter, and I can manipulate it so it slides into another mode or key. I can set it to avoid tonality if I want. I can choose which registers it will inhabit on which instruments or groupings of instruments. I believe that I have the free will to make any choices I want, which makes me the master of my musical domain. While I am moving my tin soldiers around their battlefield or the stage of their theater, I feel all powerful.

But that feeling doesn't last because some of the choices I might have made in my illusory state of power haven't turned out to be as good as they first seemed to be (and some turned out downright lousy). My thematic material, which, by this point has taken on a life of its own, will not allow itself to be put in compromising situations (like being buried in less-than-resonant parts of an instrument or being awkward or uncomfortable to play). If something I do with the material doesn't work, it becomes obvious. I sometimes spend hours trying to fix a deficient phrase. Sometimes the best solution is to scrap a section altogether.

When musical material makes its way into situations where there is conflict, it demands resolution. And that resolution needs to be paced and voiced so that it is satisfying. These things keep me up at night. Sometimes they loop through my dreams. Sometimes I feel like my unconscious mind takes over and "does" what my so-called free will would have done if I could rely on it.

Then there are wrong notes that have to be replaced with better ones. After the wrong notes have been replaced, there is the question of phrase direction. I find that durable themes often proscribe fairly obvious phrase directions, so it becomes my job to make sure I put the slurs and articulations in the right places. It's my job to make sure that the dynamic levels on the page correspond to the dynamic levels demanded by the ebb and flow of the material.

It is at this point when I wonder if I have exercised any free will at all. I console myself by realizing that my job is finished once all the notes, dynamics, and articulations are in their best of all possible places. It is up to the people playing the music to make choices about how it should be performed.

Maybe once we begin to create something (music, poetry, a drawing or painting, dinner, a game, a party, a relationship, a blog post like this one) the idea of free will evaporates, and the thing itself takes over. And a piece of music has the possibility of having many lives that are all quite independent from the life of its "creator."


Victor said...

You're approaching things from the opposite way I look at it. To me, composing means uncovering a bit of eternal truth. I get a notion "there must be something there", I start digging, and I gradually uncover some part of the truth. That's a composition. Places where it doesn't feel right is where I have to do some more digging because something is still obscured.

So maybe there is no free will involved because the object you're creating really already existed; you're just bringing it to light.

Can you tell I'm a Platonist?

Elaine Fine said...

I don't know about the "eternal" part, but your Platonist comment about "truth" is really interesting. The "notion" part I totally understand, and if what comes out is truly pleasing, then it is, in itself, a fragment of truth.

I like what Coleridge has to say about such stuff concerning poetry:

". . . for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise."

And then he goes on to say, in his 1817 essay on Science vs. Romance:

“A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.”

I believe that this is true for music as well as for poetry. I am more aligned with Coleridge than Plato, perhaps. (I came across the Coleridge statement in a Bernard Malamud book called The Tennents when I was a teenager, and it has remained musically relevant to me for more than 40 years.)